#MusicWithAPurpose: Interview with Olivia Marques

#MusicWithAPurpose is a series dedicated to continuing the conversation surrounding music education and expression, both pre and post COVID. Today’s interview features Olivia Marques, a 22 year-old graduate of Bridgewater State University, where she studied theatre education, secondary education and musical theatre performance. She is starting her first year within the New Bedford public school district as a building-based substitute at Normandin Middle School.

Alissa: What made you want to get involved in theatre education? I know that you are a performer yourself. What was that process like for you, pursuing that dream?

Olivia: It was kind of a no brainer. My whole life, my parents always told me that I was singing before I could talk. So we all knew that I was going to go into the arts in some form or another. But I also grew up always loving education and being a student and wanting to one day be in the reverse role as the teacher. So going forward in higher education and to college, it was kind of a no brainer for me to put the two together.
I really didn’t start loving theater itself until I was about 16 or 17 when I became heavily involved in my high school drama club and I got my first lead role and I realized that it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life and that if I could do it for the rest of my life, I would be perfectly happy. It would never feel like a job. It would just feel like I was doing my thing every day, which was such a dream.
It was something that I really went after. I started my higher education journey at Westfield State University for a year as a performance major and realized that I wasn’t getting enough of the theater education side of things, wanting to be a true theatre educator. So I transferred to Bridgewater State University. I took up their theater education program and their secondary education program so I would graduate a licensed teacher in the state of Massachusetts. And it was the most incredible journey of my entire life.
During the day, I was in class as a theater education student, learning to be a theater teacher. And then at night, I was heavily involved in the theater program at Bridgewater State University. During my three years there, I participated in every show, but two. I did all of it. I was a performer. I was a designer. I was on the tech crew. I was a set builder. I did it all and it was all part of my degree program. It was all a requirement for me to graduate. So I really got to see every single side of theater and every single side of this art form that I was going to pursue. And it was just incredible. And I could not be happier that that’s what I’m licensed in to teach and that it’s also what I do in my free time and that I’ve kind of just built this life in the performing arts.

Alissa: Obviously, being a first year teacher is intense regardless of the circumstances or the years. Going into that classroom for the first time, I’m sure can be so intimidating and anxiety inducing. And then 2020 happens, and what a time for even veteran teachers! States and school districts across the country are at different stages of reopening. They’re doing in-person, online ,hybrid; the school district that you’re teaching in, where are they on that spectrum?

Olivia: Our students will start all virtual on September 16th with the hope eventually all students will be in the building in person. Our students have been split into what we’re calling cohorts. Each cohort consists of a group of students per grade and per standard classroom academic classrooms. The teachers, I don’t think they’re allowed to have more than 12 students in the room. So class sizes have kind of been cut in half.
I know they were saying today that there’s roughly 400 sixth graders coming into the school that I’m teaching in, and that’s just the sixth grade — not counting seventh and eighth. So there’s a lot of kids. It’s going to be really interesting. That’s the eventual goal, but it’s changing every single day. And we’re always spinning on our heels, trying to iron out the plan for the kids eventually come back.

We’re doing what the Fine Arts Department is calling art on a cart. So as of right now, the music band and art teachers will be visiting classrooms on a wheely cart with their projector once the students come back in person. But we’re we’re heading for an all virtual start next Wednesday.

Alissa: And how do you feel about that? Are you excited? Nervous?

Olivia: I think because of the role that I’m in right now as a building based substitute, it’s going to be very interesting because I don’t know how I’m going to have access to the platforms that the teachers are using, if and when I am needed to substitute for them. I don’t know how and if it’s going to work yet. This week has been getting the resources out to the students. Yesterday and today I was assisting with students and parents who are coming to the school to take their textbooks and their laptops and any other resources. So hopefully end of this week, beginning of next week, I’ll have a better grip on my exact role. But it’s going to be a lot of the substitute role and I think a lot of support staff as well. Just being an extra set of hands and extra body in the building.

Alissa: Do you think being a new teacher and being a recent grad is an advantage or disadvantage in in this current circumstances? You’re going into it for the first time, so you don’t really have any expectations or have to unlearn anything.

Olivia: I did student teaching this past spring, of course, in order to graduate. So I was right in the middle of it when schools shut down in March and I had to adapt my entire curriculum and relearn everything that I had already been taught as an education major to now fulfill my obligation as the full time teacher at the school that I was placed at to teach my students virtually. When you go from being in person with your kids in a theater and dance classroom, it’s so difficult to just say, OK, your presentations aren’t happening anymore — because they can’t.

