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A Teacher’s Composure – Cody Smith, Cathy Stevens

By Val Schoger, Photography by Nick Trail

Cody Smith, 26, is a music teacher at Northside Elementary School. He started playing cello at age 10 and performs with the Panama City POPS and the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestras. With a passion for teaching, Cody Smith is the conductor of the Panama City Youth Orchestra, a volunteer based organization founded by Cathy Stevens. Cody has come full circle of being mentored, performing music, and becoming a teacher. 

What are your experiences and views as mentored student, musician, and teacher? 

Cody: I have seen the benefit of the mentoring program. My entire
orchestra section mentored me when I joined them at age 14. It was a mentoring family. Throughout the years, I have worked with several teachers and I see the benefit of working with and learning from more than one teacher. When you are teaching someone or when you’re learning from someone, you learn one area of you. But if you learn from multiple people, you learn multiple areas of you. And that creates your own viewpoint.

Music as a career. What do you have to say about that?

Cody: That’s a tough question. I’m not trying to defer it but Alan Watts said it beautifully. His students asked, “What am I going to do after grad school? What are we going to do with ourselves? What are we going to do in life?” He said, “Find something you love. If you can’t imagine not doing it, go do it for the rest of your life.” They said, “Well, what about the money?” He said, “It doesn’t matter.”

That’s kind of what I did. I said, ‘I’m going to be a musician because music is everything to me.’ I didn’t have anything else I wanted to do in this world except be a musician and teach music. I specifically chose to teach.

My first student had autism. When we started working together, it turned out that he had perfect pitch. No one had ever spent the time to teach him about music. I mean, perfect pitch! We unlocked that within him. We saw his social skills come out, and I thought, “This is what I’m meant to do.” I’ve never looked back. I said, ‘I’m going to be a music teacher,’ because I saw how it affected that one student. Even if I had failed academically, I was still going to do it. If I failed monetarily, I was still going to do it. There was never failure in my mind. I just did it.

It seems to me that mentoring music students is not for everyone. You have to be a particular type person. 

Cathy: I would agree. I think you should have a teacher’s heart. My mother was an educator and she said the biggest waste of time was an education class. I quote, “Either it’s in your heart and you don’t need to be taught to teach, or it’s not in your heart and even if they teach you how to teach you ought not to be doing it.” She just believed that “You’re either a natural born teacher or you’re not.”

So, what grabs a 4-year old’s attention and makes him or her want to play music? 

Cody: We often teach the history about the composers and the particular era they lived in and it always results in a ’Let’s just play it.’

Cathy: If you are working with 4-year olds, it has to be fun. If it’s not fun, it’s not going anywhere. When I was a young music student, my teacher was amazing. I studied with him from the time I was 4 years old, and I studied with him through college. He was like a second father to me. I love him as much as I love my dad. He was fabulous.

Now that I have met so many professional musicians who play “seriously,” it gives me a new perspective and appreciation for the details that go on behind the scenes. Every single person contributes individually to an orchestra.

Cody: It really is a neat thing, especially when you’re in it, and you need to see all the inner workings as something you saw as one piece, but the pieces that move within it as a machine are incredible.

I’m seeing all these different perspectives and you both seem to have had very good teachers who really left an impression on you.

Cathy: I still talk to my first teacher. He was the violin professor at the University of South Carolina. He was trained and experimented in the Suzuki method when it was introduced in America. He started teaching this method. I was a student in his initial Suzuki class.

Cody: My teachers know me as well as my parents do and I have an affinity for them. It’s an amazing relationship. My music teacher was different than any other teacher I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to a lot of schools. I grew up in a military family.

Cathy: My husband was in the military, so we moved all around the country and all three of my kids took music lessons. I remember when we interviewed teachers, it was never about who was the best musician or who was the best teacher. It was about who relates best. Who would my kids want to work for? Because that’s the bottom line. Just about anybody can teach the techniques, but a teacher with a genuine interest in developing a student’s skills makes a difference. And if the connection is strong, when the kids love their teacher enough, they will work and practice for them.

For more information visit panamacityyouthorchestra.com
and panamcitypops.org

Val Schoger

After nine years of working in media, PR and marketing with international engagements in Germany, England, the Caribbean, and the United States, Val first traveled to the Gulf Coast and subsequently to Navarre, Florida in 2003. She was immediately smitten with Northwest Florida and considers it her chosen home. She is excited about the opportunity to share perspectives, innovative ideas, and success stories as the publisher of a magazine that helps promote one of Florida's fastest growing areas.

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