The sound of music has followed Isabel Becker-Hudson throughout her life, but the way she has spread the love and lessons of music is what makes her special in so many peoples’ eyes.
She has taught music-education and served as the choir director for Pojoaque Valley High School and Middle School since 2009. Becker-Hudson began working for the Pojoaque Valley School District in 2002 at Pablo Roybal Elementary and Pojoaque Valley Intermediate School. After a total of 34 years of teaching, she will now retire.
Becker-Hudson was born and raised in Española and “swore” she would never come back after graduating with her music degree from the University of New Mexico.
However, she had already tried to leave the state once before, by attending Columbia College in Missouri, but transferred to Albuquerque, closer to home, after getting home-sick.
Her experiences growing up in Northern New Mexico made her believe her future would be lived out elsewhere.
“It’s a tough place to grow up and raise a family and there are limited opportunities,” Becker-Hudson said. “I met my husband in Albuquerque, then moved to Texas briefly, but at one point it just made sense to come back to Española.”
Her husband, Marc Hudson, was working in Waxahachie, Texas on the particle accelerator project dubbed the “Superconducting Super Collider” before its cancellation in October 1993.
After the project termination, Hudson was able to find a job in Los Alamos as a contractor for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which allowed Becker-Hudson to move back to be closer to her parents in Española.
Her mother Belle Becker was an influential factor in her growing love of music as a child. An early start on piano lessons paved the way, but also the convenience of the nearby Santa Fe Opera.
“The Santa Fe Opera was so close and my mother was so instrumental in getting me to go to the opera,” Becker-Hudson said. “She kept getting me to go to go, get involved and I just fell in love with it. I also always took piano lessons and never stopped. I wanted to quit, but she never let me. I’m glad she didn’t, because once you do, you never go back.”
Becker-Hudson’s decision to tough-it-out on piano lessons as a child certainly changed the outlook of her entire life.
Even after starting her teaching career at a parochial school, she realized she needed to make the switch to music, which she called her “first love.”
“I obviously majored in music, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a teacher,” Becker-Hudson said. “I knew performance was not going to be my thing because I don’t like being on stage by myself in front of a ton of people. In front of students though, that’s fine.”
More than students
Becker-Hudson estimates she’s taught over 7,900 students in her 34 years — and she’s influenced many, but there was one student who received so much more than the prototypical lessons and instruction.
That student was Michelle Artiaga, who is currently an elementary school music teacher for the Santa Fe School District. She said her life as she knows it would not be the same if she had never met Becker-Hudson.
Artiaga referred to her as “legendary,” and a “catalyst” for her own career.
“I could go on forever about her,” she said. “She’s the reason I got into music and she definitely lit that flame inside of me. Because of what she did, how much she meant (to me) and the role model she was, I can’t thank her enough and I really could say so much more wonderful things about her.”
Becker-Hudson even went the extra-mile to help Artiaga outside of the classroom when the then-teenager was going through tragic issues in her personal life.
“She lost her father when she was just a teenager,” Becker-Hudson said. “I was always there for her and would even call her in the middle of the night if she needed any help.”
Artiaga agreed that Becker-Hudson’s support went well beyond the expectations of any teacher, nonetheless a close friend.
“She opened her door and house for me,” Artiaga said. “It was unbelievable. She’s just one of those rare teachers that doesn’t come around that often. I’ve now known her for about 35 years — and she’s not only become one of my best friends, but I consider her family. I’m just so lucky.”
After following in her predecessor’s footsteps, there isn’t a day that goes by in her teaching career that Artiaga isn’t reminded of the lessons and values she learned from Becker-Hudson.
“A majority of her influences and teaching style is what I do (in my classroom),” she said. “The way she opened her heart to students and served as a role model, it’s what I try to do.”
Devin DeVargas, another former student, also credited Becker-Hudson for the direction he is now taking in his life.
