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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, August 29, 2004

entry arrow7:27 PM | The Mistress of Confidence

I will say one thing about Prof. Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez, choir mistress, Silliman University music professor, and eternal friend. Like fine wine, she gets better through the years, her flavor more succinct, her strengths more refined, her spirit undaunted, and which is generous enough to make anyone fly with her. The operative word in that last phrase is the word "with," because in her shining moments, she never really wants to outshine anyone. No ... the fact of the matter is, she makes you shine along with her -- and that makes all the difference.

I was a confused college sophomore when I first met Ma'am Sue, or the way I say it, with an "o," as in Mom Sue. And like anyone who first got to know her, I was scared of her, probably because I was a dimwit who was easily intimidated by the shadow of greatness. This is a common thing about her.

"People always think suplada ko," I remember her telling me. "Maldita ra baya."

And then we'd both burst out laughing.

"Cute pud," I'd retort back.

But granted, the first time I knew of her, I was scared.

But she became my musical director for two plays, first, a defunct version of West Side Story which never saw the light of day, and then later Godspell, which was a small play intimate enough to develop the camaraderie that would soon spell my deep friendship with Mom Sue.

In West Side Story, I played Diesel, one of the Jets, but although I fancied myself a man of extreme confidence, I considered my singing something not quite worthwhile. Which, of course, made rehearsing with the Susan Vista extra-intimidating. She was the embodiment of Silliman's musical tradition, after all. The offspring of the very musical Dimaya and Vista families and the pupil of the late Maestro Albert Faurot, she was also Dean of the university's School of Music at the time when it reasserted its prowess in music education a while back. She was also director of the SU Campus Choristers, which had toured the United States twice, and which had been granted by the Cultural Center of the Philippines the status of Cultural Ambassador of Goodwill. She played Rachmaninoff like genius. I was scared that when it came to practicing my songs with her, I'd croak. But I guess I passed muster, because when West Side Story was aborted, I was immediately cast in another musical, Godspell -- and suddenly found myself having a solo.

Which made me tremble with such fear.

But she gave me courage to sing. She made me breathe through the song. She made me capable. She gave me that needed belief in myself. Later on, as part of her world-renowned Campus Choristers, I developed a musicality in me that was her stamp. She made all of us in that choir develop the habit of listening to each other to produce beautiful music. She called this harmony "timpla," and we believed her. But, really, the final lesson we ultimately learned from her is that crucial belief in ourselves. It was the key, and she knew how to turn it to unlock our spirits. She would tell me, "When I direct a choir, I need to know how each one sings. I need to know why she sings this way, why he wouldn't smile, why she can only give this much. It's a hard job, but I need to know all of those things -- and then that's when I can motivate each one well. That's part of music."

That's the thing. After my initial impressions of Ma'am Sue as somebody intimidating, I soon sensed that, in fact, we were kindred spirits. We were so much alike, and sometimes we even thought alike. We would always have the same vision of things, and I saw many aspects of myself in her. I also soon found out that she had this child's sense of wonder that made it very easy for me, and for anyone else close to her, to connect with her. So many years later, I still have that close friendship with her, something I value with all my heart.

The thing about Ma'am Sue that I have learned through the years is embedded in the books she had recently launched in time for Silliman's 103rd Founders Day celebration. One is an exhaustive introduction to choral conducting. And another, a book which is closer to my heart, is Born to Make a Difference Vol. 1: If My Hands Could Sing, a workbook on music and self-esteem -- which is part inspirational, part children's story, part comic book, part pedagogical tool and esteem-builder for teachers, parents, "and even pastors," so said Silliman's Rev. Reuben Cedino.

In that introduction, she wrote: "This book/manual is written with the hope that it will inspire teachers to take a good look at themselves and discover, or rediscover, the meaning of doing what is probably the most noble thing in the world: teaching.

"There is also a hope that this book will serve as an eye-opener to a problem many have long since noticed, that the essence of true education has been lost in the muddle of making lesson plans and teaching students mere techniques. What must be said at the beginning is that there is more to teaching than just mouthing lessons to students, and getting feedback through examinations. When some piano students, for example, earn their degree in music, many of them do not make music -- they merely play a semblance of scale passages and practiced techniques, but never quite reaching to share art with the audience.

"Based on Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Domains, the affective domain of the teaching process, which involves 'teaching from the heart,' has been placed in the back seat to give way mainly to the cognitive or 'intellectual,' and psychomotor or 'physical' domain of learning.

"Perhaps this is because many teachers have lost sight of their dreams, and thus have learned to be helpless. They have somehow become lost in a system they think they cannot change, or live in harmony with. Like rats in a maze, they search for something better -- but cannot find it, not knowing that a better life exists within themselves, and may be found again through the choices they make and the dreams they wish to pursue.

"I must say that the better life is found only through the ability to "die to oneself," and to change the attitudes that sometimes keep one from succeeding. When one loses sight of his dream, he becomes discontented in what he does. If he is a teacher, his students ultimately suffer -- this is because he is unhappy with himself in the very beginning. Sadness and bitterness are contagious.

"As with the great teachers of the past, like Jesus Christ (who transmitted spiritual lessons using down-to-earth stories for those who could not read or write), or Socrates (who used questioning as a form of helping his students find their own answers), I feel that it is the teacher's job to initiate understanding in their students. The circumstances in the world, their immediate community, and their classroom may not be ideal for learning but the good teacher can rise above any situation.

"The challenge of encouraging the young to discover what is within them and to go beyond what they think they cannot do is an enormous task. In many cases, some teachers would just like to concede and throw in the towel saying, 'I give up!' But as I have observed, there are also others who keep on fighting the good fight, and in the end, the results for them are beyond expectations.

"This book deals more with the attitude of transmitting knowledge, rather than on the specific knowledge itself. It is based on the premise that students learn better and faster with positive reinforcement and thus developing positive attitudes in learners, as well as in themselves."

We have here, in this book, her sense of generosity and outreach. She genuinely wants to share with all of us her passion for music, and her passion for life. Her books may be about music and educational pedagogy, but they are also about the human spirit -- and that's what makes her unique as a teacher. Because she knows that we are all students who start out intimidated and frightened and insecure. Like the consummate choir mistress that she is, she has learned to bring out the performer in each of us, to make us believe in what we are capable of doing, to give us that needed sense of security, and finally to make us the best musician -- or person -- that we could ever be.

That, I think, defines what teaching and being a teacher is all about.

So, thank you, Ma'am Sue, for your gift of sharing, with me and with all of us your students, your life. The blood and sweat of that generous life, I know, are embedded in these books. Thus, these books are only manifestations of that gift, and we willingly receive them and we thank you for them.

(The books are available in the College of Performing Arts, Silliman University.)

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