Self-Expression, Connection, Transcendence: Music Teacher Holly Ota

Holly Ota is the new Mount Madonna School (MMS) performing arts music director and middle and high school music teacher. Holly has been educating Santa Cruz County music students since 1991. She holds a M.M. in piano performance and pedagogy from Northwestern University and a B.M.E. from Western Kentucky University. Her background includes many years of teaching piano and several years as the Aptos Junior High and High School choral director. Prior to that, she served as the Linscott Charter School K-6 music director. Social media coordinator Carly Wheelehan sat down with Holly to find out a little more about her. 

You’ve been involved with Mount Madonna School before this over the years. Can you talk about that? 

Twenty-five years ago I got a call on a Saturday morning for an “emergency pianist” for the Mount Madonna School production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sampad Kachuck called me and said “Can you come play for our show?” And so I did, having never played the show before – but we all made it work! I was blown away by the maturity of the students. So many came up to me after to thank me and introduce themselves. I thought, “what is in the water up here?” I was just astonished. Later, my daughter attended the school from eighth through 12th grade and it was fantastic for her in every way. 


What are you hoping to bring to Mount Madonna School?

I’m hoping to build up our choir program and help it thrive. Choir is a safe place for everybody to develop their voice by singing with others and working together to transcend what you can do yourself. 


What are you looking forward to this year?

I’m looking forward to helping put on our middle and high school productions. I love that here [at MMS], the repertoire is selected by value, theme, message and what students can take from it. It’s finding another layer of meaning in the arts. You work on a production for so long, why not let it add emotional value for students? Not all schools pick musicals this way. I love how we incorporate the productions into other subjects, such as writing and character studies. “Elf, The Musical Jr” is about not losing sight of your priorities, making time for people, and the power of faith – not faith tied to any particular religion, but just to believe in something. It’s the reason why we get out of bed, smile and treat others with kindness.


What is the value of music in education?

Music transcends words, builds a connection with yourself and others. It is a means to self-expression. We humans have a need to express who we are, where we are in this tiny blip in history and why it matters. Music is one more way we can do that. 

I gear my classes toward students who just want a musical foundation to help them in other areas of their lives, as well as toward students who want to continue developing as trained musicians. I have had high school students continue to study music in college. One of my students will graduate with a degree in music education from San Jose State University in December and will pursue her teaching credential to become a high school choral director. But even for students who have no interest in pursuing music professionally, a musical foundation helps them so much. 


Do you think it helps with mental health?

Oh, definitely. During my years teaching public high school, I saw the power of it. A lot of my students had dire home situations, not to mention pandemic anxiety, social struggles, you name it. My classroom became a place where kids could come, be themselves, sing songs that are about pain and loss and how we rise above it, find power in their voices, lose themselves in the music…and have fun!


What do you do in your classroom to build that culture?

I start every class with mindful breathing, and build a culture of safety and acceptance. MMS already fosters this culture, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. 


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