Soah Narm: Orchestra Teacher

In 2012, Soah Narm returned to the impoverished village of Mussorie, India where she had lived as a child. One day, as she volunteered at her former school, she watched children in tattered clothing carry water buckets to earn money for their families. While her heart ached for them, it was also uplifted by them. As they did their work, they sang.

“They were enjoying themselves,” Ms. Narm said. That music could bring comfort was familiar to her.

Born in Seoul, Korea, Ms. Narm’s parents were often in search of work, sometimes even traveling across oceans for it. By middle school, her family had settled in California, after stints in countries across the world.

Money was tight, so Ms. Narm’s parents sought cost-free ways their children could participate in extracurriculars. When she was eight, her mom discovered a free violin class and enrolled her.

The violin captured Ms. Narm’s imagination instantly. “It looked beautiful and sounded so pretty.” Traditional academic subjects could be a challenge, but learning to play an instrument became a way for her to develop confidence. “It was really fun and active, and I could create my own thing.”

Music was the constant in her life throughout the family’s many moves. In each new hometown, she found creative ways to continue violin lessons. Her talent won her a scholarship to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara and then earned a master’s in music education at Columbia University.

Throughout her training, each instructor was more rigid and militant than the next. Her love for violin didn’t waver, but she wondered why learning it had to be so joyless. “It’s such a beautiful and fun instrument,” Ms. Narm said. “I wanted to teach it in a beautiful and fun way.”

See Ms. Narm and her orchestra students in action.

Ms. Narm found her way to Harlem Children’s Zone in 2015, where she was determined to make music engaging and positive. To do this, she focuses on relationships first. “I try to get to know all students,” she said. “I want to know what they like and care about.”

If you happen upon one of her middle or high school classes at Promise Academy II, you might hear discussion about the students’ passions. You might hear them playing a pop song one student suggested that day, or a rock song another student suggested the next. You might even see Ms. Narm playing cello while a student conducts her classmates—a tactic she uses when a student is disengaged and would benefit from a leadership opportunity.

If there’s one thing Ms. Narm hopes her students take away, it is that while music is fun, it is also so much more. It is leadership, teamwork, discipline and character-building. “I believe good teaching comes from good people, so I always seek to evolve and grow as a teacher and person,” Ms. Narm said. “I hope that my students will understand that learning can come from anywhere and anyone. I hope they will always seek to grow and remember they can get better every day.”