Some people are lucky because they’re able to make a living doing what they love, and those impacted by their work reap the benefits of that enthusiasm.
Even in “retirement,” Pat Wilhelms and her students would agree she fits this description. All of them, that is — those from her 27 years as a choir teacher at Aberdeen High School and for a short time at St. Mary’s School, and the nearly 80 people combined from the Grays Harbor Civic Choir and Poco Voce, the children’s choir she debuted last year, whom she now spends her time directing. Both of the choirs have holiday themed concerts this coming week.
Wilhelms said the Civic Choir’s performance this Sunday will celebrate the centennial birthday of composer Benjamin Britten through a performance of “A Ceremony of Carols,” and will also include Christmas-themed music with a brass quartet and a sing-along caroling session. The Poco Voce (Italian for “small voices”) Children’s Choir performs next Thursday. This choir has a more “secular” and upbeat show, according to Wilhelms, with a theme of “jingle bell jukebox,” or all of the holiday songs one might hear on a jukebox from the ’50s and ’60s — including an uptempo “Frosty the Snowman.”
Members of the 40-person Civic Choir have noticed a new energy, aided by the addition of many of Wilhelms’ former students who she urged to join.
Gail Gozart, who has been an “on and off” member of the choir since the mid-1980s, said Wilhelms is doing a great job and that she appreciates all the new faces.
“A lot of us have been in for quite a mix, it’s good to see younger people come out and sing, too,” she said.
Wilhelms said she is a bit easier on the adult choir, because of the duties of adulthood, but she does expect them to know the music and have a willing attitude.
“In the past it’s been a lot of older people, and, don’t get me wrong, I value their participation, but it’s important to get younger people involved,” she said, of the many former students who are now grown with families of their own.
Wilhelms said they even have five college students who now participate.
Wilhelms took over the position at Grays Harbor Civic Choir, which she sang in when she first moved to the Harbor from Illinois about 30 years ago, after former director Ian Dorsch left the position he had held for eight years in June to focus more on family. Dorsch also happens to be one of Wilhelms’ former students.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” said Sandra Bielski, an Aberdeen School District board member, who said all three of her grown children had Wilhelms as a choir teacher in their years at Aberdeen High School, and are the better for it. She said in her years as a board member she has seen former students of Wilhelms — who she mentioned is also quite the “prankster”— comment that they were well-prepared for job interviews because of their time spent with her.
“She taught them to present themselves well through music but also in any situation … It certainly carried over into other facets of their lives.”
Bielski’s daughter, Megan Hogstad, now a mom and pre-school assistant who said she is in her 31st continuous year as a choir member (she participates in her local church choir), agrees, calling Wilhelms “highly influential” especially in how she treats people and goes about life.
“She demanded so much in the way of excellence,” said Hogstad, who added that while she herself happened to be a more experienced musician by the time she was in high school than others, Wilhelms was no more lax with the students who had less experience.
“There was no less demand. She made you believe that you could do what she was asking you to do and she made you stretch and made sure you believed you could do it. She gave us the opportunities and made us work through any kind of adversity or diversity we faced.”
While known for her drive and energy that carried multiple choir programs at the high school for decades, Wilhelms said it all is part of a labor of love, one she carries on in her new endeavors at the Civic Choir and Poco Voce.
“I just think that I connect really well with kids, for whatever reason. They’re important to me and I let them know they’re important to me,” she said. “But I also take no prisoners. All of them would tell you I had a really certain discipline code and they had to live up to it.”
And while most of her years were spent directing teenagers, Wilhelms has taken on a cause since her retirement for something she said truly bothered her about music education on Grays Harbor throughout her career.
“One of the big thorns in my side is that in my 27 years of working there were no elementary choirs … Kids are at an extreme disadvantage,” she said, noting the area is “competing” with places like Olympia where there are elementary choir programs in place. And so she took the responsibility on as her own, starting Poco Vice for third- and fourth-graders from seven elementary schools: A.J. West, McDermoth, Robert Grays, Stevens, Cosmopolis, Central Park and St. Mary’s — 52 of them performing in a sold-out Christmas show last year.
“It was standing room only,” she said, adding she was surprised when the janitor asked if she could hold the show off for a few minutes to bring in more chairs.
This year she opened the program to fifth- and sixth-graders, but still saw a slight decline in participation, with 36 children participating — she said the drop is due to many conflicts with sports and the fact that she had to change the date after taking the Civic Choir director position. Ginger Holcomb, the mother of one of Wilhelms’ fourth-grade members, Macy Holcomb, said they were torn between continuing sports and the choir — but found a way to make it work.
“She’s always been really sporty, so it was a big surprise that she even joined,” she said, adding they rejoined the program toward the end of Macy’s soccer season. Holcomb said it has been great to watch Wilhelms’ enthusiasm win over her daughter as it did her as a Miller Junior High student in 1991.
“She loves Pat,” she said of Macy. “She is up in her room with the practice CDs Pat gives them on the days when she doesn’t have practice and will sing along. And we can’t interrupt her.”
The membership is $30, but Wilhelms says about half of the children are on scholarship paid for by grants she and the board were able to acquire from the Grays Harbor Community Foundation.
“We don’t want any kid to be turned away,” she said. The choir also pays for parts of their music through free will donations, which Wilhelms will collects at the choir’s concert.
“She had an enormous formative influence on me,” said Dorsch, who still teaches voice at Grays Harbor College and directs a small professional chamber choir in the Seattle area.
“I wouldn’t say she’s single-handedly responsible for my love of choral music, but it’s pretty close.”
Dorsch knows that in handing off the choir to Wilhelms there is no need to worry.
“I wouldn’t presume to give Pat advice,” he said. “She’s been directing for way longer than I have, and she knows the town and knows choir music.”
The Grays Harbor Civic Choir be in concert at 3 p.m. this Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Grays Harbor College Bishop Center for Performing Arts. Poco Voce will perform at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 19, at the Aberdeen United Methodist Church.