Meet A Member: Linda Kiracibasi, North Shore Country Day School

This month's 'Meet A Member' celebrates Music In Our Schools Month, which engages communities from around the country in promoting the benefits of high quality music education programs in schools.

From years of teaching elementary school music, Linda Kiracibasi has learned that young children naturally connect to songs with a message. “One of the things that I try to do with any piece is to teach the children the background if there's a meaningful story,” she says.

We first met Kiracibasi in 2013 while writing a Voice article about a former student at her North Shore Country Day School in suburban Chicago, Clemantine Wamariya, a refugee who survived the Rwandan genocide. After Clemantine’s story inspired the creation of a new children’s chorus piece, she returned to her old school years later and heard the piece performed live for the first time by Kiracibasi’s chorus of third, fourth, and fifth graders.

The experience not only gave Kiracibasi a lasting connection with Clemantine—who still keeps in touch with the school occasionally, long after having moved away from the Chicago area—but also brought memorable lessons that continue to influence her teaching year after year. “It made me aware that you can talk with young kids about these difficult subjects like the Rwandan genocide,” she says. “You do it in an appropriate way, but you don't have to feel these are things you can't touch because it's too much for them.”

Kiracibasi spoke with president & CEO Catherine Dehoney about her work in the classroom and her relationship to Chorus America as a K-12 teacher in the latest edition ‘Meet A Member’ series.

How did you get into teaching?

LK: I had a wonderful choral director in high school. I never sang in a chorus until high school, although according to my parents I sang all around the house from the time I was a little kid. I had been thinking about teaching for a long time, but not sure exactly what. Music was always something that I loved, and when I discovered choral singing and was so inspired by my high school choral director, it seemed to be the right fit.

North Shore Alice ParkerKiracibasi teaches junior kindergarten through fifth grade general music classes, and directs a once-a-week afterschool chorus of third, fourth, and fifth graders. Last fall, she also started a beginning chorus for children in kindergarten through second grade.

So I was going to be a high school choral director. Then I did my student teaching at Northwestern University, and discovered how great little kids are, and what you can do with them. My elementary school music education in the LA Public Schools back in the 50s and 60s was minimal. The music teacher came around once every two weeks with her auto harp and we sang out of old Silver Burdett books and that was about it. In my first job at an independent school in Denver, I discovered Orff Schulwerk and obtained training in that. Now there is no way I would teach any other age. Kindergarten through fifth grade is the greatest age to work with.

Does your school engage in any partnerships outside of the school?

LK: We do a project every other year with [composer] Jim Papoulis. He does a songwriting workshop with my chorus. Last month we had our eighth workshop with him. I think we were his first Midwest workshop when we started doing the songwriting. One of his pieces, “I Ask for One Day,” is taken from poetry by children who lost parents in Iraq or Afghanistan. Third, fourth, and fifth graders can feel this in their hearts, they can talk about it. As sad as the stories can be, it can make a very positive impression on them. Choral music for this age level does not have to be cute or bouncy or funny. They can also take on serious beautiful music and be very proud of themselves for that.

How did your partnership with Jim begin?

LK: Back in 2001, a school parent brought me a CD that she and her kids listened to on their commute to school. She said, “There's a song on here that the kids and I think you might like.” It was called “Give Us Hope.” Then 9/11 happened a couple of weeks later. I listened to the song and said, “We need to sing this.” I started corresponding with Jim using an email that was on the CD. The piece had just been published and it was his first published choral piece. So we got the song from him, and he also sent me information on the songwriting workshops. I thought what a wonderful opportunity for the kids.

North Shore Papoulis recordingKiracibasi's third, fourth, and fifth grade chorus in the recording studio with composer Jim Papoulis in February 2017.

Jim came out for the first time in October 2002. He writes a song with the kids over three days of two-hour sessions, and the following day we go to a recording studio to record them. Then he takes a small group and teaches them harmonies right on the spot, and we end the project with a finished CD. We also learn some of his other pieces before he comes, and the kids give a concert of his music the last night that he's here, which he conducts. It's been an amazing project. There are high school kids who remember working with Jim when he comes back. In fact, the first song he wrote with us, “There is Peace,” is now published. 

How can choruses in the community support the work of music teachers and music in the schools?

LK: To me what's really important is that kids get to know composers as real people, and realize it's a job just as much as working in an office or anything else. I think inviting school groups to come to concerts or occasionally performing something that requires a children's chorus are great ways to partner. I believe Chicago a cappella does an all-day Saturday workshop with high school kids. For several years, Paul Caldwell invited local school choruses to sing on a concert with his organization, Youth Choral Theater, where each group would sing pieces of their own, and learn two or three pieces to sing together. It's also great marketing for the community chorus to have that exposure to the conductor and the program.

I think the biggest challenge that we've found here is that music teachers see children's choruses as competition. I feel that bringing in children's chorus conductors or having my kids sing with other groups only makes my chorus stronger because they get more training. There's got to be a way to make the teachers feel like you're not trying to take kids out of their program, but instead trying to enrich everyone's singing.

What’s the biggest challenge facing music in your school?

LK: Being an independent school in a northern suburb of Chicago that has a long history of supporting the arts, even here in the Lower School we're struggling with the balance with STEM programs, technology, and fitting it all in. At my school, fortunately it's not a question of music ever being cut, but of how we make this all work. It's important to educate parents that the arts are every bit as important to kids’ development as technology, the sciences, and everything else. 

North Shore Alice ParkerIncluded in the history of North Shore Country Day School's music program is none other than Alice Parker, who directed the Upper School choral program from 1949-51 shortly after graduating from Juilliard. "Miss Parker," as she is identified in the caption, is seated at the piano in this photo from a 1951 yearbook.

One of my challenges this summer is to do a lot of reading on STEAM programs. When talking about how to incorporate the Arts into the STEM movement, it's mostly visual art that fits in with that. I've charged myself with finding out more about how music can fit in—and understanding that balance between coordinating with other subjects where it makes sense, but also being valued enough as our own program. There's a lot we teach in a music class that may or may not relate to STEM and STEAM, but is vital.

What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?

LK: Well for me, in June, six members of my singing group Coriolis are going to the King's Singers first summer school for ensemble singers in the US. They have done these programs a couple times in the UK, and they worked with Eric Whitacre the last time. The US summer school will be at DePauw University, and we'll be there for seven days working with them on ensemble singing. We have a set of repertoire that we are supposed to learn before we go, and Bob Chilcott will be working with us that week. I'm very excited he will be there because he's written some beautiful music for children's choruses as well. 

Why did you decide to join Chorus America?

LK: Paul Caldwell had mentioned Chorus America to me a couple of times, and what ultimately made me join was being interviewed for the article about “Beneath the African Sky,” [the aforementioned piece, which was co-composed by Caldwell,] and I'm really glad it did. That was the first I had seen the Voice magazine. I was so impressed with the fact that there were some real practical things in there that I could use that weren't only for high school, college, or professional choruses. I also sing with a small classical a cappella group, and I found it to be a very user-friendly magazine for myself.

Unfortunately, many of the professional choral organizations tend to ignore the elementary level. They're focused on high school, college, and professional choruses--that's more their thing. That's one of the reasons I joined Chorus America. I get a lot from the Voice and because those articles cover topics like movement in rehearsal, and things you can do at K-12 level as well. That's really helpful.

When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?

LK: I like to travel. My late husband was from Turkey, and I still have a condo outside of Istanbul in a little town right on the sea, so I hope to go back there. I read a lot, and I knit. We have a lot of young faculty here at our school, and we've had an explosion of babies, so I sit at faculty meetings knitting baby blankets to keep my hands busy.