Q&A: Meeting DelVal’s New Music Director Dr. Lauren Ryals

By Josh Smith / Full360 Digital Producer

This past week I got to sit down with the energetic Dr. Ryals to talk to her about her unique teaching methods and plans for the evolution of offered music courses, along with the upcoming Winter Mosaic Concert.

So you’re the new music director here at DelVal. So what are you looking forward to the most?

I am very much excited about teaching here, and what I’ve already started to do is really understand what the students find exciting about music making and what interests them about music making. 

I am working with the Jazz Band, Symphonic Band, and Chorus. I’m also teaching the Intro to the Arts course this semester. And then next fall, I’m offering a new music course called Intro to Ethnomusicology. So that’s kind of my course load this semester. I think it’s important to continue the large ensemble experience with like the band and the jazz band, but also I find a lot of value and I’ve spent a lot of research working with songwriting and other types of music-making. 

Playing guitar, doing string bands, and stuff like that. So over the next little bit of time this semester and beyond, I want to continue learning more about the students and finding ways and entry points for everybody to feel like they’re welcome and that there’s a space for them to make music if they want to. Even if they didn’t learn the clarinet in fourth grade, you know, because that can be a deterrent sometimes.

Something to give people who want to try practicing, making their own music, and performing it  an opportunity and a platform to do so.

Yeah, a space where even if you’re not trained in group productions or if that’s not really your vibe. Then you know, there are other ways that you can participate in music. So that’s what I’m excited about.

 So how long have you been teaching prior to coming to DelVal?

Oh, goodness. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in music in 2005, and so then I started teaching shortly after that. So I’m an old lady! I’ve been teaching for a long time, yeah. I taught secondary music, and then I went to graduate school and I got my master’s degree. Then I continued to teach secondary music and then I got my Ph.D., and then I started teaching at the collegiate level, and now I’m here.

And what drew you to teaching music in the first place?

I think I was one of those students in the school who enjoyed sports, but I wasn’t really good at them. I enjoyed being around horses and I ride horses and that kind of thing too. But I really found a path in life through music. So, you know, I was that quintessential, like, music nerd at an early age. So it was just kind of my world, and I just stuck with it.

My friends are a lot of musicians too, and once I got into college, I realized that it didn’t have to be just that classic band thing or just the classic whatever choir that you can, that you can make music your own and it can mean a lot of different things. College is where I really found that kind of creative space. 

So you want to expand the programs; you like the other side of musicianship where it’s one person and their personal creation of something.

Yeah. It’s all about finding a balance. I like having those large ensembles for the people who enjoy that, but also having opportunities for students to do other stuff. Maybe in the near future, we’ll do some type of pep band for sporting events to kind of bolster up some school spirit.

Why did you decide to continue working all the way to a doctorate in music education; putting in that amount of time and effort? 

Because I know some people would say, “Oh, I’ve graduated, I have a master’s, and I’m teaching; I can do what I want now.” 

So why did you continue up that path?

So I am really passionate about trauma-informed education, and I was doing a lot of work in my classroom to make sure that students had an opportunity, just like I’ve been talking about providing care at DelVal. I started a guitar ensemble and a percussion class just to let students learn the songs that they wanted to learn and showcase them in class or at a concert, etc. 

When I started to look into why that was becoming so successful for the schools that I was working at, it turned out that a lot of it was trauma-informed. So I became a trauma-informed specialist in education. And then I thought, “Okay, well, the music room sees students from all various age groups at the elementary level.” They see that a music teacher sees the entire population of a school within a week or so, depending on the rotation.

So you were kind of looking for the ability to further utilize your skills that you had kind of already noticed you had. You saw that you were able to bring together these people from different walks of life and different perspectives.

Yeah, and sort of formalize it and publish it so that other teachers and researchers can read what I’m doing and the conversations I’m having so that we all can kind of learn from each other more. Being able to share in conversation with people from all different backgrounds to talk about the creative arts and what that means.

So you kind of already answered this, but can you share an example or anecdote story that brings you back to a time when you realized you were going to pursue music in general? Yeah, I know you talked about how you wanted to pursue trauma-informed education.

Well, when I was in high school, Columbine happened. That was a huge event that meant a lot to me. Without music, I don’t think that I would have been able to assimilate back into the like, regular world without that. Music was like my community, and it’s where I found myself and my friends. Alongside that was, you know, being from that area and having it really be a big thing that happened in my life in high school. That’s really where- you know, that’s really from an early experience where I really relied on music and that self-expression. But then, at the same time, kind of being in a large ensemble group was nice because then no one was really singled out for being different for any reason. You just like sitting there with your instrument and playing and whatever. So it kind of felt like working back and forth for me as a high schooler at the time.

