Professional Oboist Found 'Joy of Her Life' Teaching Children
Susan Swidnicki is a self-proclaimed evangelist for children's music education. On any given day, you can find her at one of six jobs throughout the Salt Lake Valley, most of which involve teaching children ages three through 18 to express themselves through music, song, and movement. Lucky for Rowland Hall, one of her positions is in our Beginning School, where for the past 16 years she's taught our littlest learners to embrace their natural love—and ability—for music.
Every child should receive a high-quality music education, Susan said. "It's super important." In modern-day society, where students are too frequently staring at screens and passive in their learning, Susan sees music education as a tool to help children learn to be more present. She cited the listening skills, self-control, and confidence students learn through music and movement, emphasizing that these foundational skills must be taught in early childhood.
For three-, four-, and five-year-old budding musicians, Rowland Hall's classes typically focus on finding their singing voices, learning rhythm and rhyme, and learning how to move through space un-self-consciously but with awareness of others. Susan also frequently uses games to enhance music lessons, and over the course of the year, introduces students to different instruments.
"You can learn so much faster, and more joyfully and naturally, when you're a small child. You're wired to be receptive," Susan said. She added that schools or districts that wait until junior high to offer music have it backward. It's one reason she loves being part of the Rowland Hall community, a place where everyone is on the same page, understanding that "children are very capable, and we want to give them the best environment and best-quality materials we can." She added, "There's a real investment in best practices for young children."
For three-, four-, and five-year-old budding musicians, Rowland Hall's classes typically focus on finding their singing voices, learning rhythm and rhyme, and learning how to move through space un-self-consciously but with awareness of others. At that age, Susan joked, "learning not to just smash into everybody is a major skill." She also frequently uses games to enhance music lessons, and over the course of the year, introduces students to different instruments.
"Susan is uniquely talented with young learners," Beginning School Principal Carol Blackwell said. "Her music classes strengthen literacy and math skills while at the same time developing musical skills." Indeed, according to scientific research, musical training in young children benefits the brain in multiple ways, improving memory and overall language skills.
Becoming a music educator wasn't something Susan planned. She grew up in Cache Valley, where she began playing the oboe at age 12 and benefitted from what she described as a "super strong" music program in her school. In ninth grade, she started playing with the Utah State University orchestra. "I had a lot of opportunities to play," she said, "and I loved it." After high school, she earned a BA in oboe from the University of Utah and then a master's degree from the St. Louis Conservatory of Music.
However, securing a full-time job as a performing musician proved challenging. While working with the Flagstaff Symphony in Sedona, Arizona, Susan picked up a gig teaching at a Montessori school and discovered the joys and rewards of being an educator. Since then, she's worked diligently to develop her teaching craft, training in the Orff Schulwerk approach and the Kodály method. The latter focuses on teaching musical literacy through song—often using folk songs—and provides excellent ear-training for young learners, Susan said.
Cindy Hall, Lower School music teacher and fellow Orff educator, described the benefits of Susan's background and professional training: "Since the Orff approach emphasizes learning through play and sound before symbol, it is a natural fit for this age group and our Beginning School philosophy. Susan is a master teacher who draws in children and nurtures their budding musicianship, and we are so fortunate to have her start our students out on their musical journeys." Susan expressed in-kind admiration and said she's pleased to be handing students off to another highly skilled, passionate music educator in Cindy.
I have a very meticulous performing life, and then I have this kind of joyful improvisatory life with children where I can say, 'Oh, you like this nursery rhyme? Let's go act it out.'—Susan Swidnicki
While Susan described teaching children as "the joy of her life," she still maintains an active performing life. She is the principal oboist with the Ballet West Orchestra and an extra with the Utah Symphony, filling in when other musicians are ill or out of town. Add those two roles to teaching positions at Rowland Hall, Canyon Rim Academy, Westminster College, and the Zion Lutheran Church, along with being a single mother to two teenagers, and Susan's schedule could make your head spin.
She doesn't seem to mind juggling her professional obligations. "Mostly the challenge is just remembering what day of the week it is, so I can make sure I go to the right place," she laughed. And she's not ready to give anything up—the way she sees it, teaching and performing provide her with balance. While playing classical music requires discipline and exactitude, in the classroom, she thrives with creative freedom.
"I have a very meticulous performing life, and then I have this kind of joyful improvisatory life with children where I can say, 'Oh, you like this nursery rhyme? Let's go act it out.'"
Susan plans to keep adding to her resume, too. This summer, she'll be an instructor with SummerWorks—something she's enjoyed doing for years—and will travel to Seattle for a Smithsonian Folkways course on multicultural music for children. As a long-term project, she wants to develop a website that would provide fourth-grade teachers in Utah a collection of songs, folktales, and dances from the state's indigenous population to integrate into their curriculum.
Susan's goal is to lay the foundation for music to be both a practice and a pleasure that children will have their whole lives, and she loves watching them grow in confidence during the process. "The great moments are when children who have not been singing—who have only been listening—start singing, and then sing by themselves. They find their singing voice," she said. "Is there anything more rewarding than that?"