By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Gubser Elementary School music teacher Holly Albertson is magic.
She can make a piece of thread tied to a recorder feel like a medal of honor. To her students, that simple piece of string is indicative of the level they’ve reached as players, and highly coveted. For Albertson, the string is just one more chance to hook her students on the ability of music to touch a soul.
“Music touches kids who aren’t athletes or academic all-stars, and those are the kids I’m hoping find their way to music,” said Albertson.
While the string trick is one of the most requested acts, it’s far from Albertson’s only one.
Albertson, the 2007 Salem-Keizer School District Educator of the Year, is drawing the curtains on a 30-year career this June. She spent seven years at Kennedy Elementary School before making the switch to Gubser 17 years ago.
Albertson’s love affair with notes and clefs began at a very young age, sitting in the lap of her mother as she played piano.
“I don’t remember it, but she said she would put her hands over mine as she played and that’s how I learned,” Albertson said. “My brothers and sisters say I would always come into a room singing.”
Once in school, she found her friends and allies in music programs.
“Junior high was hard for me and music classes were my safe place,” she said.
When her father, a Methodist pastor, was transferred to a Gresham church, it was upsetting because she wanted mightily to become part of the esteemed South Salem High School choir.
“It was probably for the best though. They had a lot of sopranos, but Gresham didn’t and I got to be one of the choir leaders early on,” Albertson said.
She intended to study early childhood education in college, but a teacher in Albertson’s senior year told her she would make a better music teacher.
“When it was said, it just seemed to fit,” Albertson said.
With her students, she tries to “slide the learning in sideways.
“I want them to identify positively with music and show them how much fun can be had within it,” Albertson said.
Keeping students busy is a large part of her job – and tougher and tougher as class sizes grow – but her passion is for the performances held at schools.
“A lot of my joy in teaching comes from the music programs. Music programs give the kids self confidence to get up and perform. They get to do solos and speaking parts and learn the camaraderie of singing together,” she said.
It’s also where she unveils her next magic trick. She can make you cry. Albertson’s passion for her students and music takes center stage as she thanks parents for letting her spend time with their kids and for support of school music programs. Her emotions spill out and wash over you until you’re crying right along with her. It doesn’t lose its effect over time.
She hosts many music programs for multiple grade levels over the course of each academic year. They are one more way to hook a student, but they’re also her show-stopping main act.
Nikey Hikes started sitting in on the Gubser choir sessions as a kindergartener. His brother and sister were both part of the choir, and he couldn’t stay home alone. So he followed them into the choir room every Thursday and Friday.
“I don’t think I meant to learn the music, I just did, and Ms. Albertson noticed,” said Hikes, now a junior at McNary High School.
Eager learners always stand out in a crowd, but Hikes was unique for other reasons. At a very young age, he’d already begun struggling with his sexual identity.
“All the other kids seemed to walk the line between bullying me and thinking I was just too hard to figure out,” he said. “Her classroom was just incredible and great. It was a safe place.”
His early exposure to music and the annual programs at the school led to him becoming something of a star pupil. Albertson cast him as Santa in a production of Elfis and The Sleigh Riders. Hikes made his own props for the show and ran with the role.
“I’ve always been a sucker for theatrics and a bit dramatic,” Hikes said. “Some of the kids were nasty about it. I always thought I earned every role, but I still felt the bitterness.”
After turbulent middle school years, Hikes has made a home for himself in McNary drama department where he continues to be a regular performer. And, of course, he still sings.
Her students may not realize it, but all of that is a result of careful design on the part of Albertson, a seasoned magician.
“I want them to continue to love to sing and express the way a song can touch their soul. Music can be a friend to them. I hope they choose something like music to have a place to belong,” Albertson said.
That there is the essence of her whole act: connecting students to themselves through music, and through that to other people. As Hikes knows, it’s one powerful trick.
“I didn’t know then, but even now she’s probably had the biggest impact of any of my teachers. I don’t think I would be where I am without her,” he said.
And it’s a lot like magic.