Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Cathy Cotter is music to children's ears


April 28, 2017

Cathy Cotter, third from left, sings a story to JCC preschoolers along with (left to right) Jewish culture specialist Judith Arieli, Kerry Benevi and preschool Director Carol McNally.

By Christine DeSouza

There are many dedicated people at The Roth Family JCC. How does one select just one to receive the Harriet Weiss JCC Legacy Award? This award was established last year to recognize one person who has paved the way for others and leave a legacy for others to carry the torch for future generations.

The award itself was named in honor of its first recipient – Harriet Weiss, who's name is practically synonymous with the JCC 39ers, the main stage theater program and the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, which she chaired for more than a decade.

It is tough to follow in Weiss's footsteps. But there was one whose dedication to her service at the Richard S. Adler Early Childhood Learning Center eclipses Weiss. While Weiss was an influence to hundreds of adults at the JCC, Cathy Cotter has been an inspiration to the youngest members of the JCC family.

Cotter will be honored at The Roth Family JCC JBall on Wednesday, May 10 at the Orlando Museum of Art.

Hired by former preschool director Bonnie Friedman in 1983, Cotter has been the preschool music specialist teaching children from six months to pre-K for 34 years.

"It was a small school," Cotter remembers. "Bonnie's office was literally in a closet. She asked me, 'How do you feel about Jewish children?' And I replied, 'Well, they're kids.'"

That is Cotter-unpretentious, seeing children and adults without any labels.

Cotter, who is not Jewish, was fresh from teaching music for six years at Spring Lake Elementary.

"There were Jewish children there, and they would talk about the J. I didn't know what the J was!" she said with a shy laugh.

Because she needed to lessen her stress load, she decided to leave public school teaching and came to the J.

"It was the beginning of this long story," she said in her calm, soft-spoken way. "It's wonderful. It was just the right place at the right time and I've grown with it too."

"Cathy is so deserving of this award," said Robby Etzkin, the JCC executive director. "She's inspired literally thousands of young children to love music, instruments, and singing for more than three decades. And so many of them went on to become singers or musicians themselves," said Etzkin, who himself was a student of Cotter's, going on to play in the drum line in high school and college. "I feel and see her legacy everyday."

Being a music specialist is much more than teaching a child how to play an instrument, especially at the young ages she teaches. In fact, she is much more than a music teacher.

"I've learned more about how music affects children and their brains and how it may be your only way in for some children," she said.

Cotter works in tandem with Kerry Benevi and Judith Arieli, the two Jewish culture specialists at the preschool.

Working with Benevi, Cotter says, is like having two brains in one. Benevi and Arieli are good at explaining what the Hebrew songs they teach the children mean.

"It's important when singing to children to have the expression that you need for what you are doing!" Cotter said.

"We have a close relationship," said Benevi. "Even though Cathy is not Jewish, she is so in tune to our heritage and traditions. I've worked with her for 25 years and she is such an asset to the JCC. I am amazed by her!"

"Cathy has embraced the Judaic culture and heritage," said Carol McNally, preschool director.

Cotter instructs the children with instruments, singing, literacy, books with music and multiculturalism. She has a plethora of instruments, and every child learns to play every percussion instrument.

She starts with rhythm instruments-triangles, tambourines, drums and cymbals-because a steady beat is important in their lives.

It is amazing how music plays such an important part in the development of a child. Cotter has learned this over the years, and uses her music to help develop the children's minds and bodies. A steady beat, good posture, and body toning are imparted to the children through music.

"Studies show that if you sit crumpled up, you can't breath right, then you get tired quickly because not enough blood is getting to your brain," Cotter explained. "The 4s and pre-Ks work on posture. When they go to kindergarten they have to be able to sit!"

Whether or not a child learns to play a musical instrument later in life, the skills taught at such a young age by Cotter are embedded into their minds and souls.

Cotter works with as many as 20 children in a class. How does she keep them all calm? "I draw lines in the classroom because the kids have no spatial awareness," she explained. "They will just clump together if you let them sit on the floor. So they learn to sit in a line very early."

That also keeps them from hitting each other when they are doing activities such as ribbon rings, scarves, and using bean bags as they learn different body parts, balance and fine motor skills.

Cotter also helps the children to think in a visual way. After singing a story in a book, she will go back and ask what the book was about or what was the first thing we sang about? (A train) What came after the train? (A helicopter)

"It is sequencing, and when they are good at going forward, then they learn to go backwards. It is also learning directional words and implementing those words into their vocabulary," Cotter said.

It is important at the preschool that everyone feels included. It is a very diverse community, and Cotter goes right to the core of what is important for the children: To love their parents; family; and their school, which is also their family. One of the songs learned last year for graduation was "All My Roots Go Down." Cotter imparts to her children that their roots are here and those roots stabilize them.

"We give them roots and we also give them wings," McNally added.

How did Cotter feel when she was told she was being honored with the Legacy Award?

It was overwhelming for me," she said softly. "I just don't have that kind of an expectation. I love what I do. I love music, children. That's why I'm still here! I'm happy at what I'm doing without any accolades. I'm happy being a part of this community."

"Cathy has touched the lives of thousands," said McNally. "She is a quiet and private person with a big heart, loves children and stretches them further than you think they could go."

Cotter may not be Jewish, but she is definitely a part of the JCC family. Her two children attended the preschool, as did her two grandchildren.

"It's part of who I am now. This is where my heart is. That really is what it comes down to. This is my home away from home. My family."

The JBall will be held at the Orlando Museum of Art, located at 2416 N. Mills Ave., Orlando, from 6:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. The cost is $95 per person; $75, JCC preschool and J University parents and seniors. For more information, call Keith Dvorchik at 407-621-4042.


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