Richard Carrick: I see from your bio that you spent many years as the elementary music teacher in Luverne. What made you want to transition to teaching middle and high school?
Seana Graber: It wasn’t actually a want, I was told “you’re going.” I loved Elementary music and I knew exactly what I was doing with the kids. They were so fun; it was like playtime for me, working with those kids. But then I was told I was coming up here.
Richard Carrick: Were you nervous or did you have any doubts?
Seana Graber: Yes, I had a lot of doubts. I thought, “What if it doesn’t work? What am I going to do if I’m not good at this?” But, the superintendent said, “You’re going to be good, this is why I’m asking you to do it.” But even today, I still doubt myself whether I’m good enough. But we seem to be doing pretty well.
Richard Carrick: What prompted your superintendent to tell you that you needed to leave your elementary job and move into the middle school and high school?
Seana Graber: They were making some cuts, and they made cuts in the whole music department. Somehow, since I was licensed, they brought me up.
Richard Carrick: Can you describe the transition from teaching elementary and general music to middle and high school choir in more detail?
Seana Graber: The transition was tough. My ear was in the elementary world, so being able to listen and focus on four parts at one time was strangely difficult for me at first. And I’m not a good piano player, so that was a lot of practice to get ready to play parts. But you know, it worked out.
Richard Carrick: When you were a student at Luverne, who was your teacher and how was your experience?
Seana Graber: Luverne was a great school. We had a really good choir with an amazing director, Dolly Talbert. We were one of the top choirs down here and it was great to be a part of that. When she retired, I think I was in my second year of teaching at the time, people kept asking me if I was going to apply. And I said, “No way, I cannot fill those shoes.” I would never want to try to take her place. I think it actually worked out really well that I didn’t have to take Dolly’s place immediately after she retired. I think that would have been too difficult.
Richard Carrick: I agree, it is hard to take over after a beloved teacher retires. Are you still in contact with Dolly Talbert?
Seana Graber: Actually, Dolly still comes in and accompanies my choirs, which at first was very intimidating.
Richard Carrick: I believe it. Can you describe that in more detail?
Seana Graber: I just know that she knows what she’s doing. So, I kept thinking, “oh, my gosh, is she thinking I’m not saying the right thing?” You just second guess yourself.
Richard Carrick: Of course, imposter syndrome can be strong for many of us, I think. Has that gotten easier over the years?
Seana Graber: Definitely. We’re more colleagues now. We can just play off each other now, and she will say things to the choir like “I can’t understand those words.” She can help me out that way.
Richard Carrick: When I was a younger conductor, other people giving feedback to my groups would make me feel self-conscious. But it is a beautiful thing to be able to have trust and self-confidence to be able to have somebody else critique your ensemble. Was that hard for you, too?
Seana Graber: Well, that’s still hard. That’s always hard. I don’t think I don’t know if I will ever outgrow that. You listen differently when you’re not in charge. So, when clinicians give feedback, I’ll think: “Oh, why didn’t I hear that before?” But you can’t catch everything – you just can’t.
Richard Carrick: At what point during your relationship with Dolly did you feel like the dynamic shifted from student and teacher to colleagues?
Seana Graber: It was fairly soon after I started, because I wasn’t right out of college. That intimidation factor slowly went away, I would say maybe three years into it? After a while you realize, no, I’m doing all right. And if she offers something, it’s because she heard something that I was missing or at that moment didn’t hear, and that is okay.
Richard Carrick: Having an extra set of ears can be so beneficial for our groups. It can be really affirming too.
Seana Graber: Oh yeah, it’s great. It’s just like when a clinician comes in and they tell your kids something that you have said yourself. When Mrs. Talbert says it, all of a sudden they want to do it better for her. And I think that’s great.
Richard Carrick: Do you have any advice for other directors on how to make that process most beneficial for their ensembles?
Seana Graber: Number one, you have to work your tail off to get the kids prepared. Dolly is the one who instilled that in me. She always said she would never put anyone on stage who wasn’t prepared, and I try to instill that in my kids, too. And then I tell my students that everyone hears music differently and wants something different from the music. We just need to be willing and open to try new things. I love it when a clinician says, “your kids are so responsive.” You just have to believe in yourself, which is easier said than done – I’m still on that journey!
Richard Carrick: That’s wonderful. Can you describe some of the ways that Luverne has changed since 1986 and how that affects you as a music teacher today?
Seana Graber: Students are more involved and spread thinner than ever, so keeping them in the program is a challenge. Whether it’s in school or out of school, students have more options for activities than I had. That’s probably the biggest challenge.
Richard Carrick: Are the ensembles structured in a similar way today as to when you were a student?
Seana Graber: It is similar, but back then high school was 10th–12th grade. And none of my ensembles are auditioned now, anyone can join. But the concert choir was auditioned back when I was in high school. Well, all the guys made it in, but girls auditioned to get in. So, back then there was a treble choir and then the concert choir.
Richard Carrick: There can be a real inequity for sopranos and altos vs. tenors and basses in auditioned choirs, can’t there?
Seana Graber: That’s why I don’t do any auditions.
Richard Carrick: Do you have any encouragement or advice for people who may be thinking about returning to their alma mater to teach?
Seana Graber: Well, I think it’s wonderful because the environment is familiar. You, more than likely, know the layout of your building and you know the expectations for students because you went through the program. And if it’s a strong program, hopefully you’re stepping into that and you’re just going to continue that. And at the same time, be patient because it takes a long time to learn to become a great teacher.
Richard Carrick: It sure does. And you’re constantly learning, so in 30 years you’re going to be a much better teacher than you are today.
Seana Graber: Yes, and it’s kind of hard to accept that. I had a band director who said, “if you ever get to the point where you’re not learning anymore, then you should probably leave the profession.” And I totally agree, because I feel like I’m always learning, whether it’s from the students, workshops, or from other teachers. I still listen to other choirs and think, “I have a lot to learn yet.” But that’s fun, and challenging.
Richard Carrick: What have been some of your biggest joys and maybe a challenge over the course of your career?
Seana Graber: I think the biggest challenge has been believing in myself, every day, that I can do this. It can be tough when you’re the only person in your room because you have to do it all. Nobody is there to say “good job.” But I just love the process of teaching the music. Although I’m not the greatest musician in the whole wide world, I love working with kids. I love it when they recognize that they’ve improved. I also love when the kids get into our choir, and they get to have those meaningful experiences. I love it when I get an email from a former student who says “Mrs. Graber, I really miss choir.” I keep those messages as a reminder that I did something for somebody, and that is so great.