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Every day there are exciting things going on in Rochester's cultural arts community. Classical 91.5 hosts collaborate with and create highlights of various arts organizations, musicians and artists in and around our community.

Teacher puts finger on pulse of music education

Cellist, pianist, singer, conductor, and teacher Teryle Watson, backstage in Kodak Hall, Rochester, NY.
Cellist, pianist, singer, conductor, and teacher Teryle Watson, backstage in Kodak Hall, Rochester, NY.

"I really love Rochester. I love the simplicity. I love the sense of neighborhood. I love the fact that it's common to speak to people on the street even if you don't know them."

So says retired music teacher Teryle (pronounced “TARE-il”) Watson, who possesses a birds’ eye view of music programs across the spectrum.  

Born in Brooklyn, New York, she came to Rochester in 1967 to attend the Eastman School of Music.  Her journey has taken her from the Julliard School in New York to the Royal College of Music in London and back to Rochester where, in 1975, she embarked on a thirty one year career as a music teacher with the Rochester City School District.    

Watson taught in many of Rochester’s city schools, including Schools 36, 33, 39, 58, West High School, Marshall, Benjamin Franklin High School, and East High.   By the time she walked into a new post at the School of the Arts, she says, her reputation had proceeded her.

“I heard a whisper – ‘Watch it she's an ex nun!’ (laughs)  It's the truth, so I got the nickname 'Attila the Nun,' and I thought, you know, whatever works!” 

“Whatever works” has been a mantra throughout Watson's career. It’s meant making lunch for a crowd,   driving students to festivals in her own car, and coping in daunting circumstances, for example, when she had to handle sixty squirrelly students in a general music class with no clear guidance.

“You can’t even see sixty students with your peripheral vision,” she says.  To cope, Watson made up a fictitious New York State Law and told her students, “We have to do a show!”  Her inventiveness and humor have inspired dozens of students to pursue music as a career. 

Now that she’s retired from public school service, she’s had time to think about the changes she’s seen in the Rochester School District over time.  

“The hopes and dreams of children have always been high," she says. "Other support systems are not always so high.  Even when I retired twelve years ago, some students were doing a pretty good job of raising themselves and taking care of well-meaning parents or parents suffering illnesses.  I had students who were working -- not so they could buy a fancy pair of sneakers -- but to pay the Rochester Gas & Electric Bill.”

Watson says her own children were lucky to attend a well-funded suburban school with a rich arts program. 

Teachers in Rochester’s city schools are amazing educators, she says, but it’s still not enough. 

“There's got to be parity.  As long as there is institutionalized racism -- and that's what it is, institutionalized racism --  as long it’s allowed to happen, nothing changes. Nothing changes. And everyone is the poorer for it because cultures are not being shared and celebrated and opportunities are not being shared. Until that happens, nothing moves. “

Watson now teaches private lessons at the Kanack School.  

You can hear an extended interview with Teryle Watson online here, as part of WXXI Classical 91.5's series Musicians of Rochester.

Brenda Tremblay has served as weekday morning host on WXXI Classical since 2009.