While sitting in Molly Countermine’s advanced infancy development class on Wednesday, I can’t help but notice how much the teacher uses her hands as she speaks. She mimes how to hold a baby and throws her hands in the air to stress a point or add to the punchline of a joke.
It’s quite a show.
Countermine, who has been teaching infant and child development courses at Penn State since 1998, seems to hold the class’s attention without even trying. Her comprehensive knowledge on the course’s subject matter – she has a master’s degree in communicative disorders and a doctoral degree in human development and family studies – is only overshadowed by her subtle passion for it.
Academics aside, Countermine has three children, so she also uses first-hand experiences to connect with her students in class. In fact, she talks so much about her family that her husband, Rene, has become well-known among her students.
“People see us in the grocery store and they’re like ‘Rennneee!’ because they think they know him because they’ve heard so much about him in class,” she says the next day, laughing.
In about eight hours, though, Countermine will be in front of more students at the Phryst, fronting the band Maxwell Strait. The art of rock n’ roll is a slightly different curriculum, but the singer’s passion remains unchanged.
“That’s like instant gratification for me, for you…for everybody who’s there,” she says about performing at the Phryst. “Everybody’s having a good time. I’m there to just basically facilitate the fun.”
And that she does. The band features Countermine on vocals, Ted McCloskey on guitar, JT Thompson on keyboards, Jack Wilkinson on drums (currently Chris Rattie while Wilkinson recovers from a torn rotator cuff) and Countermine’s husband, Rene Witzke, on bass. Much like in the classroom, Countermine’s hands are nonstop, whether it be adding emphasis to the “shoot me” sounds at the beginning of the Beatles’ “Come Together” or attacking the bongos during the funky break in “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.
Even though she was raised in Auburn, Alabama, Countermine first got into music as a child in State College. Her mother, Sherry Corneal, was a local musician and her father, Terry Countermine, founded the Phyrst Phamly, which was a Saturday night staple in the State College music scene from 1969 to 2009. At 19, while attending Auburn University, Countermine joined a band and “got bit hard” by the profession – so much so that she almost dropped out of college. However, her father offered some advice.
“He basically said ‘you just have to finish your degree’,” she says. “You have to take a step back and think about what you want from life. Do you want to be a celebrity? What do you want? Do you want to make music? Because you can make music your whole life.”
Countermine took that advice seriously. She continued to make music while studying for her master’s degree at West Chester University. She was singing when she returned to State College and began to teach at Penn State. Her doctoral program was tough, but there were gigs to be played. Her three children each shared the stage with her at separate times…while she was pregnant with them.
“Sometimes, what got tough was to continue with the PhD,” she says.”Because I’m a musician.”
The self-taught musician juggles life as a mother and teacher with performing gigs about five nights a week with different groups. Aside from the hard-rocking Maxwell Strait, Countermine performs with variations of Pure Cane Sugar, another local band, and gets together with McCloskey for a more stripped-down, unplugged performance.
There are only two things, she says, that keep her going week to week: very little sleep, and her husband, Rene, who she first met within the State College music scene.
“Rene is an amazing person, and I couldn’t do any of this without him,” she says. “He is the perfect person for me. And I hope I am for him, too.”
After the three and a half hour show with Maxwell Strait on Thursday, Countermine will start her Friday by helping her children get ready for school. Then she’s back on campus for class. She tells me that this is her fourth interview this semester about her unique situation. To her, the attention is a little strange.
“I love all of it, so none of it feels like work,” she says. “I love being a mom, it doesn’t feel like work. I love being a wife, it doesn’t feel like work. I love being a teacher, it doesn’t feel like work. Then I’ll go to the Phryst, and it doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like fun.”
“That’s what I always tell my students – the key to life is to figure out what you love to do and figure out a way to get paid for it,” she adds. “And some way I’ve managed to do that. I’m not really aspiring to be a big star.”
And with that, she casually waves her hand in the air, deflecting any recognition for what she considers to be a normal life.