Chorus member, a teaching artist, insists music ‘is like my heartbeat’

Cari Plachy Dinglasan, a certified music educator, has been a teaching artist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s school partnership programs since the late 1990s. She is also a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

How did you get started in music?

I didn’t have music class during most of elementary school, but I always loved to sing. In junior high, I joined a community chorus. It was a good chorus, and once I joined, I had finally found my thing. And other people recognized it was my thing, too. It felt really good. Here I was, in junior high (a vulnerable time), I auditioned for this choir and I made it. And they valued me. I finally found where I fit in. I didn’t feel like a nerd when I was there! In my high school, choir was not cool, but there I was cool. I felt like I belonged and was a part of something special.

I wasn’t an athletic kid. I was never going to be on the cross country team. But I finally found this thing I was good at. And I found my people, too: these are my friends. It was the beginning of my singing life.

There was a high standard, and I loved that. We took it and ourselves very seriously in terms of how we worked, what we wore, and how we stood. I loved that it felt so grown-up and so important. You showed up on time and committed to it. The adults also took what we were doing so seriously, like a professional chorus, even though we were just kids. It was the first time I’d ever sung in a different language. We were singing repertoire that I now see as an adult, that, at the time, I didn’t realize was a famous piece of music. To be exposed to that kind of music felt really important.

What was one of the biggest moments of inspiration in your formative music education?

In high school, I had the opportunity to conduct our high school choir, and it was nice to be on the other side because I had always been “just a singer.” Learning how to prepare a piece, learn all the parts, get my hands to do what I wanted, get the singers all to do what I wanted — to stand in front of my friends and lead them — that was the moment where I realized, “This is what I want to do. I want to teach.” Of course I still wanted to be a singer, but I realized I wanted to do more than just sing. Preparing the music, and making it sound how I wanted it to. Conducting my choir was one of the greatest experiences.

Who were the most influential music teachers in your life?

Mrs. Young, who was the director of my community chorus. She saw something in me that I needed someone to find. I sang all the time in my backyard or living room, but this person told me, “We’re going to find you a voice teacher.” She really taught us how to develop our voice, with warm-ups and good technique. It was expensive, and we didn’t have a lot of money. We’d meet after school, so she helped find other moms who could pick me up and bring me to rehearsals because my parents didn’t have time. She told me, “We’re going to make this work for you.” She didn’t have to do that, but made the time to make sure I could be there. She really took the time to tell me, “Hey, you’re good at this!” I don’t know where my path would have led me, otherwise. We’re now friends on Facebook, and she was so excited to learn when I started singing with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. She’s still cheering me on!

When I studied teaching, the woman I student taught with (my high school cooperating teacher) had a huge influence on me. She had a high standard, but she also had a way with kids. Strict in the rules in her classroom, but also laid back. It was a really positive classroom environment. She had such a great rapport with the students, and it’s affected my teaching so much.

When we start teaching, we feel like we have to prove ourselves as teachers and need to make the kids love us. She helped me learn how to be with students without being overly stern. I think I would have approached teaching differently if not for her example.

Is there a particular moment when you saw music education change a student’s life?

I used to teach at a school called Child’s Voice, for children who are deaf or with hearing disabilities, where all students have implants or hearing aids or some sort of hearing device, so it’s a totally auditory learning environment. I taught 3- to 6-year-olds.

In one class, there was a little boy who was my leader. He could keep a steady beat, repeat patterns back to me and say his name perfectly in rhythm. A lot of the kids weren’t even talking, and this particular boy was phenomenal.

He was gone for two weeks, and I remember talking to his teacher and finding out he’d just [received] cochlear implants. I told his teacher that I really missed having him because my class was so much more productive when he was there. The teacher said, “Really? That student? He’s my lowest student. He doesn’t participate, he doesn’t answer.” It was such a great moment for me, because in my class he was the best! If he didn’t have my class, where would he get that sense of being a leader? He was struggling so much in his other class, and at least he had 30 minutes a week where he was excelling.

So many schools cut the arts to focus on other things. But kids may be able to sing a song, draw a beautiful picture, dance in their classroom, play an instrument really well, and how will they know that they might be good at that if they don’t have the chance to find out?

His teacher said, “Thank God he has this, because he’s struggling so much elsewhere.” He’s my favorite student ever. I loved [him].

How has music impacted your life more broadly?

When I was in high school and trying to figure out what I was going to do for college, I was trying to figure out, “Do I go into math, science, something else?” I was in AP classes. My friends were all going into engineering or science. I talked to my mom one day, and I told her, “I think I need to go into music,” and she said, “I think so, too.” I said, “Really?” And she affirmed that music was so much a part of who I was.

Being a musician is not always easy. But music is not really a choice for me. It’s something I have to do. There is no other choice for me. I realized one day that, no matter how hard it is, I have to do it. It’s my outlet; it’s how I express myself. It’s like my heartbeat. You don’t have a choice with whether or not your heart will beat — it has to be there. In order for me to survive, it has to be part of my life. You can choose a profession and still make music on the side, but I’m glad that it’s everywhere in my life — that it’s how I make a living and my career. I would be so sad if it wasn’t!

I’m really glad that when I had my own kids, I didn’t stop singing. It was really tempting to not go to a rehearsal from 7 to 10 p.m. It is really, really hard when you have kids to do this job. You’re gone on the weekends, you’re gone at night … but you can’t just stop and start over. It doesn’t really work that way. I don’t think I would have been as good a mom because I would have been missing that part of my life.

What inspires you to participate in the Chicago Symphony Chorus and teaching artist work?

I love being challenged and having to work at a high level. Of course there are moments when I wish things were easier, but even as a teaching artist, I’ve been challenged to come up with curriculum and to grow. When you’re a teacher, you have your set of lesson plans that work, but as a teaching artist, you have to develop new things all the time and with new people, and I really enjoy that. I really enjoy having to be creative, work with other people and collaborate.

How does music connect you to other people?

One of the greatest things about singers is that when we all get in a room everything clicks, and it’s all sort of magical. We all have the same quirky things.

Two of my greatest friendships have come from my musical experiences. And my friends outside of music … I think that everyone loves it and can appreciate it, and it’s so fun to share that with friends who aren’t musicians.

There is a connection, I’m not sure I know what it is. It’s hard to put into words. There’s something that just works when I’m around other musicians.