School is all about learning and opportunities, and that’s what Courtney Preyser strives to prioritize for her students.
Two of Preyser’s passions include music and literacy, which is fitting, given that she’s the music teacher and librarian at several of the schools in Coast Mountains School District 82 in Kitimat.
Preyser teaches music to Grade Six students at Kildala and Nechako Elementary Schools, she’s the librarian at Kildala Elementary, and she teaches band to middle and high school students at Mount Elizabeth Middle/Secondary School (MEMSS).
“I love reading. I love reading on my own time, on my own personal time. But I also have really enjoyed having the opportunity to read to kids and to present new learning for reading for kids,” Preyser said. “Like, we can read about Egypt and we don’t even have to go to Egypt to learn something amazing about that area of the world.”
Preyser said she really likes literacy in general, as well as a good story, especially stories that teach lessons and morals and new experiences.
She is also working to incorporate Haisla and French words and phrases up around the library to try to “make the space a place of languages, that we can represent all of the languages that we speak in our building.”
Along with literacy, music is something very close to Preyser’s heart, as she grew up in a musical environment.
“My grandmother used to sing to us all the time. She was an amazing woman,” Preyser said. “So I think I was interested in music from a very young age, just because of the way that my grandmother had raised me.”
When Preyser was in Grade Seven, she had the choice between music and art classes in school. She immediately picked music because she really wanted to play the trumpet.
“At that time, music in Terrace was really big,” she said. “Every single school had a band program and there’s lots of community groups and also lots of teachers, like private teachers, so I did take some private teaching lessons.”
Preyser kept up the trumpet over the years and ended up going to the University of Victoria for a degree in music. There, she studied the trumpet under her professor, Louis Ranger, who was previously the lead trumpet player for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. And Preyser said the experience was incredible.
“The year that I got in, I think there was only, like, four trumpet players that got in, so I was really lucky.”
The degree included a lot of practical learning, with practices, personal lessons, orchestra, and concert band, among other things. That was also where Preyser learned to play every single concert band instrument.
“I can play all of the concert band instruments, so like, flutes, trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, baritones, and tubas, but all of those I can play at a very low level,” she said. “I know a lot about the instruments in order to teach and I can play them, but often my students will surpass my skills on any of those instruments, besides the trumpet, because the trumpet was sort of what I’d gone to school for.”
Preyser travelled for a few years after graduating and then decided to go to teachers’ college, because she had always enjoyed teaching others about music.
“All throughout, even [high school], all throughout those years, I was always involved in things like teaching kids how to start playing the instrument, or things like that, you know?”
“So I’d always been, sort of, doing stuff like that because I’d been exposed to doing, just having experiences with kids, and I always really liked that,” she continued. “And I always really also felt that the teachers that I had were all so amazing and I wanted to be sort of like them. So I wanted to be just this amazing person that could help students find their greatness in music, so that’s why I went into teaching.”
Preyser has been teaching in Kitimat for about 10 years now, and still loves her job with a passion.
“I like the opportunities that music brings to our lives…I like that music is so abstract, but so concrete,” she said. “I think it’s just such an incredible opportunity for the kids to be together, for them to create something where they’re all having to do moving parts and everybody’s different and you can create harmony in the room. It’s just something that I think is great.”
Preyser said each year there are favourite instruments among the students, and so far this year the top choices are trumpet and flute. However, she added that tuba is continually the least popular choice, because it’s such a big instrument and no one wants to carry it around. She’s still holding out hope someone will choose it one day, though.
One of the things Preyser enjoys most about teaching music is the effect it has on kids and their brains and bodies as they’re developing.
“Music is really incredible for your brain development, for your fine motor skills, because you have to, your body has to do a bunch of different things at the same time,” she said. “We’re very lucky here that we’ve been able to create these opportunities for the kids. With that said, I also know that music is not for every kid, but I like to put out little, it’s like putting out little breadcrumbs and if they pick them up along the way, then, you know, it’s just one more thing, one more tool, one more skill that these kids can have and I really like that.”
With the middle and high school band students, Preyser said she tries to do a festival trip every second year, to give the students a chance to engage with other bands from around the country.
“I think it’s really important for our kids in the North to travel and see other kids who are participating in the same thing that we have here. Because it’s really easy to just think, well we’re Kitimat, we’re sort of end of the line, and that’s, like, you know, we’re not a part of anything. But it’s really cool for the kids to go down and see other kids that are totally involved in exactly the same thing that we’re doing: making music and loving it.”
Preyser said she likes to use the trips as a chance to get the kids engaged with higher-level bands, so they can talk about the music that was played and how the band did.
“Often when we go, we’ll spend time listening to other bands play and we, you know, I normally do a little feedback and a check-in with the kids, like, ‘What did you think of that song?’ and ‘How do you think they did?’ and ‘Oh my goodness, did you see how many tubas they had? Wouldn’t it be great if we had one tuba [player]?’”
In the past, Preyser has taken groups of students to festivals in Whistler, Vancouver, and Toronto. This past year was supposed to be a festival trip to Calgary, but unfortunately it had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.
“It was so heartbreaking for [the Grade 12’s], especially with the fundraising, because some of them had been fundraising — because we normally do that two-year cycle — and so some of them had been fundraising since they were in, like, the end of Grade 10. So they’d been fundraising for Grade 11, and Grade 12, and then we didn’t get to go on the trip.”
Several things have changed for the 2020-2021 school year, as well, Preyser said, but thankfully not as much as she first thought.
For her Grade Six classes, the students come in their cohorts and have their own instruments for the year. She just makes sure she’s wearing a mask and face shield when teaching, as she interacts with many different cohorts.
For the students at MEMSS, they stay in their seats during band class and seats have been moved so they are physically distant from one another.
“Performances for this year are not going to happen, unless we can find a way to record ourselves,” Preyser said. “But we can still make music meaningfully in the room together, which I was actually really worried we weren’t going to be able to do.”
Preyser said that, funny enough, the music actually sounds just as good, if not better than usual with the students sitting at a physical distance apart.
“It’s very interesting, it actually sounds better. I don’t know what happened!” Preyser said. “It’s something to think about going forward, for sure, because we normally play very close together.”
Preyser added that all the instruments are professionally cleaned at the end of every year, even outside of COVID-19 times, so they’ll be ready for the new batch of students next year.
For Preyser, personally, she said she was supposed to do a trumpet duet with a friend in the Pacific Northwest Music Festival, but unfortunately that was cancelled. She is, however, still playing weekly in the Terrace Community Band, something which she thoroughly enjoys.
“I think it’s good for me, as a teacher, to keep on playing my instrument because it helps me to remember what it’s like to be a learner,” she said. “Music is lifelong learning.”