Career of fun found in teaching children to love music

By Wayne Bryan Published July 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Reeca Norman retired from a career as a music teacher after 38 years in the field, with 37 of those spent in the Benton School District. Norman said her love of music was aquired when she was young from Mrs. Martin, her piano teacher in Warren.

Reeca Norman said she woke up one morning this week thinking about the annual music conference held at this time every year.

“I woke thinking about someone going over the new music they were going to teach this year,” she said. “And I realized I wasn’t there for the first time in many years.”

Norman retired as the music teacher for Benton Middle School at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. She spent 38 years as a music teacher, all but the first of those with the Benton School District.

“It was fun, and I loved it,” she said.

Fun is a word she used many times when talking about her classes, especially the years she taught sixth- and seventh-graders in the middle school.

“It has to be fun; it’s music,” Norman said. “You have to engage the student and make learning interesting, so you try to make it fun.”

Norman said she acquired her love of music from her piano teacher in Warren, where she was born.

“The Martins were an inspiration. Mrs. Martin was my piano teacher, and he was the band director in the school,” Norman said. “I also have to mention my fourth-grade teacher Charlotte Young. She loved us and always made studying fun. Sometimes it didn’t feel like we were in school at all. She encouraged me to become a teacher and said I should consider being a music teacher.”

Norman often sang in school and in church, and she played the piano for Sunday-evening services when she was in the fourth grade.

“They let me use my beginner books,” she said. “And the whole congregation would stop singing and wait if I had to figure things out.”

Norman attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, studying voice and piano to earn a music education degree.

“My voice teacher was Frances Scott. She had a voice that would shake the building,” Norman said. “My piano teacher was Ouida Keck. She also retired this year.”

She was a member of the Ouachitones, a women’s choir that was well known and even participated in an exchange program with a school choir from Romania.

“Our bus would be going down the road, and there would be guards up in the trees with machine guns,” Norman said of her trip to a land that was, in those days, behind the Iron Curtain. “I was thinking this was not the trip I thought it would be.”

After graduation, Norman taught one year in Hampton. She was the music teacher for all the grades.

“It was K through 12,” Norman said. “The kindergartners would walk out, and the high school seniors would walk in. I also had a class for the football players.”

Although she would see around 400 students every day, she said she wanted to make sure every child at the school was featured in a musical program every year.

“I wanted every student from every grade to be up on the stage, either with a group or solo,” Norman said. “In the middle schools, it is good for their self-esteem to be onstage before people.”

To work every child in, Norman created new programs every year for each of the two grades.

“We might use the same music, but the story and play would be different,” Norman said. “I wrote them, trying to work in things they were hearing or talking about in school.”

Norman said that after writing several programs a year, some teachers said she should publish them for use by other teachers. She said that project was unlikely to happen, but that she has copyrighted several of the scripts.

“My first year at Caldwell Elementary School, a circus was coming, and the PTA had lots of burlap available for costumes,” Norman said. “I made sacklike coverings and headpieces to make some of the kids up as elephants. The legs were too big, and I filled them up with some crumpled paper. As the costumed kids walked out, they left a trail of paper balls behind them, and the audience laughed so hard. The children wondered why their parents and friends were laughing. But a clown came onstage with a trash can and made it look like part of the show.”

Norman said that from then on, she left costumes in the hands of the mothers.

While she said she enjoyed her 20 years of teaching younger children at Caldwell Elementary School, she really enjoyed teaching the 11- and 12-year-olds at Benton Middle School.

“Teaching sixth- and seventh-graders is fun,” Norman said. “They are wonderful at that age. They may have bigger bodies, but they have the same heart as when they were small children, and they so want to please.”

Her seventh-graders have been successful in regional and state music competitions.

“The state doesn’t allow students in the sixth grade to compete, but I would take the older group and usually have one of the largest choirs in the competition,” Norman said. “We always did well in the sight-reading category.”

Norman said a choir that includes dozens of 11- and 12-year old boys can be startling at times.

“Their voices could be changing hourly,” she said. “Once a song was supposed to begin with the boys, and as I gave them the cue to sing, they were right on time, but they were singing soprano. I looked at them like, ‘What happened?’ and they just looked back as if to say, ‘We don’t know.’”

Overcoming those kinds of problems, several years ago Norman was named Choral Director of the Year in the Southwest Arkansas Choral Region, including such cities as Bryant, Benton, El Dorado, Arkadelphia and Texarkana.

While Norman said she wanted to convey the love of music to the children in her charge, she once learned that her students had gained another love as well.

“That year I had foot surgery, and I was wearing a medical walking boot,” she said. “I was about to get the students singing when one of the girls asked me to look at their feet. She and the rest of the class were wearing a different shoe on each foot. She told me the students did not want to me to feel bad about wearing the boot.

“I told them we ought to get the school photographer down for a picture, but she said, ‘It is not just us. It’s the whole sixth grade.’ Is that not precious?”

Yet no matter how much fun she might have been having or sharing, Norman said she knew it was time to move on.

“I need to help take care of my mother, and it is time for other things now,” she said.

Norman thought about telling everyone at the beginning of the school year about her plan to retire, but she and her husband decided to keep it quiet for a while.

“He suggested I just enjoy my last Christmas program, my final Veterans Day, which was always a big celebration at the school,” she said. “I told everyone at the end of February. The sixth-graders said, “But don’t you want to be here for us next year?”

Norman said her husband, Roger, is still working and that she will attend his conferences with him now, especially since she said travel is one of the things she wants to do now that her teaching days are over.

“I’ll also be looking after Mom and finding out what it is like not to have a schedule,” Norman said. “That’s exciting itself.”

Norman will probably find it fun.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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