How do you share joy and light with all sorts of people through music-making even after surviving the loss of family members and experiencing homelessness?
Coty Raven Morris knows how. She has worked through daunting circumstances to get through high school and college and enter the teaching profession. Now, she is the Hinkley Assistant Professor of Music Education and Social Justice at Portland State University where she directs choirs, teaches conducting and education-methods classes, and pursues social justice initiatives like a street choir for the homeless. She has also taken her talents to All Classical Radio (89.9 FM) where she hosts programs and contributes to ICAN Radio, the station’s network for children, families, and educators.
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Morris (age 35) is also one of ten finalists for the Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum. Winnowed down from more than 2,000 nominations across the nation, Morris is still in the running for the top prize, which includes $10,000 for the winner and a matching amount for her school’s music program. All will be revealed during the week before the Grammy ceremony on February 4.
Singing before she could talk
Raised in the Seventh Ward projects in New Orleans, Morris loved music right out of the cradle, singing before she could talk.
“I was singing around the house all the time,” she recalled during a Zoom meeting. “I loved to turn a lesson from elementary school into a song. We sang at church and my grandmother sang at a jazz bar that my grandfather owned.”
But tragedy struck. Morris was five when her mother died, and then her guardian grandmother passed when she was twelve. So she moved to Texas to live with her aunt and uncle, but a few years later, they relocated to Louisiana because of their work. Morris didn’t want to move back to Louisiana, because the schools there had cut music and arts education to the bone. In Texas, she could study music, and after she first heard a recording of Eric Whitacre’s “Water Night,” she absolutely knew that she had become a choir director.
Headlong into reality
But without a homebase, it was tough going.
“From high school through undergrad, I was living in a car and couch hopping,” said Morris “I was in and out of houselessness from high school through college. I chose to pay college tuition versus paying rent.”
During that time, Morris earned money as a DJ, which included lugging equipment, like speakers, cables, and other gear, to each gig. While completing her bachelor’s degree at Texas State University – San Marcos, Morris ran headlong into reality.
“I was an undergrad, but also doing block-observation,” she recalled, “which means that you have one more term before you graduate with your teaching license and you watch a seasoned teacher. My ego at that time was taller than Mt Hood. I thought that I was going to be placed in a 6A school – like one of the big schools in Dallas where you don’t have to play piano because there’s someone who will do that for you. However, I was placed in Seguin, Texas. The teacher there, Dr. Sheila Siobhan, had been an opera professor at Texas A&M, but transitioned to teaching high school after her own personal experiences. We bonded over tragedy, because she had recently lost her daughter and her mother. I still remember the day that Sheila coughed. It was the ugliest sound I had ever heard… we even laughed about it because it startled us. Two week later, she died of H1N1 swine flu. So, I became the head choir director at Seguin High School. I was 23 years old.”
Back to school
After completing her degree, Morris began teaching choir at North Shore Senior High School in Houston, but after a few years decided to get a masters.
“It was in 2015 that I realized that I needed to go back so school,” said Morris. “I remember being in front of my high school students when I was working on ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ by Willaim Byrd. The students who were juniors in that ensemble – I had taught them when they were freshmen. I thought that I knew this tune – everything about it–but I only knew the alto line. I didn’t know really what was involved in that repertoire. So, I didn’t pursue the masters degree because I wanted to be a professor. I got the masters because I wanted to be smarter.”
The choice to return to school was not an easy one for Morris.
“It took me three years of research to make sure that Michigan State University was the right fit. It was hard, very tough to leave North Shore because it was a melting pot of all these beautiful children – black, white, Hispanic, Filipino – and all of the experiences that had there. It was a mega school with 500 students in the choir program.”
At MSU, Morris studied with Drs. David Rayl, Jonathan Reed, and Sandra Snow and served as the Outreach Choir Director at the Michigan State University Community Music School and Music Director at Grand Ledge United Methodist Church. Morris received her Masters in Choral Conducting in 2020.
After graduating, she moved back to Houston.
“It was the fall of 2020, during the pandemic, and I couldn’t believe that we were going back to school in person,” remarked Morris. “I was torn about this matter for a multitude of reasons. I was grateful to the system in Texas that gave me the education I needed to become a successful teacher, but I was working in a system that felt that it had to hit certain benchmarks.”
She began teaching at Crosby High School where the choir had 28 predominantly white students rather than 500 multiracial students.
“The music that I made with those kids was some of the most magical music that I’ve ever done,” said Morris. “That experience reminded me of two things: first, be your authentic self and second, your best choir is the choir right in front of you.”
But it wasn’t long before Morris was contacted by Dr. Ethan Sperry, Director of Choral Activities at Portland State University, to apply for a position there. Since she had never been to the Pacific Northwest, her first thought was “Where’s Portland?” She immediately Googled Portland and found out that there was a Portland, Maine and a Portland, Oregon.
In the fall of 2021, Morris got the job as the Hinckley Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Education and Social Justice, and in the fall of 2023, she became the Hinckley Assistant Professor of Music Education and Social Justice, which is a tenure track position.
“Typically, I work with our tenor, bass, and treble choirs known as the Rose and Thorn choirs,” said Morris. “I work with several community choirs as well. I teach our choral education methods classes. I am the last step for seniors before they go into their student teaching and enter public education. I teach conducting classes to our graduate students. I have a large block reserved for social justice initiatives. These are initiatives charged by the university. The mission is to create a choir for our homeless population. I see them as our neighbors. We can collaborate and make meaningful art. It’s a creative process that they would not have otherwise. We haven’t settled on a name for the choir, but it is patterned after the Dallas Street Choir.”
Talent, determination, and life experiences have given Morris special insight into her teaching.
“Because of my background, I’ve been a teacher who notices other things and believes that I can address those matters through art,” said Morris.” I am a healer, educator, disciplinarian, and a coach. I am trying to foster these things in my classroom. I’ve had colleagues ask me how to talk about things that happen on TV and things in the students’ lives. What relationships look like without taking a political side. There is a way to teach young people about well-being amongst each other, and how to know when you are not well.”
“All of this work on social justice is under an umbrella that I call Being Human Together,” continued Morris. “Being Human Together – BHT – is a community rooted in music education striving to normalize difficult topics in our different spaces through conversation and connection. BHT seeks to discuss traditionally taboo topics like mental health and belonging. Some believe it addresses how do we work with race relations in the community. I argue that that is where we get stuck, because we get so visually stuck in the conversation about the color of our skin. Then we get stuck in guilt – the body’s reaction – to those things – then we are not having productive conversations about how to navigate those relationships going forward. But it is not about holding hands and kumbaya-ing our way forward. That’s not how it works. We are all going to make mistakes. For example, when you mispronounce somebody’s name. It’s meaningful to get the pronunciation right. You can admit a mistake, make the correction, and move forward. That’s a step towards social justice.”
Through all her work, Morris has a steadfast goal that she is always aiming for.
“I want to touch as many lives as possible through the vehicle of music so that they can practice imagining. We must practice creativity so we can practice imagination. And if you can imagine, you can hope. That’s not only how you get creative people in the field, but it’s how you can envision something better for our community.”