A common perception is that music and mathematics are linked. Students who are in the school band often perform well in math classes. Rachel Desmarais is a believer in that perception.
Desmarais, 45, is the executive vice president and chief operating officer at Forsyth Technical Community College. As a music major at Mars Hill College, she was also a math tutor. A few years after she graduated in 1992, she used her degree to work in Christian education, directing choir and coordinating youth activities at Olivet Moravian Church in Winston-Salem.
In 1995, when she found that she needed to take a computer class to handle the church budget, she enrolled in an Excel class at Forsyth Tech. That was the first step by which her vocation—music—would become her avocation, her hobby. She was hooked on computers from then on.
“I remember I had to kind of weasel my way into [the Excel class] because they wanted me to take a different class before that one,” she says. “But I said ‘No, no, I have complete confidence I can do this.’
“It was an amazing class,” she adds. “I could barely hang on. It was the perfect level to challenge me. Then I just took some more computer classes.”
She would eventually teach part time at the college. Computers weren’t even a thought when Desmarais was attending Mars Hill after years of piano and voice lessons. She began as a piano major, then switched to a vocal performance major for her last two years in college.
Desmarais saw her future in music. “My plan had been to go on to graduate school and get a master’s degree in music.
“In music, it’s kind of sad; teachers are often failed performers. So they (faculty) want you to have the vocal performance degree. But I had never had any intention of being an opera singer or anything like that.”
Then, after getting married at age 20, she changed her focus. “An early marriage just derails a lot of people from going on. I needed to work.” Desmarais had been trained to direct choirs.
Her first job out of college was at a church in Marshall. She then moved to Winston-Salem with her now ex-husband and her young son, Ian, now 22. Desmarais enrolled in the computer classes at Forsyth Tech, which launched her career in information technology (IT).
“I realized fairly early on that my fouryear degree wasn’t enough—it didn’t provide me with the real-life job skills I needed to develop a stable and financially secure career path,” she says. She adds that her musical ability helped develop her IT skills. “I’ve heard that music and math are correlated, and there has been some research to support this claim. For me personally, music helped me understand math early on with fractions. Later, it helped me to think in terms of systems, relations and general reasoning.
“I’ve met lots of musically inclined people in IT. Math, music and technology seem to go together.”
After she left her position at the church, she started as an administrative assistant at a business in Kernersville and quickly “morphed into a systems analyst.”
Her next job was at legal firm Womble Carlyle, where she ran one the firm’s Help Desks. She then moved into project management and process management. She also remarried during that time. Her husband, John Desmarais, is a senior computer programmer for Novant Health. Together they have a son, Conall, who is in the fifth grade.
She returned to Forsyth Tech in 2002 and steadily rose through the ranks, serving as a department chair and chief information officer before becoming executive vice president.
But music still remains a big part of her life. She joined the Southern Appalachian Chamber Singers in 1996.
“It’s my outlet,” she says. “I still love to sing. There is something wonderful about making music with others. You feel like you’re part of something. I enjoy the harmony. Love the friendship. There are 20 to 24 in the group. It’s been pretty amazing because we enjoyed choir, and we still get to do that.”
The group has about six concerts a year. They have performed for many years at Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, S.C., and will again this year.