Make music, change the world

Blog Editor Alina Celeste on a powerful musical moment early in her career as a Teaching Artist.

It only took one word to change my life.

Alina Celeste and some of the funny, wonderful kids she has sung with.
Me and some of the funny, wonderful kids I get to sing with.

I was twenty-two. I had a degree in Musical Theater and no formal training in education, but I needed a job and Florida needed music teachers. One application and a bewildering interview later, I was hired at a school where children with special needs made up half the student body.

On my first day, in new heels and sheer tights (what I figured grown-ups wore to work), I sat in my classroom and looked at the kindergarteners in front of me. Their teacher helpfully stood over each one and silently mouthed their conditions and verbal abilities, assuming, I imagine, that I knew what they were or how to accommodate them. With each word my heart sank.

Spina Bifida, Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome, Autistic, Muscular Dystrophy, non-verbal, can’t stand, can’t walk, can’t hold up her head without assistance.

I hoped that by nodding with a knowing smile I’d appear professional, like a real teacher. I resisted crawling under my desk, stopping up my ears and shouting “LA LA LA” until everyone left. I wanted to cover my head and go back to singing show tunes and talking vaguely about making the world a better place without actually having to do anything.

Instead I pulled out my guitar, ignored my sweaty palms, and did the only thing I knew how to do… I sang. I sang their names and made silly sounds; I sang about cows and birds and ice cream. To my utter amazement, they smiled and danced, and some even sang back to me.

When we were done, I waved goodbye to each one as they were pushed, guided or carried out of class. Jennifer, a tiny little girl suffering from cerebral palsy so severe her head was permanently pointed down, looked up at me from the corner of her eye and said, “Bye.”

It was the first word she’d uttered since beginning the year a week prior. Her teachers had assumed she just couldn’t speak, but thirty minutes of singing and silliness proved them wrong.

One word, and I realized that making the world a better place was a thing that I could actually do by offering up what I had: my music.

Art as a tool for connection has continued to be a strong theme in my life. Even as I pursued music for “grown-ups,” I always worked in classrooms. Eventually, the bars and clubs gave way to libraries and museums. In my writing and my work with children I have strived to uplift, educate, and provide opportunities for self-expression and connection.

Jennifer would be about seventeen now. She may not remember that day. She may not even remember me, but that doesn’t matter. Sometimes all it takes to make someone’s world a better place is one little word.

If you have a story about a powerful musical moment, please share!

19 comments

  1. Alina, This took my breath away. Thank you for sharing. Bye….

  2. Alina, that is a beautiful story and so well written! Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Thanks for your comment Philip, I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

  3. All I can say is, keep bringing light to the world we need you, and we need us, more than ever. Thanks Alina!

    1. Thanks Andy! And here here! 🙂

  4. Wonderful, heart-wrenching story, Alina. So grateful you shared! It reminds me that we don’t strive for fame–we strive to make a difference, and we never know where our influence begins or ends… Thanks.

  5. Alina – Thanks for sharing your wonderful story about the power of music in the lives of ALL children. It is the universal language! You speak it so very well.

  6. Ahhhhh…..what a wonderful story Alina. So true, when we offer our music to kids, they offer us back the love that music brings them.

    1. Music is love, I think :-). Thanks for reading!

  7. I admire you EVEN MORE after reading this. Thank you for sharing your life changing moment. What a reminder for all of us about what matters most. Write on! And thanks for encouraging all of CMN to step up and share.

    1. Thanks for reading! The admiration is mutual 🙂

  8. wow, Alina, way to go, even in those heels and tights! You’re terrific.

    1. Thank you! Yes, I’ve let the tights go….. 🙂

  9. Love this, Alina! I have also had a chance to share music with children with significant disabilities, most of whom can’t walk or speak. I am always so excited when I see them responding joyfully to the singing & the guitar. Music seems to make their whole day! So glad you have made a career in children’s music.

  10. Wow! So glad I am taking the time to read the blog and coming across this brought tears to my eyes! What an amazing story!

    1. Thanks for reading Stacey 🙂

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