Seeing the music in them all

COSTA MESA — Sitting in on a second-grade class trying out the xylophone might make one reach for Advil, but not that's not the case in Suzanne Rivera's class at Paularino Elementary School.

With six students poised in front of different sized xylophones, and the rest sitting "criss-cross apple sauce, pepperoni pizza sauce," Rivera challenged them to use their creativity and create their own tunes on the first try.

"I want you to think of your own melody," Rivera told her students. "You're not just coming up to the xylophone and banging it … because that's not music. That's noise, and we want to make music."

Rivera, 30, is the local winner of Barnes & Noble's My Favorite Teacher Contest and will be honored May 7 at the bookseller's Metro Pointe location in Costa Mesa.

The Fountain Valley resident beat out 45 other local teachers and will be recognized with an award, a set of Sterling Children's Classics books, and will go on to compete at the regional level.

"I was really shocked when I won because I didn't know what was going on," she said. "I really enjoy teaching music. It's a lot of fun. I'm lucky to be able to do something that I love."

Several students nominated Rivera, but it was Paularino sixth-grade student Sarah Catania, 11, whose essay was the winning entry to nominate Rivera.

Rivera is always helpful, and when students raise their hands, she not only answers their questions but also explains her answers, Sarah said.

Rivera always smiles and encourages the students to learn, Sarah said, adding it was Rivera who has inspired her to continue with music when she goes to middle school.

"She is one of the best teachers I've ever had," Sarah said. "She always got the attention of the other students as well, so I decided to nominate someone that's not just special to me, but to the whole school."

Rivera, a Cal State Long Beach alumna, has been teaching music for five years and oversees about 800 students at Paularino and Victoria elementary schools. She heads both campuses' after-school bands.

Rivera works with students starting in kindergarten and first grade. She then introduces them to instruments and teaches lessons on the xylophone and percussion instruments in second, the recorder and how to read music in third, and the clarinet, violin and trumpet in fourth through sixth.

She brings with her a passion for music and an excitement for trying new things, said Paularino Principal Stacy de Boom-Howard.

"The kids just love her," she said. "The kids look forward to Thursday and Friday because they're going to be able to see Mrs. Rivera."

She also implemented this year a schoolwide, five-year program, "Musical Me," which introduces students to a different composer every week with information about them and the chance to listen to one of their pieces every day, de Boom-Howard said.

Rivera said she wanted to introduce students, who mainly listen to pop hits on Radio Disney, to classical — a genre she discovered by accident and fell in love with in fifth grade.

It was around that time that Rivera fell in love with music and started playing the clarinet in the footsteps of both her parents. Her grandfather also played an instrument in a group with her great-grandfather, who owned his own instruments store and led a big band.

Rivera switched to trombone in middle school and wanted to be a professional musician in college until she realized the idea of practicing for hours on end every day wasn't for her.

It was then that she said she decided to teach music, to elementary students specifically, because they want to learn.

"What I find fun is seeing how excited they get learning something new," Rivera said.

If You Go

What: Barnes & Noble's My Favorite Teacher Contest, honoring Suzanne Rivera

When: 2 p.m. May 7

Where: Barnes & Noble, 901 South Coast Drive, Suite 150, Costa Mesa

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