The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview we spoke with voice and piano instructor Rachel Fetler, who also teaches the Center’s Kids’ Choir class and works on the administrative side of the organization as Student Services and Operations Associate.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello! My name’s Erica Reid, I’m with the Center for Musical Arts, and I am the one who gets to interview our faculty to get to know them better. Usually when I do an interview like this, I often haven’t even met the faculty member before, but I’ve worked with Rachel for many years. Rachel, can you tell me a little bit first about the administrative role you play for the Center?
Rachel Fetler: Sure, Erica, and it’s great to be here with you. I’ve been working part-time in the front office of the Student Services side of the Center for Musical Arts for about six years now I think. I stepped in at a point where there was sort of a gap in staff and it was before our Executive Director had arrived and I just didn’t want to see any big holes fall through with running of the Center because it’s such a wonderful place. And so I immediately started helping out with handling payroll for the faculty and setting schedules, stuff like that. And that’s mostly what I work on.
Center: Wonderful. Okay. So let’s transition and talk about your role as a faculty member. Can you tell me what you teach and how you came to teach at the Center?
Rachel: Sure. I am by training a classical singer, and I came to Colorado with my husband in ’97 when he got a job at the university. And in ’98 we had our first child. So at that point I was not really in the mood to do a lot of heavy rehearsing and traveling and late night performing. And I’d always taught along with the performing as well.
And luckily my friend Peggy Bruns said, “Well, I’ve just started up a school.” And so she invited me to come on out. At that point, they were still at Cannon Street at a little dinky tiny church with — ex church, I should say — with three studios up in the attics that were hot as blazes. And I started out there and then within a year we moved over to our new building, which is our present location, which is a much bigger space and just so wonderful to be at.
Center: And this would’ve been 25, 26 years ago, when the school was just starting?
Rachel: Yeah. Well a little later. I mean, I would say, yeah. So from late, from the middle of ’99 to 2000 when I started. So almost 25 years. 22.
Center: Over 20 years.
Rachel: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Center: A good, long time. And since the real birth of the Center for Musical Arts, so you know its whole history, you know the ins and outs and you know the admin side and the faculty side. You know it all.
Rachel: I’ve seen where a lot of the skeletons are buried. Yes.
Center: We won’t unearth any of them here. [laughs]
Rachel: No. No. [laughs]
Center: So you teach voice and piano. Can you tell me a little bit about your teaching philosophy?
Rachel: Sure. And it’s a little different depending on which instrument it is, and also the age of the person involved.
For piano, I do beginners, mainly really young children because I also have a background in early childhood music education. And I’ve taught those little kid classes. Most of my piano students are, I’d say five to nine. There’s some older ones who are also beginners. And so it’s really basics. It’s getting them an immediate sense of accomplishment that yes, I can play this, I can learn these notes and I can find my way around the keyboard. And I think that’s really exciting for them.
I even have, this year, I have a couple of three- and four-year-olds. With that age, it’s almost like pre-piano, because their fingers are not really good at doing separate things yet. So they can identify notes, they can find notes, they can hear pitches, they can do things with matching, but it’s not as much of the technical finger dexterity because they’re just not quite there yet.
And then for singing, the first question I always ask my students is, What are you here for? What are your goals? Why do you want to take voice lessons? And you get just so many different answers and that’s where we can take it in whatever direction they want to go.
Center: Can you tell me just a couple of the things that kids say about why they’re taking voice lessons?
Rachel: Sure. The most general is, “Oh, I just like to sing.” And then what I try to do is usually they have one narrow focus of music that they’ve been introduced to, whether it’s through their parents or listening to whatever they listen to. And so I take that as a starting point, this is what you’re familiar with. And I use a sort of stealth technique of trying to introduce them to a lot of new things that they may not know, they may not think they like, maybe they end up, they don’t like it, but they may find something they really are attracted to and always within whatever age level is appropriate for that.
And then for adults, they often say, I’ve had many who have said, I stopped singing in second grade when my music teacher said, “I have no pitch,” or my piano teacher told me, “I couldn’t play.” Which is heartbreaking, especially if they’re 60 or something. And I just show them that yes, you can learn, you can find something that you enjoy doing and if you are brave enough, you can take it out in the world and do your karaoke night with your friends or do a sing-along, whatever you want to do. Sing Christmas carols with your family.
Center: I think that’s fantastic. So you also — we will explore this further in another video — but you also teach our Kids’ Choir, which sounds like it brings together a lot of what you’re discussing. Can you just briefly describe that class?
