After 14 years, Choral Program Co-Pioneer Leaves District.
By Candace Murphy
The idea grew organically, like so many of Nora Hunter’s brainstorms. It was the first day of school, Superintendent Paul Johnson was talking to all of the teachers about the district-wide initiative to “Be Kinder Than Necessary,” and then, all of a sudden, Johnson was singing “What a Wonderful World” to the entire district staff.
At that moment, Hunter – who is in her final year of teaching music to grades ranging from Transitional Kindergarten to 4th, and chorus to grades 3 through 5 — decided it would be amazing to teach “What a Wonderful World,” to all the children in the distrct. Hunter didn’t stop at just the music, either. She also resolved to pair the lyrics with sign language, underscoring her belief that sign language and music make for a magical performance.
“Sign language and singing are so beautiful when paired together,” says Hunter. Normally we listen to music with our ears, and in a live performance, there is less visual stimulation, but when you add sign language, it becomes a visual and auditory feast!”
The result, which has all the choral students singing and signing about trees of green and red roses, is stunning, and the Mill Valley Middle School Chamber Chorus will take it on tour to all the district elementary schools on May 25. It’s a swan song of sorts for Hunter as she prepares to give birth to her second child and to leave the Mill Valley School District after 14 years.
Leaving her teaching position in Mill Valley wasn’t an easy decision for Hunter. After being hired in 2004 to join MVMS Choral Director Jessica Nicholson, Hunter swiftly found herself in a role as a co-pioneer of the developing MVSD vocal program.
The early days were hectic. Hunter and Nicholson found themselves scurrying across town, school to school, juggling five elementary school choral programs and to teach 4th and 5th grade chorus. The pair realized that as the middle school choral program grew, a division of labor was definitely in order. They decided that Nicholson would remain at the middle school and Hunter and Lori Adessa would be traveling elementary choral teachers. Hunter focused on the 3rd and 4th grade choral program.
“When we proposed changes to the choral program, we were listened to, we were respected and we were trusted to build our program in the best way possible,” Hunter says. “The rest is history.”
Becoming a teacher was probably always in the cards for Hunter. Growing up in Lake Tahoe, Hunter attended Kings Beach Elementary School, the same school that her own parents attended, and where both of her grandmothers had been teachers. Her grandmother, Leonora Ferrari, who Hunter is named after, was not just a teacher, but an avid community volunteer, as well, serving as the church organist, the church choir director and even managed to squeeze in some time to teach private piano lessons.
“She was the first person to guide me toward piano – and accordion,” Hunter recalls. “Though she passed when I was six, she remains a huge influence on my life today.”
Unlike the MVSD, where Kiddo! raises funds from parents and community members to pay for our current excellent music programs, Hunter’s public school growing up didn’t have the same. The King’s Beach Elementary School’s music instruction was sparse, to say the least.
“I didn’t get to experience elementary music like I am able to teach now,” Hunter says.
With an insider’s track to private piano lessons, though, and a more robust middle school music program, Hunter found her way to music. Band was king, she says, and she began playing clarinet in 6th grade and then added the saxophone in seventh.
After majoring in music, Hunter went on to receive her Master’s in Conducting and also became a certified Kodaly instructor, which embraces a philosophy of teaching that uses a child-developmental approach to teaching music.
It was Hunter’s experience as a child playing music that solidified her belief that music is essential to a child’s education. Besides documented research about brain development, though, and the fact that playing music in groups builds a human connection as work is made toward a common goal. Hunter really thinks the key is that making music just feels good.
“Most music teachers would rather focus on music being important just for the art form that it is,” Hunter says. Music is truly a universal language. Something so deep, something so human that is fantastic just because it is music.”
Looking back on how much the choral program has grown in the district, Hunter can’t help but look forward, at the same time.
“I can’t wait to see what some of my elementary students are going to accomplish as they grow,” says Hunter, who is moving with her husband and two year old boy to Chico for a quieter lifestyle. “I’m sure that I’ll be coming down to watch my students perform at chorus concerts … and who knows what former student will be singing with the San Francisco Opera next!”
And that would be quite a wonderful world.