Meet Ms. Martinez, Payton’s new choir director

By Kate Lavin, Staff Writer

A focus on inclusion and exploration of diverse musical backgrounds is the goal of new choir director, Nythia Martinez.

The Paw Print: Why did you choose to come to Payton?

Ms. Martinez: “This is my 17th year of teaching, and I think a lot of teachers will agree that after being in one place for a long time, you seek a refresher. Being put into a new context in general helps you re-evaluate your techniques and give you a new challenge.. But coming from Northside, it’s not a completely different experience in terms of the curriculum and even the class structure, so it was a pretty lateral move in that sense. But whenever you’re put into a new context with new people and new students, I think it allows you to re-evaluate how you want to teach, and I’m excited about being re-energized.”

The Paw Print: What impact do you hope to have here?

Ms. Martinez: “When I look back at my years of teaching in hindsight, the thing I’m most proud of is the culture that was created within the choral department of support, encouragement, and positivity with a really wonderful group of students who were always seeking new new goals for themselves and willing to try scary things and be vulnerable. And the reason that was [that way] is because I tried my best to make the environment really safe and comfortable and pleasant. I wouldn’t say that I’m too clear yet about what the culture I’m walking into is, and that very well may be exactly the culture that I’m walking into. But if there’s any long term impact that I hope remains is that [choir] is an environment of support, where people feel safe to try things. Singing is a really vulnerable experience. It’s abstract. You get easily judged by a listener. And I’ve been successful in making it an environment that is judgement free and is about growth, and enjoying each other’s gifts. So if there’s any long term impact, it would be that that remains, and that people can feel like they can really bloom exponentially in four years because of that environment.”

The Paw Print: What was it like to transition to a new school online?

Ms. Martinez: “Well, it wasn’t just me, it was our principal and our administration. The thing I was hopeful for was that I would find a way to bond with my department mates, because having been in one place for so long, the band director and art teachers, they were all my second family. In August for professional development, we were strangers and I was hoping that I would bond with people. That was at the forefront of my mind. I ended up having an informal Google Meet day with the department where we all chatted and hung out. And then, being department chair, I have some extra meetings every week with the other chairs of other departments, and so that’s been really helpful for me in terms of integrating myself into the community because I got to meet a bunch of other teachers that I wouldn’t have normally met. The visual arts department is full of beautiful people who were very, very loving to me as I started the job and were interested in being good work partners. I already feel, in this short amount of time, that they’re people that I have a great amount of affection and love for. Because that worked out, I’ve had faith that I could transfer that to the classroom. And even though I’ve never met anybody [virtually] before, hopefully we all brought into the spirit of this situation that we’re gonna be kind and gentle with each other. And hopefully good things come from that. If I had still been at Northside, half of my roster would have been people that I already had known. There still would have been some students who were brand new, but there would have been a little buffer. Luckily, I attended a couple of Google Meets last spring, before I started with some of the classes, so I wasn’t a completely foreign figure. We spent like maybe an hour with you. So they kind of knew what I looked like. But in terms of funding, I had to put faith in that fact that we’re all really forgiving of each other. And then emphasize a lot of community building in the beginning of the year and hopefully throughout too. It’s been as good, and maybe even better, than I thought it was gonna be.” 

The Paw Print: What would you do to address inequity issues at Payton and create a more inclusive environment?

Ms. Martinez: “It’s important to realize that this conversation is not to be had in a bubble. It’s not only applicable now because people only now need to speak about it, it’s something that has resurfaced enough to have everybody’s attention and then hopefully it keeps everybody’s attention forever. One thing I want to reinforce in my class choices is the repertoire we sing, the examples of performers that exist in the world of all different kinds of music, and that there’s exposure and normalization of diversity among performers and repertoire. The music classroom can sometimes be a place where a standard of excellence is oftentimes a narrow standard of music. And my background as a musician is really diverse. I didn’t start by studying classical music. I was in late elementary school and my intersection with music as a performance medium was salsa, [Rhythm and Blues], and pop. And that’s how I fell in love with it, because it was natural to my life experience and my surroundings. And if I prioritize using people’s own experiences as entry points for conversations about repertoire and for conversations about how music intersects with our culture, then it’s not just addressing more marginalized groups, but it’s teaching everybody that there really isn’t a marginalized segment of a musician’s identity. So much that we studied is actually really commonplace in people’s experiences. And so my intention is to try and expose students to the variety of musicians that exist, doing all kinds of music, as they overlap with one another. At the time, giving as many opportunities to as many students as possible, allowing them to engage with the material from what they know.”

