Music education student Sara Mullins performs with College Band Directors National Association’s intercollegiate band

by | Mar 13, 2023

A devoted horn player, Mullins also works at Pianos for People in St. Louis.
Sara Mullins

UMSL horn player Sara Mullins was recently invited to perform with the College Band Directors National Association’s prestigious intercollegiate band at its national conference. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Growing up in Barnhart, Missouri, when Sara Mullins was told that the horn is the hardest instrument to play, she wasn’t scared off – she was intrigued.

“I’m kind of the person to be like, ‘Oh, it’s not that hard – watch me,’” she remembered. “And now, here I am.”

Mullins grew to see her horn as an outlet to express herself without words and continued to pursue the instrument seriously. In high school, she was given several opportunities to conduct middle school bands, even conducting a concert during her senior year. After that experience, she knew she loved teaching music just as much as she loved her horn, and enrolled in college as a music major.

“I’ve always wanted to teach, and as I go through my musical college journey, I want to be the mentor to my future students that my teachers have been to me,” she said. “I want to be the light in my students’ day that my teachers were for me. The music classroom is a place where every kid feels like they can be accepted. It’s a very diverse community, and that’s something that matters to me. Knowing that I can be there for students who may not be able to express their feelings and give them something to express their feelings with is ultimately rewarding to me.”

While enrolled as a music student at Jefferson College in 2021, Mullins began playing in the Wind Ensemble at the University of Missouri–St. Louis as a partner-member of the community. She quickly fell in love with the university, and wound up transferring last fall.

“Just to play music with some people that I hadn’t played music with in years and being able to reconnect with those people after the pandemic made me realize that what I’m doing is beautiful,” she said. “And the world needs more of this.”

Mullins counts transferring to UMSL as one of the best decisions she’s ever made, noting the warm, welcoming community and the many opportunities she’s had to grow in her career. Through one of her education classes, for instance, she began volunteering with Pianos for People, one of the university’s many community agency partners. The nonprofit organization provides free access to pianos for families and individuals with limited resources in the St. Louis area, and Mullins was immediately drawn to the organization’s mission.

“The whole story behind Pianos for People, I thought it was just beautiful,” she said. “Wanting to help families and kids of low-income serving communities is so rewarding because I feel like every kid deserves an equal opportunity and I ultimately want to give them that equal opportunity. Music is part of the world around us – everywhere you go, there’s music. You give a kid an instrument or teach them how to sing, you teach them how to cope with the world around them. There’s so much going on in the world around us today where sometimes you just need an outlet. You hear your favorite song on the radio, and it can give you goosebumps, it’s just an emotional experience. I feel like every child deserves to learn.”

As a volunteer, Mullins assisted with group piano classes, passing out rhythm sticks and working directly with kids who needed more one-on-one guidance. The experience helped her develop classroom management skills, as classes include kids of all ages – from 4 all the way up to 17 – and playing abilities. After wrapping up her volunteer hours last fall, Mullins was offered a regular position with the organization and now teaches private lessons on Saturdays as well as a group piano class in East St. Louis every Thursday. “I feel like UMSL gave me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t come to UMSL, and now I get to be a teacher before I even graduate,” she said.

After graduating in 2024, Mullins plan to teach at the middle school or high school level and get her master’s in either performance or conducting. Working directly with such a diverse group of students through Pianos for the People has helped strengthen her love of music education and shape the approach she plans to bring to her own classroom, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated field.

“The diversity in our music repertoire makes a huge difference,” she said. “My partner’s first language is Spanish. You can sing folk songs in English, but are you really reaching and engaging with the students who speak other languages and learning other songs in a different language? When we do so, we are learning about the whole world around us. I can pick up my horn and I can go travel around the world. I don’t even need to know that language. I could play a rhythm and I could make something beautiful with someone I couldn’t communicate with otherwise. I feel like having that experience in the community that we live in is very important for me because ultimately, I learn as much from my students now as they probably learn from me. And that’s the point. Because as a teacher, you just never stop learning and you have to keep an open mind. You have to think outside the box for other people who aren’t like you to make every kid feel included.”

From her work with Pianos for People to her studies at UMSL, Mullins is incredibly passionate about music education. Last month, she was able to put that passion into practice when she was invited to perform with the College Band Directors National Association’s intercollegiate band at its national conference in Athens, Georgia. Mullins auditioned into a leadership position with the prestigious band and was named first chair out of 10 horn players.

“It was amazing,” Mullins said. “It was just a great opportunity. It was really my first experience being in charge of a collegiate-level section where people actually knew what they were doing. You would say something and they would actually write it down, which is cool. Everyone who was in the ensemble wanted to be there; there wasn’t anyone that did not want to be there. It was just a very rewarding experience to play with such a high-level class of musicians.”

And Mullins’ personal drive and commitment haven’t gone unnoticed by her professors at UMSL.

“Sara is a really special kind of musician,” said Dave Wacyk, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Music and the director of instrumental ensembles. “She is incredibly gifted, and at the same time, extremely humble and thoughtful of whatever is ‘next.’ This often creates in her a work ethic that builds on her natural talent, and helps her to develop her musicianship on a daily basis. That combination of talent and determination for self-improvement is what has made – and will continue to make – Sara successful. She is an excellent example of the type of amazing music students we have here at UMSL.”

Heather Riske

Heather Riske