I really had that first hand experience with other teachers who are now veteran teachers of completely reinventing the wheel and turning towards virtual education. The concept of virtual learning isn’t new to me, and I think it’s definitely working to my advantage because I understand the frustration of it all. But I also understand the benefits that can come from it in the long run to keep students and families safe.

Alissa: Right! Because by your spring semester, everything was online for you as a student. What was that like submitting assignments and performing virtually? How was that adjustment?

Olivia: Luckily for me, I wasn’t able to participate in any performance opportunities at Bridgewater State the second semester of my senior year because I was student teaching. My main concern when everything shut down was how am I going to finish this degree, how am I going to fulfill all of these requirements, these hours that I have to put in in the classroom when I’m not physically seeing my students and physically getting those hours in? So the Education Department was incredible with finding ways for us to still fulfill our hours and still graduate on time.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was also fantastic with making sure that all of these first year teachers were going to graduate, that we were going to get our licenses and that everything would be OK. But it was still a massive learning curve. And I was in the middle of also teaching a workshop for little ones. I think the kids were ages 5 to 12 and I was choreographing. It was my first real paid job teaching kids. And that was also cut short.

I also had some auditions booked up for the summer and everything that I did just kind of came to a screeching halt; it took a massive toll on me mentally, physically and emotionally. It was really, really difficult and it was a lot to adjust to. But, it was just something that a lot of people had to adapt to.

Alissa: Even prior to COVID, arts education was something I considered an “endangered species”. They’re always the first to be cancelled due to budget cuts and maybe we don’t put as much emphasis on the arts and music as we do other core subjects like science and technology. Then the pandemic arrives. Looking forward into the future, do you think that really solidifies the status of arts programs being at-risk? Do you think schools will conclude that these programs are too difficult to implement socially-distant or virtual and they’ll be the first to go? Or do you think that school districts are going to recognize that these kids, who are going through something really traumatic, need art more than ever?

Olivia: I think a lot of it is going to come from arts teachers sticking together, number one, and sticking up for our craft, number two. A lot of things in public education, unfortunately, do come down to budget. I’ve been through the public education system and now I’m a new employee of the public education system. So it’s something that I see and hear about every day. And I think a lot of the advocacy for arts education in the future is going to have to come from the staff and the students who are so passionate about it.
Sometimes a budget cut is inevitable. A lot of things in many districts across the state and across the nation, of course, have been put on hold. There’s a phenomenal arts expansion that’s happening across the city of New Bedford right now. And it’s taking a back seat to figuring out virtual education funding, the ability for all students to get a computer sent home to them. There’s a lot of things that are being put together right now that I don’t think anybody was prepared for.
I have faith in the arts industry because I have faith in the people who are a part of it. And I’m one of those people and I know how passionate I am for the arts. I was raised to have a voice and I will always use that voice to advocate for the things that I love and that I believe in. So, I think if artists and students of the arts truly do come together, then one day in the future will be able to find a way to all be back on stage and all be back doing our jobs again.

Alissa: With everything going on in the world right now — the pandemic, racial tensions, we have an upcoming election that is a topic of a lot of controversy and anxiety for a lot of people. How has your art been a sense of comfort for you?

Olivia: Oh, gosh, it’s always my biggest sense of comfort; I think it’s so powerful as a performer to be able to channel emotion into something other than yourself, if that makes sense. I like to use the phrase, sometimes you just have to SANG, to sing. I’m the type of person who, if I’m feeling really overwhelmed and a song is really speaking to me, I will repeat that song in the car and sing my brains out to it for as long as is necessary for me to feel like the weight has come off my chest. And I know that that rings true to instrumentalists and actors and artists of all kind. There’s just something so comforting about being able to do this thing that is so human but also so unique. Being able to turn to art and to turn to the people in the industry who also resonate with the way that you’re feeling is definitely a massive sense of comfort for sure.

Alissa: What sort of message do you want to relay to your students? Because I’m sure that they’re stressed, they’re facing a lot of trauma that they don’t even process, not being able to socialize with their peers nor having their usual recreation and leisure time and activities.

Olivia: I have my handful of kiddos that I teach a couple of days a week and I’ll, of course, have future students one day. So I think my biggest piece of advice is to just keep going. And I think that’s something that these kids have been forced to do over the last couple of months.They have had no choice but to kind of rework their entire lives. And it’s really taught me, as I’m sure it’s taught them, that you just have to keep going, that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t give up on what you’re passionate about at all. No matter how hard the world’s going to seem, there’s always probably going to be something harder down the road that all of your perseverance now will prepare you for.
And if there’s anything I can ever do as a teacher, it’s just to be there for my kids, to be there to make them smile. If I can have a 30 minute session with one of my students and they smile once, that’s a success for me. That’s when I check the box and say I’ve done my job, especially right now, because it’s so hard to gauge retention and instruction on a virtual platform. If I’m on Zoom with my student, my six year old acting student, that I see once a week, if she smiles once in her 30 minute lesson, then I’ve done my job right.

