Music as a sanctuary

Choral conducting student bonds youth choirs with healing power of music.

While College of Music students and faculty work together remotely to complete their studies, we feel it is important during these trying times to be reminded of the power of music, outreach, and innovation. It is in this spirit that we continue to share our stories.

Coty Raven Morris taught choir as a certified K-12 teacher in Texas for six years before deciding to pursue her master’s at MSU. Now, she has taken her choral conducting studies out into Greater Lansing communities.
Before COVID-19 forced universities online and shuttered K-12 schools, Morris had been directing area choirs for about 18 months as part of her graduate assistantship and work with the MSU Community Music School.
Coty's love of her work has generated enthusiam among students. In her first year at Waverly, the choir had 80 students. Participation grew to 200 students in her second year.
Abuse and hardships were part of Coty's youth, but in high school she found sanctuary through music which led her to embrace a career of teaching music.
Among the many places Coty Morris lived during her early life was with her grandmother in New Orleans. The upheaval was part of what led her to focus on school and music whenever possible. Here she is with her Great-Aunt Lillian.
“Coty is a wonderful musician who literally lights up the room when she steps in front of a choir,” said her lead professor at MSU, Dr. David Rayl.

By the time Coty Raven Morris was 12, she had attended six schools, lived with multiple families in two different states, and experienced the death of her mother and grandmother. Abuse and neglect were woven into the fabric of her life, adding to the complexities of her childhood.

At 32, Morris still struggles to make sense of an early life where home was a slew of apartments and guardians who were absent or sick. She remembers places where she fended for herself and covered for the behaviors of caregivers. Chaos was her framework. It wasn’t until high school that she found sanctuary through music, and realized not every child lived like her.

Guided by the security she found through school and song, Morris embraced a career of teaching music. As a second year master’s student in choral conducting at the MSU College of Music, she is committed to leading K-12 choirs and igniting dreams in every student regardless of circumstance.

“When I was at school, I felt normal,” Morris said. “That’s not a unique story. That’s the story of a lot of kids I teach. I believe school is a place where kids can get away from the chaos of home. They get a break from what they don’t understand and get to be someplace where someone explains things in clear and kind ways.”

Being there

Before COVID-19 forced universities online and shuttered K-12 schools for the academic year, Morris led outreach choirs at two elementary schools in the Waverly School District. She also served as choir director at Grand Ledge United Methodist Church. Morris had been directing area choirs for about 18 months as part of her graduate assistantship and work with the MSU Community Music School.

In her first year in 2018, Morris auditioned every student who wanted to participate, and accepted most everyone for the extra-curricular choirs. Though 200 kids joined, 80 students maintained expectations throughout the year. By 2019, enthusiasm for the program had grown so much that Morris needed to limit the capacity of the ensembles at 200 members. Those members practiced after school and gave concerts until activities halted in mid-March 2020 because of the state’s stay-at-home orders.

“I was so grateful I was able to be with those kids,” Coty said. “Working with so many groups of people and kids reminds me we are all deserving of education, and that sometimes all it takes is being patient enough to share your knowledge.”

Morris taught choir as a certified K-12 teacher in Texas for six years before deciding to pursue her master’s at MSU. She was familiar with MSU’s reputation for music education and choral conducting, and wanted to take her skills to the next level.

Director of Choral Programs David Rayl serves as Morris’s lead professor. He remembers the summer Morris came to campus for a week-long choral music workshop. He remembers, too, when she auditioned for the university’s graduate program in 2018. Over time, he has been impressed by the depth of leadership skills, particularly for someone so early in her career.

“Coty is a wonderful musician who literally lights up the room when she steps in front of a choir,” said Rayl, also the College’s associate dean for graduate studies and research. “She has a remarkable way of connecting with a group of singers in a positive, nurturing, and entertaining manner. People love to sing for her and will do anything she asks.”

Rayl added that exceptional students like Morris are often able to pursue advanced studies because of generous grants from private and other sources. Morris has the distinction of being the first recipient of the J. Jeanette Shaffer Memorial Endowment, for example, and she has received financial support through the Robert Harris Award for Excellence in Choral Performance, the MSU Choral Society, the Grand Ledge United Methodist where she worked, and an Academic Achievement Graduate Assistantship from the MSU Graduate School.

