Faculty & Staff Profiles
Karen Richardson doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t singing.
One of her earliest musical memories is sitting at the dining room table with headphones on — a 4-year-old listening to her mom and dad’s records of Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and Ella Fitzgerald — “just singing to my heart’s content” to music that only she could hear.
Durham Academy’s Middle School chorus teacher was destined to have a career in music.
“My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she actually played the piano every day, hoping that she would have a child who would love music, and I guess it turned out.”
Richardson grew up in Toronto, Canada, the youngest of four, in a family that loved to sing. “We had a tradition of having neighbors over Christmas Eve and we always did carol singing.”
She was singing solos with her church choir by age 8. When a choir member recommended to Richardson’s mother that she audition for the Toronto Children’s Chorus, she was on her way to a life of music.
“It was an amazing opportunity for me. I spent my middle school years in that choir, from age 10 to 13. I was a chorister and a soloist for the Toronto Children’s Chorus. That is one of the things that really formed me as a musician. … I saw what being in an ensemble could be like, and I loved to sing. It was a wonderful experience for me. We traveled. We went on a European tour. I got to sing in Cologne Cathedral in Germany and in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and a lot of other wonderful venues. It was very exciting. We had about 80 to 90 boys and girls. … It was a wonderful, very professional experience.”
She went to a high school that had a school for the arts and sang in jazz choir, concert choir and chamber choir.
“When I was thinking about going to university, there really wasn’t a question in my mind about what I would pursue. It seemed natural for me to audition for a music program. My degree is in voice and music education, so I already had this idea of working as a teacher.”
Richardson became an aunt at age 12. With siblings who are 10, 14 and 16 years older than Richardson, she soon had four nieces and a nephew and quickly got used to being around kids. “It always felt natural for me to be around young people, and I just loved it.”
She graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in music and continued at the Toronto Montessori Institute for Teacher Training. She taught at Montessori schools in Toronto and in Colorado before moving to North Carolina in 1999 for a job at Montessori Community School in Chapel Hill. Richardson taught there for 16 years — first as a classroom teacher and then as its first full-time music teacher, developing the school’s music program. Her daughter, now a sophomore voice major at UNC-Chapel Hill, and son, a senior involved in musical theater at Jordan High School, attended the school from age 2 through eighth grade. Richardson liked her work there, but when her children had finished at the school she felt like she could look at other opportunities for herself and came to Durham Academy in 2015.
Richardson is in her third year teaching choral music at the Middle School and leading a seventh-grade advisory group, and she is adamant that everyone can sing.
“I tell all of my students and I tell their parents, too, if you can speak, you can sing. Of course, some people have an easier time using their instrument — their voice — than others, but if you have a speaking voice you can turn that into a singing voice. When I say this to parents, I see them shaking their heads. ‘Oh, you haven’t heard me, you haven’t heard my spouse.’ Partly that’s because those people haven’t always had the benefit of a music education when they are young and had someone to encourage them.
“I feel like the voice is the instrument we’re born with, so why not learn how to use it properly? I want students in here to feel like this is a safe space to use their voice. I say to all my students that singing is the bravest thing they can do during their middle school years, because it’s a very vulnerable thing to use your own voice and sing in front of your peers.”
Middle school students are often self-conscious about their voice. “Things are changing and they don’t know how to use their voice in the way that they used to. Part of my job is to demystify all of that for students and to let them know that yes, voices go through changes, even for girls. A lot of girls don’t realize that when they go through puberty, their voices change a bit, too. I liken it to, say your foot grows five sizes tomorrow. That’s what happens sometimes with a young man’s voice, and you have to learn how to walk properly again because it’s really different.”
Richardson wants her students to know “that you don’t have to be the best singer to use your voice. Everybody has a voice, and I want them to know that they, personally, can use their voice for singing. Singing is a musical endeavor that can last for your whole life. It’s portable. You don’t need anything other than yourself to sing, and singing with a group of other people can be rewarding. I also want them to see that even if chorus doesn’t end up being their thing, they were taught by someone who it is my thing. I love music, and I love singing, and I believe in them.”
While singing is Richardson’s thing, it is far from her only thing. She enjoys cooking and baking, as her advisory can attest from the treats she brings them. She loves going to concerts, from seeing Harry Chapin with her mom and dad when she was 6 years old to one of her most memorable concerts: seeing Ella Fitzgerald in her last concert tour in September 1991. “It was spectacular. I’m so grateful I got to see her, because she has always been an inspiration.”
Richardson also loves to be outdoors cycling and hiking. She has spent several weeks each of the last three summers in Colorado for the Master of Music degree she is pursuing at Colorado State University. She takes an online course each semester during the school year and is on track to graduate in May. The summertime pace is intense — nine hours a day in class and five or six hours of homework at night — plus this summer, Richardson had two days of oral and written exams.
“They were exit exams, very stressful, on six courses’ worth of material. To reward myself, on the day after I passed my exams I went into the mountains with a friend and we hiked up to about 11,000 feet to a beautiful lake in the Rocky Mountains. Whether it's here or the Rockies, being up high with amazing views is one of my favorite places to be!”
When Richardson is awarded her master’s degree in May, it will be the fulfillment of a longtime dream. She started working on her master’s degree in Toronto and finished one course before she started a family and moved to the United States.
“By the time I finish my degree, it will be 20 years from when I started that degree in Toronto. It’s always been important to me. It was just too difficult to do earlier — I had small children, was working, then I got divorced and that had ramifications. Coming here, to Durham Academy, really enabled me. I was going to start this anyway, but Durham Academy has this wonderful tuition program for faculty who want to pursue a master’s degree. That has really helped me to make this possible. I started the program the summer that I started working here. It was already part of my plan, but coming here made it easier to pursue it.”
Richardson goes back to Canada every summer and most winter breaks (“I get my snow fix”) to visit her family. She is the only one of her siblings who has moved away from the Toronto area, much to her mother’s chagrin.
“Canada has this place in my heart that’s just always going to be there. I love Canada, but I also have a home here and a wonderful life here. I live with my partner, David, and our kids. This is a really wonderful place to be.”
Richardson has been in the United States nearly 20 years. “Ten or 11 years ago I got my green card. That’s how I can be here and work here.”
She loves teaching at Durham Academy.
“I think one of the most rewarding things for me — because I was at a wonderful school before, too, and I didn’t have to leave — I have found the collegiality, the high caliber of my colleagues and our administration is so wonderful. I find that Durham Academy has a degree of professionalism that’s really what I needed. … I find a lot of support here as a faculty member.”