Q&A With Megan Stucky-Swanson

Megan Stucky-Swanson has been the Orchestra Director at City High since 2012
Photo courtesy of Megan Stucky-Swanson
Photo courtesy of Megan Stucky-Swanson
Tom Ward [email protected]

When did you begin learning violin, and why?

I began in 4th grade in the public school system. The orchestra director came in and played the theme of The Little Mermaid on the violin, and that was it. I took the slip home to my mom, she signed it, and that’s what I do for a living now.


Tell me about your earliest musical memories.

I didn’t grow up with a musical family, but my mom said that when she was pregnant with me, she would put Dvorak New World Symphony on her LP player, and she would clean the house while listening to Dvorak, which makes me wonder if that early exposure that I had made me love music so much when I started learning the violin.


Why is music important to you?

Music is important to me because it lets you feel without needing words. And music can take you back to any point in time; good, bad, ugly. And makes you feel those raw emotions. It’s also a way to escape, and it’s a truly universal language. One of my favorite things to do is sight-read duets with my students. There’s no talking, there’s no chitchat. You sit down and play this beautiful music that you create from a piece of paper with black ink on it. It’s incredible.


Did you always know you would grow up to be an orchestra teacher?

I did. Ever since the director got me to play the violin, that was what I loved. And in the high school orchestra, my director was also the golf coach. So he was gone a lot in the afternoons. And one year, he was gone for the homecoming court assembly, in which the orchestra played Canon in D for the introduction of the court. And he asked me to fill in as director for him that afternoon. The second I was able to hold his baton and step on the podium, I knew that that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.


Why did you choose to teach the high school age?

I didn’t choose it, actually. I always knew I wanted to end up working with high school students, but my first job that I got was elementary through high school in Missouri. So I got a taste of all of it for a couple years, and I loved it. Then my husband and I wanted to move back to Iowa to be closer to our family. Marshaltown was the only job open at the time in Iowa, and it happened to be elementary through high school. So I continued for the next six years, doing the whole program. And I really loved it. I loved the angsty teenagers who could play, and then I’d go over to the elementary kids who didn’t even know where [the] open D [string] was, but they were so excited and energetic. So I really, really enjoyed it. Being at City High is the first time I’ve ever had just high school, and I love it. I don’t think I could ever go back to teaching the little tykes. But I value that experience, and I think that where I’m best served is in the high school level.


What is your favorite thing about being an orchestra teacher?

It’s equal part the relationship-building with these students, and making really amazing music together. I love the fact that I can get to know students over four years. It’s really unique to any other teaching position. I love watching the students grow up after and blossom and change and become really thoughtful humans, and then sending them off into the world. But at the same time, we get to build those relationships together and the trust between the students and myself and vice versa: we’re able to create some really amazing musical moments. Sometimes those come out during the concerts, sometimes they come out during rehearsals. But in those moments, we all share. And it’s those little pockets of experiences that we all remember 20 or 30 years down the road. It’s not all the pieces we did one year, or a particular year. It’s moments that we create because of the relationship that we have built over four years.


What is your least favorite thing about being an orchestra teacher?

How to answer without getting in trouble? Sometimes, for me, it might be a lack of practice outside of the school day. I know students are busy. But there are many times where I feel that orchestra is not a priority at all, and so learning your part takes place in class. But that’s when you’re supposed to be learning everybody else’s part; at home is when you learn your part. A lot of times, that doesn’t happen, so I can’t quite get us to where I want us to be, and that can be really frustrating. The other part to that question would be that sometimes, students forget that this is a community effort. It’s not about you, or one individual person. It’s about us as a group. And sometimes students lose that idea, and it becomes too individualized. 


Who is your biggest inspiration?

Personally, for me, I always will continue and look up to my violin professor I had in college. It was not always sunshine and puppy kisses. There were many times I left his office crying. There were many times I got the disappointing look of, ‘Megan, you’re a disaster.’ And there were also moments where I got the look of, ‘You turned into a better violinist than anybody would have ever guessed.’ So within that range, there was a lot that happened. And I can think of nobody else that I would want to see me now, to see what I’ve been able to do, because of what he taught me. Not just about how to play the violin. Which he did. But it was just about how to be a good person. But as gruff and as intimidating and as scary as he was, he’s the person that I think about all the time: What would he tell me to do right now? Or what would he say about this decision? 


Who is your favorite professional violin soloist?

