They say, “to teach is to touch the future,” and with over four decades of instruction, 2022 Music Educator of the Year Michelle Johnson’s impact will benefit future generations.
Her musical career began in the fourth grade at Alcy Elementary School through a pilot program the Memphis City Schools offered. Her parents were firm believers in the benefits of music and encouraged their daughter to pursue her passion. She took private lessons with Memphis music teacher Ann Ray and would attend Memphis State University Music Camps during the summers. By the time she was 16, she had taught violin lessons.
Johnson participated in the Memphis Youth Symphony, Tennessee’s All-State Orchestra and played with the Mississippi Valley State University Orchestra, where she received her bachelor’s degree. Returning home, she enrolled at Memphis State University and earned her master’s degree in education and Orff Schulwerk. After graduation, she aimed to teach at her childhood alma mater and start a string orchestra. She joined the faculty of Alcy Elementary and, in 1993, founded the Alcy String Orchestra to give children access to strings and orchestra education – just like she received as a child.
“My dream was to have a big community orchestra where kids can be a part of regardless of ability, said Johnson. “I wanted to give back what was shared with me.”
In 2018, an exciting opportunity to inspire more children presented itself with the formation of the Harmonic South String Orchestra (HSSO). This budding community youth orchestra offers string instrument training and free piano or orchestra lessons to children in South Memphis.
HSSO puts violins, violas, cellos and basses in children’s hands and provides quality musical instruction and authentic performance opportunities. As a result, music becomes a source of enjoyment, enrichment and employment for her students. During the summer, she organizes the Harmonic South String Orchestra camp, giving students an outlet to learn sight-reading and music theory while practicing daily in preparation for the end of the summer recital. Many of her camp staff were, at one time, her students.
This past summer, Johnson had several students with disabilities. Wanting to ensure every student can participate, she is heading back to school this fall to learn how to effectively teach students with varying capabilities.
“Michelle goes above and beyond to make sure that all students in her community are allowed to enhance their music skills,” said nominator and Memphis-Shelby County School colleague Christin Amos.
Through her life-long dedication to music education, Johnson has impacted thousands of lives by giving children somewhere to belong and inspiring legions of musicians throughout the city. Many of her students go on to perform at the collegiate level, become employed with professional orchestras and, maybe most importantly, follow in her footsteps to become music educators themselves.