Gay French's laid back personality and love for music has gained favor with her students for generations.
Most recently, it earned her the title 2002 Orchestra Teacher of the Year by the Missouri Music Educator's Association and the American String Teacher's Association.
"I was just totally flabbergasted," French said of the honor. "It was the one time I was just almost speechless. It was a good thing I was sitting down because you could have knocked me over with a feather."
It's been 16 years since she first began teaching orchestra in the Sikeston Public School System, but the steps she found herself taking in pursuit of that career weren't the easiest to follow. If there was ever any question about French's level of patience she answered it after waiting 13 years to get the job.
"It's one of those things," she laughed. "You know though, it probably is just as well that it worked out like that because in teaching private lessons you either know what you're doing or you don't. I learned a lot from doing private lessons that I would not have learned or learned as fast if I had just gone straight into public school teaching."
French said her interests in music at a young age were geared toward orchestra rather than band for one reason. "We had a violin, we didn't have anything else and we couldn't afford anything else, so it was violin or nothing," she quipped. "That's how I got started.
A 1969 graduate of Sikeston High School and a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University where she earned a bachelor of music education degree in viola and vocal music and later a master's of music education degree, French is active in the National Federation of Music Clubs in which she has been district president and vice president which involves running the 6th District Junior Music Festival.
State chairman for "The Crusade For Strings" and the Wendall Irish Viola Scholarship, she is a charter member and currently vice president of the Allegro Music Club of Sikeston.
In addition to having given private voice, viola, cello and bass lessons for 29 years. Also she has given piano lessons. Her favorite, though, is the viola.
"The opportunity came to try something new when the orchestra up at Cape needed a viola player. The viola player was going to graduate and there wasn't any body coming up through the ranks to take that spot and the school had a viola. I went in one day and told my violin teacher I'd kind of like to try that and on top of that I said it's a lot better instrument than what I've got and he said 'well, let's do it.' I liked it so well, it's got a rich, mellow sound and it just vibrates all the way through me."
French said her biggest challenge in teaching orchestra is trying to keep organized. This isn't easy when you're moving from Middle School to Junior High to Senior High every day and teaching five different levels of classes.
When she started teaching at Sikeston Public Schools there were 70 students in the orchestra program. Today, the number averages 145-155 students every year.
"The problem with my job is I don't teach the same thing every hour," she said. "Nobody's doing the same thing twice so you have to be ready for one class and then you have to ready for the next step up. Then after that I make the big jump and I go over to Senior High and of course they're up there at the top of the stack and then Junior High's kind of in the middle of the stack. So being prepared for all the levels is the biggest problem that I have, making sure I've got everybody figured out as far as what we're doing for the day and making sure my brain is thinking when I go into class. I'll write myself notes constantly, if my notebook gets lost I'm sunk."
She said her students are her greatest achievement, noting she has former students who have gone on to become music ministers, composers, teachers and those who want to become teachers and others who simply play for their own enjoyment.
Steve Schaffner and others who know her said no one could be more deserving of being named Orchestra Teacher of the Year.
"As one of two string orchestra programs between St. Louis and Memphis, Gay and I are fortunate to be employed by districts with string instrument instruction in the curriculum," Schaffner, string orchestra director of Cape Girardeau Public Schools, wrote in a letter. "I can attest that extra work over and above the job description is often necessary to insure a string orchestra program's success, especially given our locale."
French alternates with Schaffner as vice president of the orchestra for the Southeast Missouri Music Educator's Association.
"Gay's work ethic is an inspiration to anyone who has been exposed to her concerts, her involvement in music festivals and most importantly her students, past and present," added Schaffner who has worked with French for that past 11 years.
"The quality I most appreciate about Gay French is her easygoing southern charm and our mutual respect for fine southern cooking. Gay loves people and they love her back. The Sikeston Public School District and community have a treasure in Gay French. She is an educator of the highest caliber," his letter said.
French said probably her most valuable lesson was learned years ago from a man she persuaded to give her fiddle lessons. "Smiley Huey was an 80-year-old man who didn't know one note and couldn't really tell you what key he was playing in," she recalled fondly. "I had to record our lessons because he never played the same piece twice. He told me one day that he was glad I had talked him into teaching me.
"He said: 'I've often thought about trying to write this stuff down and I never got a chance to. You know when I die, it's gone.' And I said well, not all of it's gone. And he said that's right, you know it now.'
"I told him that's what you teach music for, to inspire somebody else to do something else with it. I tell my students that music is a gift. When it is given, the receiver is blessed and so is the giver. The love of music and the making of music that is passed on to others are my greatest achievements."