Patricia Fleitas’ story is the classic story of immigrants who came to America to escape oppression and built lives in the new land.
But, as director of choral and vocal studies at Florida Atlantic University, Fleitas has taken her role a step further and inspired generations of singers, each of whom has trained with her for a career in music.
“You have to be an educator, an artist and a taskmaster,” said Fleitas of her role as teacher.
Students are “the reason on a personal basis that I’m seeking to satisfy my musical development and experiences,” Fleitas said. “They happen to be my partners in that.”
“I have a goal to take our FAU choral program outside Florida and even outside the U.S.,” Fleitas said. “It would be a double gift, a highly enhanced opportunity, if our students were involved in that.”
Those are lofty goals for Fleitas, a Highland Beach resident, who said there was no choral ensemble at FAU when she arrived in 1992. Now, the school’s choral programs are well regarded regionally, if not statewide.
And Fleitas is especially proud that she has helped to start ¡Cantemos!, an a capella ensemble that will perform music of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Latin America.
“I even have a Russian in the group,” she says. “It’s all about talent and desire.”
Fleitas’ mother lived with her five years, until her death last February, but Fleitas, who has no children of her own, is close to her late brother’s children. And then there are all of those students.
“I have a lot of surrogate grandchildren and children,” Fleitas laughs. “I am full with children and young adults.”
— Scott Simmons
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. Well, I grew up in different places. My birthplace is Havana, Cuba. In 1962, my parents decided to save my brother and me from the communist regime that Fidel Castro had implemented in 1959. So, my early years were in Havana and my memories of those years are wonderful and beautiful ones. I was in a Catholic American school, Merici Academy, so when we moved to Miami, I was not as lost as my brother, who did not know a word of English yet.
At Shenandoah Junior High School, since I could not continue my piano lessons due to the lack of funds, I decided to sign up for orchestra and play the violin. It was through that experience in the eighth grade that I decided that some day I would be a music teacher like Mrs. Naruns, my inspiration to become a music teacher. Since my parents’ ritual was to listen to “classical” music before they retired to bed, my involvement with this orchestra bridged the miles that separated us. I had music back in my life and I had part of them back in my life as well; my letters to them were rich with information about the orchestra’s activities and repertoire, Mrs. Naruns’ assignments, and, of course, learning to play the violin.
Unfortunately, the next stage did not involve music. When they came to the U.S., Dad had to study for his foreign exam in medicine so that he could practice here. That year actually bought Tony and me some time before we had to face another move. This one was in some ways more difficult for me. We moved to a small town in Texas — Marlin. Because I was a sophomore and did not play a wind or percussion instrument, I was not allowed to be in band. But since I spent all summers at my aunt’s in Miami all through my high school years, I was able to take violin lessons in Miami.
In December 1969, Dad went into private practice with a group in Bryan, Texas. Bryan has been our home since then. However, when I graduated from high school and decided that I wanted to major in music education, Texas A&M University did not offer any degrees in music. After many discussions at home, I was allowed to attend Barry University in Miami.
My brother stayed in Bryan and raised his family there while I was in and out of town for a few years until I came to work at Florida Atlantic University in 1992.
Q. What are some of the highlights of your career?
A. I have thoroughly enjoyed my entire career. The real highlights have been the incredible students I have met and had the privilege to teach; a very humbling experience and an incredible reward! Having said this, some of the highlights that come to mind are the international tours I have experienced with student ensembles, the numerous performances we share on an annual basis, and the opportunities I have had to conduct as guest conductor or clinician. Most recently, however, was the honor of conducting the FAU Symphony Chorus and the Palm Beach Symphony in a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Bruckner’s Te Deum last spring. That was the third time that I had the honor of working with such fine players. In previous years I have conducted the same ensembles in Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Mass in C minor, and Puccini’s Gloria from his Mesa di Gloria. All of these experiences and so many others have enriched my life. Simply said, every opportunity has the potential of becoming a highlight so that is rather motivating.
Q. What works are you most looking forward to performing in the coming season?
A. We have all kinds of music programmed for this year and I have not even completed the plans for the spring semester. We will be performing at our new president’s Inaugural events the week of Oct. 25. The Department of Music will present a concert in her honor on Oct. 24 at 3 p.m. in the Carole and Barry Kaye Auditorium on the Boca campus. At that concert, I will be conducting the FAU Chamber Singers in what I believe will be a very effective program and a positive way to introduce our students to Dr. Mary Jane Saunders (FAU’s new president). For her inauguration on Oct. 29, we will be performing with the FAU Wind Ensemble a setting of two Emily Dickinson poems for chorus and wind ensemble by one of our faculty composers and former chair of the department, Dr. Stuart Glazer. Also, all the choral ensembles at FAU will be performing with the FAU Symphony Orchestra a piece titled Kaddish. Although this performance will be under the baton of Dr. Laura Joella on Nov. 6, I am certainly looking forward to wear the hat of chorus master.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Highland Beach?
A. In all honesty, it was accidental, but a very fortunate accident.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Highland Beach?
A. The view of the ocean, the fact that it is quiet, where I live which is at Ambassador South, and that it is so close to campus.
Q. What book are you reading now?
A. Well, the last month has not allowed me to do too much reading. I bought a couple of books and was also given a couple by friends but the beginning of the academic year is pretty hectic in any department of music, I assure you.
This weekend I will be real happy if I get to read a PhD proposal from one of our students and hopefully some of the materials I brought home from my research trip to Colombia this past August.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. I love to read quotes so I really find inspiration in many. I have a common issue with quotes and jokes. I don’t seem to recall them when needed. I have one by me right now that says, “The song that we hear with our ears is only the song that is sung in our hearts.”
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. Absolutely! My parents were incredible supporters and mentors of my career choices and everything I did. I grew up with a lot of love from them as well as the aunt and grandmother who were also so active in our lives until their respective passing.
My mentor in music is my professor from the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Morris J. Beachy. I will forever love him and be grateful to him for the knowledge that he so patiently and generously imparted and for his continuous support and encouragement to date. He has been a real blessing in my life.
Q. If your life story were made into a movie, who would you want to play you?
A. Well, this is difficult because my choice does not resemble me by any stretch of the imagination, to say the least! However, based on her ability to balance characters that require humor, light-heartedness and depth, I would say Julia Roberts.
Q. Who or what makes you laugh?
A. I actually love to laugh so, a lot of things make me laugh. However, I have a cousin, Mati, with whom I laugh a lot. It does not take much for us to share some serious laughter. I assure you that we find laughter in things and events that most people would not.