Grammy-Award Winning Singer Sharon Cho


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Jazz Appreciation Month continues on The Music Podcast for Kids as Mr. Henry and Mr. Fite interview Grammy-Award Winning singer and music educator Sharon Cho. Her music journey is exciting and inspiring! Be sure to leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening!

Listen to and sing along with the uplifting song “You-Nique” that Sharon talked about during the interview:

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Just Chattin’:

Sharon Cho is an instructional coach, clinician, and social-emotional learning trainer lead at Quaver Ed. Sharon works with educators of all subjects around the nation. Her personal experiences and background has inspired her many goals towards and for equitable schools. Sharon also comes from a diverse performance background, receiving a Grammy for her background vocalist role in Taj Mo, a collaborative album by Taj Mahal and Keb Mo. She's also recorded lead vocals for two featured films and sang background vocals during the Nashville leg of the 2017 Hans Zimmer live tour. Hello Sharon and welcome to the show! Thank you for having me. I'm so elated to be here with both of you. Awesome. Well, thanks. It’s great to have you here and thank you so much for being with us today. So first I just wanted to know what part of the world do you live in? I am in the midwest. I am in Chicago, Illinois currently. We always like to start out by asking our guests about their background with music education as a child. And so what experience did you have as a child, like in maybe in the school setting and possibly outside of the school setting? Yeah, that's a great question. I owe a lot to music. I grew up an EL student. and I wasn’t able to speak English let alone understand academic Standard English fluently until I was about maybe 4 through fifth grade. And for that reason, I struggled in school. I pretended to understand things to avoid embarrassment. There were policies and procedures in the classroom that were hard for me culturally and the cultural assimilation from such an early age really worked against me. And it really you know I struggled academically as well as emotionally and music was the one place in school I felt seen and that I could participate in without feeling ostracized. And like I had to wear a mask to fit in. so I also had the same advantages as my peers in the music classroom which was huge. We learned the skills together and there was a true multiculturalism in the curricula where we celebrated different cultures. There was an understanding that all cultures were appreciated on the same level. That music saw color and that music didn't treat me like I was in a Melting Pot where it was expected of me to blend or to melt into the same thing as everyone else and instead everyone and every song and every language was appreciated for its differences. Like a big salad bowl and that was huge for me. Yeah, that's amazing and you know, just talking to you and you would never ever think that English was your second language. Pretty amazing so yeah. And I'm sure that takes a lot of work. A lot of practice. What was your first language? Korean. So you had a lot of great experiences in the public school system with music. Did you do anything outside like private lessons or anything like that? Well, I grew up with piano in the house and was mostly self-taught and though I do a lot of that learning to my cousin Julie who is a fantastic pianist. She taught me to read lead sheets and the fundamentals of just reading chords. I also group in the church and was a member of the band and played for service every Sunday. And that's where I really learned the joy of practice, improvisation, and performance. And so while I didn't really have formal private teachers for lessons, I was definitely surrounded by mentors who taught me a lot of lessons. So was piano your primary instrument as a child or just going to do a balance of both voice and piano or other instruments? I actually say that my primary instrument was voice. While I played piano and flute as a child, voice definitely came first and that's where I learned pitch, artistic expression, and, most importantly, just appreciation for myself? What type of music education did you have in high school where were you in choirs and all that in high school or band? Yeah, I was definitely a choir gal. I sang in our school choir. I performed in all of our variety shows and talent shows. I have competed in solo ensemble. I joined the show choir as a singer and dancer. And I actually was one of the founding members of the vocal Jazz program at our high school. Yeah, it was really fun. And we also had a music theory sort of pathway. We didn't have a true music theory class. It was more of a music appreciation. I was just a little freshman along with a bunch of seniors in my class and that was really a great starting path to just appreciation in general of music that was really, really great. So you continued your studies in music in college. And so at what point did you know, I want to pursue music? This is my dream, my goal, my life, and then what degree did you pursue specifically in college then? Actually, I didn't know that I wanted to pursue music right away. I had this fantasy about traveling as a writer and performing as a hobby on