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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Musical Mettle

Choir Director Pulls Neglected Program Together to Achieve Winning Harmony

May 10, 1999|NANCY KINSEY NEEDHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — There were a scant 22 students and a broken-down piano when Mike Reisig took over the Thousand Oaks High School choir five years ago.

That combination might have frightened away some choir directors, but Reisig settled right in, teaching college-level music as if his students were experienced singers. Next he hired an accompanist, as if he had a working piano.

His efforts paid off recently when 120 of his students took medals in every category at the national Heritage Festival in Las Vegas, walking away with honors for Outstanding Performance, Outstanding Choir Group, Sweepstakes Trophy and the highest honor, the Adjudicator Award.

Heritage judge Jocelyn Jensen, who has taught high school and college choirs for 39 years, praised the Thousand Oaks students after hearing them perform in Las Vegas.

"They were not afraid to take a risk," Jensen said. "What they did was very difficult, and they did it well."

Jensen, who has heard more than 1,000 such choirs perform, said she could tell that the students were singing from their hearts in response to a director who puts all his energy and a lot of love into his work.

"Just from watching them perform at the competition, I saw a great rapport between them and their director and could tell the students had great feelings for each other," Jensen said.

What Jensen could not know was how years of budget cuts to the arts had left the Thousand Oaks choir program in shambles just before Reisig took over. Nor did she know how his direction inspired students to earn money to repair the old piano, prompted mothers to sew new outfits and attracted more kids to sign up for the program.

"Winning everything means that all our hard work and dedication has paid off," said choir president Angel Robertson, 17, a senior.

Added senior Christa Young, who has been in the choir four years: "Mr. Reisig is the genius behind the whole thing. We hear what we sound like when we do what he says and . . . it's amazing."

A graduate of Beverly Hills High School with bachelor's and master's degrees from Cal State Northridge, Reisig had quit teaching in 1985 after being choir director at Simi Valley's Royal High School for 16 years. He lived in New York City for a year, singing with the New York Choir and even performing at Carnegie Hall.

After moving back to the West Coast, he spent several years in Los Angeles before returning to Ventura County and his real calling.

"I finally realized what everyone had been telling me all along--I'm a teacher," said Reisig, 54.

When Reisig took the job at Thousand Oaks High, he decided he would not give up no matter how bad the piano or how many inexperienced voices came into his class.

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One of his first moves was to hire accompanist Ruthanne Wilson, who has a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Toledo and who worked at schools in the Midwest before moving to Thousand Oaks.

During her job interview, she let Reisig know that she had high standards and did not want to be associated with a choir that sang only light, popular music.

"I think he hired me because I told him I was fussy about who I wanted to work for," Wilson said.

Now Reisig wasn't alone in his battle to improve the program.

"I was really amazed at the poorness of the department--the music library, the room, the chairs and the piano," said Wilson.

The two have since bonded over their love for serious music, and Wilson has a clue to the secret of Reisig's success.

Bringing out the best in his students comes naturally to Reisig, Wilson said. "Mike Reisig passionately demands excellence," she said.

The kids have dubbed him the "King of Cool" because he dresses casually most of the time.

He doesn't mind having fun.

"The feeling he puts out when he's in front of us directing is what inspires us," said junior Laura Birdseye, 17. "Mr. Reisig makes nonstop work fun by cracking jokes."

But Reisig is very formal when it comes to selecting just the rightmusic, Wilson said.

From the first moment he raised his arms to signal the teens to sing, Reisig imagined, hoped and expected to hear the best his students had to give. And since that time, the students have tried hard not to disappoint the man who believes in them.

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The choir room is full almost all day every day from 7 a.m. on, with voluntary rehearsals held during lunch breaks and after school.

The kids held fund-raisers in years past with carwashes and candy sales to raise money to overhaul their piano. This year, a new grand piano was added, along with a new performing arts building and an acoustical shell.

There was one choir and a small group of madrigals--unaccompanied voices singing harmony following a strict poetic form--during Reisig's first year. This year, 120 students filled four groups--women's glee, concert choir, chamber choir and the madrigals.

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The groups continue to hold fund-raisers, with most students participating. Those who have jobs or parents to provide the money they need donate what they earn to help others who are less fortunate.

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