Interview with Karen Hershberger



Current Position

Orchestra Teacher

GC Graduation Year


Why or how did you choose your field? Were there specific experiences that influenced you?

Growing up there was always music in my home, especially classical and church music. I began piano lessons in 2nd grade and violin in 5th grade. I always loved singing and learned to harmonize early in junior choir at church. My piano teacher held theory classes on Saturday mornings, and as much as I hated going at that time, it’s where I learned important lessons in music theory. It paid off big time in my first music theory class at Goshen College.

I also had amazing experiences in my high school orchestra at Elkhart Central – trips, contests, guest artists, all-state orchestra, and simply playing top-quality music. My mother was an elementary school teacher, and I always loved school and children (lots of babysitting). “Playing school” was a regular activity for me as a child. As I began to look at what I should major in at college, the combination of these interests led me directly to music education.

What’s exciting about your job or this field?

I teach orchestra in grades 6-12. Every day is different; there’s lots of variety. You never know quite what to expect, so you don’t get bored. You have to be on your toes and bring your best to the classroom every day. Teaching challenges you in ways you can’t imagine until you do it, and it keeps you humble, because you always want to do better the next day. You have to think on your feet, be creative and organized, be full of energy, dig deep for patience, and have a bag of tricks up your sleeve. There are potentially huge pay-offs when you’ve finally reached a student, affected a life in some positive way, or made a child feel like someone cares and believes in him/her. Sometimes you’re not even aware you had this effect, or it might be years later when you find out. But, even knowing that potential is there makes teaching so worthwhile.

Of course, not every day is a great day. There are some pretty tough moments, days, or even years. But in my specialty there’s also the added bonus of creating music together, helping kids develop a lifelong skill, and teaching young people how to work together as a team toward a common goal.

I also find many moments when I can laugh with my students and have a good time. Finding humor in little things each day is good for the soul and keeps me going.

What has been a challenge in your career journey?

I have scoliosis and wore a back brace for 6 years, from 6th-12th grade. This meant having to invent a new way to play the violin during those years, since the brace went all the way up under my chin. But music was too important to me to give up, so I found a way. I also had to relearn how to hold and play the instrument correctly after I got out of my brace. Much of that work was done in college as I studied violin with Professor Lon Sherer. Teaching orchestra is a physical job, and so I find that it’s taken a toll on my body after 32 years of it, especially with the addition of back problems. Now, I’m looking for ways to take care of my body so that I can continue to be active throughout the rest of my life.

In addition, I teach at a Title 1 school, where approximately 80% of our students are on free or reduced lunch and about 60% are minority students. This hasn’t always been the case, but over the years the percentage of “at-risk” students has gradually increased. As our student body has changed, I’ve seen many other changes. There have been more teaching challenges in some ways, as a result, but in all ways I feel very satisfied to be able to bring music to the lives of these children.

I have larger orchestras now than I’ve ever had, so that’s interesting; what’s the reason? The fact that these low income families can participate in my program at all is made possible by my school corporation, Elkhart Community Schools, in Indiana. They provide many school-owned instruments at a very low rental fee to families. The school covers repairs and broken strings. It’s a tremendous investment on their part, to financially support our music programs in this way, but it demonstrates their commitment to providing the best educational opportunities they can for ALL students.

And finally, there are quite a few evening and weekend commitments when you teach in the performing arts. This requires extra hours of work and adds stress to an already busy schedule. It’s especially challenging during the years when you have a young family at home.

Looking back, would you do anything differently?

Oh, I might have practiced more, or not quit piano lessons my senior year in high school, tried not to stress over things so much, been less hard on myself, a few things like that. But overall, I feel I made the right choices and decisions for my life. I’m quite confident that this was what I was meant to do in life. And I do feel that I took advantage of all the musical opportunities available to me at Goshen College while I was there.

How did your liberal arts education assist you in your journey? Are there specific examples you can offer?

I was in Haiti for SST. For my service experience, I was assigned to an orchestra music camp. It was perfect for me! (Unfortunately, this camp was destroyed in the recent earthquake, along with all of their instruments.) I got to teach children of all ages, elementary through high school; I played in their orchestra and performed in small groups at the weekly talent shows. I was able to work with small groups of kids and large ensembles, and I had to do it all in French. I decided after that experience that if I could do that and I enjoyed it, this was an excellent sign that I was pursuing the right field of study. SST was a solidifying experience, showing me that I had the potential to be successful in my chosen field.

I also found that attending a small liberal arts college allowed me a greater variety of musical experiences than I would have received at a large state university. There, I would have had to choose one area of music on which to focus. Since I was at a small college, I could do it all, so I did. I took piano, pipe organ, voice, and violin lessons. I accompanied senior recitals when I no longer had room in my schedule for piano lessons. I played in a string quartet, I was in orchestra and choir all four years, and I had solo and recital opportunities. This gave me a large assortment of experiences that paid off as I went job-hunting, and as I’ve taught throughout these many years. I’ve continued to use what I gained from these experiences in my real-life teaching assignments on a daily basis.

Did anyone offer you some memorable advice that you’d like to pass on? Or…what advice would you give to a young person just starting out?

My supervising teacher during student teaching told me to make friends with custodians and secretaries in the schools where I teach, telling me that they’re the ones who I’d rely on for help and favors. That has proven to be very good advice. Getting along with people, in general, is an important skill to nurture. Teaching is a cooperative endeavor. When you teach music, you may have to rely on others, to help maintain your program, and to help it be successful. Keeping music in our schools is always precarious, so find people who will go to bat for your music program if needed. And toot your own horn, on occasion; brag about your students’ accomplishments a bit. I know that feels decidedly un-Mennonite, but that’s sometimes the only way people will notice the good things you’re doing for the young musicians you teach.