High Note

This Teacher of the Year understands the power of old-fashioned music education.

SOMEONE ONCE CALLED Phoebe Dong “the Pied Piper of Marin,” an apt moniker. Dong, 57, has taught music for 28 years, the last eight in Mill Valley, where she leads classical music classes (and a bluegrass band). In October, the Marin Symphony named Dong Teacher of the Year.

Why did you become a teacher?

I enjoyed music from a very young age, but I knew in high school that there were inequities in the school system. Certain schools had great music programs and other schools had nothing. I wanted to rectify that.

First job?

A marching band teacher at a middle school in the East Bay.

What keeps you excited?

It’s seeing the potential in every child, knowing that everybody has music in his or her blood. It’s an untapped source of creativity — an easy thing to forget when so many other things take precedence over music and the arts.

Playing music is tactile. You hold something in your hand.

Yes! This is the only thing that is not battery operated. You have to run the instrument yourself. It’s good old fashioned learning. It doesn’t give you instant gratification. Children need that.

Can any child learn music?

To some degree, yes. Some are very linear; some are, shall we say, more intuitive.

How do kids react when they first hear classical music?

It’s a revelation. Kids are much more hooked into cinematic music.

Cinematic?

Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. But much of it is drawn from classical music so it’s an advantage.

What do you do during the summers?

Last summer I went to Vermont and studied at a very intensive piano school. I had to audition to get in. I lived and breathed piano for three weeks.

Do you have a piano at home?

I do, a Steinway baby grand.

The violin seems hard to learn.

Nothing is difficult if you break it down. I tell kids to break it down and then bring all the pieces back together.

Why bluegrass?

Another music teacher here plays the banjo so we created this club. Last year we started with seven kids and this year we have 21. It’s more free-spirited and there’s a lot more improvisation. Bluegrass is the country form of jazz.

You’ve taught for 28 years. Have you seen the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus?

Oh, yes.

Any parallels?

Not really. Mr. Holland never had any money for his program and Marin’s so wealthy. And I’ve never been pink-slipped.

Phoebe Dong, orchestra teacher, Mill Valley School District

Categories: On the Job, People+Places