It’s taken Brenda Di Rezze almost 30 years to collect the 30 toy mice sitting quietly at the front of her Kent Elementary music room.
“When the kids are quiet as mice, they get to hold the mice,” Di Rezze explained, standing next to the piano.
There are small grey mice, and sock puppet mice. Mice with pink ears, and large mice that look a little bit like bears. And now, Di Rezze isn’t sure what she’s going to do with all of them.
“The kids have said, ‘Are you taking the mice with you (when you retire)?’” Di Rezze said. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them.”
After 29 years at Kent Elementary, 57-year-old Di Rezze is getting ready to say goodbye to her music program. It’s been a long journey, and one that has seen the program evolve into the musical stronghold it is today.
When Di Rezze first arrived at Kent Elementary in September of 1990, the program was “pretty bare bones,” she said. She had arrived in Agassiz from Raymore, Sask. — a town of 389 people — to teach Kent’s student music full time.
“I haven’t always had a classroom for music,” she said, looking around at the room filled with keyboards, xylophones, drums, ukuleles and guitars.
“My first few years, I was a travelling musician,” she said. “I would be pushing a huge cart with instruments, and then I would be pulling this keyboard behind me. Then, when I got to the classrooms, the kids would have to put their desks aside and move them, and we’d what we could with whatever I could bring that day.”
In those early days, students would do things like worksheets on music history. But Di Rezze’s passion for playing music would eventually get the school enough instruments that students could spend their days learning how to play percussion, or where to place their fingers on the piano.
Through recycling drink containers, Di Rezze was able to raise enough money to purchase seven keyboards for the classroom. The PAC pooled money together to purchase barred instruments like the xylophone, enough for the whole class. Over the years, thanks to the PAC, the school district and Di Rezze’s own fundraising, she’s accumulated a classroom set of guitars, a classroom set of ukuleles, a number of melodians (a miniature keyboard useful for teaching students how to move their fingers on a piano), and recorders in all sizes, from the tiny sopranino to the larger alto recorder.
When Di Rezze first started at Kent Elementary, one of the first things she did was create an auditioned recorder group. Although the group is no longer around, its success remains.
“When I leave in 16 days, what am I going to do with all of these?” Di Rezze asked during her June 6 interview, holding up handfuls of medals from music festivals the recorder group had competed in.
“We cleaned up at the music festivals. It was really neat.”
The recorder group, classroom musicals, family dances and choir performances all punctuated Di Rezze’s career. Their success showcased the hard work of both Di Rezze and her students.
But although Di Rezze has medals and certificates in her office from years, the thing she has enjoyed most was seeing her students grow.
“My thing that I’ve enjoyed most about this job — and I’m sure other music teachers do to — is you see the little children in Kindergarten and,” she paused, laughing.
“Some of them right away they can skip like this.” Di Rezze stood up from the piano bench and demonstrated a skip, her legs and arms moving together in a coordinated fashion.
“And others have such a hard time learning how to skip, and by the end of the school year, they’re keeping a steady beat.”
“Seeing those kids grow up and … develop in their skills,” she added. “That’s really cool.”
On May 7 and 8, Di Rezze held her final choir concerts at Kent Elementary.
On May 7, Di Rezze conducted the intermediate choir. Hearing her students sing often makes her tear up, but that day felt it more than most.
“I started to tear up in the second song,” she said. “And I thought ‘no, I can’t’ because I purposely just put one tissue in my pocket.
“So I just blinked it back and pretended like it wasn’t my last.”
The ruse was successful, until principal Stan Watchorn stood up on stage to thank Di Rezze.
“He started to cry, and I started to cry. Then as kids were coming off the risers, they were crying and I was crying, and they were hugging each other,” she said.
“When I was single, this was my baby,” Di Rezze added. “I didn’t have children when we got married. And I got very attached.”
Now, it’s time for Di Rezze to let the program go. But she’s excited for what’s next in her life as well.
She’s going to play music, enjoy clog dancing and continue decorating eggs. And travel.
“That’s always in everybody’s plans,” she said. “But just take time for myself and do things I want to do. Just develop my own skills and do what I love to do.”