It wasn’t what she intended.
When she began college, music was mainly a hobby, something to do in her spare time. Then music became her leading pursuit. Eventually, she made music her major. Later on, the pastime became her profession.
Three decades later, the passion for music still sounds out just as clearly for Blaine High School’s director of vocal music Susan Zemlin. This year, amidst unprecedented challenges and changes, her work was recognized by peers across the state as she received the Minnesota Music Educators Association’s Music Educator of the Year Award.
“My decision to change my major to music ed happened in my first year of college,” Zemlin said. “I realized I was spending all of my spare time in the music building and it made me happy. My advisor was very supportive. I loved the fact that I could study so many subjects at once to bring a piece of music to life and experience the world on a deeper level than textbooks would allow. I loved that it was experiential and always changing.”
Adaptation is nothing new for Zemlin, as techniques and technology have evolved throughout her career. For someone who came to the decision to pursue music later in life, Zemlin hopes to inspire students and instill in them a love of music they can turn back to at any stage of life.
“Teaching music has changed in some ways since I began in 1987, and in some ways it is the same,” Zemlin said. “Lots of cool technology innovations have allowed us to be in contact with composers and choirs from all over the world. Students have been encouraged to specialize in a career path at a much younger age, causing many of them to abandon making music during school. This is something that is sad for me, because I was not a student who intended to major in music in high school. My strengths were in mathematics, sciences and history. I sang in choir as a way to experience the things I could not get from my classes that were content-specific. Music allows many subjects and ideas to be synthesized together, creating a deeper connection to the world around us and the people in it. A pleasant change is the way choral musicians are embracing equity and diversity more than when my career first began.”
While much has changed, some things for the better, others unfortunate, at its core, music remains the same.
“Singing together in a choir is the same joyful, community-building experience it has always been,” Zemlin said.
Virtual meetings have become the norm for classrooms across the country during the past year’s pandemic. Time lags and cutouts can impact any meeting, but particularly music classes, which rely on sounds blending together at precise intervals.
“Ensemble music thrives on being a community that is together sharing music, leaning toward each other, listening to each other, supporting each other and creating together,” Zemlin said. “This is difficult in the pandemic.
“We have learned to rehearse using Google Meet, where we cannot all unmute and sing together, due to the lag between each computer creating a cacophony of sound,” Zemlin said. “We rehearse by keeping everyone on mute and listening to the teachers. We record individually, then edit the recordings together to create what are called ‘virtual choirs.’ Many music educators have spent countless hours learning audio and video engineering skills to edit their groups together to be able to hear the true sound of the ensemble.”
Zemlin’s teaching career began in southwest Minnesota, spending five years in Pipestone. She made the move to Blaine in 1992, and has remained ever since.
“I have many fond memories (in Pipestone), and deep gratitude for the mentoring of band director Bob Carlson,” Zemlin said. “I am lucky to still have contact with many of those students. I came to Blaine in 1992 and have stayed because the human capital at Blaine is second to none. We have not always had the shiniest toys, but the way BHS choir students and families support each other and have embraced learning is amazing!”
Working in a community occupation, Zemlin firmly believes her educator of the year award is a communal achievement. All teachers, especially those in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, have helped one another learn and teach anew during the past year, Zemlin included.
“I firmly believe every music educator in Minnesota deserves this award this year for getting together and finding ways to keep music alive in a global pandemic,” Zemlin said. “I want to give all of them a shout-out and share the honor. I am especially grateful to my music colleagues in Anoka-Hennepin. We work together – none of us is an island.”