by Christy Rodriguez de Conte
Suzanne Rita Byrnes has devoted her life to music, cultivating creative and conducive choral environments for children to flourish. This week she will shepherd the FSU Capital Children’s Choir concert set for 6:30 p.m. Dec. 11.
As the hustle and bustle of the holiday season kicks into high gear, we may feel hope for the future and nostalgia for the past. Though heightened by the festivities, this can happen year-round. Some recall the smells and sounds that filled our childhood homes; for many of us, the women in the room helped make these memories.
For conductor Suzanne Rita Byrnes, her mother, Monique, was a true role model. With cultural roots in French Canadian music, Byrnes’s mother sang in the church choir and the Ottawa National Arts Center choir. She played the knives, spoons, and harmonica and was often heard serenading the family with a song after dinner.
“It was lovely and inviting,” says Byrnes. She credits her mother for introducing music into their Ottawa, Ontario home and cultivating a love of performance in Byrnes and her siblings.
Byrnes developed her musical style as she excelled in mastering many musical instruments. Her studies in music took her from the University of Ottawa for a Bachelor’s degree in Education, Music, and Math to McGill University in Montreal, where she earned a Master’s degree in Music in Choral Conducting and Music Education. Ultimately, her pursuit of a PhD in Music Education and Music Therapy brought her to Tallahassee.
Byrnes is grateful that her academic journey allowed her to experience a plethora of musical instruments. “In music education studies, you touch on all the instruments,” Byrnes said. “The flute was my main instrument. I also played bassoon in high school. I play some guitar and piano – just enough to be dangerous!”
This ability to understand and communicate the multifaceted functionalities of each instrument led Byrnes to sing in and conduct many choirs throughout her life. She began a serious study of choral performance and conducting at McGill University as she pursued her Master’s Degree. She carried this on through her doctoral studies at Florida State University, a decision that would shape her artistic career as a choral conductor.
In 1991, Byrnes arrived in Tallahassee and instantly fell in love with what she lovingly refers to as “the big little town.” Ready to study music and focus on becoming a choral conductor, Byrnes was a bit hesitant about her role as a teaching assistant under the direction of Dr. Judy Bowers for the FSU Capital Children’s Choir.
She promised her advisor she’d give it one semester, but much to Byrnes’s surprise, she was hooked. “I fell in love with the ensemble and continued with the ensemble until I graduated,” says Byrnes.
After finishing her doctorate, Byrnes moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where this prior experience supported her 12-year endeavor as the founder and choral director for the Kansas City Children’s Choir. In 2006, Byrnes and her husband returned to Tallahassee, where she reunited with her beloved FSU Capital Children’s Choir and assumed the directorship in 2007.
For Byrnes, a choir provides a safe place for children to develop socially and musically. Byrnes fosters an environment of community where students can learn and test new ideas while still gaining field experience. Byrnes’s work in music therapy practice and research has shaped her pedagogy. Her philosophy is process-based, emphasizing creating a fun, non-threatening environment.
“I believe music can enhance any learning,” says Byrnes. “From setting routines to actually gaining knowledge, music is a neutral ground where all can participate and learn.”
Conducting is no different from teaching for Byrnes. It is all about building relationships. She clarifies, “Conducting is the gesture; teaching is what happens.” She reminds us that music is what is essential and the way people can come together to create it.
For 16 years, Byrnes has diligently served Tallahassee’s youth by providing music and mentorship. Under her leadership and with the help of its sponsor, the FSU College of Music, the FSU Capital Children’s Choir has developed into one of the predominant community outreach programs for children in Tallahassee.
The program continues to provide musical ensemble training and has grown to become a place that fosters education through internships, field experiences, and volunteer opportunities for college students. “We focus on process over product,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes praises her colleagues, Dr. Ann Herrington and Dr. Mark Belfast, for cultivating student experiences and creating the elementary music lab experience. This project aims to teach 2nd- 5th graders appropriate singing techniques and music in an enjoyable, safe, and noncompetitive atmosphere.
Process defines this year’s FSU Capital Children’s Choir Informance concert at the Opperman Music Hall, where choristers will perform a culmination of their work to date. Shaped as a community-building activity, the musical showcase will feature the Garnet Choir (K-1st), Gold Choir (2nd-3rd), and Seminole Singers (4th-9th grades) singing a variety of music.
Byrnes brags of the event’s uniqueness, since this year the FSU Capital Children’s Choir joins forces with 80 second and third graders from the School of Arts and Sciences at the Center. This musical matchmaking will culminate in a joint grand finale of the traditional spiritual Over My Head.
Read the article on the Tallahassee Democrat.