FUN QUESTIONS

The Paw Print: If you could teach any subject other than choir, what would you teach?

Ms. Martinez: “For something that exists at Payton, I think science.”

The Paw Print: Any particular science?

Ms. Martinez: “Well, when I was a senior in high school, I thought I was going to be a biology major because I always said I wanted to be a doctor. I don’t think [I would teach] chemistry. But I think the reason [for choosing science] is because there’s so much overlap between science and music. There’s a general philosophy behind both in the connections between form and function. So the human body is made a certain way to function a certain way and scales are constructed a certain way to function a certain way. So, I believe that there’s art in science and I believe there’s science in art. And you can find ways to engage with that content from both viewpoints and it makes you a better scientist and it makes you a better musician. If [my choice] wasn’t something at Payton, I have this life dream of becoming a hairdresser and learning how to cut. I have this for the same reason. One, I want to learn how to cut hair because, again, it’s a perfect combination of skill and craft. How do you make straight lines on a round thing? And so you’re using science for some artistic [purposes]. I also really like architecture. Same kind of thing, I like the measuring and planning aspect of making something beautiful. Five years ago, I had a very direct responsibility in designing my house. I had to visualize many things and then communicate those things to a real architect. So in the whole process of doing that, I really fell in love with design.”

NOTE: After the interview was conducted, Ms. Martinez performed the National Anthem at a Chicago Bulls game over winter break. You can view her performance here.

The Paw Print: Any favorite fall traditions?

Ms. Martinez: “My family is from Puerto Rico, but my husband’s family is from Mexico, and we’ve started doing Dia de los Muertos. [There’s an] ofrenda table set up in our home. I had already engaged with that cultural activity, knowing my husband’s family. But when the movie Coco came out, four years ago, it sparked a lot of questions about life and death with my oldest son, who’s eight now. And so in order to give him language to use about that subject, we’ve kept it going in our house. So for the last two years, my husband, and my older son have set up an ofrenda table, and we print out pictures of people who have passed away and decorate sugar skulls. I also love pumpkin … And I wouldn’t call myself a ‘coffee drinker,’ but I need the venti pumpkin cream cold brew extra foam. And it brings me great joy. For Thanksgiving time, I’m always the one that makes the corn pudding. I make it every year. It’s a hit.”

The Paw Print: Fun facts?

Ms. Martinez: “I met my husband when I was 12. I started singing in choirs when I was 8 years old. I went to Whitney Young High School and Indiana University for both undergraduate and graduate school. I studied vocal performance and music education for my bachelor’s degree and then for my masters. I’ve sung in lots of bands in Chicago, Latin jazz and some salsa bands mostly. But then I did a lot of other freelance singing work when I was a lot younger. I did classical vocal training in college and  I even had a salsa band of my own that I would help write arrangements for. I play a little bit of percussion. And you know about my special bond with Ricky Martin. I guess you could say Oprah is my friend. And I have two sons and one of them is an Acapop! Kid.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Ms. Martinez: “I wanted to also say, the question that you had about the impact on the school, I would connect that with the question about equity and inclusion on multiple levels, because I intersected with music in all different kinds of ways before I actually went to study in college. So I would want to provide opportunities for students to engage with music outside of the choral classroom. So potentially more singing related offerings all the time. I just want more students to feel like they can try singing. It’s really common, especially in high school, for people to have already decided ‘I am not a singer. I already know.’ And of course, we all come to the singing experience with different levels of training or raw talent. But if I can do something miraculous, it would be to remove the self-deprecating process that a kid goes through when they tell themselves that they can’t make music. Because even if you’re not going to be a professional singer, you can still recognize that your humanity is dependent on so much more than just a very narrow experience with school. If we separate our identity from scholastic achievement and instead broaden how we define ourselves as people. Experiences with music really help to do that. On a large scale, I would say that I would really love it if by the time I retired, which is still another 20 years, that there would be a school teenager cultural shift where we all just thought, ‘trying out singing is cool and fine, and not scary, and worth a try.'”

Image courtesy of Nythia Martinez

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