Dr. Deborah Barber selected a song on the classroom computer. She closed her eyes and touched her hand to her chin. A soft smile spread across her face as the cellos came in.
She swayed from side to side with the beat and directed her hands upwards, imitating the violins. She raised her eyebrows and skyrocketed to the tips of her toes at the climax of the song. Her body came back to earth as the song faded out.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” she asked her students.
Barber, associate professor of music at Tech, closes her eyes to eliminate distractions. If she does not, there is too much visual stimulation that will hinder her ability to feel the music deeply. It interferes with her senses.
“How could you taste something wonderful if you had chewing gum in your mouth?” she said, comparing the two.
She described her closed eyes as her universe where she goes to listen to music.
Some of her students have adopted her habit. She will look out into her class and see students closing their eyes to focus on the music she is playing.
Barber has taught at Tech for 15 years, but she has been pursuing music since she was 15 years old after she bought her first guitar. She heard about a Japanese brand that was great, but she mistakenly bought a Suzuki instead of a Yamaha. “It was a horrible guitar; it wouldn’t stay in tune,” she said, laughing. “I ended up painting flowers on it and hanging it on my wall.”
When she attended Auburn University as an undergraduate, she had no interest in teaching. She loved being around teachers, but she wanted to be a musician.
Barber fulfilled that dream after she graduated. Her husband, David Harris, performed in the Navy band, and so they moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Every night, Barber would sing in a club.
At the time, she was not very good at guitar. “But playing every night of the week, you just get better and better,” she said.
A few years later, Barber and Harris went on the road to perform music from South Carolina all the way to Colorado.
Barber said her husband inspires her to become a better musician. “He’s got a box of 64 colors, and I have a little box of eight,” she said. “He hears and I play.”
Harris said Barber had a beautiful voice when she was younger. “For every person that came up and said something about me, 50 came up and said they liked her singing,” Harris said.
After being on the road for 10 years, Barber was offered a job at Auburn City Schools teaching middle school music. She said it was her dream job; it made her enjoy teaching.
“The superintendent said, ‘We want music to be fun.’ I thought he meant for me,” she said.
Barber was able to develop her own curriculum. She taught her students keyboard, recorder, guitar and drums. They wrote songs and soundtracks to pretend movies.
“It was license to have fun and create,” she said. “Everything I suggested, they said, ‘Yeah! Let’s do that!’”
At the end of the year, the students brought their parents in for a performance. “I wanted the parents to see that their child could make music,” Barber said. “This is not a pony show; they are making music. It was not until I was a teacher for five or six years before I realized I was really making a difference. And it’s so humbling that something I shared made that person’s life better.”
While she was teaching, Barber and Harris were going to adopt two children, but it didn’t work out in the state they were living in.
Barber was heartbroken. “I couldn’t go back to school,” she said. “I couldn’t be around children anymore.”
She was offered a graduate assistantship at Auburn University, and she received her Ph. D.
When a job opening became available at Tech, Barber did not hesitate to apply.
“Everybody in Alabama said if you’re going to teach music education in Arkansas, Arkansas Tech is the place to be,” she said. “I have found that to be absolutely true. It’s just an honor to teach here.”
Students notice her unique character and teaching style. She is motherly and fun. Barber said she learned how to nurture from her mother, but that she has especially had a motherly instinct since she and her husband began fostering children during their third year of marriage.
“Some people say they could never be a foster parent because their heart is too big; it’s the opposite because your heart is not quite big enough,” she said. “Those kids will be put somewhere, and you know that if they’re with you, they’re going to have the best, the safest and happiest place they could possibly be.”
These feelings have carried over into her teaching. She realized that “process is more important than product.” She said that though this primarily applies to younger children, it carries into adulthood as well. Barber cares more about the progress her students are making than anything else.
“She has taught me that you have to love the kids more than anything else,” Emily Walters, Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in vocal music education, said. “She is a wonderful example of reaching a person where they are and enriching their life.”
She is different than a lot of professors, Harris said. She relishes teaching introduction courses to students that aren’t music majors.
“That’s her chance to heighten awareness and enjoyment and make people into better listeners,” Harris said. “She’s not just doing it because she likes music, she really does want to convey something to the students; it’s more than just a paycheck to her.”
Barber eases those who listen to a lot of popular music into classical music. She uses modern groups that play classical music with a twist to show them that classical music is not boring. It opens doors for them, Harris said.
“I was able to learn about great genres of music that I had never heard before,” Wade Ivy, Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical biology, said. “She did more than just make the classes interesting and entertaining, she made them infectious. I couldn’t help but love music and love guitar to the greatest capacity when she was teaching it.”
Although Barber has been teaching these classes for 15 years, she has not lost her passion.
“Music is all she thinks about,” Harris said.
“Anytime you do a career for 30 years, it’s hard to not get burnt out. But she never does the same thing from year to year. She’s constantly thinking of different ways to present the same information.”
“She makes sure that nothing she ever teaches is boring, because she knows that doesn’t work,” Madeline Ashlock, vocal music education major from Clarksville, said. “One piece of advice she gave in class is to never teach something you think is boring because the kids will know and think it’s boring too.”
One of the most unique parts of Barber’s introduction to music class is her listening worksheets. Students can describe the songs played in class to help identify them on the test.
“If you can draw a picture or write words that remind you of what you’re listening to, it’s going to make it easier,” Barber said. “I wouldn’t want it to be an obstacle and for you to hate music. I’ve actually heard people say they hate music. I don’t think they do. Hate and music should never be in the same sentence.”
Barber also believes in the potential of every one of her students.
“She believes wholeheartedly that music is for everyone, and she teaches accordingly,” Walters said. “She also has such extensive experience as a professional and traveling musician that her stories and experiences are invaluable. She adds another side to music that isn’t band or choir.”
Barber said she knows she’s done something right when “somebody would just question other tastes of music.”
“What kind of world are we living in if we can’t question?” she said.
Even on the hardest of days, Barber said that “looking at my students and knowing that I’ve got some of the finest music on the planet coming up” keeps her going.
“Music has a life of its own,” she said. “It doesn’t need me to bring it life, but I get to enjoy it. I do have the best job because other people kind of have to listen softly while they’re working. I’ve been kicked out of buildings cause I play music too loud.”
Barber considers herself a good musician, but she said she doesn’t compare to her students.
“My students have eclipsed me in what they can do. If you want me to cry, just talk about my students and I will get so proud,” she said.
“I’m coming towards the end of my career and it’s been wonderful. I look around and I see things that my kids did, what they gave me and I think about my kids all over the world doing things. There are wonderful other jobs, but I don’t think I was suited for them.”
Barber considers herself lucky, and her students feel the same.
“Dr. Barber is the kind of professor that Arkansas Tech can be proud to have on staff,” Ashlock said. “She is an amazing woman who has so much love to give to the world, and she gives it freely; all she requires from the world is a smile.”