Paulk is More than a Pianist
Kayla Paulk has accomplished amazing things in her career including visiting different places around the world and meeting many people, but her most important attributes are her creativity and kindness while connecting with others.
Kayla Paulk, a vocal coach and collaborative piano accompanist at Eastern New Mexico University, gives credit to her parents for molding her into the person she is today. “I feel like my strengths in my career come from my parents even though they both weren’t musicians,” she said. Her father was a pilot and she believes that’s the “technical” part of what she does. “But even though he was very mathematical and very technical, he had the biggest heart… the most generous heart of all and I feel like I inherited that from him.” Her mother was a guidance counselor in addition to being a musician. “I feel like her desire to uplift or connect to people... I definitely get that from her.”
Paulk has lived in many parts of the world. Her dad was a Navy pilot and they lived overseas for some time. She said she was “made in Hong Kong” when her family was stationed there, but right before she was born, her parents moved back to the D.C. area. She was born in Maryland. She started playing piano when she was 9 years old.
“My mom is a pianist, and I begged for piano lessons when we lived in Cuba and she wouldn’t teach me.” Her mother told her she did not want to be the person who taught her plus the person who made her practice.
“She wanted to just be the person to make me practice.” They waited for piano lessons until they moved to Florida. She had been waiting for this for five years.
“I always say I was a late bloomer,” Paulk said.
Her middle school choir director inspired her. She reached out one day and asked Paulk to accompany the choir. This was the first time she was asked to do this.
“Not only did I like it, but I also happened to be good at it.” She said that her teacher inspired her because she gave her the opportunity. “From that moment it was just like a rocket,” she said, “I just knew that I loved to do that.” In high school, she got all her required courses out of the way so that by her senior year, she took 7 straight periods of choir and band.
“That was my goal, ‘I’m just going to do music my senior year.’” She accomplished her goal and in addition was on the varsity soccer team. “I totally accompanied my senior year, and then it was done, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
She continued on this path throughout college as a solo pianist. “I memorized, I did solo recitals, and while I was good at that I liked working with people way more.” One of the important aspirations to Paulk is that she loves people and loves connecting with others. “Accompanying was a way that allowed me to make music but also connect with the people.” She added that this also helps uplift people and make them better than what they can be on their own.
Her husband is the biggest inspiration in her life. “I am challenged by watching his example to try to be the best wife, the best teacher, and the best musician I can be because he always exudes not only the best in what he does, but in his love for people.” Paulk feels like he helps support her to be the best she can be.
She and her husband, Jason Paulk, have been married for 20 years. They met in college at Stetson University in Florida. She taught there for 10 years as the director of accompanying; this was her first teaching job. The Paulks have been teaching at ENMU for 15 years, and according to Paulk, they love it. “This community as a whole is just absolutely amazing.” She added that the community is like a family and promotes all that is good within the area. When they came to Eastern, they weren't sure how long they would be here, but once they started investing in their students, they thought they could stay and try to grow something.
“It is definitely teamwork,” she said, “Through the leadership of our department chair, Mr. Seifert, he has set the tone and the environment for that to happen.” She stated that the vocal area has worked hard. “When we came, there was 5-7 voice majors and there are now over 50.” She added that this is not only because of her and her husband’s influence, but it’s the departments work in recruiting students, building relationships with students, and working hard to help the degree become valuable.
“We haven’t done it on our own... but we’re proud to be a part of it.”
When speaking to her students, Paulk tries to remember what it felt like to be in their shoes so that she can get the students to think and grow. “It’s interesting being a teacher especially as you get older... as a teacher you become more and more removed from the age of your students and so I think it's important for teachers to try and remember what it felt like to be a student.” She added that college is a time to grow, discover yourself, learn new things, and build relationships. While all of this is important, Paulk encourages students to build mentoring relationships.
“Try to get everything you can out of your studies and learn as much as you can because you're going to need that knowledge going forward... the most important advice would be to develop mentoring relationships.” She mentioned that often students may be afraid to ask for help and advice, but she reminded that it's always okay to ask questions and build relationships with teachers.