the side. So I actually applied to a few colleges under English and a few under music education. And I just I remember one day I had all the acceptance letters in front of me and I was like I had to make a decision and so I ended up choosing Music Ed. I went to the University of Illinois. And only in that pathway, there was really 3 directions: you either became a general music teacher, a band director or you were a part of the orchestral pathway. And I just didn't see myself in those options initially. And so while at the U of I studying music I added Jazz studies and sort of built this new pathway of vocal Jazz performance and education which hadn't been done I don't think before me. And so you could say that the years of cultural assimilation and wanting to break free from molds in school sort of built this resilience and fight for myself. So in a lot of ways yes school always told me that I didn't fit the mold and college was no exception. Except you know this time I was a little bit more grown and so I just sort of said cool let me just create a new one then. So we were reading that you can continue to study different subjects that tied in with diversity, equity, inclusion and you even continue that research on culturally relevant pedagogy and double consciousness. So could you give us an idea, can you give us an idea of what that is and maybe even too because you were doing this whole music thing and then you know you wanted to pursue that like how that transition occurred even? Well, that's heavy. Double consciousness is a term coined by W. E. B. DuBois and his 1903 edition of Souls of Black Folk. And it represented the inter-two-ness in referring to being African-American in a white diamond and its society and how you can belong to multi-cultures and feel ostracized in this way. And for me, while I can't relate to the black and African-American experiences I can relate to a layer of double consciousness. Specifically belonging to two cultures but not being able to identify myself in either. I’m Korean-American and this way I couldn't really fit in with my Korean peers because I was born in America; at the same time I didn't fit in with my American peers because I look, behave, and am accustomed to different traditions. And that's really the reason why I became an educator to support students like me to acknowledge and give permission for students who are different to be different and to find strengths within themselves that might not look like others. And studying double consciousness and its impact on students became really this foundation for me of culturally relevant pedagogy, diversity, equity, and inclusion. And well, in short, culturally relevant pedagogy is just knowing your students, your unwavering belief that your students will achieve because of you, and how you acknowledge culture and design opportunities for culture learning and modeling to students the question of just asking why and how to ask why. And Gloria Ladson-Billings is sort of my Beyonce of education. And she's the one who coined that term. But she brilliantly summarizes CRT into academic achievement, cultural confidence, and critical consciousness. So I really take that into mind when I lead sessions. You know even at Quaver and with educators across the nation. And it's really the gas to my purpose and impact the way we view diversity. And I always like to say the goal actually isn't diversity. Diversity just looks at who is already in the room and inclusion is embracing those within that given space. And the goal really is equity and justice you know? Who is trying to get into the room but can't and are there practices and policies that we have that aren't equitably fair. And so you know there's no really easy path toward all of that. It's sort of my life’s mission in education and music performance and you know how I want to serve my life to others around me. Yeah, it's awesome. So speaking of Quaver, you have a background music making these new studies you just talked about. So what about now? What's your career now? How do you put all that together in your new endeavor? Yeah, I currently work at Quaver Ed as their social-emotional learning training lead. I am also their instructional coach and clinician. And so I present sessions at conferences across the nation on the models of culturally relevant pedagogy, diversity, equity, and inclusion, double consciousness, and a lot more. I also work with admin, educators, school districts, and state stakeholders on the impact of music on social, mental, and emotional health with self-discovery and student growth through presentations, trainings, and webinars. And it's really a joy to be able to combine my two studies. You know and how everything in my life sort of came to be here. It sort of led me there. Yeah, it's amazing. Yeah and so Bruce and I, we both use Quaver and we've talked about Quaver on the show. The resource that you know he uses music teachers. It’s just an awesome resource and it just continues to get better and better and have people like you come into the community there. It's great to see that. How long have you been with Quaver Music? I think it's about two years a little over two years. So you are a Grammy-award-winner Which is amazing. And it was specifically for a blues album. So tell us a little bit about that journey? Yeah, I lived in Nashville before