“Be who you are and let your voice be heard.”
Debbie Cleveland, 2018 Barbershop Harmony Society/NAfME Music Educator of the Year
By Lisa Ferber
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Teaching Music magazine.
Debbie Cleveland, the choral director at Gaither High School in Tampa, Florida, has known since she was in the eighth grade that the path of music education was for her. “I was inspired by a choral director, and the dream never died.” She has 31 years of experience as a choral director in secondary public schools, a history of performing worldwide with “the BUZZ,” a women’s international championship a cappella quartet, and choirs consistently chosen for EPCOT’s Candlelight Processional, the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Concert Series in New York City, and the Florida Music Education Association (FMEA) State Convention. Cleveland holds a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal music education from the University of South Florida in Tampa and a Master’s degree in education and curriculum from the University of Tampa.
Joe Cerutti, director of outreach for the Barbershop Harmony Society, says that in addition to being an incredible ambassador for a cappella singing, Cleveland is a wonderful choral director who has one of the most beautiful voices he has ever heard. He notes that part of why Cleveland is so successful in bringing the community together is because she is friendly, and able to laugh at herself and joke with other people. “She lives it every day. She is an incredibly modest person, and her students were probably prouder of her winning that award than even she was.”
Cleveland’s gravitation toward barbershop was organic, as it combines two of her long-term loves. “I sang musical theater in high school and gospel with my family, and barbershop is a combination, with the characterization like music theater and the harmony like gospel.” She also has a special fondness for teaching high schoolers. “They are just beginning to figure out who they are and who they want to become, and if I can have any part of that, then I feel like I have given them something valuable.” She notes that many people keep their high school memories for a long time, whether positive or negative, and she would like to have a positive influence on those memories.
One way in which she helps make students comfortable with singing is to create a safe environment where everyone makes it alright for everyone else. “The first day, I’ll have them all listen as each person says the word ‘here.’ The next day, they each have to sing the word ‘here.’ On the third day, they sing, ‘I’m here.’ And on the fourth day they sing, ‘I am really here,’ and so on.”
She is well aware of the shift that can take place over time as people become self-conscious. “What happened between elementary school when you were a free spirit and now?” she says. “I think they can be scared to use their voice. We use it literally and as a metaphor: Be who you are and let your voice be heard.”
I became a teacher because I love teaching music, but I have stayed in teaching because I love who I teach.
She offers this advice to budding teachers: “It’s an old saying, but ‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’ I became a teacher because I love teaching music, but I have stayed in teaching because I love who I teach.”
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