I was always very partial to Maxim Vengerov. I liked the passion that he played with. And I always thought his playing was very clean but very strong and emotional. But my absolute, absolute favorite–and I would pay any amount of money to see him again if he ever comes back to the states–is a Hungarian gypsy violinist named Roby Lakatos. He looks like he should be straight out of a Vegas show, with his sequined jackets, his curly mustache, and his big hair. But his spiccato. His spiccato is the best in the world. It gets no better spiccato than this guy. To watch it is incredible. I would see him every opportunity I can. 


Who is your favorite composer?

It depends on the day. It’s either Beethoven or Schostakovich. I think it honestly depends on the mood that I’m in. If I’m in more of an angsty, emotional, fired up state of mind, I love listening to Schostakovich, because it’s full of all those things, and also full of beauty. Beethoven, the fact that he was able to write so much of his amazing music without being able to hear, is incredible to me. And by the time he was writing the last of his string quartets, his music was so progressive for the time, and incredibly amazing and full of such emotion. And so it’s hard not to get sucked in when you’re listening to either one of those composers.


What is your favorite era of music?

The Romantic Era, hands-down. There’s so much that you can do with that music in the Romantic Period. Not only is it just littered with emotions, but it tells stories, and you can really create a picture of a scene, an image, feelings of what you want, with what’s on the page. And as I said in class today, it’s more horizontal music. You can do so many different things, good and bad, depending on your skill level. But the ability to feel something is so easily done with Romantic Era music. And it’s just pleasing to the ears. When you get past the Impressionistic and more modern eras, it doesn’t sit as well with my ears. 


What factors do you think about when you choose repertoire for orchestras to play?

So many things. One, I have to think, ‘What’s the educational value in this piece?’ I don’t want to pick a piece that showcases only one section. I want to make sure that there are parts, educational parts, for all sections. I want to make sure that I think that they’ll be able to engage in it, appreciate it–they don’t have to like everything, but they need to find a way to engage in a particular piece of music. And of course you have to think about the level of difficulty: whether it’s too easy or too hard, and how long it’s going to take us to learn it based on our concert cycle. Now, we have to be a little bit more careful [when] choosing our historical composers, because we’re learning that not all of those composers were good people. And so we have to be careful about who[m] we select. And we want to be more diversified with our music selection as best we can now. And start to do new music, start to do works by people of color, and not just standard, dead white men. The last component is, will the audience like it? It might be great for us, but there has to be an element of, ‘Will the people want to listen to it?’ 


Why did you decide to add the Philharmonic Orchestra to the music program a few years ago?

The ICCSD used to start strings in 4th grade, up until nine or ten years ago. The students who’d started in 5th grade were filtering up, and we were noticing a much larger gap in ability level than what we already had. So only having two orchestras meant the top kids weren’t going to get challenged as much, and some of the bottom kids might feel defeated, and we would lose them. And so my suggestion was, ‘Okay we need a third one to help bridge that gap so everybody feels successful and valued.’ So that’s why we did that. 


What do you hope to improve in the music program at City High?

I feel like we’ve gotten to a really good spot with where I wanted us to get, as far as culture and climate, and how we treat each other. I feel like my students trust me, even if I pass them out something that they might not love, I feel like they would still say, ‘I’m sure this is for a reason. So let’s do it.’ I don’t see very many negative attitudes, which I appreciate, and that has been the goal: I want this to be a positive experience. Not every day is going to be positive, but overall, I want everyone to feel, when they leave, that this has been a positive experience that they take something away from, and that this program will always be with them in a positive way. So I’m always trying to move in that direction. I feel like we’re in a good spot now, and I want to keep moving forward with that. One thing I want to do better this year is reaching out to the community and giving back a little bit, with string quartet performances, or bringing the orchestra to a retirement home during the holidays, and giving back to the community that supports us so very well here. 


What life skills do you think students learn from playing a musical instrument? 

How to collaborate; how to be a team; how to work with others who have different personality styles than you do, and how to work together for a common goal. That’s huge. You can’t hide behind a cell phone or earbuds in an orchestra. You are participating with an instrument. And you have a stand-partner (unless you’re a base), and sometimes you get stand-partners that you can’t stand–literally, no pun intended. And you have to figure out how to work through that. And that’s a huge life lesson, because you’re always going to have people you work with that you either, maybe, don’t get along with, or you don’t just understand or relate to them, and you have to make it a peaceful experience for all involved. I think that being in a music program 100 percent teaches you those skills. 


Is there anything else that you’d like to include in the Q&A?

The last thing that I would ever tell anybody when they leave is, ‘Never quit your instrument.’ I’ve never met a person in my adult life who has been glad they quit their instrument. So in some capacity, keep that instrument in your fingers, because you might be 45 years old one day, and say, ‘I really need to play my violin.’

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