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Music educator Sherry Stidfole retires after 40 years

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published June 23. 2013 4:00AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
Sherburne Stidfole, a music teacher at Great Neck Elementary School, reacts to her introduction by Waterford High School's Tim Fioravant at a recent concert.

In 42 years of teaching music to elementary school students, Sherry Stidfole has presumably heard "Dixie" or "I've Been Working on the Railroad," oh, about 9 million times. Now that her retirement takes effect on Tuesday, will she miss those and similar rote tunes from the Kiddo Repertoire?

"Those songs have been around forever for a reason," Stidfole laughs. "They have staying power." She pauses reflectively and stares out at a glorious view of Long Island Sound from the New London condominium she shares with her husband and fellow arts activist, Jim. She sighs. "I guess what I'm going to miss is the sound of (the children's) voices. I'm going to miss it so much."

Indeed, when the school year ends in Waterford on Tuesday, Stidfole will officially retire from a lifelong passion.

"I started teaching in 1971 because I wanted to make a difference," she says. "And I always knew I wanted to teach music in elementary school because the students are young and innocent and are open to ideas. They're still at an age when they feel free to play and sing."

The music part came almost instinctively. Stidfole, 69, who grew up in Westport, started piano lessons at 6 years old and added violin to the curriculum at 10. Within two years, she was in the Westport Little Symphony, a youth outfit that even performed in Carnegie Hall.

When her family moved to New Paltz, N.Y., Stidfole's high school chorus teacher inspired her to become a music teacher. It was also in high school that Stidfole bought an acoustic guitar and, not suprisingly, learned to play that, as well.

She met her husband while studying at the Crane School of Music. She remembers, "(Jim) came up to me at a party with this line: 'Are you Joan Baez's sister?' Everybody laughs when I tell them that. But the line worked."

They lived and taught in Hartford for two years and moved to Waterford in 1970. Over the years, Stidfole has taught at Quaker Hill School and three Waterford elementary schools: Great Neck, Oswegatchie and Southwest. She's served many positions as a member of the Connecticut Music Educators Association, and in 2004 was named Connecticut's Elementary Music Teacher of the Year.

Looking back, Stidfole is amazed and amused by the memories she has - as well as how time has sped by.

"By this point," she says, "I don't think I've taught a single class in years without at least one second-generation kid - and certainly a few thirds."

There were thousands and thousands of students in all that time, but it's more than possible Stidfole remembers almost all of them.

"It's bittersweet, but I still recall so many distinct singing voices," she says.

And it's not just voices she can isolate in her mind.

"I had 1,100 students my first year. I wasn't overwhelmed by the number, but I did think, 'How are you going to remember their names?'" she says.

It turned out to be something at which she was quite adept - "It was just something I was able to do" - but she does have words of wisdom for her still-young students.

"Don't grow up and have three or four kids and give them all names starting with the same letter," she laughs. "That's hard on teachers."

Not surprisingly, given that the New London area has a huge music scene and it's a small city, Stidfole was a big influence on many of the area's prominent musicians.

Steve Elci, leader of the children's music act Steve Elci & Friends and a member of popular surf-rock band Superbald, is a former student of Stidfole's. "What I learned most from Sherry is that music is not just a bunch of ink splattered on a piece of paper waiting for some would-be hero to come along and breathe life into the notes on the fading page," he says. "I learned that music is a way of life.

"Her passion behind every lesson she taught me filled the class room with an energy I still feel today. I was always inspired by her ability to connect with children through music - a skill she taught me so well as a grade schooler it resonates in my children's music I create today."

Sara Florek, lead vocalist of the garage/punk band Brazen Hussy, was a student of Stidfole's from kindergarten through sixth grade.

"We used to have all-school singalongs in the cafeteria, which was a lot of fun. All the classes would sit on the floor, and she'd be up front at the piano and direct these choruses," Florek remembers. "As each class would come in, it would be (singing to the tune of 'When the Saints Go Marching In'), 'Mrs. Lanzalotta's class comes marching in.'

"I would definitely say she inspired me musically in a lot of ways," Florek adds. "I believe she has touched a lot of us, and I think that she's definitely one of the most-remembered teachers for myself and for a lot of my peers."

Even as Stidfole describes teaching as a privilege, she has utilized her skills and passion beyond the classroom. She's been active in all sorts of extracurricular choirs and productions for students, and in the community as well.

While at Southwest, Stidfole started a guitar group of teachers who originally played with the fifth- and sixth-grade chorus. The group has expanded its membership rolls and, known as The Crew, plays around town at festivals and hootenannies, often in support of the New London Breakfasts program and the Community Meal Center.

Along with fellow Crew-ites (and Day staffers) Steve Fagin and Mike Bailey, Stidfole founded the Shoreline Acoustic Music Society, an open organization of instrumentalists who meet on the first Sunday of each month for hours-long jams and songwriting sessions. Similarly, Stidfole says she will remain an active volunteer with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus.

And, as is obvious to virtually any citizen who participates in the area's local arts scene, Stidfole and husband Jim - who was instrumental in the evolution of the Hygienic Arts Park and its Galleries - are omnipresent at the organization's events.

Finally, she anticipates keeping up with changes in educational possibilities. Recently, Stidfole was integral in helping to develop and integrate a state-wide musical curriculum, she says, "so that we're all working on the same thing at the same time. It's important to be able to gauge development."

At the same time, Stidfole says she's more than aware that she is going to be retired, and she doesn't want to be perceived as someone who can't let it go.

To that end, she and Jim laugh about when it's time to clean out her desk and the school music room.

"I've been there so long and brought so many instruments and books and personal stuff, I don't know what I'd do with all of it," she says. "I guess I'll figure out what to keep and what to bequeath."

Stidfole says she's not nervous about Tuesday, when it all comes to an end.

"I guess I'll be a little sad and definitely grateful," she says. "From my first paycheck, I felt guilty. I thought, 'I love this. I'd do it for free.' I still feel that way. But it's time. I need to go. There are other teachers who need positions and who deserve to experience this."

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