Music is a powerful force not unlike gravity; it tethers us to one another but nobody seems quite able to explain how it works and, for Katie Solomon, that’s alright. Like gravity, its mere presence is enough. Fact is, from the time she was a Kindergartner — the year she started with piano — she’s felt both music’s presence and its persistent tug.
By Craig Williams
Katie is a music teacher, sure — and a very good one — but there is so much more to her than can, at first glance, be captured by that title. Quickly processing and serving back her answer to my first hardball question about the importance of a music education, she easily makes the case, “Oh, there are a ZILLION reasons why music is important to young students; to ALL students! First, music is worthy of study in its own right. It connects us culturally, socially, and is really its own reward. Second, children learn through music making, almost instantly, that they are part of something, but also that their individuality matters.” She continues, “The goal is to develop music lovers, not necessarily musicians, per se. Sure, many kids will go on to play an instrument in fifth grade — as many as two out of every three — and a few may ultimately make a profession of music, but ALL of them will become music consumers.”
Very much, I suspect, like her Old Bonhomme classroom, Katie benefitted from a household where she and her brother were encouraged by nurturing parents who reinforced the notion that they could do or be anything they wanted and for which they were prepared to work. Two seminal parenting takeaways from Katie’s childhood that continue to give form to her character today include her mother’s love for family and deep empathy for the world around her and a standard set by her father that anything worth doing was worth doing right. She saw how her parents cared for people, what they determined to be meaningful, and how they aligned their priorities, and it made an impact on who she became.
Katie began playing Flute in 5th grade and, shortly thereafter, became involved with select-team softball. She couldn’t have known it at the time, but both would become important bridges across difficulty — sanctuaries, even — in the years to come. When tragedy took the life of a dear friend during Katie’s Junior year of high school, there was no rational way to process the event that brought comfort, but when she focused on playing her flute or hitting 60 MPH fastballs thrown from just 43-feet away, she could lose herself in the intense concentration. Time heals and the kindness of others emerged. An older flute player, a girl Katie barely knew — and hadn’t imagined had taken the time to know her — pulled her aside one day and shared a serenade on the flute that she played in her most difficult times. In that moment, the unexpected confluence of empathy, expressed kindness, and the power of music to heal, beyond words, with those nurturing notes — Katie found an outreached hand, and was able to make it across an awful chasm.
Katie’s humility and genuine appreciation for the shoulders she’s stood upon throughout her life and career are endearing qualities, but also important clues to her success. She credits Betsy Cytron, with whom she taught band, early on, with helping her to establish so much of her teaching philosophy and strategy. To this day, she counts Betsy as a friend and a key mentor. She speaks fondly of a dear coach, Jean Hammer, who shared empathy and wisdom at a time that desperately called for it. And she makes eminently clear the importance of her parents and teachers in shaping the person she’s become, but also is quick to point out the importance of her fellow elementary teachers, and how they work together at Old Bonhomme, unlike anything she’s seen. “It’s really just amazing,” she says of the team-style culture.
But among Katie’s most striking traits, I find, is her unvarnished authenticity and transparency. She’d roll her eyes and say, “I’m just quirky!” And then, with a laugh, she’d quickly drop the source of that trait squarely at the doorstep of her parents. She is an absolutely likable, profoundly gifted educator who’s got her priorities well in order. She attended Truman State University in Kirksville before launching her career at Ladue in 2006 as a fifth through twelfth grade band teacher. She even taught fifth grade band at Old Bonhomme before the District built the Fifth Grade Center. When I ask her what makes the Old Bonhomme School community so special, her eyes light-up and her smile broadens as she explains, “Old Bonhomme is a wonderful place because parents are engaged and taxpayers value education.” She continues, “We are successful because of what’s happening in the homes, with all the family enrichment, but also because of our incredible diversity. Children learn here the importance of ‘playing with the band,’ but also of ‘taking their solo.’ It is a beautifully balanced, safe environment in which children have everything they need to grow.”
On a scheduled Friday evening drop by at the Solomon home for our photo shoot, I am greeted at the door by Katie’s daughter, 9-year-old clone, Cora. Two rooms away, I see 12-year-old son, Owen, playing an enormous brass instrument that turns out to be a euphonium, or baritone. Cora, immediately connecting with me and the purpose of my visit, confidently begins helping me scout for the best location, coaxing me through the house — narrating as she goes — interactively whisking me through a bucket of assorted gourmet popcorn from a favorite aunt, into and out of the living room, bonus room, through the kitchen, and out to the backyard patio. It is a beautiful autumn evening, and I meet Katie’s husband, Mark, a 7th grade social studies teacher at Clayton’s Wydown Middle School. We all begin to chat about this and that as I begin to compose the family portrait, and it immediately comes into focus why Katie is so successful, not only as a parent, but with her students and colleagues, alike, as self-deprecation and a decided disregard for things that do not matter proliferate our session. The father of my own dueling pair — first and third graders — I completely relate as Owen and Cora jockey for optimal position in the composition and I’m thrilled to see what I think comes shining through — unabashed authenticity and a love for what matters and for one another. Well done, Solomons; very well-done, indeed.