Shona was born in Xuchang, China. Her parents were volunteers at a famine relief camp, and they returned to Aotearoa in 1951, settling first in Gore, then Tawa. She has lived locally since she was a teenager thanks to her dad’s role as pastor at the Tawa Baptist Church, which had a strong musical tradition that was fostered by him as a keen musician.
Other early memories, Shona says, were of her family singing and harmonising while doing the dishes. She didn’t start learning piano until she was 10, but singing was always part of her life, and her earliest performances were as an accompanist for congregational singing.
”I even remember joining street parades in China age four, singing the Chinese National Anthem,” she says.
Shona did her two-year teaching diploma at Wellington College of Education, graduating in 1962. She also studied Music and English at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. After teaching at Tawa Primary School for six years, and while her family were young, she returned to the University to study pipe organ, completing a Bachelor of Music (Performance) under Max Fernie in 1972.
“I loved being able to link study at Teachers’ College to study at the University early on. I remember tutorials with composer Professor Douglas Lilburn, and lectures with Professor Fredrick Page, and later Professor Jenny McLeod. I especially enjoyed my English lectures with Professor Don McKenzie, and his son Matthew was one of my piano students.
“I particularly recall the impact that the Deputy Principal Jack Shallcrass had on me at Teachers’ College. He kept you questioning things and taught me to have an open mind, to be prepared to broaden my ideas. He was also one of those people who would know your name, no matter how many years later. He was an amazing influence on my educational philosophies.”
Shona sees music as something to be enjoyed and celebrated, saying, “participation trumps winning.” This is particularly evident in her work with choirs in the community.
In 1979, she instigated and began a 25-festival run as musical director of the Tawa Schools and Community Festival, which connected 700 singers, dancers, instrumentalists, and producers in a biennial performance at the Michael Fowler Centre. She was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal in 2013 for services to music and education, and a Kiwibank Local Hero award in 2016.
Shona taught at Tawa College from 1977, leading the Music department from 1984 until 2005, then continuing part-time until 2010. She lives in Tawa and continues as an accompanist and piano teacher and directs a choir at the Summerset retirement village in Aotea, Porirua. She regularly connects groups from Tawa College with the Summerset group for community concerts, fostering multigenerational interactions.
Her passion is in community musical performance, and when asked what type of music she likes, she simply says, “whatever I am working with at the time.” While accompanist for the Wellington Bach Choir, she also directed an original Rock musical, Saultalk, which travelled throughout New Zealand. Elton John, who flautist James Galway calls the ‘Schubert of our day’ is a favourite, who she has seen in action five times.
“I often said to students, don’t say you ‘don’t like something’, say you ‘don’t understand it.’ It’s not about the genre, it’s about figuring out what it is you don’t understand about it.”
Shona has taught a generation of musical leaders, as well as a number of musical stars in both Aotearoa and internationally.
“All three music teachers at Tawa College are my former students. Now Head of Music, Murray Cameron directs the Tawa College Dawn Chorus, which I began in 1982, and the Community Festival. Charlotte Murray is a well-known barbershop director—known for her work with the Musical Island Boys, who became World Barbershop champions in 2014. And Isaac Stone is a brilliant teacher, conductor, arranger, and composer.”
Shona keeps in touch with many of her ex-Tawa College students. She taught emerging opera singer Emily Mwila, who recently completed a run in the chorus of Porgy & Bess at the Met in New York, as well as a cameo role in the film, For the Love of Figaro, alongside Joanna Lumley.
“Emily, who is also a talented jazz singer, is just one of many students who I catch up with regularly on Facebook. I love this way of communicating with students who I would otherwise lose touch with.”
Shona says that she honours people for the musical skills they have and encourages students not to narrow their perspectives too early on. “And music can lead to other aspects of the creative arts—one of my past students is now a famous set designer.”
She has contributed incredibly to the community of Tawa and has never subscribed to the idea that you must move around to grow in skill. “I liked the idea of a music village. If you stay in the same place, you need to keep evolving. You can’t rest on your laurels.”
That is not to say she’s never left Tawa, having travelled internationally with her own choirs, and as accompanist for the NZ Secondary Schools’ Choir for a decade. “I learned so much from workshops with overseas Music Educators, as well as through festivals like New Zealand’s annual ‘Big Sings’. And my Tawa College students have gone out into communities all over the world to bring others the joy and musical skills they have been taught at the College.”
She has some advice for anyone studying music now. “Explore and participate in your cultural world—all arts are related. Does your suburb have a community choir, a folk club, a ukulele group? If you want to do music, don’t just do it alone—take the opportunity at music school to work collaboratively as well.”
She also advises to be thankful for and foster the gifts you’ve got. “There will always be others more advanced with their skills, but it’s so important to celebrate and grow the talents we each have, at whatever stage we are at. We never stop learning, no matter how young or old. Embrace that, and value the enrichment that comes with following your passion while always encouraging the passion of those you journey with through life.”