If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking
Written By 12th Grader Alyssa Gerkin
Dana Bender has sung in choirs for as long as she can remember, but she didn’t discover her passion for teaching until she was an undergraduate at Wichita State University. As she watched Donald Neuen coach a choir in a clinic, she “caught the bug,” as she describes it. She throws in idioms like these throughout our conversation. Adjusting her glasses and nodding introspectively, she then tells me how she pursued her newfound passion by going on to receive a master’s degree in choral music from Arizona State University in 1995.
After graduating from ASU, she joined the Phoenix Chorale. She considers the director, Charles Bruffy, “incredible,” recalling how he was “able to take music and do crazy and weird things that nobody else does and make it really special.” The choir “became a second family” to her as her two children, Derek and Rachel, grew up at home. Derek recalls her chaotic schedule and constant commitments, especially during the holiday season, but his main take-away from that time is that “we just had a lot of babysitters.”
Not many choir teachers can say that they’ve won a Grammy. Bender, however, can count herself among the number of renowned musicians who have. While Bender sang with the Phoenix Chorale, they won three Grammys, including one for Best Small Chamber Ensemble and another for Best Classical Album. As 2014 rolled around, her many years of a grueling rehearsal schedule with the Chorale and vocal fatigue led her to decide it was a good time to stop singing in choir professionally. She pulled her focus into her family life and her job at ASA, closing this “movement” in the composition of her life. Though it had to come to an end, she feels that being part of the Chorale was an “amazing experience,” and it provided her with insight to an upper degree of choral music.
III. At ASA
Unbeknownst to her, the choir teaching job Bender took at Arizona School for the Arts when Rachel was in kindergarten would lead into the next “movement” in her life. She interviewed with the founder, Mark Francis, and the now Head of Schoo/CEO, Leah Fregulia, in Summer of 2003. After working part-time at ASA for two years and taking a break in between, she returned for full-time work in 2010. She was amazed by the freedom teachers had to create and change the curriculum as well as the mutual respect she observed between teachers and students. Now, in her eighth consecutive year teaching choir here, she says she “wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else.” In fact, she believes she would not still be teaching choir if she taught somewhere other than ASA, boasting of the unique camaraderie between teachers and the lifelong friends she has made.
As an ASA student of eight years who has had Ms. Bender as a teacher for multiple choir classes, I can’t picture an ASA without at least one of her children. However, she herself never expected them to attend when she first began working here. This is partially because it was such a small school in the beginning, shoved into a church annex with two other schools. And now, to my surprise, Bender tells me with a laugh that she is looking forward to being the only member of the family at ASA once again, following Derek’s graduation in May. Her anticipation makes sense, however; although it is a luxury to have intimate knowledge of the school situation of her children, it is difficult for her to simultaneously fill two pairs of shoes. Being the parent and the teacher at all times is exhausting. In her words, it is like worrying about “having a dog in the race” rather than focusing entirely on being a mother or entirely on being a teacher.
Though the choral arts is her passion, Bender has also taught Christian education at the Church of the Beatitudes and sex education at Shadow Rock, both of which belong to the United Church of Christ, the church in which she grew up. At Shadow Rock Church, located in North Phoenix, she taught the “Our Whole Lives” (OWL) sex ed course, which was later offered to kids at ASA. Her involvement in the church demonstrates her passion for community and commitment to changing the lives she touches for the better.
When asked what is most important to her in life, Bender tilts her head in serious contemplation before responding, “At the end of the day, I think people actually sitting down and talking to each other, like you and I are right now, is the thing that gets people finding common ground.” Referencing the divided political sphere of the U.S., she discusses how simply listening to one another changes the nature of conversations and relationships on even a national level. Derek describes her as “caring, resilient, and strong,” recalling her unwavering presence and support in his and his sisters’ lives. He admires her dedication to improving the lives of those around her, noticing specifically how she reaches out to kids in her classes who may be struggling more than others. “I’d say the best way I could describe my relationship to my mom is that she’s my best friend,” Derek says. It’s not hard to see why. An incredibly talented, funny, and selfless person, Bender has made a tangible difference in the lives of her students, colleagues, and friends. Through her relationships with others, I believe she will change the world, one stubborn choir student at a time.