If there's one thing we've learned from this Women in the Arts series, it's that our community is full of strong, brilliant women dedicated to their craft. Dr. Michelle Folta is no exception. A GRAMMY nominated music educator, conductor, tenured professor, mentor and mother, Folta wears many hats with grace, passion and a solid dose of grit.
Read on to discover how this incredible educator's work has brought new life to music education in the Chattahoochee Valley for students in every stage of learning. Our favorite part? The biggest things she hopes they'll carry on and teach to their students in the future.
Q: How did you find your way to music education?
A: My journey to music education was full of turmoil. Growing up, I didn't have great music educators. I'm serious. It's amazing I even wanted to do this.
When I got to college, I auditioned for Craig Hella Johnson but couldn't read music. It wasn't pretty. But thank God, I had an incredible mentor at the university who believed in me. I went to her and said, "If you let me in to this university, I will be the best teacher that ever comes out of it. I really want to teach." She stood up and grabbed a Methodist Hymnal - I still have it in my office - and she handed it to me and said, "You better learn how to read music."
I still check-in with her every now and then and ask her if I've fulfilled my promise yet. I certainly learned how to read music! (laughing)
Anyway, my path to music education was a very tumultuous time. I was never a Texas All-State student. And in Texas, you know, that's a huge deal. Because of this, I was told by people I went to school with, "You don't belong here. You don't deserve to be here. I can't believe that I'm getting the same degree as you." It was awful. Horrible. I had professors that were very tough. The first time I sang for my voice professor, she was like, "Well, that's just not very good."
I went through a lot of those things, but I also had some wonderful music ed professors who kind of saved my path toward education, because once I started teaching I was like, "Okay, this is IT."
When I graduated I became a teacher at Lamar Middle School in Austin. That was really special to me because it's the school I went to. It was very special to me. That school was my family. There was a threat of closing it down at one point, so I led an initiative to turn it into a fine arts academy, which it still is today.
Q: What made you passionate about saving that school?
A: I come from a small business family and my parents have always instilled in me the idea of servant leadership in the community. That also translates to the idea that when you go somewhere, you need to leave it better than you found it. For me, Lamar was my community, so I was like, "No, no. We're not doing this in this community." Today, they're thriving and they're huge. They have so many programs now. It's wonderful.
Q: Were you continuing to study while teaching there?
A: Yes. I did my master's while I was there, but I then I left to do my PhD.
Q: What was that experience like?
A:While I was in the PhD, there was a lot of push to be a researcher. I certainly learned how to do that. I had those skills, but it really was never my passion. I just love choir, and I just wanted to do it. There's something that's so special about making music as one entity. I don't think a lot of people get to experience that in life. It's really powerful.
You know, whenever I'm in yoga class, like they'll say, "Oh, this pose is uncomfortable. Just breathe through it. Breathe through it." And I feel like, you know, that translates well to music. When life is uncomfortable, we can just sing through it, sing through it, and we feel better afterwards.
I wanted to give that opportunity to people. I wanted to help create better music educators so kids didn't continue to have the experience that I did growing up.
Q: That's beautiful, Michelle. You're doing that every day now. Aren't you?
A: Well, I hope so. I certainly try to do that every day. It's so rewarding.
Coming to Columbus with Voices of the Valley and teaching music education at Schwob, was a little bit of a shaky start but this community rallies around people who are passionate about kids and the arts. That's something I think is very unique to Columbus. So early on, I spent a lot of time building relationships throughout the community, and it very quickly helped propel us while we built our product with Voices of the Valley.
Meanwhile, word got around that our educators were quality educators going into the schools from Columbus State. One of my very first graduates is taking her choir to GMEA this year. (I'm so proud of her!) I think now we have around 10 or 11 of my graduates over the last eight years that are teaching in Muskogee County schools.
Q: When you came here, did you see Voices of the Valley evolving into what it has?
A: Yes and no. It's certainly evolved as its needed to, but from the beginning, I very much wanted it to be the vessel for elevating music education in the community. Not just at the choir level, but in the schools. I wanted VOV to be a conduit for making school programs better, and also lead to producing educators that would be top level. Ultimately, I really want this area to be the hub for music education in our state.
I think we're starting to see a lot of the fruit from the product that's being put out. Our students are in leadership positions. We also are starting to graduate members of VOV into the CSU Music Ed program. It's really incredible.
Q: Wonderful! Let's change gears a bit now. What does being a woman in the arts mean to you?
A: Working in higher ed, um, I feel like my role as a woman in the arts is really, really important. Higher education is male dominated - that's backed by research. I'm not saying anything untrue when I point that out.
Because it's male dominated, there is just a different feel for women. Having children and being told, "Well, you know, you probably won't get tenure. It's really hard to get tenure if you have a young child."
And I've personally experienced how hard it is. It's hearing things like, "Oh well, why can't you be there for this meeting?" And having to say,"Well, I'm literally hooked up to a breast pump right now. So I could, but it probably wouldn't be very appropriate for me to be in the room right now." I mean, I've done press for concerts while hooked up to a machine. I've had Lena on the floor changing dirty diapers while I'm advising students.