DeVargas graduated from Pojoaque in 2015 and is now a year away from finishing his music degree from Eastern New Mexico University. His relationship with Becker-Hudson goes all the way back to the third grade.
“She was just another general teacher at first,” he said. “I met her in the third grade and took her classes, then she moved away for a while before returning to the middle school when I was in sixth grade. From there, she really sparked my interest and opened a lot of doors for me.”
DeVargas has dreams of performing at the Santa Fe Opera and other operas worldwide — and Becker Hudson said, “He is just such a talented performer and singer.”
When things get tough in school or life in general, DeVargas said he often falls back on his memories from high school choir.
“Sometimes when I have a bad day, I think back to the experiences I had with her,” he said. “She’s one of the kindest people you will ever meet. I still use so many things she taught me, even three years into my music degree. She was such a great educator and will be deeply missed by the Valley.”
While so many students have been impacted by her teaching, Becker-Hudson finds it more rewarding to see those students further embark in their music careers.
“Students who have gone on and succeeded in music-related fields, it’s awesome,” Becker-Hudson said. “It’s really wonderful for me to see that.”
Becker-Hudson’s efforts were not just appreciated by students, but also by other teachers and coworkers, who could not ignore her dedication to her craft.
One teacher in particular is Debra Minyard, who has served as the band director at Pojoaque Valley High School for the last 16 years — and was also honored with the 2015 New Mexico Teacher of the Year award.
The two would have never met if it was not for Becker-Hudson’s relentless efforts to establish a band director position.
She had been advocating to then-Pojoaque Valley Middle School principal Gloria Salazar-Shuttles that the position needed to be created. Her efforts resulted in the school administration writing for and receiving a grant to pay Minyard’s new salary and open the role.
“When you meet someone else that shares your passion for education, students and music, it’s easy to become fast friends,” Minyard said. “Although, it did take a few years before she (Becker-Hudson) moved to the high school position, because she was the elementary music teacher when I moved here. Then we shared our students and spaces in order for our friendship to become cemented.”
On the verge of Becker-Hudson’s retirement, Minyard knew it was only right her friend and associate should be nominated for the New Mexico School Boards Association’s “Excellence in Student Achievement Award,” which prompted her to write a letter to the School Boards Association.
“If you look at the research behind what music education does for a student’s brain development, positive effects on work habits and impact on academic success, nominating a music teacher makes total sense,” Minyard said. “The reason she has a hugely successful program with students who have been with her from seventh to 12th grade is because of the gift of teaching that she shares with them. Her kindness, her caring, her advocacy for students' access to music-education, her demand for excellence in music performance and learning and her passion makes students want to stay with the program. It seemed obvious to me that she would be perfect for the award.”
The award would eventually be given to Rachel Exposito, the high school’s district library manager, but it was never about winning to Becker-Hudson; She was more satisfied and flattered about the things Minyard said in the letter.
“I was just honored to even be nominated,” Becker-Hudson said. “I’m not one to heave accolades upon myself, but I was really so touched about what she wrote.”
While Minyard highlighted the importance of music on children’s enhancement of cognitive abilities related to studying music-education, former student Rachel Dodd talked about Becker-Hudson’s ability to manage multiple choir classes and bring the groups together to form award-winning performances.
“The choir has been awarded ‘superior’ at our Music Performance Assessment in both our performance and our ‘sight reading,’” Dodd said in her letter nominating Becker-Hudson for the “Excellence in Student Achievement Award.” .
“This in itself is a remarkable feat, but Mrs. Becker-Hudson was able to achieve this through both her high school choir and middle school choir. In her high school choir, three different class periods of choir come together to form the whole ensemble. We only ever get two rehearsals together to fix many different issues.”
For those who could still not understand the difficultly of achieving this, Dodd compared it to sports.
“Imagine a football team was split into three (groups),” she said. “Each third practices, getting used to each other. Add the other two sections for two practices, then immediately go into the playoffs. Not an easy task. However, Mrs. Becker-Hudson has managed to pull us together as a family to achieve something that many of us didn’t believe we could achieve.”
