A life of learning. A life of music.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Nancy Thompson performs for students during Slater Schools' Faculty Talent Show. The talent show was presented on the last day of school before Christmas break 2011. (Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)

A calm voice through the speakers was still an authoritative one, as young students found their places and stood at attention, ready for the morning's new ritual.

Slater Public Schools' music director Nancy Thompson took center stage in the Alexander Building auditorium with more than 30 sets of eyes on her. Earlier this year she began leading Music and Movement for early elementary students, a two- or three-minute session before school that provides a time for children to combine motor skills and rhythms.

"It's based on the idea that music and movement coupled together can help wake up the brain to be more receptive to learning," Thompson said.

In the summer of 2011, Elementary School Principal Sarah Marriott passed her the education-based book "Brain Gym," and the process began from there.

"I was really tickled because it complemented something I saw (personally)," Thompson continued. "Physical movement can wake the brain up to what's going on around it. The body has to be in tune ... Academics and physical activity go hand in hand."

Filling the floor, the students wove through the first few rows of chairs like water through a dry creek bed. Thompson hit "play." Stringed instruments from a classical music CD started humming. The students looked to Thompson who began moving her arms in long, sweeping motions. Several teachers also participated as they, too, benefit from morning movement.

Nancy Thompson, of Slater Public Schools, leads Music and Movement in the morning before school begins. The sessions are geared toward younger students, typically younger than the second grade, and merges motor skills with music to stimulate brain activity. (Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)

In Thompson's ninth year of teaching general and choral music, she realizes everybody has challenging days. Her personal approach is to pull that love of expression out of her vocalists.

"I work with students before and after school," she continued.

Thompson attended Oklahoma Baptist University, where she decided to go into teaching. She completed her bachelor's degree in education with an emphasis in music at the University of Missouri, and from 2003-2006 completed her master's degree at Vandercook College of Music in Chicago. Returning to Saline County, where she was raised, brought her full circle.

"My mother was a choir director at First Baptist Church," she said. "I remember sitting in rehearsal ... in the first pew, not realizing that it was shaping me. My mother was one of the influences in my life."

(Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)

Thompson started on the piano at age two and reached for the violin before her fifth-grade year. In 2011, the teacher is still learning, now practicing the cello.

"I studied under Mr. Lickey," she said -- as in Bueker Middle School's Harold Lickey Auditorium. "My piano teachers were Mrs. Fitchorn and Sister Mary Elizabeth at the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy. Later (I studied) with Mrs. Schilb."

But Richard Kemm, a former choral director at Marshall High School, would later influence Thompson as an academic professional in terms of programming and choosing music. Now, it's contest season and Thompson and her high school students are preparing solos.

Approximately four years ago, Thompson and her students tasted success. It was the first year she won a contest with her Slater group of 14 students.

"I was so proud of them," she added. "There couldn't be any slackers ... Last year we also got a '1' at district contest. The talent was there."

Thompson particularly feels attached to her current group of students, a small group who, she said, are hungry to get it right.

"Whenever they aspire to want more, and come and learn more" it's a feel-good moment, she said.

Two years ago she had a student selected to Southwest American Choral Directors Association Choir, which covers approximately seven regions in the U.S. Thompson recognizes the amount of work it takes for vocalists to reach those heights. She's participated in Marshall Community Chorus since its inception in the 1980s.

"Some days you just don't feel like singing," she said. "It's a self-conscious thing. When you sing, you lay yourself out there. It's a self-risk thing to do that."

The group comes together because they love making music, according to Thompson, who thrives on singing sacred and choral music. She commended male vocalists in particular who participate in choral groups.

"This year I have a lower enrollment of boys" at Slater Schools, she said. "It's disappointing because I know the talent is out there. It's a God-given gift ... The ones who sing need to keep singing and be role models, just for the sheer enjoyment of doing it."

Awakening that talent in students inspires Thompson to keep her lessons fresh. She incorporates games in her lessons and creates a "safe singing" environment for students who aren't yet comfortable with singing out.

"We're making a real effort toward student achievement," she continued.

"Student achievement" has become a pseudo school motto this past year, but it seems Thompson has been driving at it for nine. As the young students swept their heads from side to side, laughed, and then fell into line as the first bell rang, it was apparent the Music and Movement sessions reflect that desire. It's a way for faculty to fully engage students and awaken a lifestyle of learning. They say a body in motion stays in motion. Thompson's experience fully supports that theory.

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