Thirty-two years ago, Robert Wiles was a rookie teacher charged with creating a choir program from scratch at the newly opened Thousand Oaks High School.
On his first day, his choir class was filled with 20 girls and only three boys--a dismal ratio for four-part harmonies. Gradually, the balance between sopranos and basses improved, as Wiles' chorus swelled over the years to a peak of several hundred voices, then diminished to fewer than 30.
Today, after half a lifetime of worrying about the size, sound and balance of his Lancer Concert Choir, Wiles will take the podium to conduct his final performance. With past and present students blending their voices together, Wiles will direct such favorites as Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" and the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
At the age of 60, Wiles said he is ready to retire, to simply listen and to let a younger generation of teachers take over. He also plans to travel to Alaska and Wales, and to spend time on a wooded retreat near Kernville that he partly owns.
"I don't bounce back from concerts as quick as I used to," he said, after leading his students through a last-minute rehearsal last week. "The nervous energy takes a lot out of you."
For those who sang under his direction, it is difficult to imagine a choir program at Thousand Oaks High School without Wiles and his well-worn baby grand piano.
"It's an end of an era," said Scott Spindel, a 1977 graduate of Thousand Oaks High who now lives in Newbury Park. "The girls loved him, the guys loved him. He really commanded equal amounts of respect from everybody."
Spindel, like other former students, said Wiles taught him about much more than music.
"Bob was the kind of teacher that respected you as an adult," he said. "He was someone you could look up to outside of your family."
As a result, past and present students say singing in the choir at Thousand Oaks High bolstered their self-confidence and gave them a sense of belonging.
"Choir's almost like a family," said Lora Hnat, a 1993 graduate now studying music at Moorpark College. "You go on trips together, you work hard, you get together after school to practice."
For Wiles, though, building a solid choir program in a district with rigorous academic standards hasn't always been easy. Today, graduation and college requirements leave students little time for non-academic courses. Those who do take choir often must make up required courses in summer school.
In the 1980s, Wiles was forced to stop teaching music theory because a teacher was needed for an additional class of sophomore English. This year, Wiles teaches three English classes and one concert choir class, but never resumed teaching music theory.
"As you get older you learn to accept things," he said. "I'm sad we can't get more kids involved."
The high point for the Thousand Oaks choir, he said, came in 1968 when 50 students auditioned for the concert choir, the most competitive of several school singing groups. Wiles said he remembers those students so clearly because they exhibited "incredible quality (of musicianship) and maturity for high school kids."
The success of the choir program during the late 1960s and 1970s spawned smaller groups that would stay after school to practice. During school holidays, Wiles would take the quartets and octets on the road, performing for other schools and civic organizations.
The most successful of those groups, The Emeralds, flew to Hawaii in 1970 at the invitation of the Navy. There, the students performed for enlisted sailors and soldiers 17 times in nine days.
The most memorable performance, Wiles said, took place in a small hospital ward of four servicemen wounded in Vietnam.
"There were smiles and so forth, and lots of cheerful banter. But there was no applause," he said. "All of the four were amputees from the war effort.
"That's one thing that will stick with me as a highlight of my career," Wiles added.
Born in Yakima, Wash., Wiles grew up as the only son of a Methodist minister. A talent for music ran in his family, particularly on his mother's side.
Wiles' great-great grandfather served as the conductor of Kaiser Wilhelm's court orchestra in Bavaria and married the woman who taught piano lessons to the Kaiser's children. For a honeymoon, the young couple traveled to the United States, where they decided to stay.
Because of his father's vocation, Wiles' family moved frequently, relocating four times during his school years. And though preachers' children may have a reputation for being rebellious, Wiles said he could not "lay claim to great goodness or great evil" as a teen-ager.
Wiles earned his bachelor's degree in music theory from Seattle Pacific College in Washington, and a master's degree in music education in 1977 from the University of San Diego. In 1960, he accepted his first teaching position at Oxnard High School, where he earned $8,000 a year.
Because Oxnard High already had a choir director, Wiles jumped at the chance two years later to start a program at Thousand Oaks High School.
On the eve of his retirement, Wiles said the nostalgia has been almost overwhelming at times. But when the pianist strikes the first chord today, his eyes will be locked on those of his students and his thoughts on nothing but the music.
"I have butterflies until the first song is done," he said. "If it's gone well, I can settle down and just do my job."
The Thousand Oaks High School concert choir will perform today at 3 p.m. at Ascension Lutheran Church, 1600 E. Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks. The performance will feature a selection of classical, folk and spiritual pieces. Admission is $4. For information, call 495-7491.