I am teaching at the Burwood School right now in Middleboro, online and they’re hosting a Burtwood Loves Broadway workshop series. They’re having industry professionals come and teach socially distant outdoor workshops to the kids on the patio. And I’m super excited. I’m supervising one of them as a staff member on the 20th. And I get to finally meet two of my students that I’ve been teaching since June for the first time in person. I told them whenI had class with them on Monday and one of my older boys was like, “are you serious?! I get to see you? I get to meet you in person?!” He was so excited. I hung up the phone call and I was emotional because I’ve been teaching these kids since June and I’m finally just going to see them for the first time now, four months later. It’s something that I never thought I would have to have to experience.

Alissa: That must be one of the hardest things for teachers right now; you can’t even give your kids a hug!

Olivia: I’ve been seeing it all week at school, too; students are coming to pick up their resources and middle schoolers are generally full of energy, they’re generally off the walls because they’re just — middle schoolers! I love them and I love middle school, and I never thought that I would be as passionate about middle schoolers as I am. But to see the kids come to school and to see the looks on their faces this week as they come to school, knowing that they’re going to leave and not come back, was heartbreaking.
It has been such a hard two days seeing the state that these kids are in, but also seeing the teachers not be able to interact with their students in the way that they would want to — especially the music teachers. I’m paired up with the two music teachers for professional development. The students want to run up and give their teachers a hug and then realize, oh, wait, you know, that’s not really safe.
It’s it’s been really difficult, but I’m hoping it’ll be worth it in the end. I’m hoping that we’re on the right track and that things will be back to whatever this new normal, maybe soon, hopefully.

Alissa: What is it like for you to be teaching in the school district that you were raised in? What is that that emotional connection for you?

Olivia: It is a dream come true. And even though I’m not a true classroom teacher yet, just to be working in the school. And to just say that I’m an employee of the New Bedford public schools. And to see the emails come in to my staff email from the superintendent, from former staff members that I had as a student — it’s just it’s surreal. But it feels just right because I’m at a school that I love. I have coworkers who were my teachers, who are now my co-workers ; it’s lots of fun to joke about. One of my high school band directors greeted me at a professional development last week and he said, “Hey, colleague”, I just looked at him and I said, “nope, that’s weird.” But it’s something that I always said I wanted to do. I didn’t think it would be happening this soon. But when I saw the job postings go up, I just knew that it was what I had to do. I had a couple of offers come in for jobs all within the same two days. And I just knew that Normandin was where I needed to be. And I am just so happy. I also only have a two minute commute to work — I can see the school from my window, so but I’m so happy. It’s it’s exactly where I need to be right now. It’s going to be a really wonderful learning opportunity for me, I think. And I know that in this specific position that I’m in, that there’s a lot of room for growth, too. So I’m really excited.

Alissa: Early on in the pandemic, I was scrolling through Facebook (the most reliable news source), and I saw a survey taken by a newspaper asking people what the most unessential job was; and artist ranked #1. A lot of people look at the arts as not necessary, and I feel like the attitude carries into how we treat arts in schools. If you had to make a quick elevator pitch in support of arts education, what would you want people to know?

Olivia: I think that the most important thing is when you look at the TV and you want to sit down and watch your favorite movie or watch your favorite TV show, all of those people in all of the capacities on that TV show are artists. They are directors. They are writers. They are actors. They are producers. Those are all people who are members of the arts community. So quite literally, nothing in this world would be possible if not for the foundation that it has in the arts in one way or another.The arts are not a glorified hobby for most people who are a part of that community. The people who are a part of the arts community, that is their JOB. They are an arts worker. They are not just there, doing what they do, because they love it and because they think it’s fun. In the long run, this is our career and all of our lives and our livelihood is at stake right now.
So wear your mask, please, so we can all go back to work. And just really, if you see an arts worker somewhere and you know that they’re involved in that field, just smile at them, wave at them and tell them that you appreciate them. Because a lot of the things that we enjoy in this world just wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the arts.

#MusicWithAPurpose is a series dedicated to continuing the conversation surrounding music education, both pre and post COVID.

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#MusicWithAPurpose is a series dedicated to continuing the conversation surrounding music education and expression, both pre and post COVID.

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Alissa Musto

Alissa Musto

Pianist. Songwriter. Music education advocate. Miss World America Massachusetts. IG: @alissamustomusic

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