Becker-Hudson agreed with the difficulty of combining the groups, saying “I can’t have a true beginning, intermediate and advanced choir. The beginners have to catch up fast.”
Although the ability to sing and sing well is a tough task, that does not stop Becker-Hudson from accepting any student who wishes to participate in choir.
“I’m open to accepting anybody,” she said. “I mean, anybody. Everyone should have this opportunity.”
Despite some students’ lack of experience and confidence, Becker-Hudson explained that she’s had a very successful track-record of transforming their voices and getting them to match pitch.
The term “tone-deaf,” describes a person who is unable to perceive the differences of musical pitch accurately, but she has helped almost everybody avoid falling into this category.
“I’ve had one or two (students) that I just couldn’t get to match pitch,” Becker-Hudson said. “I let them sing anyway.”
High school choir classes are electives, which means by the time a student reaches high school, they will most likely only sign up for the class if they have developed a strong interest or passion for the subject.
Becker-Hudson said she would have not lasted as long as she has if choir were a core class, but strongly believes most of the students who enjoy it also use it as an outlet.
“Choir is an elective and that’s what makes it so great,” she said. “For most students it’s an outlet, it’s therapy, really. When you are up on stage performing at a concert, you don’t have to worry about what happened at home, for example. You just immerse yourself in the moment of the music.”
Becker-Hudson believes acquiring the love of music can be a long-lasting feeling and hobby.
“It gives them a love of music for life,” she said. “Even if they don’t go on to perform, at least they can value and appreciate what they have learned and experienced.”
Even if students do not go on to major in music in college, most university choirs do not require a related degree to participate.
The only aspect Becker-Hudson will not miss is the competition and scoring of choir concerts.
She believes that just the activity of making music, performing it and enjoying the experience is what really matters, not the scores from judges and results of competitions.
“When we go to a festival, there’s a whole rubric that we are judged on and it’s extensive,” Becker-Hudson said. “I won’t miss the competition, just the music-making.”
However, there is good reason why choir concerts are judged so extensively. Most of what is scored goes well beyond the understanding of the crowd and supporters.
“Most people who haven’t studied music, but they listen to it, probably don’t understand how many details go into getting a good sound,” Becker-Hudson said.
Learning to sing starts with basic pitches and rhythms, but then dynamics (the degree of volume) and styles are integrated. Becker-Hudson called it a “very complicated process.”
“The audience only gets to hear the finished product,” she said. “I hope they can appreciate how much work actually goes into it.”
The next bridge
In music, a bridge is defined as a transition, or moving from one section to another in a song. Now, Becker-Hudson will do exactly that, as she transitions toward retirement.
She originally thought she wouldn’t miss teaching, but once her husband told her she would, it finally registered.
“I will really just miss making music with my kids,” Becker-Hudson said. “Not the fundraising, competition, uniform inventory, lesson plans and all the other stuff you’re required to do as a teacher, just the music.”
She had pondered about continuing teaching at Northern New Mexico College, but the new professor requirements and diminished music program changed her mind.
Becker-Hudson does not have 15 credits of fine arts in her masters degree, which is now part of the higher education requirements to teach music at the college level, but she was more than OK about being able to relax and enjoy her retirement.
“If I really miss it, I’ll start teaching again, just in my living room,” she said. “I look forward to hav(ing) time to read for pleasure, swim and work in the yard and garden.”
Becker-Hudson will also keep her educational spirit alive by attending some classes for fun and additional knowledge at either Northern, Santa Fe Community College or the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos.
She is also excited about being able to spend more time volunteering at the Santa Fe Opera, the venue that first introduced her to music.
Becker-Hudson wouldn’t change her career for anything else, but she is just glad she taught in the era she did.
“They say, ‘It’s a noble profession and if you make it through five years you’re set,’” she said. “It’s hard though, especially now. But, it’s been a great career and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”