“When you do that you open up a door to learn as much as possible beyond book knowledge about how to go on in life.” She added that when it comes time for you to go on into your future and your career, then you’ll have someone to recommend you because you took the initiative to build a relationship.
“What you're doing right now in school sets the course for what the rest of your life is going to look like... it's always the better choice to be kind to people, why would you choose anything but that?”
Paulk says she is a creative person. “I tend to have the creative ideas; not just with music but I like to do creative projects and that sort of thing.” She loves connecting with people.
“Like I said, I absolutely love people and through my music all I ever wanted to do is make music with other people.” She pointed out that her idea of fun is not sitting in a practice room by herself.
“Although I do a lot of that to get ready to prepare to work with people, I'd much rather be making music with people.”
Nathaniel Minton, a freshman at ENMU met Paulk at Choir Camp in 2017. “Mrs. Paulk inspires me greatly,” he said, “She is a kind-hearted woman who is dedicated in many ways to her passion.” Minton stated that it’s obvious she has worked to be the piano player and accompanist she is today.
“She was also the accompanist of the New Mexico All State Choir, which is where I found much inspiration from her in High School.” He said he remembers watching her play difficult pieces during All State and was “blown away” with her talent. He spoke of a recent event that happened in University Singers.
“She had an idea of having all the students in class take some time to write thankful things to each other on papers she wrote for everyone,” he said, “she has a very kind heart, and shows a lot of care for others.” Minton has enjoyed having her as an accompanist for multiple ensembles in his life.
Kayla Paulk has played at Carnegie Hall, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, and many countries such as Canada (Newfoundland), Norway, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, France, Switzerland, Belgium and China. In the summer of 2020, she was supposed to perform in Spain, Portugal and Africa with the University Singers, but the trip was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Paulk's career has given her a wide range of opportunities. Such opportunities include making music with thousands of people.
“Many of whom I would not have met, had it not been for music.” She said some of the most rewarding of those experiences have been with people who do not speak English. “I do not speak their language, but we can communicate through music.”
Some unique opportunities Paulk has had is serving as the monthly open call auditions pianist for Disney World in Florida, as well as National Auditions pianist where she flew to various domestic and international locations. She was also the pianist for auditions for a Jimmy Buffett show that he (Mr. Buffett) was trying to make into a musical back in the early 2000s; it is now a touring musical. She added that the children choirs she’s been able to work with, have been infused with joy and creativity. While performing with the Stetson University Children’s Choir in St. John’s Newfoundland, she had the rare privilege of singing for Queen Elizabeth II.
“I was so excited when she came to speak with us and having not been taught proper protocol for meeting a Queen, I walked up to her with my hand extended and said ‘hello,’ she graciously took my hand and tolerated me.” According to Paulk, this was not one of her “finer” moments.
“Mrs. Paulk is a great encouragement to me,” said Taylor Bassing, a sophomore at ENMU. “During my time at Eastern, she has made me feel welcomed and accepted.” Bassing said Paulk is a joy to work with because she is creative, kind and a good collaborator.
“She is always listening and providing constructive feedback to help students improve their music making abilities.” She added that Mrs. Paulk helps create a nurturing and warm environment in the music department.
According to Bassing, Paulk is amazing at connecting people. While working on a piece in Chamber Singers called Noél Ayisyen, she said Paulk took the initiative to contact a former student to help the choir learn the text and pronounce the Haitian Creole words correctly.
“In my experience with Mrs. Paulk, she seems very eager to understand the meaning and creative process behind each piece the choirs perform.” Bassing said that Paulk makes time to research and contact living composers, which is inspiring to her. “The information she gathers and shares allows me to have a deeper connection with the music I'm performing.”
Bassing said Paulk is not only talented, but humble. “She does not use her artistic gifts for personal gain, but for the benefit of others,” she said, “she spends her time collaborating with undergraduates because she cares about students and wants to see them succeed.” Bassing shared that Paulk inspires her to become a kind, giving and informed human.