Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton
Princeton Girlchoir Founder Janet Westrick Has Spent Career in Music and Teaching
Janet Westrick loves what she does. She gets up in the morning knowing that she can bring the gift of music to her students and perhaps that day make a difference in their lives.
As chair of the Music and Performing Arts Department at Princeton Day School and founder and artistic director of the Princeton Girlchoir, Ms. Westrick has dedicated her adult life to instilling and furthering the love of music in her students.
Tonight, she will be honored by the YWCA Princeton for her achievements. She is one of 14 women from area businesses, organizations, and educational institutions, who will receive the Y's "Tribute to Women" award.
Established nationally by the YWCA to honor women who have made significant contributions to their professions and community in executive, entrepreneurial, professional, educational, and elected roles, the awards are given annually.
Candidates are nominated by managers, colleagues, and peers in the workplace and community. All "Tribute to Women" 2005 honorees were judged on criteria that took into account academic achievement, professional responsibility, community service, demonstrated leadership, mentoring of others, ability to communicate ideas, and special projects or accomplishments.
"I was surprised and honored when I learned of the award," says Ms. Westrick. "I believe it is an affirmation of the work I have done at PDS and with the Girlchoir. The Y's motto is to empower women and eliminate racism. Empowering women is so relevant to the Girlchoir. It's a recognition of how important the Choir is for the girls and what they can accomplish."
Long before the Princeton Girlchoir was even a glimpse on the horizon, however, Ms. Westrick was beginning her love affair with music.
Born in Hamilton, Ohio to Joe and Anna Belle Westrick, she became enthralled with the piano as a young girl.
"I had a cousin my age who was a whiz at the piano, and I wanted to play," recalls Ms. Westrick. "My family didn't have a lot of money, so it wasn't easy. But we got a piano, and when I was nine or 10, I started lessons. I liked it and learned fast. I was a fairly shy person, and I accompanied a lot. That way, I didn't have to be up on stage!"
Music was her major interest, but Janet enjoyed many other aspects of growing up in southern Ohio, near Cincinnati, in the late 1940s and '50s. A good student, she liked school, particularly studying English, history, art, and music.
"I loved to read," she adds, "especially the classics like Little Women and mysteries, including the Nancy Drew series. We enjoyed the movies too, and went to a lot of Saturday matinees. I remember I saw Gone With the Wind six times, and cried each time!
"Also, I am old enough that I grew up playing outside in the neighborhood after school and on weekends. There were lots of other kids to do things with. I was also in Girl Scouts and involved in my church, singing in the choir."
One of her happiest memories is of a family trip, including younger brother Jim, to the west coast. "One summer when I was 10, we drove to California to see relatives. It was wonderful. We saw the Pacific Ocean and were near San Diego. I remember thinking it was gorgeous."
Ms. Westrick also has special memories of her maternal grandmother, Lulu Monroe, who was so important in Janet's life.
"My grandmother lived with us," she recalls, "and I admired her so much. She did not have an easy life, yet she was so strong and cheerful and sturdy in the face of hard times. She was a very good influence on my growing up."
While in high school, Janet worked part-time playing piano for a tap dance school a very happy experience and also studied piano at Miami University.
"Louise Erickson was a piano teacher there, and she raised the bar for me as to expectations. I worked very hard, learned new techniques, and eliminated mistakes."
In 1956, Janet received a scholarship to attend Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.
"It had a conservatory, and I really wanted to be in music," she points out. "I focused on music education, with a major in piano and a minor in voice. I also continued to sing in the church choir, and in the University choir, just as I had done all through school.
"In college, I began to realize that playing the piano was solitary," continues Ms. Westrick. "I was social having gotten over my earlier shyness and choral singing was a group activity. I loved choral groups, and Ellis Snyder, director of the choral groups at Capital, was outstanding. He had such faith in his singers, and because of that, we were free to take risks."
After graduating with honors in 1960, Janet married a fellow student at Capital, Tom Oesterling. At the same time, she got a job teaching music in an elementary school in White Hall, Ohio.
"It was the time of the Baby Boomers," she notes, "and there were 900 kids in the school. Awesome! When I think now of how I could juggle that schedule but I was young and naive! And I found I really liked teaching."
She gave it up for several years, however, when her own children, Tom, Jr., Jennifer, and Daniel, were born.
