Thankfully, this isn’t a livestreamed blog post. We may need to take a couple of commercial breaks for tissues!
I came from a vocal music program in Dunkerton, that was stellar. Our teacher, Marsha Nichols, was about 5’3″ and was “that” teacher, period. She could command a group of rowdy high school boys (not that the bass section has any problems at all) with hard cut off and the look of death. Creating outstanding music, year after year, replacing great voices with great voices, managing personalities, and doing it with a smile, a joke, or shoulder to cry on. I remember the tears as we sang our graduation song, “Halls of Ivy”, and each senior stepped out of the choir for the last time to hug Mrs. Nichols.
As I started at Valley in 1999, I met Janet Hilergson during our first days of in-service and learned of her choir during our first concert as at least 100 high school students took the stage during a mixed choir event. Their song, their poise, and just the joy in their eyes reminded me of Dunkerton and the years I spent there in the best music program in the area. I soon learned that Valley’s vocal music program was indeed, the best music program in the area. We’d peaked in terms of students at that time, and the slow, but steady exodus of families moving away affected so many of our programs. All but vocal music. Year in and year out, the program was full of students, whether they could sing well or not, because of “Mrs. H” and her ability to make all feel like they belonged to the group. Janet reminds me so much Marsha in terms of her ability to take a large group of students and create this powerful, emotional, and passionate group of singers. As our schools began the whole grade sharing five years ago, Janet’s ability to take middle schoolers, freshman, and sophomores, students whose voices were squeaking and cracking, students who couldn’t hard sit still if they had to, and mold them into quality singing groups left those who didn’t know her in awe.
Both of my daughters had Janet as a teacher in middle school and part of high school. Each grew because Janet’s ability to draw out the best in each girl. Gabrielle is a very quiet, introverted girl, yet, she was able to sing solos and do great things with music, culminating with an amazing quartet that still brings tears to my eyes when I listen to it. Faith has always had a voice twice as big as she is. Starting with Janet in middle school, Faith’s voice began to mature and sound more “adult”. This weekend, she’ll attempt her final all-state tryout, and if she makes it, it will be in part because of Janet’s influence on her musical style.
Last night (Tuesday), at our 7 – 12 concert, we paid tribute to Janet as she’s battling cancer and will not be returning to school. Students from the 9 – 10 choir and 11 – 12 choir talked about the ways she’s impacted their lives. Two former students, from the class of 2006 and 2010, both sang and spoke of her impact on their professional career as one trained in vocal music, the other is currently a music teacher. A retired teacher spoke of Janet both as a student and teacher, talking about her work ethic, her heart and passion for the piano and for teaching. We did our version of the “Kinnick Wave“, standing and waving to her as the concert was streamed out. And as there were very few dry eyes in the place, the students sang one last song, SiSi Ni Moja which translates from Swahili to say “We are One”. It was a fitting end.
A Facebook page has popped up for community members, former students, friends, and current teachers to share stories and memories for Janet to see. It’s hard to imagine the scope of influence that this woman has had. The memories, the love, the encouraging words, the joy that people are able conveying. Why do we wait? Why don’t we share things like this with those we love, care about, or just want to say “thank you” too? As it is, it’s a magnificent tribute to an amazing woman.
I leave you with “Halls of Ivy” as my small tribute to the vocal music teachers in my life:
To Mrs. Nichols: You showed me the very same thing that Janet showed my daughters: that being a singer, a musician is a wonderful thing and the great thing is, you can keep doing it all your life. You made music cool, and for that I am forever grateful.
To Janet: Thank you for all the wonderful things you’ve done for my daughters and countless others throughout the years. Thank you for keeping my wife in line during your New York trip. That in itself is an experience that Melissa will never forget and she’s thankful the two of you were able to be there together. Thank you for showing us your strength, courage, and grace. Thank you for leading by example, by never giving up or giving in. Thank you for showing us that our burdens can be lightened by singing and making glorious music. But most of all, thank you for sharing your gifts and passions with us. You made music cool at Valley (and North Fayette Valley too) and so many will be forever grateful for your efforts. Your first AIW group will be somber without your stories and laughter. Someday, Janet, “we’ll see you in that sweet after glow.”