Showing children the world with music, the story of Suzzette Ortiz in Camden, and soon to be a book
Ortiz stays teaching part-time at Artístas y Músicos Latinoamericanos in Philly while also occasionally performing after 27 years in Camden.
Suzzette Ortiz came to the mainland U.S. from Bayamon, Puerto Rico to get her Master’s degree in Music Education and Music Composition at Temple University.
Ever since, she’s worked to combine her love of teaching and music and elevate voices for aspiring musicians in New Jersey.
“I grew up in a large family who loved music, but I ended up being the only one to go forward with making music as my career,” Ortiz said in a recent interview with AL DIA News.
Ortiz is now an accomplished singer, songwriter, and musician. She plays an assortment of instruments including the piano, accordion, the harp, and the Native American flute.
“I love playing so many instruments, but I also wanted to teach,” said Ortiz.
When she first got to New Jersey, it was for a teaching job at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy in Camden. Ortiz ended up staying for 27 years before retiring.
Students she taught and mentored over the years had the opportunity to head to international competitions that would change their lives forever.
“I ended up taking those children to choir competitions in Italy, Ghana, and Poland,” she said.
Ortiz said Most of the students she taught had never even crossed the bridge to go to Philadelphia, so it was crucial to give them an opportunity to escape Camden for a few days.
“It was heartbreaking to see, but I felt very proud to be their teacher,” said Ortiz. “I wanted to show them that nothing is impossible, and they figured that out quickly.”
Still, that experience as a music teacher in Camden made her want to share her memories with others.
Ortiz is now in the middle stages of writing a book about her time as a music teacher.
“I have about 13 chapters written so far,” she said.
The book will cover her journey to becoming an urban music teacher and offer anecdotes from her experiences getting children to realize their music potential.
As previously mentioned, part of that realization came from going on trips. Ortiz and her students would often have to raise money to support them.
“I wanted to take them out of the city and show them what they can have if they really work for it,” she said.
In one instance, they performed in front of a Walmart to raise money for a trip to Italy for a competition.
“It taught them that nothing in life comes free, and you have to work for what you really want,” she said.
Despite anxiously awaiting their journey to Italy, the Iraq war was in full effect, and not every parent was on board to send their children overseas.
“I had 25 singers who were supposed to attend the event in Italy, and out of those 25 singers, only eight went,” she said.
Even though very few of them attended, they still won the competition.
“This win opened my students’ eyes,” said Ortiz.
In her interview with AL DÍA, the former teacher looked back on the triumph as one of the most impactful moments of her life, and made her realize that her work in teaching inner city youth was her passion.
“Looking back at that moment makes me cry just thinking about it,” she said.
To this day, Ortiz still keeps in contact with her students and admits that seeing them become leaders in their community is something that she will always cherish.
“I am grateful to see them succeed,” she said. “I feel so proud that I had a little bit to do with that.”
Her love of teaching also hasn’t stopped.
Even though Ortiz has retired as a full-time music teacher in Camden, she still teaches part-time at Artístas y Músicos Latinoamericanos (AMLA), a nonprofit organization associated with Esperanza.
She is also its artistic director and organizes musical events.
“It's a beautiful program and I love it very much. I can still offer that musical gift to city children,” said Ortiz.
The organization focuses on teaching Latino children the art of music and singing by providing them with private weekly lessons.
Teaching the basics will always be a part of the process, but Ortiz maintains her aspirations of allowing students to use their musical talents to take them beyond their immediate neighborhoods.
“My dream will always be to take children out of the city,” she said.
On top of working part-time at AMLA, she is also keeping true to her roots by singing and playing the piano when opportunities arise.
“Mike is the sweetest guy, he is well respected in the jazz community,” she said. “He is fascinated by the Latin culture and he plays his bass as if he was a Latino.”
Ortiz isn't new to this scene though, she has been singing since she was a child in Puerto Rico.
“I have been writing music and making music that represents the childhood that I had growing up in Puerto Rico,” she said.
For her, the musical journey is not quite over. There is still a lot that she wants to do and accomplish.
“I have been quite busy writing my book, and creating choir music,” said Ortiz.
She is hoping to finish her book sometime before the pandemic is over.
As for teaching music, that will never stop for Ortiz.