When her husband completed his Ph.D., the family relocated to Kalamazoo, Mich., where they lived for 10 years. In 1976, they moved again, this time to Princeton.
"Tom had a job at Johnson & Johnson," says Ms. Westrick, "and I liked Princeton right away. I had spent my whole life in the midwest, but I felt an immediate kinship with Princeton."
When her oldest son entered Princeton High School, Ms. Westrick ventured out into the work force again. She began substitute teaching and also served as choir director at Messiah Lutheran Church in Princeton and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Princeton Junction.
"In 1983, I started at PDS," she recalls. "I began as a music teacher in the Lower School (Kindergarten through fourth grade), and then eight years ago, I became choir director for the Middle School. More recently, five or six years ago, I was named Chair of the Music and Performing Arts Department."
Teaching has been a joy for Ms. Westrick, and she savors the opportunity to interact with the students on a day-to-day basis.
"I think that the hands-on experience of opening up the world of music to children and giving them these opportunities, and really to light a fire under them is wonderful. Over the years, some have gone into music as a vocation. But it doesn't matter what they do, or if it becomes a career. The important thing is providing them with those moments of enjoyment, excitement and camaraderie that occur when they make music together."
Ms. Westrick has taught all ages, from kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as some Upper School students. "I really like seventh and eighth graders," she reports. "I think there's a kind of brashness and a kind of healthy energy they have that you can channel into very positive things."
Ms. Westrick's PDS colleague, Deb Sugarman, Middle School drama teacher and Princeton resident, is a great admirer of Ms. Westrick's teaching abilities.
"To work with Jan is more than a pleasure. It is an inspiration and a joy. Her energy and passion for her craft are boundless!
"I met Jan four years ago when I applied for the position at PDS, and we clicked immediately. I consider myself very, very lucky to be one of the many people who have come into the sphere of Jan Westrick."
Others who have come under Ms. Westrick's sphere of influence are the members of The Princeton Girlchoir. Begun in 1989, it was the result of Ms. Westrick's desire to extend musical opportunities to as many young girls as possible.
As she explains, "It was really just a little idea I had. I had gone to Boychoir concerts, and I thought I had girls who could sound just as good. So I put an ad in the paper in the fall of 1989 for girls fifth through eighth grade at any school in the area.
"The idea was for the girls to get together, sing, and give performances. We had auditions because we needed a level of skill and talent. There was a response right away, and after auditions, 30 girls were selected. In the beginning, my base was drawn from PDS, John Witherspoon, and Stuart. We rehearsed two hours once a week. I was very pleased and encouraged, and we had a performance that year in December and another the next spring."
Ms. Westrick's "little idea" has become a fixture on the Princeton musical scene. Expanding to 200 girls, now third grade through high school, it draws choristers from 25 different area schools, including Princeton, Hopewell, Lawrenceville, and Yardley, Pa.
In addition to the main Concert Choir, the Grace Notes and Semi-Tones (preparatory choirs), PGC Ensemble, and most recently, the Alumnae Cantores (high school) are a part of the performing group.
There is now a full-time executive director and a board, but the choir's mission remains the same: "to provide excellence in choral education and performance opportunities, while inspiring confidence, character, and a lifelong love of making music together."
Two Princeton performances are still scheduled each year, but in addition, the PCG has cut a wide swath elsewhere. Performances overseas, as well as in Hawaii and other U.S. locations, are now part of the itinerary. The choir has performed in Canada, France, Italy, and Spain. This summer, the girls will travel to Germany and the Czech Republic.
They have been seen on television, including NBC's "Weekend Today Show," and at such respected musical venues as Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. A joint performance with the Newark Boys Chorus is scheduled for March 13 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
They have also performed with their neighbor, the American Boychoir, as well as with the Youth Orchestra of Central New Jersey and Les Petits Chanteurs de St. Andre de Colmar of France.
Ms. Westrick is justifiably proud of this outstanding addition to music in Princeton and beyond. As she says, "This is like my child, my baby. I am very proud of it. The quality has gotten better and better, and I've had a chance to raise the bar.
"It is very humbling to think that this idea will continue to be passed on. It is almost as if it were meant to be, and I was the vehicle through which it happened."
