Penn State Professor ‘Finds Life Purpose’ In The Classroom And On Stage
While THON 2023 was a magical weekend that resulted in a record-breaking $15,006,132.46 raised For The Kids, it was also a unique opportunity for local State College musicians to showcase their talents in front of thousands of people. If you stopped by THON this year, you might’ve caught the show-stopping performance by Ted and the Hi-Fi’s as it serenaded the Bryce Jordan Center with sing-along throwback hits.
Leading the band’s performance on stage was Molly Countermine, a musician and Penn State professor in the College of Health and Human Development. Whether it’s teaching in a classroom or performing her songs at the Phyrst, Countermine does what she loves.
Countermine was always destined for the stage. While other kids were reading bedtime stories, she was being lulled to sleep by the sound of her father’s ukulele. Countermine’s father was a musician throughout most of her childhood, giving her a front-row seat to band life, performance, and the art of music.
“There was always music in our house. My father was in bands all my life and that was just a normal thing to me,” Countermine said. “They would practice at our house. I would sit and watch and sometimes I would even join along. He would even have my sister and I sing songs for people when they came over to visit the house. So music was always there and I always knew I wanted to sing.”
The love for music inspired Countermine to get involved in any opportunity to sing that she could. She was a part of the school choir, performed in musicals, and began joining local bands in college.
The first band Countermine ever joined was a small trio originally named Red Eye Butter, which was later renamed Maxwell Strait. The group featured local artist Ted McCloskey, who Countermine has played with throughout her career. When Countermine’s husband and another drummer joined the mix, the Ted and Hi-Fi’s was created.
Being a part of so many bands wasn’t easy for Countermine. Eventually, the effort forced her to reevaluate her commitments.
“In 2015, I was in Maxwell Strait, a band called Pure Cane Sugar, the Hi-Fis, and was still playing as a duo with Ted. This meant I was playing around six nights a week. I just couldn’t sustain it physically. My body was telling me I was done,” Countermine said. “So I left Pure Cane Sugar and we decided to end Maxwell Strait and have me just join the Hi-Fi’s full-time.”
Years later, the Hi-Fi’s performance at THON was a long-awaited experience for Countermine. The group had been asked many times in the past to play THON, but conflicting schedules and time slots made it impossible to take the stage. Outside of a virtual Battle of the Bands appearance in 2021, the group had never been showcased at the event.
The group’s wish to play THON in person was granted in 2023 by a 4:30 a.m. slot on Saturday morning that worked with all of the members’ schedules. Despite spending the prior night playing at the Phryst, the Hi-Fi’s still showed out for the THON crowd.
“It was just so easy for me to let go of any nerves. I was just thinking of how great the cause is and how so many in the crowd were my former or current students,” Countermine said. “We picked a great set with good songs, and we were on cloud nine when it was over because we could tell the response was good. Some students the Tuesday after THON came up and asked when I was going on tour so they could follow me.”
After teaching for almost 11 years, Countermine feels thankful to have a schedule that allows her to pursue her passion for teaching and for the stage — a schedule carefully designed to maintain flexibility for both. Instead of teaching 8 a.m. classes after a late-night gig, she works with the university to schedule afternoon classes that best fit her schedule.
Countermine also feels that her higher education allows her to have greater control over her career. Having a Ph.D. and being a full-time performer are not two career paths that would seem to effortlessly mix. However, the process of getting her Ph.D. permits Countermine to curate her own hours while teaching, allowing her time to perform.
“One of the things we learn in Human Development and Family studies is that the further you go in school, the more autonomy you have in your career,” she said. “And I say this to my students all the time, but the reason I am able to do what I do is that I have my Ph.D. I can teach and work from home and I don’t have a nine-to-five in an office Monday through Friday. That is what enables me to do it.”
Both inside and outside of the classroom, Countermine has made an impact on her students. Students still reach out to her years after graduating in hopes of seeing her perform or booking her for an event. Through weddings, parties, and receptions, Countermine and her music continue to be a part of many Penn Staters’ lives.
“I got an email yesterday from a student whose wedding we played a few years ago, and he was telling me when he will be coming up to visit next so he could see me,” Countermine said. “One couple whose wedding we played in 2007 has two kids now, and the husband actually proposed to his wife at the Phryst at one of our gigs. And this summer, we are actually playing the reception of a former student who was there at the beginning of Maxwell Strait who is in her mid-30s now,” she said. “But that’s it, that is why we do it. It is so fulfilling to me.”
With a busy and complicated schedule, Countermine uses Japanese philosophy to find her personal balance. Understanding the meaning of what she does keeps her grounded throughout any challenge.
“There’s a really cool Japanese term called ikigai, and it means when you found what you love to do, what the world needs, what you are good at, and what you can get paid for,” Countermine explained. “And it’s said that when you’ve reached ikigai, you’ve reached your life purpose. For me, singing and teaching both fall into that and for me. I’ve got this incredible life and do what I love because the world needs teachers and the world needs music.”
Now well into her careers as a professor and a musician, Countermine doesn’t see an end to either track. She’s here to stay, she said. Doing both is what she loves.
“You’ll come back in 10 years and I’ll be downstairs at the Phryst on a Friday,” Countermine said. “That’s really where I see myself and it will never not be part of my life. I feel great being 53 years old and I know of musicians way older than me that are still doing it. Until we get let go, this is simply going to be what I do.”
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