moving back home to Chicago for about, I want to say 5 years. And in Nashville I performed regularly singing background vocals for different artists, recording studios, performing live with bands, and you know sometimes even with my own Jazz combo. And Mike Hicks is I think one of the greatest musicians and performers of our time but he's an R&B musician and Nashville producer and just an all-around great person. And he asked if I was free to come into the studio to record background vocals. I was not given any details of who it was for only that it was you know only that he was contracting singers for you know this project. And that at the time I was teaching full-time and so the studio time actually contradicted with my teaching schedule so I actually turned it down. And then randomly Nashville got hit with this snowstorm and Nashville doesn't really get snow and so school ended up getting canceled It's a crazy story. aAd I immediately called Mike and I met him at the studio and this sort of like fate. And I got to the studio and it was none other than the great blues artists and musician Keb Mo who was recording his collaboration album with another icon in the field, Taj Mahal. Yeah, they contracted four singers to sing background vocals throughout that album and I was just lucky enough to be one of them. Wow. So you also sang backup vocals for two feature films. So which films were they? Tell us a little bit about that as well. Yeah, One was a foreign film called I think it's pronounced Johnefe, 17 and the other was for a horror film called The Nanny. And I was also blessed to sing background vocals for Hans Zimmer during his live tour. And I got to sing on Lion King and Superman and Spider-Man. Sometimes I scroll through Netflix and I’m like Inception, Wonder Woman, Gladiator, all the great works of his. And I was really lucky to be there. Amazing yeah. What was that like? Well, so he performed when he came through Nashville he was at the amphitheater Ascend Amphitheater. And it was a crew, like a huge orchestra playing all of his music live. And that stadium is enormous. It’s one of the biggest ones in Nashville I think. And I was one of I believe it was 9 or 12 singers. And so we were behind the orchestra and we sort of you know powerhoused through all of his songs. And his music is not easy so it's definitely a really fun experience just learning how to read the music, practice the music, perform the music. And yeah it was really really fun. Yeah, that's amazing. Cool. So you have a great song to share with us that everyone can access on YouTube. Am I right about that? Okay cool. Tell us about the sign and some things kids can do at home and even how teachers we have you know we do have teachers that listen to music teachers and a homeschool teachers as well. How they could use that in the classroom. Yeah, one of the greatest parts of working for Quaver is seeing the impact of music to students and teachers across the country. And one of my favorites that we've released as a song called You-Nique spelled you-unique and it's actually sung by a great friend of mine Amani Wilkins from Nashville and produced by Otto Gross who is another great great musician and producer. And I picked this song because when I think about the start of the school year I really think it's about building community, getting to know your students, planning for opportunities for students to get to know each other, feel safe in your classroom. And while we are sort of all over the place remotely hybrid and some are you know teaching live. I think that's no different. And so, one of my favorite quotes is students don't learn from teachers they don't like. And you know that relationship building is so crucial at the start of the year. And so this is a great song to not only build self-confidence for students but I think for teachers too it's a moment just to step back and sort of reevaluate some of the strengths that we have. When we feel so you know when we're just overcome by obstacles we have to face. And so this song I think one of the great things that you can do with your students is to have them create their own I am affirmations. The song takes you through you know I'm smart. and brave and unique. And so having students create their own or even you as a teacher starting to think about your own strengths and what are your affirmations that you want to tell yourself and remind yourself. And you know I'm a big sticky note person and so you can write those down and just place them all over the wall to sort of remind yourself. And yeah so I think in a moment of so much adversity and a lot of difficult and hard emotions all at once I think you know lessons and songs about building self-confidence is going to be huge. And to do it through music too I think you know obviously that the thing that we love the most. So cool. So thank you so much Sharon. It's been a pleasure to speak with you and learn about your journey with music and what you’re doing now and I cannot thank you enough for being here with us and sharing your knowledge. And I will definitely put a YouTube link of the song so that kids can access that and hopefully they can listen and have some fun with that. So thank you so much. I really appreciate you being here. Thank you so much for having me. This was a blast!

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