Debbie Modzelewski, Ms. Westrick's friend of 13 years, and treasurer of the Girlchoir, is struck by the diversity of Janet Westrick's skills, not only as founder of the Choir, but in the way she has guided it to its current level of musical accomplishment.
In her comments nominating Ms. Westrick for the YWCA "Tribute To Women" award, Ms. Modzelewski noted: "What Jan has made possible through the Girlchoir is for girls from a wide range of social, economic, geographic and ethnic backgrounds to forge strong bonds of friendship with other girls, sisters in song, whom they would never have met otherwise; to learn to work together musically and socially, willingly surrendering their individual voices in pursuit of a smooth, blended sound.
"To inspire each other to rise to Jan's high musical and behavioral standards; and to revel together in the joys of achieving a common goal. One only has to experience the music these girls produce to understand the empowerment that music in general and the Princeton Girlchoir in specific, has brought to them individually and as a group.
"In working with her at PDS and through the Girlchoir, I have developed both a deep respect and affection for Jan as a teacher, an artist, an administrator, and a person."
Ms. Westrick's musical activities have also extended to singing with Princeton Pro Musica for 12 years, volunteering for committee and conference work for the American Choral Directors Association, of which she is a life member, and presenting workshops at Westminster Choir College and the American Boychoir National Conference in 2002 and 2003.
She has also done graduate work at Western Michigan University and at Westminster Choir College.
Her peers recognize Ms. Westrick as a specialist in drawing out the very best from children's voices, and in 1997, she was the recipient of the Women of Distinction Award for the World of the Arts, presented by the Delaware-Raritan Valley Girl Scout Council.
If music has been the focus of Ms. Westrick's professional and cultural life, the church has been at the center of her spiritual experience. A member of the Lutheran Church from her early childhood, she looks to it as a source of strength and renewal.
"Religion is very important to me. It has been a lifelong emphasis," she explains. "I am very grounded in it. I don't wear it on my sleeve, but it drives me. I do feel led to do things. I can't always explain why something is the right thing to do. When I look back, I feel quite blessed that I have been led in this way."
Religion has continued to play an important part in her personal life as well. After a divorce from her first husband, Ms. Westrick remarried in 1990 to the Reverend Fred Schott, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Kendall Park.
"I am so blessed to have this man in my life," she says. "We happened upon each other in a church setting. I had been expecting to live out my years as a single person, and then he came along.
"He is just a wonderful guy. And he's a wonderful pastor and a beautiful thinker. I get a lot out of just stepping away and listening to him as a pastor. I am truly blessed to live out my life with him."
Next June, Ms. Westrick will be ready for a few changes in her life when she steps down from her responsibilities at PDS. She will, however, continue as director of the Princeton Girlchoir.
She is looking forward to this new turn of events and to the advent of additional free hours in the day. The opportunity to travel, enjoy the pleasures of Princeton, as well as a bit more time to tackle her cherished crossword puzzles is very appealing.
"I do The New York Times, but only through Thursday," she says, with a smile. (The Times' puzzles become notoriously more difficult toward the end of the week, with Saturday's a daunting challenge.)
"I'm not going to add anything to my schedule for a year," she reports. "It's like taking a mini-sabbatical. I think I will study a language, perhaps Italian I love Florence so much and get into New York more.
"I also love to travel, and with two of my kids in the southwest, I will plan to get there more often. Last summer, both my daughter and my husband's daughter had babies, and now I'll have more time to visit them. I am so proud of all my children.
"Also, my husband is from the south, and we go to Charleston and Savannah, as well as abroad to England, France, Spain, and Italy. Of course, this summer, I will look forward to traveling to Germany and Prague with the Girlchoir."
Spending time in Princeton has its own allure, she notes. "I love the setting, the proximity to New York and Philadelphia, and it is just such a great place. We enjoy the events at McCarter, the University, and Westminster.
"When we first came to Princeton in 1976, there were just a handful of good restaurants. It feels like so much more now more restaurants, places to shop, and I really like the new library. Now, I look forward to having more time to use it!"
One change she would like to see, however, is consolidation of the two Princetons. "It makes sense to me. After all, it is one community."
And it is a community she anticipates remaining in for a long time to come. As she says, "It's the people, really. I love the people all my friends, those I've worked with, and the parent body at the school and the Girlchoir. They are all so special."
The feeling is mutual.