Cynthia Kohanek, a Pinecrest Elementary School music teacher, remembers Camila Cabello like it was yesterday.
Cabello, a Cuban-American singer-songwriter and a former member of the pop group Fifth Harmony, was one of Kohanek’s star choral students. She also was named best new artist at the 2018 American Music Awards.
Then there’s Ashley Levin, a contestant on “The Voice,” and Rob Morean, who made his Broadway debut earlier this year.
Kohanek, who has spent more than 20 years directing Pinecrest Elementary’s choral program, has taught thousands of students during that time. For some of them—as evidenced by Cabello, Levin and Morean—music has become a passion and a pursuit.
But whether her students become famous or not, Kohanek says that they all leave with an understanding and appreciation of the arts.
“It’s really full-circle,” she says. “You start your career with a passion for music and making a difference, and now I’ve ended up with this culture of musical excellence and a community of lifelong friends in students.”
Luckily for Kohanek, many of her students, including Cabello and Morean, keep in close touch. Recently, Cabello surprised Kohanek’s music club and spent the afternoon singing, dancing and sharing stories.
“Music is the soul of education,” Kohanek says. “It’s a space for expression and creativity, allowing students to grow in a way they wouldn’t otherwise.”
Kohanek, who was born and raised in Miami and attended New World School of the Arts and the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, never imagined that her love for music education would lead her to the legacy she’s created. She began teaching at Pinecrest Elementary in 1997, just a few months after graduating from college. By 2012, Pinecrest had honored her with a proclamation for her extraordinary work in the community.
“Initially, my vision was to work with high school choral students,” she says. “But after fulfilling my internship at Pinecrest Elementary, I realized the effect that an educator can have on a student at such an early age, and that really interested me.”
In addition to hour-long music lessons for second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, Kohanek leads Pinecrest’s afternoon music and chorus clubs, who perform a large musical each spring.
“You have to be in fifth grade to join the chorus, so there’s this longing to be in it as a younger student,” she says. “It creates tradition and something to look forward to and work toward.”
In the classroom, Kohanek focuses on singing, movement and nonpitched and pitched percussion instruments. She often groups students into circles or partners in an attempt to interact and build camaraderie in less-traditional ways.
“After all of these years, I still have such a love and passion for what I do,” she says. “I want to continue to bring music to this community, which has been so good to me. I’d also love to serve as a mentor to newer music teachers and music programs across the county—unless, of course, someone drags me to Broadway.”