Morris is comfortable teaching any and all levels of students, and in any setting. Her preference, though, has always been middle to high schoolers, inspired by the emotion, sincerity and challenges of coming of age.

“I always say you have to take the good with the bad,” she said. “I relate well to students in Title I schools because that’s my story. When I was going through trauma as a kid, school and music became my safe haven. I want to be like the teachers who inspired me.”

First love

Morris’s love for school and teachers was shaped early on. Born in New Orleans, she lived with a string of relatives after her mother passed away. Eventually, she landed with her grandmother who suffered from alcoholism. Left alone for long stretches, Morris learned to take care of herself. Because she frequently switched schools, her circumstances often went undetected, except for occasional teachers who tried to intervene.

“When I was in second grade, my teacher had me help her when she graded papers,” she said. “Another teacher asked me to lead class when they had to step away for a short minute. I think I was always born to teach.”

School became her happy place. But in seventh grade, Morris’s life was upended again when her grandmother died. She went to live with her aunt and uncle in Austin, Texas, and hated most everything because her world had been turned upside down. But soon, she fell in love with her school after getting involved in choir and other school activities.

“At first, school was just crazy hard,” she said. “There was so much going on in my private life. I had to learn how to survive. I saw that the only way to break from those terrible situations was to connect with people outside my home.”

From 7th through 10th grade, Morris excelled in school. She attended choral camps on scholarship, and was the president of the choir. She was active in clubs including the student newspaper and track and field, and she got good grades. When her uncle told her he was moving back to New Orleans, Morris balked. She loved the stability and programs of her current school so much that she told him she couldn’t return to Louisiana. With the help of her high school choir teacher, she stayed in Texas, living with foster families, some stable, others not.

“The big thing I learned through all this is that family looks different to everyone,” she said. “Sometimes, the grass isn’t always greener, and you might find yourself in another family’s chaos.”

Happy places

Morris graduated high school and went to Texas State University. To her, the campus in San Marcos was another happy place—one she remembered from having attended choral camp the summer after her eighth grade year. When she went to Texas State, it was also the first time in her life that she chose on her own where to live.

Like high school, Morris hid her circumstances from her peers. Although self-reliant, she wasn’t skilled at handling finances. She ended up homeless her sophomore year, living in her car to make ends meet.

“I knew this wasn’t what my life should be,” she admitted. “But I knew it was the space I created, and I was comfortable.”

Slowly, Morris confided in a few friends and professors and found what she needed to get back on her feet. She graduated with her degree in music teacher education in 2011. About a year later, she began teaching and directing choir for an intermediate school district outside of Houston.

As an educator, Morris strives to be like the teachers and choral directors who helped her overcome obstacles and believe in herself. And while she acknowledges her background, she doesn’t let past turmoil and trauma derail her success. Rather, she calls on those experiences when building lessons or leading sessions, fashioning messages that convey the healing power of music.

“I believe that music allowed me to articulate emotions I couldn’t articulate,” she said. “Music enabled me to express joy and pain and anguish and excitement, as well as fear and rage. I didn’t know how to do that before.”

In choirs, Morris was surrounded by people. Although vulnerable, she was in space where she shared a common experience, and created a powerful and positive bond.

“I learned that we had a common goal, and that if we don’t fulfill our part, things fell apart,” she said. “In a world of chaos, choir showed us a way we could be in control.”

That lesson, Morris said, is among her most important, and one she hopes her students carry with them as they face the uncertainties in today’s world—including the ongoing pandemic. While she currently isn’t in the classroom because of COVID-19, Morris does maintain a motivational blog through Instagram and Facebook that she keeps for herself, as much as for others.

“While I’m sharing learning resources, I also believe it’s important to slow down and be still right now,” she said. “I feel we need to find our center and peace and establish a place for healing. When we get out of this and it’s time to go back, there will be a conversation about diversity and equity and trauma and making connections. That’s the one I need to be part of.”

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