Chautauqua music teacher prepares for retirement

Carolyn Candy leads a second-grade class in a call-and-response exercise on the conga drums. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Carolyn Candy leads a second-grade class in a call-and-response exercise on the conga drums.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

The line of second-graders slithered its way out of Carolyn Candy’s classroom door one recent afternoon, dancing the snake dance conga-style.

The students traipsed across the hall, shimmied outside, past the life-size chess board, back inside, down the hall and then back into her classroom, where the beat, of course, went on.

For the past several years, there’s been room to groove in room 115 — a classroom that boasts xylophones and drums rather than chairs and desks. That’s one of the reasons Candy — who’s retiring this year after six years as Chautauqua Elementary School’s music teacher and 27 years as a teacher there — is hailed by many as innovative, creative and gifted. It’s not hard to believe that she’s gained quite a following, among students, fellow teachers and parents alike — all of whom said Candy is irreplaceable.

Many know her as one of the creators of the school’s popular first- through third-grade multiage program. But her tenure as the music teacher has also made an indelible impression on the school — where she used fun and creativity to teach kids not only how to play music but also to appreciate and understand diverse cultures.

Sometimes, she’d play a snippet of music, turn to her class and ask them where it’s from. Africa, they’d shout out. China. Turkey. Candy’s classroom walls were plastered with artwork from other cultures — Native American, African, Mexican, Chinese.

“I think that’s important, because we’re a global economy; we’ve got to come together,” she said. “This is one place where I can teach children to respect differences and become interested in them. Instead of hearing something from another country and saying, ‘That’s weird,’ I’ve taught them to say, ‘That’s interesting.’”

She said her goal in exposing her students to music and dance from around the world is to show the beauty of each art form and “to teach them that we’re all united in many ways.”

Principal Kate Baehr said she valued Candy’s contributions to the Chautauqua community.

“She’s very genuine, full of integrity and commitment to kids, which is what it should be all about, and she really typified that,” Baehr said. “Her love for the children is number one.”

Candy, 63, grew up in a musical household — her father was a big-band trumpeter from Oakland, Calif., and the rest of her family members are musicians and educators as well.

A flute major at San Francisco State University, Candy was folk-dancing to Balkan music when she met her husband, a folk-dancer as well, in a Berkeley gymnasium.

On one of her last days teaching music at Chautauqua, she reflected on its delights.

“What could be more beautiful than children singing?” Candy asked. “It’s a joyful experience. When they play drums together, they just let their energy grow. It’s something they can take with them for the rest of their lives, pass on to their children.”

She said the affection from students, and response from parents, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s been a wonderful uplifting experience here,” she said. “The best part is all the love from the kids — they just walk down the hall and hug you. Hearing from the parents, ‘Are you Mrs. Candy? My kids just love music.’ Or hearing that the kids were singing songs from music at home.”

Fellow staff members said they admire the music program Candy has built at Chautauqua, as well as her deep-rooted commitment to it.

One of the most impressive aspects of Candy’s teachings was the evident influence of international music and culture, Baehr said.

“They learned Greek dancing; they’ve had African music and a lot from Central and Latin America, both in singing and dancing,” Baehr said. “I think the world music is a huge contribution that she’s made.”

Fifth-grade teacher Doug Swan said he appreciated Candy’s engaging approach to music.

“That’s one of her strengths. Music at an elementary level should be a hands-on, participatory class, as opposed to in-your-seats choir,” he said. “Carolyn has it nailed with all the percussion and the xylophones.”

Candy said she’s thankful to have acquired the percussion instruments in her classroom through Partners in Education and Vashon PTSA grants over the years.

“Carolyn’s gift is she just relates to her students really directly through music,” said fourth-grade teacher Andy James. “In the way that she deals with the kids, she’s just talking to them so directly. The kids are always so excited about going to music.”

He said Candy was always a colleague he could lean on.

“She’s incredibly enthusiastic and supportive,” James said. “She’s a mensch — it’s a Yiddish word for a good person, a person you’re glad to see coming. Sometimes we have to borrow words from other languages because we don’t have quite the right one.”

Baehr agreed that Candy was a supportive peer.

“I came (to Chautauqua) just in the last two years, and as a seasoned practitioner she was very welcoming and encouraging to me,” she said. “She was someone I could always count on for support and a smile and a thoughtful perspective on things.”

Candy’s contributions go beyond the classroom, Baehr and Swan said. In her tenure, she was also instrumental in organizing many of the schools’ assemblies, including this year’s Veteran’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day assemblies. Candy also helped arrange performances, bringing world-class musicians and entertainers to the Chautauqua stage.

“On St. Paddy’s Day, there was a bagpipes outside,” which Candy orchestrated, Swan said. He knows Candy well — he’s also her neighbor, and she played flute at his wedding.

He said Candy has helped establish traditions at Chautauqua, such as the dancing of the snake dance at fifth-grade graduation.

“I hope they will last, because Carolyn helped uphold them,” Swan said. “Carolyn is an integral part of those traditions. So I hope there’s a transition time for her to be able to pass her expertise on” to her successor.

Parents and students agreed that Candy was a gem of a teacher.

“I have particularly appreciated her efforts to expose my child to the sounds and sights and even the movements of other cultures,” said Carrie Van Buren, parent of an incoming fifth-grader and the coordinator of the Artists in Schools program, which brings performers and artists into classrooms. Candy has taken advantage of this program just about every school year, Van Buren said, choosing such varied artists as an African singer and Blue Heron choreographer Christine Juarez.

“Both my kids enjoyed her class and benefited greatly from her,” Van Buren said. “She shares her personal love of music, which comes across in her teaching.”

The high quality of the music program at Chautauqua is due to Candy’s dedication, she said.

“I think that she’s brought a level of excellence to music education at the elementary level that the next person who comes in will have to take and go with it,” Van Buren said. “She’s raised the bar to a certain level and families have appreciated it and now expect it. Her legacy will live on through that and the program and the involvement she’s had in it.”

Candy makes class fun, said second-grader Hayley Ridgeway.

“She is a really great teacher; she teaches us a lot about music,” said Ridgeway, who added that she looks forward to coming to Candy’s class, which is one of her favorites.

She said she especially enjoys the “crazy frog dance.”

Candy said she’s looking forward to taking time to relax, get healthy and spend time with her family. She’ll substitute at Chautauqua next year, and for the music classes at McMurray Middle School, which she said helped ease the blow of her retirement for students.

After she’s had a break, Candy plans to volunteer for an environmental cause, she said, and she’d like to learn more Spanish or French, even becoming fluent in one of the two.

“I’ve been absolutely honored to be everybody’s music teacher,” Candy said. “I couldn’t have had better students than the kids here at Chautauqua.”

She gave her students a bit of homework for the summer: “Listen to as much music as you can and dance like crazy.”

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