seven lessons with Irina

Today, I want to tell you about my good friend Irina. I know Irina and her mom from church. They are both very involved, each of them volunteering in multiple ministries. They are both beloved members of our community.

Irina has an unspecified developmental disability. She was adopted by her parents Rick and Elizabeth at the age of 4, and at that time she had not yet learned how to speak. Her loving parents put her through auditory therapy treatments which tremendously improved her language abilities. Still, the circumstances of her early childhood left some lasting challenges that have remained with her all her life. She is now in her 20’s.

In the face of these challenges, Irina is one of the most outgoing, cheerful, up-for-anything people that I know. I’ve seen her take part in just about every ministry at our church. She’s been an altar server, a lector, and a handbell choir member. She’s volunteered as a host at our church musical theatre productions, and she’s been a regular fixture at our summer school supply drives. I’m missing several things on her volunteer résumé, I’m sure. But perhaps the most distinctive thing about Irina is her singing.

Anyone who happens to attend Mass with her would know that she loves to sing at church. Her voice carries halfway through the sanctuary even when it’s crammed full of people, and she has no hint of embarrassment or timidity. Unfortunately, singing is not one of her natural talents. To the unpracticed and impatient listener, she might epitomize the phrase “joyful noise.” But to me, her singing is the sound of a person who is happily walking her own musical path. She might not know much about matching pitch and controlling dynamics, but she sings her heart out with complete sincerity and total abandon. That is more than some well-developed singers can muster on their best day.

So when Elizabeth approached me last November to ask about getting voice lessons for Irina, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I had never taught anyone with a developmental disability, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help her. I did my research as best as I could. We started out with an assessment, although I already knew that matching pitch and controlling volume were going to be first on our agenda. Still, I started my lessons with her by asking the same question I ask all my students.

“Do you have any particular goals for your singing?” I asked.

Irina said excitedly, “I want to sing a song with Ms. Paula.” Ms. Paula is our music director and pianist at the church. Irina continued, “I just love singing for Jesus. It makes me feel like He’s listening to me. It makes me feel excited!!” She clapped her hands in glee.

Oh, boy, I thought to myself. This is going to be a long road. I told her it was going to take a lot of honest work and that we will have to see how she does as we go along, and she agreed. It was a struggle to get her to accurately sing back one note at a time, so I could only imagine how hard it was going to be to learn a whole song. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from being a vocal instructor, it’s to never underestimate a person’s potential. Especially a person with Irina’s heart.

We started slow and steady: one note at a time. And when I say one note at a time, I mean one note at a time. I would plunk out a middle C and sing “Mum.” I would ask her to listen; then I would ask her to sing it quietly in her head; then I would ask her to sing it quietly with her lips; then I would ask her to sing it out loud with me. Correct. Repeat. Correct. Repeat. Correct. Repeat. Then we would move to another pitch and do the whole thing over again.

To say she has patience through this process would be an understatement. It would be more accurate for me to say she has unbridled joy. Her blue eyes sparkle like topaz, and she grins from ear to ear like she is preparing some secret surprise party. When I describe this process to people, they quickly assume that it’s boring for me, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s repetitive, yes, but never boring. If anything, the repetition magnifies the suspense, the sweetness, and the payoff.

Last Monday, I drilled Irina with the same usual exercises. She had missed a lesson because of some inclement weather, so I was expecting her to be a bit rusty. On the contrary. She had practiced, and her hard work paid off. Her progress was so impressive that I found myself saying in disbelief, “Irina, I think it’s time for us to work on a song.”

She clapped gleefully. I could barely contain myself.

The song is Frère Jacques. It’s less than ten notes. It’s one of the simplest songs I could think of, but I was so excited for her. Maybe I was excited for the both of us. After all, she and I went into this journey together not knowing what to expect. Now, we are accomplishing what couldn’t be done just seven lessons ago.

Someone recently asked me what I love most about being a singing teacher. Irina’s story just about sums it up. Students walk into my studio with a song in their heart and a desire to sing it out loud. I walk their journey with them, leading them, pushing them, helping them break through their barriers until I can get them to a point where they can do something they couldn’t do before. Any time a person gets to this point, there is a sense that they are being reminded of the inherent, unfathomable potential that lies within. But learning isn’t a one-way street. Every breakthrough also reminds me that there is always reason to believe in what cannot be seen; to have faith in others; to take a chance on one another. I hope that I am helping my students have faith in themselves, but I hope they also know that they are building up my faith with every risk they take, every mistake they make, and every goal they accomplish. Not everything is possible, but the more I teach, the more I realize that more things are possible than we give ourselves credit for. Singing is possible. Fun is possible. Courage is possible. Goodness, truth, unity, and beauty – these are all possible. If we, like Irina, would take the time to rediscover the joy of living life one note at a time, we would find that we are capable of much more than we dare to dream. And we would also find that we could mean much more to one another than we dare to imagine.

I may be the one teaching Irina how to sing, but she has also taught me much over the past seven lessons. I think I will continue to learn from her for the rest of my life.

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