Rachel: Sure. I started that because we were getting a lot of students who were in that 5, 6, 7 age range who wanted… The parents would call our registrar and say, “We want to sign up for voice lessons.” Which is fine, it’s possible, but at that age the instrument hasn’t really grown up that much. You’re growing your own instrument.
So there’s a lot of things you can do at that age, but it’s not as useful to have a one-on-one lesson. Whereas you get a bunch of kids together, singing together, they have that social aspect that they all crave at that age. They are learning new songs, which they can do in a heartbeat. They will pick up things in a week, from one week to another. It’s a “no homework” kind of class, but from one week to the next they’ve got everything memorized. Because they’re just geared for that. Their brains are set up to acquire language and acquire music and memorize it immediately without any trouble.
And what’s really wonderful about that is that I know that when they are 85, they will still remember these songs and it’s something that will be with them all their lives.
Center: And you can set them up to learn that passion for music that will serve them in the future when they’re ready. And you can be that first teacher who doesn’t say, “You don’t have pitch,” who can say, “There’s a place for you here, and your voice matters.”
Rachel: That’s right! And we do a lot of fun songs. Some songs say they know, because it’s good to have something familiar. But I love throwing in things that are fairly well known. A lot of people might know them, but these kids have never heard them before. And so it’s new to them and that’s always exciting.
Center: So I read on your bio something that really jumped out to me, that you have experience specifically in French baroque, Italian bel canto, Latvian folk music. Can you tell me a little bit about what brought these sort of folk styles into your life and how you used them in your lessons or in your instruction?
Rachel: Sure. I’ve always had trouble sticking to one musical genre. And as I said, I was classically trained, a conservatory degree, and so most of that was opera and 19th century, 18th century, what they call common practice music.
But then after I got my degree from New England Conservatory, I started studying with a bel canto specialist, Richard Conrad, in Boston, and just fell in love with that sort of music — that’s Rossini, Donizetti, people like that who are writing operas in a very florid style. And the specialty is on, bel canto, it means beautiful singing, it’s on the importance of the beauty of the voice and that’s the paramount importance for that style. So I loved that style.
Previous to that, I explored other early music styles with other teachers. My mother used to work in a Renaissance music shop back in the seventies, so she would play with amateur recorder groups and things like that. She wasn’t really a musician…
Center: Where was this located?
Rachel: Oh, this was in Santa Barbara.
Rachel: Yeah. So she was around a lot of musicians, tootling away on recorders and crumhorns and sackbuts. And so that kind of music, I was hearing a lot. And of course in the sixties and seventies there was a lot of folk music around. There’s a lot of Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary just being sung everywhere. They were just doing music a lot. And all that sunk in.
As for the Latvian side, my father grew up in Latvia. So when I moved to Boston to go to New England Conservatory, I ended up just by chance living in a house that was a block away from the local Latvian church. And so of course I started singing in the corner there.
Rachel: Learning all the music and culture that I hadn’t got growing up from that side of the family. So that was a great experience and that’s something I’ve kept with me ever since.
Center: So do you get a chance to return to that music in your life now?
Rachel: Just on my own. There is a Latvian community in Colorado, but it seems to be more centered south of Denver and we’re sort of spread out thin in the west. That’s partly why I didn’t know that many Latvians growing up in California. And so I just listen to it. I have a playlist on Spotify of my Latvian music that I put on while I’m doing payroll.
Center: Will you send me the link that I can include in our blog post?
Rachel: Sure. Okay. All right.
Center: Well, when you are not teaching and listening to music and working at the Center, what else fills your life these days, Rachel?
Rachel: Well, I’ve got my chickens. I’ve got my garden. And since we’re empty nesters now, when I’m not too busy teaching, I foster puppies and kittens with a couple of local shelters. And then in between those things I like to travel and hike and all that.
Center: I’ve seen a kitten from time to time on our Zoom calls. [laughs] Is there anything else that I have not covered today that you think would be interesting or important to know for a prospective student, or a prospective parent who is looking to enroll their child? Because it sounds like you do a lot of that early education in music. Anything else that they should know about you or the way that you teach?
Rachel: I would just say for anyone who’s thinking about lessons and what I’ve learned in my life and advice I got as well is: any opportunity you get, if you think you might be interested in it, give it a try and you may find you’re passionate about it. If you’re not, you’ll at least have an interesting time and you never know when it’ll lead to something really great.
Center: Okay, perfect. Thank you so much for spending the morning with me, Rachel.
Rachel: Well, thank you.