People say, "Oh, I don't know how you do it. I just don't know how you do it." And the answer is "I do it because I have to. Cause that's what you do. That's what women do. We make it work. There's no magic formula. Women do what we have to do to survive."
So I feel like for me, a lot of the times I was told those things, it was just like adding fuel to an already burning fire in me. My mother always said I could run through hell with gasoline drawers on. (laughing) And she's right. You know, anytime someone would say something to me implying I couldn't or shouldn't be successful, it would just fuel me even more to be like, "Okay, watch me."
It's not only because of proving something to someone else though, the motivation is that I know I'm the example for the next generation.
I have to do these things so when the next generation of teachers become moms, when they get married, when they're trying to juggle X, Y or Z, they know that there's a different - a deeper grit -that exists for women that you have to really tap into. As women, we have to find our path and find our way and do whatever it takes to get there.
So back to the comment about, "Oh, it's hard to get tenure when you've got a kid" ... I made sure that Lena went with me to turn in my tenure binder! That was an important moment, because I want her to know that we can do hard things - even if we shouldn't have to - we do. And we do it for the people behind us.
Q: How have you advocated for other women in the arts?
A: Well, there have been a few initiatives that I've tried to be a part of. For example, I never had maternity leave at Columbus State. I went on sick leave. There's no maternity leave at the university. So I took my accumulated sick leave.
Q: Are you serious?
A: I'm serious. I took six weeks of accumulated sick leave, and spent it all to stay home with my daughter. My male counterparts never have to do that. When you ask people why that is, "Well you can do FMLA." And you can, that's true. But FMLA is not paid leave, and for my family's well-being I needed to be paid.
To me, it's very easy to dismiss these things and say, "Oh, well, you know, you can't be here for a meeting..."
But you see, an interesting thing happens after you've been told your whole life that you're not good enough, you shouldn't be here, you're not gonna be able to do this, blah, blah, blah.
Q: What's that?
A: You just keep moving forward anyway. As small as those steps are, you just keep pressing forward. And then, you start to look behind you and see how far you've come and you're like, "Oh, okay." And then when people start to say negative things to you, you go, "No, no. Get out of the way you're noisy." And you learn to rise above these things and not let them stand in your way.
So, I feel like I've started to do that. I don't apologize anymore when I've got to change my schedule because of my child. I don't apologize anymore when I need to take time for self care or I need to set boundaries for my time.
Q: How did you arrive at a place where you can do these things more easily?
A: Because I know and trust in the product that I create. I know the work that I am, and I also know my worth is not wrapped up in how early I am to a meeting.
I think we definitely get under a lot of that pressure. We feel like we have to overachieve just to be the status quo. I talk about this a lot with, um, with my students about this all or nothing culture that we have in music. It's exhausting.
Q: What do you mean?
A: I give them the example of being in a rehearsal or in a lesson and you start to mess up a line. Typically, you hear, "Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop. Let's go back and start right there."
But what I like to tell them is it's not about the mistake, it's about how you recover from things. I like to let my choirs keep going and let them find their way because there's value in that. There's value in saying, "Okay, this was really hard, but I found my way." So once we finish or get to a spot where stopping is more natural, we go, "Okay, let's go back and look at this part. That was a slight disaster. This part was a nightmare, but, it's okay because look: you got here, together and I'm proud of you."
It's not only a lesson for musicians. It's a life lesson, too. Things are not always going to be perfect, but how do we recover?
Q: That's beautiful, Michelle. How do you see them responding?
A: I really think that kind of method is what got them through COVID. They were absolutely brilliant. It was so hard, but it brought a culture shift for all of us. Now, it's so much about how we care through, each for each other, how we walk with each other, how we serve each other. I always say that VOV is the vessel for servant leadership. What we really do is servant leadership, we just use music as the tool for how we reach people.
Q: So what do you feel is most important as a woman and role model in all of these facets of life?
A: You know, I just think it's important for me to be a role model as best I can. As a woman in the arts, it's my job show up and say that things are still not right for us. Things are still hard, but we find ways to do it. We find ways to speak up and use our voice and we find ways to respectfully set boundaries.I want to model that for them so they can find ways to make a difference for others in a world where they are supported, valued and understood.
As a lifelong learner, I also think it's important for us to realize our limits. As leaders and role models, it's important for us to say, "I don't know everything, and that's okay."
There is strength and vulnerability in saying "I'm a facilitator of learning, but I'm always learning." I tell all of my students, "You've now grabbed my hand and now we're walking the path together, and then you'll pass me up and then link arms with another person so you can pay it forward. That's how this works." And I'm seeing all of my students do this beautifully. We're all walking the path together, and hopefully they know I'm always right here to help them as they find their way. ◼️
If You Go:
What: Voices of the Valley: Tapestries of Faith
When: December 9, 7 PM
Where: Rivercenter for the Performing Arts, Legacy Hall