Community remembers Rebecca Tyree, beloved VCU music educator

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When organizers of a memorial service for Rebecca Tyree decided to form a makeshift chorus for the occasion, they put out a call for volunteers. Tyree had served as an assistant professor of choral music education and choral ensembles in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts until her death on May 24 after a bicycle accident, and the chorus seemed like a fitting tribute to her work. The organizers’ intentions were modest.

“We thought, ‘Oh, maybe some people will want to sing,’” said Erin Freeman, D.M.A., director of choral activities at VCU.

Then the replies started to come in. Former and current students from VCU. Her faculty colleagues. Local high school students she privately tutored. Performers from the Richmond Symphony Chorus. Representatives of SPARC Live Art, where she oversaw a program for special needs children. Members of the RVA Street Singers, a choir of homeless people she helped organize. Even former students and colleagues from Hermitage High School, where she had taught nearly 20 years ago.

By the time rehearsal started in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, more than 170 people had assembled to sing in Tyree’s honor. Freeman said the astonishing turnout was an apt illustration of Tyree’s profound and wide-ranging impact on the Richmond music community and her ability to heal others, even after her death.

Rebecca "Becky" Tyree. (Photo courtesy VCU School of the Arts)
Rebecca "Becky" Tyree. (Photo courtesy VCU School of the Arts)

“All of those singers came together at rehearsal from so many parts of her life and we learned our music and sang together and it was very powerful,” Freeman said. “I think that was the moment when a lot of us realized, ‘OK, it’s going to be OK. We’re going to figure this out. And the reason we’re going to be able to figure out this great loss is because she taught everyone here how to do it.’”

Tyree, who joined the VCU music education faculty in 2000, had a knack for saying the right word at the right time. When Freeman had a big concert, Tyree inevitably would send her a text shortly beforehand, referring to her as “WW,” short for “Wonder Woman,” and telling Freeman she was thinking about her and to remember to have a great time.

Tyree’s devotion to helping anyone who needed it led her to use a heavy family heirloom jug to prop open her office door, making sure anyone who passed knew they were welcome.

“She was incredibly supportive of everybody she was ever around,” Freeman said. “She wanted everyone to feel joy and to feel like they were doing their best. And so with students and colleagues alike, she was always saying, ‘You’re so great at what you do and we’re so lucky to have you.’”

When Sandy Goldie, Ph.D., assistant professor of music education at VCU, moved to Richmond to join the faculty four years ago, Tyree helped her find a home and settle into her new surroundings. They soon became close friends. 

“Becky had a way of making you feel as though you were the most important person in the world to her,” Goldie said. 

Goldie said Tyree particularly sought to help those who were suffering or struggling in some way. If a colleague needed a lift, Tyree reached out to them. If a student was having a difficult time, Tyree helped them find their footing. She said that strong inclination to help was part of what drove Tyree to work with SPARC Live Art and the RVA Street Singers.

“She would find people who needed love and support the most and she would connect with them,” Goldie said.

That emphasis on personal connection linked all of Tyree’s projects. Music education was never just about music to Tyree, Goldie said, it was about service, inclusion and empathy. Goldie said students in her psychology in music class have written about the way that working with Tyree, particularly through the SPARC Live Art program, has not only broadened their understanding of what music education can be — it has also expanded their belief in who they can be as people.

“The impact she’s had on music educators in Virginia is just immeasurable,” Goldie said. “She embodied the spirit of what music education at its finest should be — positive, life-changing, kind, inclusive, connective and joyful, and there are generations of music students across Virginia and the world who will experience a different kind of music education because of the relationships with and impact she had on the lives of pre-service teachers at VCU.”

Becky had a way of making you feel as though you were the most important person in the world to her.

Unsurprisingly, the all-star chorus performed brilliantly at the memorial service Wednesday. The church was packed, brimming with song. VCU music faculty provided the instrumental music. Students from the American Choral Directors Association managed the logistics for the chorus. Members of Phi Mu Alpha, a music-focused fraternity, served as ushers and parking attendants. Goldie was among those helping to organize the reception.

“It was a really powerful and healing service, especially to have something that united so many people in that way,” Goldie said. “That was really her life work — healing people and bringing them together through song. The people from all of these different parts of her life banded together to show this incredible love for her and for each other.”

The night of Tyree’s death, a collection of her VCU students were gathered at SPARC for a rehearsal with special needs children for an upcoming performance in SPARC’s annual Live Art benefit at the Altria Theater. The students were waiting for Tyree to arrive. Goldie and James Wiznerowicz, interim chair of the music department, drove to SPARC to deliver the news. The stunned VCU students sat in a circle with Goldie and Wiznerowicz, sharing favorite memories of Tyree, and wept together.

“I know that scenario has been playing out in little groups like that one across Virginia,” Goldie said. “She just reached so many people.”

Goldie and Freeman have attended subsequent rehearsals to work with the students and performers and carry on their late colleague’s work. Sunday’s sold-out Live Art concert, which will feature Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz, will be dedicated to Tyree.