Language, Voice, and Music: Nicole Johnson

Nicole with her dog Charlie

I was always interested in language, in literature and writing kind of way, says Quechee resident Nicole Johnson. “So when I graduated from college (Vermont College, part of Norwich University, in 1992) I was unemployable. Yes,” she laughs, “I was an English major. So I drifted, doing lots of interesting things that didn’t pay very well.” Now a speech-language pathologist, she found her vocation when she was working in a childcare center where she started with a group of infants and moved along with them as they grew. “I noticed a couple of kids who were not developing the use of language as they ought to, and I tried to figure out why they were having problems. I wondered if I could nudge them along, and it worked! Then, oh yeah, it turns out there’s a whole profession.”

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Nicole spent a year on prerequisite courses, then entered the University of Vermont’s masters degree program in Communication Sciences. She’s lived or worked in many parts of the state – she grew up in East Corinth – and she’s worked with all ages of children from babies through high schoolers. She now works in the early childhood programs of the Hartford School District, which she loves because it’s one of the larger systems in the state, with more diversity.

Vermont’s early intervention program aims to help children overcome learning difficulties before they even arrive in school; the hope is that children will avoid falling behind and failing. Nicole’s position is funded through the special education system by state and local taxes with help from a Federal block grant. To be eligible for assistance through this program, a child has to show a 40 percent deficit in a critical area such as communication or motor skills.

Humans are hard-wired to use language. Most commonly we pick up the language of those around us as children, developing our physical abilities with our mouths and tongues and breathing, as well as gestures. We gradually and simultaneously discover that certain sounds link to objects and actions. It's a fantastic process.

Imagine that you hit a roadblock. Perhaps you know what sounds you want to make, but your mouth just won't make them clearly enough so that other people can interpret them correctly. Or for some reason, you're not making your needs known even in gestures. To encourage a very young child to work to communicate, Nicole might put an object the child wanted out of reach so that the child would have to engage her to help get it.

“No matter what the nature of someone’s problem, communication is always about the back and forth. I make that a huge part of what we’re doing,” says Nicole. “You can sit and say ‘k—, k—, k—’ till the cows come home, and you haven’t learned a thing!”

Nicole makes copious use of books with her students. She finds books that connect to their interests, as well as books that rejoice in language and sound for fun, such as the Sheep in a Jeep series by Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple. She models the pleasure in books and reading that she hopes to create and nurture in her students.

Singing large and small
Nicole mixes language and music singing in two very different choruses. For several years she has sung with the Handel Society of Dartmouth College, and hopes to continue to do so; the chorus requires a yearly audition. “I love the opportunity to do bigger, large-chorus repertoire, and to sing with an orchestra,” she says. She also sings with Wrensong, which she jokes that it’s, “The Upper Valley’s premier nine-voice Renaissance a cappella choir.” Having admitted another singer, they may soon need to abandon this title for another!

Singing with Wrensong offers an intimacy and opportunity to work collaboratively with others as equals. Sometimes in five- or six-part music a singer will be alone on a part. The group works to develop a vocal blend; it’s a very different process from matching her voice as part of the alto section of the Handel Society. Two choruses, two ways to enjoy.

You heard it here first
One more really big thing, says Nicole, is that she’s a classical pianist. This may be news to some who know her since she had let her playing lapse. She began when she was ten, and learned quickly. In the past few years, she’s been taking lessons again, and she’s found herself in demand for church services and for playing for friends. “I love to accompany vocalists,” she says with her frequent wide smile. Seeing the music from the other side of the keyboard can give her a new perspective on singing. 


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