When Norma Freeman retired as a choral music teacher in 2013, student Natalie Wysocki said “Mrs. Freeman deserves more parties than we could throw for her, with all of the time she’s put into to the students and the district.”
There may be more parties in the near future for Freeman. On March 22, she was announced as one of 10 American teachers to win the 2017 Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. Each award comes with $10,000 in appreciation for the winner’s contributions to their field of teaching.
Freeman taught high school choir, music theater, operetta workshop, music theory, AP music theory, guitar, 5th/6th grade Creative Arts, and 7th/8th grade choir.
Former student William Martinez nominated Freeman for the award. Freeman taught Martinez in eighth grade in Colorado. Martinez grew up as the lone person with hearing in his household.
“Growing up an only child in a deaf household, my first language was American Sign Language. I had very little exposure to spoken English or social practices. We had no TV or radio. We didn’t attend concerts or movies. My mother, a poor, single parent and deaf from birth, struggled to make ends meet. This forced us to move frequently across the city, state, and country,” Martinez wrote when nominating Freeman. “I had no friends to relate to, no siblings to interact with, and because of the relocations, I attended almost 20 different elementary schools. Consequently, I was failing every class. I felt worthless. Invisible.”
One day after school, Freeman had Martinez join her at the piano. She asked him to sing a scale and then complimented his voice.
“Suddenly I was invisible no more. I had an identity. I was heard. I finally belonged,” Martinez wrote.
Martinez became passionate about singing and the performing arts and joined the school choir. One day, Freeman asked him to perform a solo routine for his parents. He declined because his mother was deaf and would not hear him. Freeman told Martinez that he could sign and sign his song.
“For the first time in her life, my mom got to experience musical phrasing, dynamics, passion, joy, and rhythm, all through the hands and arms of her own son. She finally understood my love for music. Mrs. Freeman truly changed two lives that night. What an incredible teacher,” Martinez wrote.
Today, Martinez honors Freeman’s dedication as an educator with a show he’s touring called “SIGNing the Song.”
Today, Freeman is conductor of Voices Valiant, a choral experience for adults 50 and older. There she works with Dolly Collins, her long-time accompanist at Saline Area Schools. Voices Valiant membership is open to all singers 50 years and better. Singers of all skill level (first-time choir singers and experienced vocalists) are welcome in Voices Valiant.
Before coming to Michigan, Freeman taught public school music in Fox Lake, Ill.; Granby, Colo.; the Cherry Creek School District in Englewood, Colo.; and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD in Carrollton, Texas. Freeman holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Northern Colorado.
For 12 summers Freeman was the director of the Intermediate Choir and the Intermediate Vocal Arts Ensemble program at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. She has been honored as the 2002 Michigan Music Educators Conference Music Teacher of the Year and the 2009 Michigan Vocal Music Association Teacher of the Year.