Norma Freeman leading the University of Michigan choir, Voices Valiant.

Norma Freeman Receives Kennedy Center
Stephen Sondheim Inspirational 
Teacher Award

When Norma Freeman takes the podium to conduct her University of Michigan choir, Voices Valiant, she is continuing her lifelong love of music and passion for sharing music with others. Voices Valiant is a vocal music ensemble at the University of Michigan for adults over the age of 50 who love to sing, enjoy learning through music, enjoy the social community that music can provide and want to improve their mental and physical health through music with three sessions per year consisting of 10 rehearsals and a performance. She welcomes the experienced musicians and those experiencing singing in a choir for the first time.

Norma credits her mom with inspiring her interest in music. On the announcement of her selection she commented, "When I was eight, my mom made me watch Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts on TV. I whined, pouted, and tried to look disinterested when really I was spellbound! Something clicked, and I knew I wanted to teach music. Later I realized the beauty, creativity, skills, worldliness, and community of music should be a part of our lives, and I had to share this with others. Thanks, Mom!"

Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award nominations are made by students of the nominee who must have served as a full-time, classroom teacher in the United States in a K-12 school or as a college or university instructor. A written essay of up to 500 words or an audio or video essay of up to 3 minutes is submitted in support nominations. Essays will be displayed and distributed by the Kennedy Center on its websites, on kiosks within the Kennedy Center, the National Center for the Performing Arts and Presidential Memorial. Recipients of Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards receive $10,000.

Norma was nominated by former student William Martinez. In his essay, William described how singing in Norma’s choir changed his life and created a career path for him that he could not have imagined. His words give us an insider’s perspective of his world as a young person and the power of one person, his teacher, to change how he viewed himself and his place in the world. Read William’s essay - Inspirational Teacher Norma Freeman – which accompanies this story.

“Students and teachers – we create a two-way street of learning,” Norma explained. “We inspire each other in meaningful ways. I’m grateful for the lessons from my students.” She continued, “to experience this exchange of ideas with William and to see him thrive in his career is very rewarding to me and brings our time in the 8 th grade choir classroom full circle.”

Norma retired from the Saline Area Schools where she taught high school choir, musical theater, operetta workshop, music theory, AP music theory, guitar, 5th/6th grade creative arts and 7th/8th grade choir. She also taught public school music in Fox Lake, Illinois, Granby, Colorado, Englewood, Colorado and Carrollton, Texas.

Norma holds degrees from Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and the University of Northern Colorado (Greeley). She has served as a guest clinician and adjudicator for choir festivals in Colorado, Michigan and Ohio. Her choirs were frequently selected to sing at state and national music conferences. She was the director of the Michigan 2005 SSA 7- 9th grade State Honors Choir. The Girls and Boys Ensembles from Chamber Choir both been selected to sing at the Michigan Youth Arts Festival in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

As an advocate for secondary general music and integrated arts curricula, she has presented workshops at state, regional and national music educational conferences on choral repertoire, integrated arts curriculum, middle school music, opera education, sight singing, and solo singing in the choir classroom. For twelve summers, she was the director of the Intermediate Choir and the Intermediate Vocal Arts Ensemble program at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Interlochen, Michigan.

Norma was honored as the 2002 Michigan Music Educators Conference Music Teacher of the Year and the 2009 Michigan School Vocal Music Association Teacher of the Year. A member of the author team and a clinician for Experiencing Choral Music, achoral textbook series published jointly by Hal Leonard and Glencoe/McGraw- Hill©2005, she has presented textbook workshops in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California. She also is the co-author of Aaron Copland - The Music of an Uncommon Man ©Hal Leonard, 2012.

For more information about the Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award and the 2017 recipients, visit

Inspirational Teacher Norma Freeman

A Story by William Martinez

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. 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. Transferring after the semester started to yet another middle school, I was given a schedule that included an elective called “Choir.” It was in this class that I would meet the teacher who would change the course of the rest of my life — Mrs. Norma Freeman.

She quickly noticed that I didn’t know how to interact with other kids. I would sit alone in silence or awkwardly sign something. But she continually tried to earn my trust, either by inviting me to spend my lunch and after-school time in the choir room or welcoming my involvement in the class. And although I always refused, she never shamed, punished, or embarrassed me.

One day after school, she asked me to come to the piano alone and sing a simple scale. I reluctantly complied. As I finished singing, she turned to me and said, “Wow, William. You have a good voice! You’re a singer.” Suddenly I was invisible no more. I had an identity. I was heard. I finally belonged.

Mrs. Freeman unlocked an intense passion for music and the performing arts that could not be satisfied. As I began to excel in Choir, she gave me an opportunity to sing a solo during a presentation for our parents. I told her, that being deaf, my mom would not be able to enjoy it and would feel left out surrounded by all the parents who could hear their children sing. So I declined. Instead of choosing another student, Mrs. Freeman came up with a brilliant idea: “How about you sing and SIGN your 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.

Through music, I learned to speak. I finally started making friends, improving my grades, and for the first time in my life, I was excited about the future. I graduated high school, went on to get my BFA in Musical Theatre, and have worked professionally as a performer for over 15 years.

Currently, I am touring a show called "SIGNing the Song" which shares the incredible story of Mrs. Freeman and the power a single teacher can have in releasing the potential in a child’s life.

For more information about William Martinez and his story please visit his website,

As innovative leaders in vocal music education, we provide experiences to inspire our diverse community.
Our vision is to reach the hearts of all people through song.

The MSVMA Offices are located in the Timme Building on the campus of Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan.

MSVMA provides musical experiences that embrace diversity, foster connections, empower student musicians, and create community.  MSVMA is dedicated to including all people, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, national origin, or disability.  

MSVMA encourages each member to work with their school administration to ensure a positive and inclusive learning environment, allowing flexibility for all students when placing singers in voice part/gender specific ensembles for which they identify and demonstrate the necessary vocal range, offering varied options for concert attire, and increasing awareness of all aspects of the changing voice.  Our vision is to reach the hearts of all people through song.

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