Not all of the important musical talent in Richmond can be found onstage.
Cheerful, pretty and compact, Lauren Serpa seems to be on the scene every significant night. Whether it's in a select crowd at an under-the-radar Sunday night session at the Commercial Taphouse, or hanging with friend and Bon Iver sideman Reggie Pace in the celebrity-packed backstage of "Saturday Night Live," Serpa's usually there. If a documentary is ever made about Richmond's extraordinary local improvised music scene of the last half-decade, her candid, all-access photographs will be invaluable.
Serpa's dedication is all the more impressive given that her own musical career requires rising before dawn to face a fresh, young audience that's at once mercilessly attentive and easily distracted.
"I didn't think I was going to be a teacher when I was in school," Serpa says over coffee at the Black Hand. "I thought I was going to be a world-famous flute player."
Practicality and an affinity for children drew her into music education at Virginia Commonwealth University; luck and persistence landed her a position teaching children at Spring Run Elementary School in Chesterfield County.
It's a sensible choice, but not an easy one. Layered on top of the core musical studies curriculum (theory, history, conduction, keyboard, recitals and ensemble participation) is an additional level of requirements, including basic, primary and secondary school music-education studies, 30 hours of practicums and eight weeks of student teaching. Because teachers need to instruct children on the full spectrum of instruments, there are method courses on guitar, brass, voice and strings.
Those who can't do everything don't teach music. Despite the rigors, teaching majors comprise about a third of the 320 music students currently studying at VCU, according to David Greennagel, the director of music education. They receive professional degrees good for licensure in almost every state, and graduates are scattered across the country.
"I can't think of any who didn't find a job," Greennagel says — "especially if they are willing to relocate." He compares the low profile of the music-education program to an underground river, out of sight but flowing everywhere.
Music education is critical, you could argue. Whether it's jazz, classical, bluegrass or hip-hop, what you like — what you can like — often is a function of vocabulary. The music you don't understand is like a joke in a foreign language. And the journey to understanding the punch line starts early.
"I see it all in one day, every day," Serpa says of her work at Spring Run. "The little tiny kids are hilarious. They don't know a lot about anything, they don't have any filters and they are very creative. As they get older they get a little more self-conscious, but also smarter. In my head, I think of fifth-graders as grownups. They can really put together a musical idea."
Her hard-won, day-to-day insights are captured in a continuing series of concise, humorous Facebook postings. Last October she wrote, "It's taken me five years of teaching to realize that little kids are more likely to obey me if they think their instructions are coming to them from a stuffed animal/puppet."
Indeed, holding the attention of a gaggle of children can be its own improvisatory challenge. "I sometimes dance around the classroom, or use funny voices," Serpa says. "I think being close to their size, and young, is an advantage." The school year is a continuous sequence of classes and performances. If meeting all of the multitasking challenges results in long days and modest paychecks, there are other compensations, such as exchanges like this:
Kindergartener: Ms. Serpa, you are my FAAAvoritist music teacher!
Serpa: Aw thanks! Do you have any other music teachers?
Kindergartener: Uhhh ... nope!
Perhaps, as thousands of teachers shape the sensibilities of the sprouting generation, Serpa isn't unique. But she is singular. S