Music Enhances Learning at FSU’s Metropolitan Children’s Choir Concert

Suzanne Rita Byrnes has dedicated her life to music, cultivating a creative and supportive choral environment for children to thrive. This week, she will direct the FSU Capital Children’s Choir Concert, which will be held at 6:30 pm on December 11th.

Mothers, music and Montreal

As the hustle and bustle of the holiday season kicks into high gear, we may feel hopeful for the future and nostalgic for the past. Although heightened by the festivities, this can happen throughout the year. Some remember the smells and sounds that filled our childhood homes; for many of us, the women in the room helped make those memories.

For conductor Suzanne Rita Burns, her mother Monique was a true role model. With cultural roots in French Canadian music, Burns’ mother sang in the church choir and in the choir of the National Arts Center in Ottawa. She played the knives, spoons and harmonica and was often heard serenading the family with a song after dinner.

“It was lovely and inviting,” says Burns. She credits her mother with introducing music into their Ottawa, Ontario home and cultivating a love of performance in Burns and her siblings.

Burns developed his musical style as he mastered many musical instruments. Her music training took her from the University of Ottawa for a BA in Education, Music and Mathematics to McGill University in Montreal where she earned a Master of Music in Choral Conducting and Music Education. Eventually, her pursuit of a doctorate in music education and music therapy led her to Tallahassee.

Burns is grateful that her academic journey has allowed her to experience multiple musical instruments. “In studying music education, you touch all the instruments,” Burns said. “The flute was my main instrument. I also played the bassoon in high school. I play guitar and piano – enough to be dangerous!’

This ability to understand and convey the multifaceted functions of each instrument led Burns to sing and conduct many choirs throughout his life. She began serious study of choral performance and conducting at McGill University while pursuing her master’s degree. She continued this through her doctoral studies at Florida State University, a decision that would shape her artistic career as a choral conductor.

Selection of conductor

In 1991, Burns arrived in Tallahassee and instantly fell in love with what she fondly calls “the big little city.” Ready to study music and focus on becoming a choral conductor, Burns was a little hesitant about her role as a teaching assistant under Dr. Judy Bowers for the FSU Capital Children’s Choir.

She promised her guidance counselor she would give it a semester, but much to Burns’ surprise, she was hooked. “I fell in love with the ensemble and continued with the ensemble until I graduated,” Burns says.

After completing her doctorate, Burns moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where this prior experience supported her 12-year venture as the founder and choral director of the Kansas City Children’s Choir. In 2006, Burns and her husband returned to Tallahassee, where she reunited with her beloved FSU Capital Children’s Choir and took over as director in 2007.

For Burns, choir provides a safe place for children’s social and musical development. Byrnes fosters a community environment where students can learn and test new ideas while gaining field experience. Burns’ work in music therapy and research has shaped her pedagogy. Her philosophy is process-based, emphasizing creating a fun, non-threatening environment.

“I believe music can enhance any learning,” says Burns. “From establishing a routine to actually acquiring knowledge, music is a neutral medium where everyone can participate and learn.”

Conducting is no different from teaching for Burns. It’s all about building relationships. She explains, “Conducting is the gesture; teaching is what happens. She reminds us that music is what is essential and how people can come together to create it.

A Tallahassee treasure continues to sing

For 16 years, Burns has diligently served the youth of Tallahassee by providing music and mentorship. Under her direction and with the help of its sponsor, the FSU College of Music, the FSU Capital Children’s Choir has become one of Tallahassee’s preeminent children’s outreach programs.

The program continues to provide musical ensemble training and has evolved into a place that promotes education through internships, field experiences, and volunteer opportunities for students. “We focus on process over product,” Burns said.

Burns praises her colleagues, Dr. Ann Herrington and Dr. Mark Belfast, for cultivating the student experience and creating a grassroots music lab experience. This project aims to teach 2nd to 5th grade students appropriate singing and music techniques in a fun, safe and non-competitive atmosphere.

The process defines this year’s FSU Capital Children’s Choir Information Concert in Opperman Music Hall, where the choristers will perform the culmination of their work to date. Designed as a community-building activity, the musical showcase will feature Garnet Choir (K-1st), Gold Choir (2nd-3rd) and Seminole Singers (4th-9th grade) singing a variety of music .

Burns boasts the uniqueness of the event, as this year the FSU Capital Children’s Choir joins forces with 80 second- and third-graders from the Center’s School of Arts and Sciences. This musical matchmaking will conclude with a grand finale of the traditional spiritual Over My Head.

Dr Christy Rodriguez de Conte is the topic writer for the Council for Culture and the Arts (COCA). COCA is the capital’s umbrella arts and culture agency (

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