Finding Belonging Through Music

When Lower School music teacher Soo Young Chrisfield was around 8 years old her fellow students discovered there was a big secret hiding inside their quiet classmate: her voice. At a school talent show, she blew the audience away with a powerful rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” In the following years, she won many music competitions and went to school to pursue opera singing. But the lyrics of this song that catapulted her into the spotlight as a young singer are quite fitting for the work she does now with children: “Teach them well and let them lead the way / show them all the beauty they possess inside.” 
“I love teaching young children,” she says. “They just instinctively love and respond to music. I am always so impressed with how creative they can get.” Soo Young is a certified Orff Schulwerk instructor which means her teaching approach is focused on “building musicianship in every learner through the integration of music, movement, speech, and drama.” In essence, she sees every child as a musician, and her classes are designed to celebrate that. 

That stands in stark contrast to her work as a professional musician. “That world can be very exclusive and make it difficult to feel like you belong and are good enough,” she explains. But that toxic environment is partially responsible for motivating her to teach so she could foster something completely the opposite. “If you want music to thrive you make it a part of everyone’s life, not something exclusive, not something you just watch other people do on stage. You don’t have to be good at it, you just do it. I want everyone to feel like music belongs to them.” The Orff approach is designed to do just that, “everyone sings, everyone moves, everyone can do everything and share their creative input and be really collaborative in the experience of making music together.” 

Last year this approach to making music was challenging in an online environment but collaborative videos involving layering student voices from individual clips created some truly memorable moments. What was hard to achieve was the wonder that comes when students get fully immersed in their own creative processes. “I find joy when the parts really click for students and they can play the notes, together and on the beat,” Soo Young explains. “Once that happens there is this flow, everyone stops talking and they are just playing and it’s beautiful. There’s nothing more to explain, to instruct, you just let the music play, It’s magic.”

Soo Young knows that musical magic can be transformative for children because it was for her. “Music helped me to release my feelings and my stress. It was a kind of therapy, a comforting place to go when things got tough in my childhood. When I was in school I didn’t feel like anybody. I even felt like people looked down on me because I was a first-generation immigrant, a foreigner in others’ eyes. But when I sang, it was the first time people looked at me with respect. It put me on the map. It helped my self-esteem and self-confidence. It connected me to everyone and got me out of my box.” 

After studying music in college, Soo Young was preparing to be an opera singer but family life made it difficult to pursue a career that would demand all of her attention and instead she started a successful career teaching music lessons in her home. Gradually she brought music to the schools of her young children, and eventually, she and her children found their way to FCS. “One of the biggest reasons why I brought my kids here is because the school has a robust music program. A lot of schools don’t,” she said. 

“I want parents to understand how important music education is, there is so much brain science that proves that just pure music-making helps children with reading, language, poise,self-confidence, self-presentation, listening comprehension, math,  memory and other executive function development- even the ability to be empathetic through listening and analyzing sounds and expressions. Music teaches you to be a better person all around. People just think it’s fun and games, just because we do have fun and play games, but music is such an important part of a child’s development and education. It also gives them a sense of belonging.”

When asked what she hopes students get out of music classes this year, Soo Young replies, “I think pretty much what I got out of it, which is joy, healing, and connection.” The Lower School is learning a new song this year, “One Foot In Front of the Other” by Griff. Soo Young says it was powerful listening to the students discuss what the lyrics mean to them in this strange year back in school. They sing and move their bodies with emotion while she strums the guitar, making something meaningful, together. 

Located in College Park, MD, Friends Community School is a progressive Quaker K-8 day school, founded on the belief that every child is a valued member of our community. We offer a challenging curriculum imbued with strong values of equality, integrity, community, environmental stewardship, simplicity and peaceful conflict resolution, rooted in our Quaker heritage.
Friends Community School
5901 Westchester Park Drive
College Park, Maryland 20740