Susan Horst has looked at life from both sides now.
The Juneau-Douglas High School music teacher is a former JDHS student and now teaches the same classes she once took. The 25-year career teacher is still a music student herself. She's sung in choirs and directed choirs, and this summer she sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City in a choir made up of choir directors.
"It was a thrill," she said. "It was my first time to New York, and I sang at Carnegie Hall."
Horst got wind of the opportunity through the American Choral Directors Association and signed on. She arrived in New York at the end of June with notes marked on her music score and her part down, ready for rehearsal. After three days of fine-tuning, she and 124 other singers joined a symphony orchestra to perform Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah."
The popular choral classic celebrates the Old Testament prophet who brought the dead to life and battled King Ahab. Horst said it was tremendously exciting.t was definitely a crowd-pleaser," she said. "It was very rewarding."
Horst has been singing since she was a little girl. She lived in Ketchikan until she was 10, when her family moved to Juneau. She sang and acted in high school and community productions, and played the title role of "Little Mary Sunshine" in a Juneau-Douglas Little Theatre production in the late 1960s.
She graduated from JDHS in 1972 and headed to Colorado for college, where she studied biology, theater and music education. She launched her teaching career in 1976 in Cortez, Colo., and returned to Juneau in 1978.
Horst, also a pianist and clarinetist, taught band for a dozen years at the elementary and middle school levels. She taught music to children by day and to adults at night, directing community choirs, church choirs and The University Singers. Theater remained close to her heart, and she continued to perform as well.
"I love the emotional component that lyrics add," she said.
In the mid-1980s she took time out from teaching to have a son and a daughter, Brandon and Erika. Now teen-agers, both are competitive skiers.
"They're athletes, not musicians," she said, laughing.
When she returned to the Juneau School District, she switched from teaching band to teaching choirs. She split her days between Riverbend Elementary, Glacier Valley Elementary and the high school. It was rewarding work, but frustrating to bounce back and forth between schools. This year she's settled down at the high school, teaching five choir and music classes, plus extracurricular activities.
"It so nice not to be itinerant," she said.
"She's an amazing choir teacher," said Racheal Breiland, 19, a former student. "She really knows what she's doing, and has a good feel for whatever group she's working with."
Derrick Grimes agreed. Now 16 and a junior at JDHS, he's been working with Horst since he was 7 years old. She was his first choir director at Chapel by the Lake church choir. Now she directs him in two choirs, the jazz choir and the concert choir at JDHS.
"I think she's very dedicated to her students, to making them better musicians," he said. "She's very big on having us understand how the music flows, and should flow."
He said Horst takes the time to work one-on-one with students. He appreciates that although she's an accomplished singer she still takes voice lessons herself.
"She channels that back to her students. She refers to it and talks about what her teacher told her to do and how it can help the choir."
Horst is passionate about music, personally and professionally. It concerns her that often the value of music is shortchanged in education. She said studies have shown that young children particularly benefit with improved reading readiness, and she's seen it first hand.
"Music beefs up the three-R's," she said. "Performing and studying music helps train people to think."
Outside of school, she'll be working this fall with the Juneau Symphony and the Juneau Lyric Opera, preparing singers for the symphony's Christmas concert and for JLO's production of "Candide." It can get hectic, but the payback is worth it.
"Music feeds my spirit," she said.
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