In the fall of 2020, Yamaha requested nominations for its brand-new music education advocacy program, “40 Under 40,” which recognizes music educators who showcase the characteristics of action, courage, creativity and growth in their classrooms and communities. The program received hundreds of nominations from all over the nation, and among the final list of honorees was Waco Independent School District’s Giselle Vento.
Vento is the music specialist at Parkdale Elementary and the assistant director for Youth Chorus of Central Texas. Vento recently spoke with Wacoan writer Kathleen Seaman about this national recognition, her holistic approach to the classroom and how the Waco music community has become her second family.
WACOAN: When did you learn you were one of Yamaha’s 40 under 40 honorees for 2021?
Vento: I got an email in December of . At first, I thought, ‘This has to be spam.’ But I read it, and I was just blown away. To be selected out of a bunch of people. You know, you do a bunch of things, but you never go, ‘Oh, somebody is watching.’ Larry [Carpenter] was so kind to nominate me.
WACOAN: Did you know it was Larry Carpenter who nominated you?
Vento: The first thing I did was text a bunch of mentors, because they didn’t tell me who had nominated me. I was like, ‘Did you do it? Did you do it? Oh, was it you?’ They all said no, so I asked the person [from Yamaha] who contacted me. They said it was Larry Carpenter, who is the fine arts director of Waco ISD, who I adore. He’s just awesome.
My heart just went, ‘What?!’ He has so many people in Waco ISD that he could have nominated because we have a great staff all throughout. So the fact that I got thought of — that was just enough for me.
WACOAN: What does being a ‘40 under 40’ music educator involve?
Vento: This was the first year they did it through Yamaha. They selected 40 of us to talk about our craft, to highlight the things that we do, the programs that we do, so they could shine a light on a national level.
I was able to [answer] a couple of questions for them in an article form. They also were able to feature the Youth Chorus of Central Texas through that. The lady who’s in charge of the interviews, she went ahead and sent me a private message and said, ‘Can you please talk more about this? We’re so interested in the dynamic you guys have with the university being nearby and involving so many school districts, homeschoolers and even people from different towns to gather and create music.’
Florence [Scattergood], who was my choir teacher at Waco High when I first came [to Waco], she’s the choir director [for the Youth Chorus of Central Texas]. I’m her assistant. It feels like such a circle, right? I’m working with my former choir director, who I admired when I first came here. She and I wrote the article, so it should be presented sometime this year.
But she has years of experience. She has this really great way of reaching out to people and connecting them. We call it the Scat method, and we were finally able to share that nationally. She has done a bunch of presentations for [Texas Music Educators Association], but it was cool to bring light to Waco in that aspect.[Yamaha] sent me, it’s kind of like a hand drum, but it’s a humungous one that says, ‘This teacher believes in the power of music.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I do!’ I’m going to put it in my classroom. That was the [physical] award, and they sent me a printed award that I’m going to frame.
WACOAN: When did your love of music first begin?
Vento: I always loved singing. I think it was my escape when I was little. And I have three older sisters, who were encouragers. We would clean the house listening to [the soundtrack for the musical] ‘Annie’ and things like that. Singing was my thing. I would gather my little neighbors, ‘And now I’m going to sing Selena for you.’
My parents put me in a choir when I was in second or third grade in Mexico. I was in a choir until I was 15 years old, and I transferred to come to Waco to live with my mom. When I started at Waco High, I didn’t speak English. I only spoke Spanish, but I was like, ‘I want to sing.’ Music was the window for me to communicate and learn the language and get to create friendships.
WACOAN: When did you realize music was more than just an interest or hobby but something you would study and go into as a career?
Vento: I went to McLennan Community College through a choir scholarship. I wanted to be a Spanish teacher first. I love literature. I love to read. But music [also] involves literature and converts it into magic. It involves a bunch of stuff, like math. It’s just so well rounded. I call it the language of the soul. I find that it’s pretty connecting.
I have a voice teacher, who I call my second mom, Dr. [Karen] Albrecht. She now lives in Florida, but she was one of the most encouraging people out there. [Dr. Albrecht] was the one who encouraged me, and she was like, ‘Why don’t you teach music?’
I went to MCC, and then I transferred to Baylor through a scholarship as well. I was singing at Seventh & James [Baptist Church]. Dr. [Donnie] Balmos, [the minster of music at Seventh & James and an MCC music faculty member], was also a huge influence. Music has been the road where alongside I’ve found these people who’ve become family, and that family just reaches out, so it’s best to give back [as a teacher].
WACOAN: How long have you been with Waco ISD?
Vento: I started out at Parkdale as a music sub. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the place,’ but there was a teacher there. So my first official teaching year happened at Crestview [Elementary School]. I was there for a full [school] year, and then the opportunity to go back to Parkdale came. I’ve been at Parkdale since. I started in 2016 with Waco ISD. This will be my fifth full year at Parkdale.
WACOAN: What do you think you’re doing differently at Parkdale? What stood out about how you’re teaching music?
Vento: I don’t know if it’s about teaching, but it’s about believing in humans. I borrow [ideas] from everyone. I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ so I bring it to the classroom. But there’s no originality. In the music world, everybody’s so collaborative, and they’re so kind. I’m blessed to meet a bunch of teachers who are so willing to [say], ‘Let me teach you how to do this.’
I’m very Orff-driven. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the method, but [Carl Orff] is the guy who wrote ‘O Fortuna.’ It’s a [development approach in music education that] encourages the child to make their own music. To follow that human pattern that all of us have deep within us.
