Longtime Sioux City teacher reflects on 30 years in music education
Veteran music teacher Eleanor May-Patterson has a unique way of calling her class to order.
“I say, “Bow’s up!'” she explained, literally placing her musical bow, vertically, on top of her head. “That signifies that all eyes should be on me and class is getting ready to begin.”
This has been May-Patterson’s style as a Sioux City Community School District string instrument instructor for the past 30 years.
While we can take music seriously, we can have fun for ourselves.
Set to retire at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, May-Patterson will be conducting her final high school concert at 7 p.m. Tuesday at East High School, 3200 S. Cypress.
Among the guests will be string music students from East High, East Middle, and the three elementary schools where May-Patterson also teaches. In the audience will be former students who picked up their love of music from the teacher they call “Mrs. P.”
The concert will feature a newly-composed piece by May-Patterson’s musician son, Seth May-Patterson, named “Bow’s Up,” which will be emotional and heartfelt.
The concert will also premiere a piece by Daniel May, May-Patterson’s brother who is a Pittsburgh-based musician and composer, which is described as being “goofy.”
“Daniel called the piece, ‘Party Like It’s 1984′ — which was my first year as a music teacher in Sioux Falls,” May-Patterson said with a smile. “It starts off on a classical note. By the end, it turns into a samba, with egg shakers and everything.”
May-Patterson’s eyes light up when she talks about the string instrument students she teaches now, as well as the ones she’s taught in the past.
Her career started with the Sioux Falls district and, then, she spent a year teaching music in Las Vegas. She’s been a SCCSD instructor, a Morningside College adjunct professor and a private tutor ever since.
“Mostly, I’ve been a fourth-through-12th grade music teacher,” May-Patterson said. “But I’ve had students ranging in age from 3 to 82.”
Teaching came easy for May-Patterson. After all, an appreciation of music ran deep in her family.
With a composer and music professor as a dad and concert cellist for a mom, May-Patterson said she and her six other siblings were always surrounded by music.
“I spent most of my childhood in choirs and band,” she said, laughing. “I thought every kid grew up in households with multiple pianos and surrounded by instruments because it was normal for me.”
By the time she was 12, May-Patterson was already a member of Sioux Falls’ South Dakota Symphony. Beginning as a teenager, she became a member of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra.
“I was known as the little girl with the pigtails who played with adults in symphony orchestras,” she said. “That set me apart.”
Plus, May-Patterson’s instrument of choice — a viola — also set her apart.
Lower in sound than a violin and higher than a cello, a viola is one of the most unique string instruments.
Unlike a violin, which comes in a standard size, a viola can vary in size, allowing it to produce a richer, fuller sound.
May-Patterson loved the viola, since it was what her dad taught her to play. It was also the instrument she subsequently taught her son Seth and daughter Claire to play.
“Teaching music to children at a young age is so important,” May-Patterson explained. “It truly sets them up for a lifetime of learning.”
Specifically, memorizing a piece of music can give them an excellent work ethic. Being able to perform that piece of music in front of an audience gives kids a positive shot of self-confidence.
This is something that May-Patterson has seen time and time again.
“I’ve had students who could barely play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ as fourth graders and see them play Rachmaninoff as 12th graders,” she remarked.
Which is why May-Patterson always gives the same advice to graduating seniors.
“I tell them that they don’t need me anymore,” she said. “It is now time for them to go off on their own.”
At the end of this school year, May-Patterson will be taking her own advice. She and her husband, Dan, will be doting grandparents to their one-year-old grandson Forrest.
“Forrest is our daughter Claire’s child and our first grandchild,” May-Patterson explained. “We want to spend time being grandparents for a while.”
So, will Forrest be getting some viola lessons in the future?
“Well, if that’s what he wants, I think it can be arranged,” May-Patterson said.
But until then, May-Patterson will be fine “Partying Like It’s 1984.”
“Oh, in 1984, I was still wearing leggings, cowl neck sweaters and backcombing a big head of hair,” she said, chuckling at the memory. “I was very fashionable back then.”