Hearing footsteps, Mary Farr leans out the music studio doorway and flashes a welcoming grin. She is the music department’s Energizer Bunny, an effervescent, lively music-specialist team-teacher of kindergarten through fifth grade at Vaughn Elementary School.
The music facilities at the school boast a professional sound system, wide assortment of instruments, and a collection of beautifully-crafted unusual drums, all thanks to the creativity of one of Farr’s third-grade classes whose performance she entered several years ago in an Oscar Meyer contest. She proudly shows off their winning entry, which garnered the school $10,000 for its music program.
Farr’s lifelong love of music began on the family farm in Pennsylvania, when her mother insisted her 10 children all learn piano. Farr earned her first teaching credential in elementary education, intending to teach kindergarten. During her entire teaching career, she has always worked in elementary schools.
“Teaching is a high-energy job,” she says. “It is a gift to be able to work with children, and every day has to be like it’s the first time.”
She explains that children sense if their teacher is not enthusiastic about the material. Even though she may have taught the same song to six different classes in the same day, every year for many years, each time she teaches it, she makes it “the first time,” so the children’s learning experience is not diminished.
Farr received her master’s degree in special education and worked in preschool programming in Maryland, in early childhood and parent education, and as a resource room teacher for 20 years, most recently in Tacoma. Then, 10 years ago, she reinvented her career at Vaughn Elementary, where at the time there was no music curriculum in place. Creating the program as she went, she at first used borrowed instruments from another school for her students. Now, funded by her own ingenuity, a supportive principal, and the talent she sees in her students, she explores the many ways music enhances education.
“I love using my special education background to teach music,” she says, “because it is very inclusive. I tell my students that (making) music is like making a cake. We have different layers of skills — and it pulls the children together into a community.”
Every student at Vaughn Elementary sits in Farr’s music circle twice weekly. Shy students hold stuffed animals when they’re feeling unsure about new material. New students and others needing one-on-one time can try instruments during Farr’s planning hours.
“My job is to inspire students to get a taste of what music is,” she says, adding that being comfortable in the classroom and having fun is the result of a solid plan and the administration’s respect for the music/arts program.
Farr has a high regard for her principal, Mike Benoit. “He inspires staff each day to improve upon the day before,” she says.
Farr’s music rollicks over into her private life. At one time, she played guitar and sang locally in the Ricky Snickers Band. “My husband was our roadie,” she says with a chuckle. Now she hosts “Monday Nights at Mary’s,” a musician get-together, in her professional music studio.
Farr and her husband sail during summer, and she is an avid fiction reader. She has a daughter in college, and attends summer school herself, most recently “New England Dance Masters” instruction for teachers. She plans to teach her students contra dancing, a blend of Irish sets and Scottish reels, then host a school function where the students teach their parents.
Farr delights in being “discovered” by her young students as just an ordinary person running errands. “They can’t believe it. Mrs. Farr! At the store!” she says, her eyes twinkling. “Because they think I live at school.”
A former student recently called Farr to volunteer-teach her students for his senior service project at Peninsula High. As a fourth grader at Vaughn Elementary, Tommy Heard was intrigued with the drums, and when he got his first snare drum, he brought it to school.
“I didn’t know anything about music before Mrs. Farr’s class; she inspired me to keep learning,” he says.
Since then, Heard has played music. He arrives at school at 6:30 every morning to play in the jazz band, Razzmatazz, among other musical venues. He chose Farr’s classroom because it was both his way of learning to do something new, and to give back something of value to his community. Heard doesn’t know if playing the drums will become a profession, but says, “Music will definitely not disappear from my life.”
Other former students occasionally attend younger siblings’ music programs at Vaughn Elementary. After the program, sometimes they ask Farr, “Do you remember me?” She says she might need just the tiniest hint; then, where the nearly-grown student stands waiting to be recognized, she “sees” a second grader who was afraid to sing. Too precious to be forgotten, the student leaves feeling good, remembered by a teacher who made a difference.