Renaissance woman Kelci Hahn — opera singer, choir teacher, sommelier, surfer — may be one of the hardest-working teachers in Los Angeles County. The 26-year-old Santa Barbara native has lead her Hamilton High School choir to numerous victories in the competitive choir circuit and has even landed them collaborations with Pharrell, Carly Simon, and Natasha Bedingfield while still performing in her own progressive opera gigs on the side. Though very much enmeshed in the L.A. scene, Hahn remains true to her roots, crediting her San Marcos High School choir director, Carolyn Teraoka-Brady, as her greatest teacher and guide. I spoke with her about working with Pharrell, the difficulties of teaching, and tattoos.
What was it like working with Pharrell? How did that come about? They contacted us, and then I just made it happen. I’m easy to get a hold of, and it was a good fit. We’ve worked with Pharrell now at this point five times, the two biggest shows being at the Academy Awards. He’s very nice, he’s a nice guy, he’s busy. We performed with him at the beginning of his very big performing career, not his producing career, so it was nice to see that come to life. It’s been a great opportunity for the kids.
How does it feel to work with such big names? It’s exciting. I think it’s really amazing when you can find something that you love to do and you are good at it and people recognize that and want to help you on that path. It’s rare you can find time to satisfy your soul and all those wonderful things you love and get paid to do it and be able to be rewarded in that way. Seeing my kids grow and change is the goal, so it’s just wonderful having all the support — it means I can do more for my students and more for their education. When a teacher stops learning, that’s when it’s time to call it quits. Having all these people willing to teach us and willing to guide us is good for the kids in the long run.
What’s new in the opera world? How is the genre surviving in contemporary times? Progressive opera is up-and-coming and really starting to take shape. There are a lot of really great companies, such as Pacific Opera Project and The Industry opera, which make it a lot more approachable. In February, I just did a Star Trek version of a Mozart opera; we were all in Klingon outfits, and one of us was dressed as Spock. The other opera that we did, we rewrote the libretto so that the text included references to Eagle Rock Boulevard and getting Pabst. As long as you are in the right niche, opera is really accessible to any age, any gender. If you’re in a progressive city like L.A., Seattle, Chicago, or a lot of international cities, they are really pushing the boundaries. The medium of how it’s being displayed and how you’re experiencing it is what’s changing. The Industry just put on an opera in Grand Central Station with headphones, and every room was a different part of the opera. That’s a very different and new progressive way to experience it, and that’s what makes people find it relatable.
What are the biggest challenges of teaching? Teaching is really hard. Teaching itself is not difficult — nothing in the classroom is difficult. It’s the stuff outside people don’t prepare you for, the discourse with parents, the administrative squabbles you get into, or the pressure of what people feel entitled over. Being also a young teacher, people don’t trust me, but it’s very clear that I know what I’m doing. We travel a lot, we’ve worked with many celebrities, we have a very rich program, and it’s growing. I took my choirs this year to five festivals, and we won every festival except for one of them, where we placed second. It’s not an average program; we have a strong program. The teaching is the easy part, meeting the kids and helping them grow is what’s really easy. It’s the other bullshit that’s really frustrating.
How do you relax? I don’t really relax. I work another job as a singer on the weekends. I work seven days a week. I can keep it up for so long; I’m young and able to, and I like it. I like the fast-paced living. There’s a lot in L.A. I want to take advantage of. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I slow down.
What inspires your teaching methods? I certainly wouldn’t have access to the arts-rich community in L.A. had I not come from such strong programs in junior high and San Marcos. Carolyn Teraoka-Brady, my choir teacher in high school, has really been a strong mentor and a very strong support to me. She was at the forefront of student-directed education. We still keep in touch and give each other critical feedback. She gave us a lot of freedom to develop independently as well as in an ensemble. Her teaching method is the exact model I take to my classroom. I will have my students lead class, running a class from start to finish. It helps them work on communication skills, on working with a group, learning how to respect peers, and allows them to take pride in their work.
