Lower School Music Teacher Vita Zambetti's lifelong love of music and artistic expression led her on an eventful journey from her early years in Siberia to the U.S. — and ultimately to Dwight.
Lower School Music Teacher Vita Zambetti's lifelong love of music and artistic expression led her on an eventful journey from her early years in Siberia to the U.S. — and ultimately to Dwight. We sat down with Vita to learn more about her musical talents and career, passion for teaching, and how she encourages students in grades 1-5 to connect through the universal language of music.
Please tell us about your background and childhood musical spark of genius.
While my family comes from St. Petersburg, most of my early and teen years were spent in Siberia, Novosibirsk, where my parents worked before retiring and returning to their home base.
I fell in love with music at a very young age! When I was three-and-a-half years old, my father brought home the most beautiful instrument: an Italian-made accordion, called a Barcarole. He played it almost every night before dinner. I was drawn to its intricate red and mother-of-pearl decorative shell and, of course, it's small black and white keys.
Almost every night, right after my father stopped playing, I would put the accordion on its back and pretend it was a fancy piano. I would try to mimic my father's finger movements and use my picture books, pretending I was reading music, just like my father. The instrument, of course, wouldn't make a sound, so I complained to my parents about it. After listening to my constant requests, they decided to buy me a real piano. From the moment I first saw it, I knew it would be my dear friend for life.
My very first instruments of expression were piano and voice. A lot of learning in Communist Russia — especially related to arts or sports — in those days was specialized, so many of us knew what our profession might be by the third or fourth grade. Some of us were selected to pursue our future professional occupation according to our natural abilities or our early spark of genius. Mine was music. After completing eight years of music school parallel to my general studies, I, unbeknown to my parents, auditioned for Novosibirsk Music College. I was accepted to the piano studies and pedagogy program.
What brought you to the U.S.?
During my college years, I pursued my passion for music alongside my other passion — musical theater. As a professional young actor, I performed in leading and supporting roles. Through a cultural exchange project with a theater group from Seattle, WA, I discovered friendships with people from the United States. Those friendships led me to visit here, and consequently, to a new life.
Just for fun, I auditioned at the USC, Los Angeles Thornton School of Music, and was accepted under full scholarship. I later went on to complete my graduate studies there as well. In 2000, I permanently relocated to New York with my family.
I came to America by myself, leaving everything I had built in Russia behind. I had to start out completely on my own. Since I didn't speak English well at first, there were times when I wanted to drop everything and go back to Russia. But along the way I met many wonderful, supportive people, and I would not be where I am right now without their help.
My journey to Dwight includes many amazing and one-of-a-kind professional and life experiences that contributed to who I am today. Many of them were victorious (though not all), and all were important lessons in the tapestry of my life.
What are all the instruments that you play?
Piano is my primary professional instrument; the organ is secondary. I also play guitar, violin, clarinet, flute, and steel and African drums, in addition to being a trained opera singer and choir conductor.
What drew you to teaching?
I followed in the footsteps of my family members. Both of my grandmothers and my father were teachers. My father was very passionate about teaching and shared many fun stories that continue to inspire me. I love the process of learning, especially when I witness that special moment — the light in a child's eyes — as she or he grasps new knowledge.
What makes Dwight's Lower School music program special?
Here in the Lower School, we are given plenty of space for creativity and experimentation with all sorts of world instruments, including classical orchestra instruments. We have time to investigate and to be inquisitive about a wide spectrum of sounds and possibilities for each one. Our curriculum is based not only on developing musically, but also on being 100% engaged through playing instruments.
We also work collaboratively, each of us contributing our personal best while building strong social and learning skills. Every student in the Lower School plays an instrument, and many students play more than one world and classical instrument.
What role does Dwight's annual global concert at Carnegie Hall play in the Lower School music curriculum?
Our global concert at Carnegie Hall is a major part of the fourth and fifth grade curriculum — something that our students look forward to from the very beginning of the school year. It's an opportunity to feel connected to older students in Dwight's Middle and Upper Schools and to Dwight's global family of schools. Meeting with performers from Dwight's campuses in London, Shanghai, and Seoul, and participating in a cultural exchange workshop before the performance, are unforgettable moments for everyone involved.
How do you inspire your students to embrace Dwight's global vision pillar?
This inspiration happens naturally and very often comes from students themselves — they inspire me with their thoughtful comments and observations. During our music classes, we often reflect on the global nature of music and the way it heals, unites, and helps us communicate our creative ideas no matter who we are, what language we speak, and where we come from. Students love reflecting on these aspects, connecting deeply to the aesthetics of music and their own personal experiences. When new EAL students join our class, it's magical to see how quickly they acclimate to our environment when given a musical instrument.
What do you like about teaching music in an IB School?
I like that we focus on the whole child no matter what discipline we teach. I also like how teachers and specialists collaborate across classrooms before every new unit to share innovative, exciting ideas. This holistic approach and curriculum transparency supports and builds our students' creativity and independent-thinking skills. Leading by example in this way fosters strong camaraderie and inspires our students to genuinely collaborate with each other.
My favorite part of our music curriculum is the Fifth Grade Exhibition Song Project. Each year, during our brainstorming sessions, students have to dive deep into their personal creative space and then build on each other's ideas to create an entirely new piece of music with lyrics, based on research and knowledge. They are challenged to come up with lyrics that carry a poetic rhythm, fit into a musical phrase, and speak from their heart, too! Many find this process difficult, but in the end, they also find it very fulfilling and rewarding.
How do you embody personalized learning?
We all learn differently; our personal knowledge base and strengths spread across a very wide spectrum and each one is extremely vital in the evolution of knowledge for all. Working one-on-one with a student, at a personalized level, allows a teacher to discover the essence — that spark of genius in each child — and empower and inspire him or her to learn more about it and to share it with others. For me, there is no other way to teach.
What is your educational philosophy?
I have to paraphrase a quote from Robertson Davies, one of my all-time favorite writers: "For a teacher, it is not what you say, but what you don't say that counts."
When you're working with a student, it's so important to carefully choose your words because, as I remember from my own experience, it might stay with that student for the rest of his or her life. Constant encouragement and support are the most important elements of teaching; these will go much further than any knowledge that you might share with your student.
What is a little-known fact about you?
While you would expect that music is my spark of genius, I have to say that it is actually poetry!
When I came to the U.S., I didn't speak a word of English. Because of the challenge of not being able to communicate well for the first two years, I wrote more than 150 poems in Russian, which are now translated into English. These poems express social and emotional real-life experiences from an immigrant's point of view. Click here to read a selection of Vita's early poems.
In addition to writing poems, I write music: I composed an original score for a documentary called "Exodus" on the Women's Suffrage Movement and first sorority at Howard University; and some of my original music, in partnership with my husband's, is being played at the Battery Tunnel SeaGlass Carousel.
It seems that Vita's artistic pursuits know no bounds!
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