The trick here is to be able to create our sound, our vibe, as a group, and it’s so organic. You just present it, and they come in with their own thing. It flows very well. It’s not like, ‘Now sit down. This is what we do.’ It’s more, ‘Let’s have structure, but let’s have freedom, so you can be your best self in this thing.’ Music is just the medium that we use. It’s much more than just the sounds. It’s making the child be comfortable with themselves and loved.
I love my kids so much. I call them scholars because my best friend calls her kids scholars. I remember asking her, ‘Jules, why do you call them scholars?’ She was like, ‘You should see how they transform.’
We’re all learning. We’re all scholars of life, so when you put yourself at their same level, they’re like, ‘Ooh!’ They rise up to the occasion. It’s like, ‘OK, scholars, let’s do this.’ Yes, I’m teaching music, but I’m also teaching critical thinking for them to become holistic, well-rounded humans. It’s my hope that they’re taking more than just the songs.
WACOAN: When did you become involved with the Youth Chorus of Central Texas?
Vento: I was [involved] on and off during my years at Baylor. Dr. Lynne Gackle, my choir teacher at Baylor, and Mrs. Scattergood thought there was a need for a children’s chorus. There are some school districts that don’t focus as much on fine arts, so when they saw the need, they said let’s go ahead and create one. It started out pretty small, but we got to about 75 singers from third grade through 12th right before COVID.
It’s just such a fun work of art. You get to see children from all around this area becoming friends and admiring each other and inspiring each other. It’s really cool to see that. Because of choir they’re not only becoming a group, but they’re becoming a family.
WACOAN: How does a child get involved in the chorus?
Vento: Audition. Because of COVID, we had something called the ‘fermata time,’ the little pause before the music continued. But we are ready to head back and get started with former and new singers. They can email us at email@example.com. They can set an appointment. We have auditions all throughout August.
We have our camp coming up [August 9-11]. And even if they miss camp, they can always come and join a little bit later as long as we haven’t fully run with the schedule. Also, we run by semester, so if they don’t get to be with us in the fall, they can always register in December, so they can be with us in the spring.
WACOAN: Is the camp just an orientation camp?
Vento: Yeah. It’s for them to learn how the flow works with a choir. We do songs; they learn how to warm up, how to stand, how to project, how to interact with each other. At the end [of camp], the kids get to present [what they’ve learned] to the parents. The parents are like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ They can’t wait for the real concert.
WACOAN: How often are the concerts?
Vento: We tend to do one in December and one in the spring, but at times we do one before December, like with our fall songs. But we’re involved all throughout town. We’ve been able to [sing] at the [Waco Mammoth National Monument]. It’s on [Vimeo].
WACOAN: So, the chorus gets invited to sing at various places and events?
Vento: Yes, like we sang the national anthem at a Lady Bears game, and we got to shake hands with them. We’ve sung all around. ‘Hey, choirs are getting together. Do you want to sing with us?’ It’s something we’ve tried to plug into to be able to create that community.
WACOAN: What do you like about living in Waco?
Vento: Waco has been so good to me. God has provided me — ooh, I’m getting emotional — but He has provided me with people who just fill my life. Mom lives here, my dad (he’s my stepdad, but he’s my ‘dad’). They’re still here. My sister and my nephews are here. One out of the three [sisters]. Sometimes I travel to Matamoros, [Mexico], and I drive those eight hours. But Waco has been just a warm hug of energy to me. I love it. When the Waco family gives you so much, what else can I do but return that good energy?
WACOAN: What is your favorite music to listen to?
Vento: It depends on the mood. Actually, when I’m by myself, I love silence. It’s weird. I’m surrounded by music all the time.
But when I’m not in my Zen area, I love Lizzo. I love just getting that groove on. But I also really love Hindi music. A really chill vibe.
I love choir music when it’s raining, and you’re just like, ‘Ah, I need to have a good choir song.’ Sometimes you just need that memory, that feeling, so when I listen to it, I remember.
WACOAN: You mentioned listening to ‘Annie’ when you were little. Do you still listen to showtunes?
Vento: Oh, my gosh, yes. When I went to MCC, I was in a bunch of musicals. I was Tracy [Turnblad] in ‘Hairspray,’ I was the fairy godmother in ‘Cinderella,’ the witch in ‘Into the Woods.’ I got to be mean! But she has so many sides, you know?
I love musicals, and I like learning about the newer ones. My niece keeps me up with what’s groovy now. She introduced me to [the musical about] the wives of Henry VIII, [‘Six’]. The ‘Beetlejuice’ musical. I love ‘The Book of Mormon.’
Giselle’s 5 Must-Have Items
1. ENO hammock. I love my ENO hammock because it’s good for when I go to the park or whenever I have an hour before voice lessons or something. I’m going to hang my hammock, and then I read, or I listen to music or something like that.
2. Soft blanket from my mom. My mom gave my sisters and me the same blanket for Christmas. That is the softest blanket I’ve ever owned.
3. Perfume. I love perfume. Scents remind me of a lot of things, so I change my perfume depending on how I feel. I love Versace, and I love my [Dior] J’adore because it reminds me of when I went to Europe. I love Burberry. I love Tous; it’s a French perfume. It’s so fresh.
4. JBL Flip 5 Speaker. I love my JBL speaker. When I’m swimming with my friends, it just brings the mood.
5. A flat pillow. I love my flat pillows. A lot of people are like, ‘Ah, fluffy pillows.’ Mm-mm. Flat pillow or no pillow. For your neck to just be [supported] instead of being lifted up.