You’re still young — how does that influence your teaching? I’m not that far out of high school, which is a pro and a con as a teacher. I’m very close to them in age, which strikes a very nervous balance. You have to be very careful with your relationship to them. But it also makes me uniquely qualified to relate to the position they’re in — I’m able to relate to the drama of high school, to remember being upset about my boyfriend. High school is hard — people are mean, there’s a lot of drama, and people can be selfish. That’s why you find a niche with people who are uniquely passionate about something. I see these kids going through the same shit we went through — it’s crazy, it’s the same stuff, and it makes me sad. You wanna be able to tell these kids it gets easier, but, just kidding: I’m 26 and it’s still really fucking hard. But you get better at navigating the social world. When things feel so screwed up, you find those few you can relate to, you hang onto them, you share these really interesting experiences, these deep memories. That’s what I try to provide, a place for them to feel safe, a place for them to develop comfortably and openly.
What is it about singing that has kept you going? Why do you keep at it? I think music in general, especially singing, is very exposing. It’s your instrument. It’s not the sound you produce through a flute, it’s something innate — and it’s from a very vulnerable place. You need to work through the insecurity you feel about yourself to feel successful as a musician. If you can start to slowly overcome your own personal vices and struggles toward yourself, that’s how you develop a sense of being confident and successful. It’s relatable because it feels like you have an opportunity to show yourself through the art form. There’s such a progression you can see and feel through it that is wonderful for the self and easily translates to the students. It’s not easy bearing your self; it’s very exposing. It’s that time where you have to come to terms with your own self, and that’s what I think is so important developmentally.
We are constantly looking to be better, to be something else, or to be different. Being a singer, you just have to develop yourself and what you have. In a choir, you have to develop yourself in the scheme of everybody else, and in a choir you have to be so connected to everybody… How anybody can write off music education blows my mind. It is the most important thing in our schools. It teaches you so much — it teaches you how to be a person, how to budget, how to pack. We provide a place for these kids to grow up, not just in a random academic subject, but socially and independently as well as academically. I’m a huge arts advocate.
Any advice for people considering being teachers? The most important thing you can do is find confidence in yourself and in your craft. Surround yourself with people that make you strive to be better and be constantly learning. That’s the only way that you will meet your absolute potential is with people that are pushing you and inspiring you. To put yourself in an environment that is driving you to be the best possible teacher model you can be.
It’s hard — I don’t recommend teaching; it’s exhausting. You see my life, I’m never resting … but I live my life for my students. It’s a really big sacrifice to dedicate your time and your life to, and if you are willing to make that sacrifice, then I recommend it — but it’s so much more than the six hours a day which we are paid for. We are paid an unreasonably pathetic sum — I work 10-12 hours a day, and on weekends, we travel all on our own time. It’s not just a job; it’s a commitment. You have to live your life a certain way. Music and teaching — it’s all very exposing. You have to be very aware how you come off to these kids. You have to know what your expectations are. I’ve met a lot of really bad, unfulfilling choir teachers. A lot of it is because they settle. I would never settle for anything, ever — there’s always room for growth. We are never done, we are always enhancing, modifying, changing, adapting.
What are some recent performances that stand out to you? We just performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and that was so wonderful. It’s such a beautiful space. Most of my kids are low-income, so they’ve never been there, let alone ever performed on the stage. Performing with L.A. Master Chorale was a really exciting experience, as well. We are so rich in composers and conductors in L.A. More than anything, I want my kids to work with lots of different conductors, to see how a different gesture makes a different sound, the different experiences you receive when you’re under someone else’s baton.
What are your tattoos about? I have a couple music tattoos, one of which is inspired by a piece by Robert Frost, “Come In.” The poem is about a song thrush calling you into the woods, calling you to give up. High school’s hard, and to come out of that darkness … It’s about this dichotomy of going into the woods and surrendering or staying outside and fighting the urge to give up. The rest are miscellaneous, family tattoos, different bullshit… At some point, you just keep getting more. I did not give up, I found my niche, I found myself.