Balancing Ambitions: At Emerson, Spanish professor finds a voice in both song and language

strongSydney Lester, Beacon Correspondent/strong

At three years old, Michelle Abadia was helping tune her family’s piano.  At five, she was singing along to Christmas hymns in both Spanish and English. She was the only visually impaired member of the San Juan Children’s Choir, the fifth-best in the world at the time, according to Abadia. There, she learned the basics of ear training, piano, guitar, and recorder.

Now, the Emerson professor teaches the Spanish language she grew up with, and stretches her musical roots to include Latin American folk, classical, jazz, and contemporary music, performing in her own concerts that showcase her talent in whatever way she chooses.

It is obvious to those who know the professor that music has always been the love of her life, but teaching college students has formed a soft spot that she never could have anticipated.  Growing up with a passion for music and an aptitude for multilingual studies complicated Abadia’s young adulthood, but aided her career choices later on.

As a college-bound student, Abadia needed to figure out whether she should quench her insatiable hunger for music or pursue a life of language.

“I wanted to be a musician. That’s what I breathed; that’s what I thought every day,” said Abadia.

She faced constant pressure from those around her to choose a practical career. Some did not believe that she should choose music, “so that I didn’t live in a cardboard box,” said Abadia.

The solution was a double degree of language and music, so that she could hone her guitar and singing skills, and still get an education that would help pay the bills. Abadia already spoke Spanish thanks to her childhood spent in Caguas, Puerto Rico, and before long, she was fluent in French, had a grasp of German grammar, and could manage a bit of Italian.

After studying music and language at Boston College and attending Tufts University for a master’s in French literature with a minor in international studies, she rounded out her education with an MFA in music at New England Conservatory. In her mid-20s she sported a full cache of diplomas, but no job. To support herself so that she could start her musical career, she worked as a judicial language interpreter, serving different courts, until she started applying for teaching jobs. However, music was always at the forefront of her mind.

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“I sent resumés all over creation: labels, cruise ships, agents, colleges,” she said. “I have two different kinds of resumés.”

Pursuing a career in music was not easy for Abadia, but she could find no reason to give up on her passion.  She began receiving offers for teaching jobs, first at Framingham State, then Babson, Wellesley, Lasell, Roxbury Community College, and Mass Bay Community College. All these schools lacked a passion for the arts, though. In all of her years teaching rather than performing, she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

She hadn’t found it, that is, until she found Emerson.  When her voicemail informed her that the writing, literature and publishing department wanted her to be one of its language professors, she was excited to see if the school matched its reputation.

She immediately fell in love.

“I finally found a college where the students get it,” Abadia said.  “I like the craziness of it all … I get a feeling that everyone is really intense at what they do. It’s just like me.”

For Abadia, the most beautiful thing about Emerson was that it bridged the gap between her two lives.

“Emerson College gives me the opportunity to perform and do music,” she said. “It’s my fourth year and I haven’t been kicked out yet.”

At Emerson, Professor Abadia is offered chances to perform and collaborate with groups, such as the cast of emWomen of Sand/em.  By singing and strumming her guitar, she added haunting depth to the pulled-from-the-headlines staged reading about femicide in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in September.

To those with an ardor for music, Abadia offers up some advice.

“Work at your craft,” she said. “You may not be as famous, or earn as much money. Sometimes I think about giving up, and then I wake up the next morning, and I sing. And then I think, ‘I can’t.’”

emLester can be reached at [email protected]/em