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Santa Fe High choir director to be honored as top music teacher in state

January 7, 2019

Marilyn Barnes hummed as she lined up members of the Santa Fe High School Advanced Women’s Choir. In a distinctive voice that sounded something like bell chimes, she set her expectations: Sing from within.

With a flourish of her hands, she sang the first note.

“Hug the biggest tree you can get around,” she told the students, as their voices joined in the song. They held their arms out in graceful arcs.

“I’m a doer and a pusher,” Barnes said. “Doing is something people are lacking these days.”

Barnes’ efforts to hone her students’ talent at Santa Fe High as the school’s choir director have earned her the 2019 Music Educator of the Year honors from the New Mexico Music Educators Association. On Friday, she will accept the statewide award.

“This is kinda the top one,” Barnes said.

An Idaho native, Barnes has been the choir director at Santa Fe High for 12 years. Previously, she taught at Santa Fe Community College for about two decades. Her first dream was to become a professional singer, she said, but following a teaching job in Petersburg, Alaska, she started thinking differently.

She worked as a singer in New York and performed on a national tour as the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, she said, but she couldn’t shake what she felt was a calling to teach.

“I realized I didn’t have to sing in New York City,” Barnes said. “I just had to sing anywhere, and I’d be happy.”

She walked into the job at Santa Fe High and said she’s seen success because she’s stayed. As the state struggles to recruit and retain teachers, Barnes said she’s lucky she married a physicist and wasn’t burdened by the low pay for K-12 educators. Freed to an extent from that burden, she’s focused on keeping music alive, sharing her joy with students from middle school to high school and beyond.

“I have kids singing all over the world,” she said.

One of them sat in Barnes class on Thursday. Rachel Anderson, a freshman, hugged imaginary trees and sang warmups under Barnes’ guidance. Anderson said she joined a choir program in fifth grade and has found renewed inspiration in her high school teacher.

“She has really high expectations of us,” Anderson said. “It’s a good thing because then you do your best.”

Anderson is preparing to work with the high school and the ninth-grade New Mexico All-State choirs, which are audition-based and prestigious honors for students from throughout the state. While her music teachers have helped her through her journey, Anderson said Barnes is unlike any other in her enthusiasm and devotion.

“She gives us lots of opportunities,” Anderson said. “It makes her happy and it makes me happy, then everyone’s happy.”

Opportunities from going on trips to participating in All-State are part of the reason Brian Uerling said the award went to Barnes. As the past president for the New Mexico Music Educators’ Association and overseer of the award process, Uerling said Barnes’ dedication through the years and consistency in producing talented students at Santa Fe High merited the honor.

“More than that, you get the sense her kids absolutely adore her, and she’s the reason many go to school,” Uerling said. “[This award] is really truly celebrating what we’re all about — reaching kids through music.”

Santa Fe High School Principal Carl Marano said he’s thrilled Barnes is getting the recognition she deserves.

“I don’t think there’s anyone more deserving,” Marano said. “The work she does with our students is amazing.”

Marano said Barnes gives students extra hours and care, effort that often allows kids to find a bond with their teacher — and one another. That positivity, he added, matters.

“She produces so many talented students,” Marano said. “This is just one of many great things going on.”

Barnes touted her students with pride, like a mother listing her children’s accomplishments. She told stories of students who wanted to quit school, were homeless or never thought they could sing. As she spent time with each one, she said she learned to care and advocate for them as they worked to succeed.

Those moments of helping a student find resources or renewed vigor in the classroom are always worth it, she said.

As she returned to class, encouraging her students to sing from within and become doers, not just observers, she took a moment to consider the gifts those students give her. Every day, they’ve offered her a reason to hum.

“It’s not just a class,” Barnes said. “It’s a calling.”

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