Friday, November 13, 2009

The Conductor

In this story the quotes in italics are lyrics from the song "For Good" from the musical Wicked. The piece was sung during Fontana's last performance with the choir and it was simply too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. In general, don't lede with quotes.

Published June 10, 2005, in the Keizertimes


“I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason.”

A decade ago, Barb Fontana joined Whiteaker Middle School as choir director, but her students weren’t quite as receptive as she’d hoped.

“It was like I was the outsider breaking up their happy family when Emanuel McGladrey left,” she said.

A fond memory of her tenure at the school is that original group’s performance at the Best of the Northwest competition.

“It was amazing how well we were able to pull together in that performance, especially after a lot of uncertainty earlier in the year,” said Fontana.

The memories elicit both tears and smiles. It’s been a hard two weeks for Fontana since she announced that she is moving to a new job, as choral director of West Linn High School.

She opted for a quiet classroom for an interview rather than the library.

“Sometimes I just look at one of the kids, and it becomes hard for both of us,” she said. “It’s amazing how much of a constant you can become in a child’s life just by being here every day.”

During Fontana’s time with the Whiteaker Wolverines, the school’s choirs filled three bookcases with trophies, but Fontana had started along a much different path earlier in her life.

“Bringing something we must learn.”

Fontana grew up around music.

“My parents were always singing when I was a child, and I started as part of the school band in the fifth grade,” she said.

Fontana played the clarinet, which she plans to donate to the Whiteaker band on her departure. She concentrates more on piano and recently started learning classical guitar.

Joining her high school choir exposed her to a whole new set of notes.

“Our director taught us a lot of African-American gospel music, and it had a profound impact on me,” she said.

In college she kept a music minor but began studying biology, intending to go into medicine.

“But then I fell in love and decided I didn’t want to go to school for 12 years,” she added.

Soon after, she quit school to start a family. But music, primarily through involvement in her church, remained a constant in her life.

With four children, the youngest 18 months old, she decided to go back to school and major in music. She wanted to help the other people at her church who she felt wanted to sing.

“I wanted to be able to help them become involved. I started slow, taking just one evening class a week,” she said

She soon realized she would be more marketable with a teaching degree as well and added that to her course load.

As a teaching aide she landed at McNary High School where, under the tutelage of Diane Arndt, she was able to immerse herself in choral direction, from programs to performances.

When it came time to apply for a job of her own, several schools had openings. In an interview with all of the principals of those schools attending, she was asked to choose which school she would prefer.

Whiteaker was a natural choice since Fontana had already completed her stint at McNary.

“It was like coming home,” she said.

“And we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return.”

The number of students who have stood on Fontana’s risers at Whiteaker number far too many to count, but she always has space for one more.

She and the choir have helped students through the most difficult times in their lives, often when she didn’t realize that was happening.

Several years ago she found a letter written by a parent in a district publication commending her on helping her daughter get through a long-term depression.

Soon after joining the choir, the student began eating lunch with Fontana and coming by after school to help out. She had found a reason to stay engaged with life.

“I had no idea until I read that letter. Her daughter was just one of the kids, but she came to school every day just for choir,” she said.

She and her choirs have even helped other students through the death of parents.

“It’s about creating space for compassion and caring for others. But that’s also something that comes from Keizer as a whole,” she said.

Her students and their parents have also repaid her for efforts in kind.

After taking the jazz choir to Reno, Nev., for a competition the first time, she and her husband were treated to different courses of an elaborate dinner at different choir members’ homes.

“When we got to the last house, all the choir members were there, and they serenaded me and we sat and talked and sang songs. It was just a moment,” she said.

“Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true, but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.”

Nearly all of her memories center on her students more than places or events.

“It’s always about the kids and watching them catch the spark. Every time we sing we’re creating a unique experience that we’ll never recreate, and to have 73 people share an experience makes it more magical,” Fontana said.

She may have three cases of trophies in her classroom, but most “are just plastic and metal.”

“There’s not a trophy or certificate that can adequately measure what music can do for a person. Teaching music is what I do, but it’s also an expression of who I am.”

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