Me: Yeah, because you got to become like part of the team. You have a bunch of people that have the same goal. You play the song?

Dr Ryals: Yeah.

Me: So would you mind expanding on your first research study about your meditative breathing?

Dr Ryals: Yeah. Rehearsals. My master’s degree thesis was on meditative breathing, and this was a precursor to the trauma-informed stuff because I was using breathing as a way to calm the groups down before we were to rehearse because everybody’s like, during the passing period. It’s like, “Wild, wild, wild. And then they come into the music room, and it’s like all these kids of various ages, and everything’s kind of crazy. And then, and then, you’re just supposed to start, like, doing this thing together. So. So I started incorporating, breathing, and doing some movement things like yoga—early yoga things. I wouldn’t call it yoga in the classroom, but like, you know, just some stretching and that kind of stuff to get the group into a group think kind of mindset. And over time, this was an experimental study for my master’s degree. And so I tracked how many times I had to repeat myself from the time I started doing the breathing till the end of the semester. And I pretty much saved like I think it was nine or 12 minutes of time, a class time, with me just not having to repeat myself because everyone was just like more dialed in.

Me: Wow. So, compared from the beginning to the end of the semester, there is around a 12-minute difference.

Dr Ryals: And, I would repeat myself like six, seven times. Like, okay, let’s go back to Measure ten or whatever it is, you know? I’d have to say that literally six or seven times. And it was so frustrating. And I’m sure people who were paying attention were over it. By the time the end of the semester rolled around, I had done this whole experiment and calculated my time because I videotaped myself, it was like I didn’t have to repeat myself as much. The rehearsals were more productive and I was talking less.

Me: That’s really cool that’s like, certifiable. Like it works. That’s really cool.

Dr Ryals: Yeah, But that was that was also, you know, that was a precursor to my trauma informed interest because that breathing idea is one of the techniques for dealing with someone who might be having like a, a memory come back in the classroom, especially in music, if, if you’re doing something creative and it triggers something in your memory or if it’s like a a trauma triggering kind of concept or topic that you’re doing in the creative arts, then breathing and, and centering yourself and kind of working through that for a second is a technique. But that when I was getting my master’s degree, that was like six years before I got my started my PhD. So it was just like my early was early.

Me: Like the the early idea.

Dr Ryals: Yeah.

Me: And it kind of formed into you. So I think I know the answer to this one. But would you encourage students who are interested in making music to take the courses you offer?

Dr. Ryals: Yeah, I, I think that if you want to know more about playing an instrument or if you want to learn more about being a singer or a vocalist, joining one of the bands is great, but also taking one of my intro to Arts classes or this upcoming Musicology class in the fall, which I think also counts as an arts credit. So or something. I don’t know what that looks like or what that means, but it’s something that is an alternative to Intro to Arts. If you need that credit, whatever. So, you know, intro, intro to Ethnomusicology is kind of like a world lens on music and kind of looking at it from a, a like a macro lens down to a micro lens and intro to music for my sections is more about the journey of where did like early music through now. But we end like with with the last class being a showcase of the students work for songwriting because you know, we talk about that early history and then, you know, kind of make our way finally to present day in a relatively short amount of time. But really at the end of the day, for me, it’s it’s really all about the students finding their their own voice in songwriting or in in the in that creative act in some way.

Me: And so this is kind of like just like a shameless plug. But how will you describe the winter Mosaic concert to those who might be interested? Just, you know, kind of promote it?

Dr Ryals: Yeah. This this concert is a showcase of all three large ensembles. So the choir, the jazz band and the symphonic band are all performing. And since I literally just started on in January, it’s just a fast kind of gathering of all of the groups to showcase a few songs of. You know, just it’s just kind of a fun little, little showcase concert. The music is all. It’s all pretty much based based around like Valentine’s Winter concepts and like moving into spring and that kind of thing. So it’s themed in that way.

Me: So well, That’s all I have. If there’s anything else you want to add. Anything you just thought of that I haven’t really given you the opportunity to say.

Dr Ryals: I’m just really. I’m really excited and happy to be working with the students at DelVal. And I hope that, you know, if there’s ever any students that cc avoid, if there’s something that we’re not offering in music and they think, Oh, wow, this would be really awesome, or I’m really interested in this, I hope that people will reach out. Students will reach out and talk with me because we’re at a great pivotal time where I can we can start paving new ways and directions if students want to share their their passions and interests. So I really encourage students to reach out if they have questions or interests that they wish we offered, but we still need to, do that kind of thing. So I’m definitely happy to have a conversation.

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