Leadership InSight: Interview with Helen Chao-Casano

In our new Leadership InSight series, we ask arts education leaders to share advice and the experiences that have helped them become successful leaders. Helen Chao-Casano is Director of the Music School at the Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. She has also served on the boards of Music Teachers National Association, as the Southwest Division Director, and the Honolulu Chamber Music Series.

What lead you into the field of community arts education? How long have you been at your current position and with the Punahou School?

I was always interested in music teaching and performance, and I also have some previous experience in production. So I think it was just kind of a natural outgrowth of those experiences that led me to my current administrative position in the arts.

Early in my career, I actually had the opportunity of establishing my own early childhood arts program at a nonprofit school. And I found that that was really fun, to not only shape the curriculum and mentor and train teachers, but also use it as a vehicle for community arts outreach with a lot of young families. So we had programs in Kindermusik, in creative drama, and creative movement.

And now I’m in my nineteenth year at Punahou School, my tenth year as the director of the music school and co-curricular performing arts program director.

Are there particular qualities you find necessary to being a leader in Community Arts Education that you think are unique to this field, as opposed to working in other fields?

Well, my answer is yes and no. Because I think that all leaders, regardless of their field, need to be creative and collaborative and committed. Also, having a healthy sense of humor and the ability to appreciate diverse perspectives is critical to the work. But unique to community arts education is the degree of empathy, and the expression of empathy in action, because the arts is a very, very personal field.

What professional projects or training experiences have been impactful on your leadership development?

Well, certainly CAELI [the Guild’s Community Arts Education Leadership Institute]. I’m an alum of the class of 2015. CAELI was a big experience, a big turning point and landmark in my development as a leader. I’m very grateful for it. I met some wonderful mentors, as well as developed a different circle of colleagues that I wouldn’t have had access to in my current position.

Through much of my career, I’ve also done a lot of volunteer and elected service in state teaching associations. I’ve also had some board service with the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). And I serve on the board of a local chamber music series. And I think all the projects that come with board service are built-in professional development because you have to engage people, enroll people in an idea and make it happen. So I feel like I learn a lot professionally from that volunteer service.

And of course, other aspects of professional development would include continuing to attend conferences, whether the Guild’s or MTNA’s, and meeting colleagues and attending interesting sessions and continually learning.

Is there one piece of leadership advice that has particularly resonated with you and that you’ve been able to put into practice in your work?

There is one piece of advice I received from my pedagogy professor, Fran Larimer at Northwestern University. She had this really short life motto. She said, “You have to show up.” You just have to show up. And through that, I just—I think it was very encouraging to me, a reminder to be present and also engaged in the work, in whatever I’m doing. And also to lead by example and by service. That is sage wisdom in very few words but you can apply it in many, many ways.

Finally for you personally, what does it take to be a strong leader?

I think learning to be true to myself and to my organization’s values and being consistent in action have meant a lot to me. And I feel that this really helps build an environment of trust in your team.

And I strive to always treat people with respect and compassion. So those are the elements that mean the most to me, and when I need to take time to reflect and refocus, that’s what I come back to—just being true to myself and to my values. CAELI really helped with that too.

Reflecting over my own experience, I definitely feel like you always have to continue to grow. I mean, you never have it down. The same is true in music. You have to keep working. You have to keep striving. And I think it’s wonderful to have opportunities to meet people that are inspiring to you, whether they are artists, whether they are educators, whether they are wonderful leaders in this field or other fields. In other words, just keep taking lessons.

And that means approaching your work with a lot of humility and accepting that it’s OK to be wrong. It’s OK to fail because if you’re not trying, you’re not going to fail, right? So you have to fail because that’s evidence you’re still growing. So as much as leaders and performers don’t like to fail, you have to accept failure. You have to be willing to try and take risks.

And I think that’s the thing that keeps me on an even keel. That even if I’ve been in this job for ten years, I’m going to fail sometimes and it’s OK, because that means I’m still trying. I’m still trying to innovate, try new ideas. Sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it won’t, and as long as you’re still being true to yourself and your values, you’re going to be fine. Don’t be so married to being right, but be right in being open—be willing to change through what you’ve learned. That’s how I survive on a daily basis.

Published: February 14, 2017