For 28 years, North Kitsap High School choir director Sylvia Cauter has brought increased interest and success to the program and wants to keep it that way after she retires at the end of the school year.
“We really want a smooth transition for whoever takes this job,” she said. “The goal is that somebody gets hired, and they can come in with me, and I can introduce them to the choir so the kids have a face. This program is not about me, it’s about (the students) and the music. We want this to continue because so often when a new person comes in after a person has been there for years and years, it could be a disaster.”
Cauter, 64, said it’s going to be tough for her to “slow down because I’ve been going at such a fast speed for a long time.” Additionally, Cauter said she will completely separate herself from the program.
“It’s bittersweet, this whole retirement thing,” she said. “This has been such a huge part of my life. I have to divorce myself from it. I would never want to interfere with what that new person is doing. I need to step back and keep my distance. I will not be going to any concerts next year.”
Before saying farewell, over 20 of Cauter’s choir students will be competing at the state solo and ensemble contest at Central Washington University April 29-30. This has become the norm for Cauter as she has had students go to state every year for the past 24 years. She talked about the perseverance of her students who went through so many obstacles during COVID-19.
“They work hard,” she said. “Doing choir on Zoom last year nearly killed me and the kids. You can’t do choir on Zoom. When we finally got together, we couldn’t sing for a month because we didn’t have the right singing masks. With that lost time, what’s been remarkable is to watch these kids this year. Even though my group is much smaller this year (75), my kids have been so successful. They just love being back and singing again. They’ve become so close.”
Cauter’s final NKHS choir concert will be June 3 at 7 p.m. in the high school’s auditorium.
Finding a passion
Cauter was raised in Oakland, CA and her mother was her biggest influence in getting involved in music. Her first memory was at age 4 singing in a church choir, which she continued to do as she grew older. She also sang for her school choir and later in college.
“I would actually take my stuffed animals and my dolls and put them on the staircase, and I would direct them,” she recalled as a young child.
Not only did Cauter sing, but she also learned piano and violin as a child. She calls the piano her main instrument as she often plays in class, although she hires an accompanist for performances.
“All the encouragement to take lessons both on piano and violin and always taking us to symphony concerts and musical events,” Cauter said about her mother.
Cauter holds a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from Concordia College in Minnesota and later received her Master of Arts in Piano Performance from San Francisco State University. Her first music teaching job was at Lakeview Elementary in Oakland. Her first choir directing job came soon after at New Haven Middle School in Union City, CA.
Once her husband got a job as a music teacher at Seattle Central College, they moved up to Washington, first to Kirkland before deciding that Poulsbo was the right place. Cauter lives by NKHS. After settling into their new home, she knew she needed to find a job.
“I just happened to call the substitute line to see if there were any teaching jobs,” she recalled. “Sure enough, there was a job at the high school with part-time at Wolfle.”
The rest is history as she ended up getting the job.
Building a program
When Cauter took over the NKHS choir program, she said it was good but rather small with only about 40 students. Before Kingston High School was built, the school district only had one high school, which helped Cauter build the program to over 200 students. Since KHS opened, her turnout dropped a bit but she still consistently gets between 130-140 students a year.
“I worked very closely with Poulsbo Middle School, recruiting at the middle school level,” she said about getting students interested in choir. “Plus, just being pretty active and visible on campus. A lot of the recruiting is really the kids that do it. It’s kids getting other kids interested.”
Another recruiting pitch for students is that Cauter takes the choir program on one trip a year to places where they perform for different groups and organizations. This year, they went to Hawaii where the students got to perform at Pearl Harbor and other places.
Cauter also took her class to places like Costa Rica, San Francisco and Disneyland. Over the years, she’s taken them to New York five different times where they performed at iconic venues like Carnegie Hall. Other years, the class will go somewhere more local such as Victoria and Vancouver in Canada.
Cauter offers a few types of choir groups such as tenor and bass, treble, vocal point, Northern Lights and symphonic. Tenor & bass and treble are open to all while the others have auditions. “Some schools only have audition choirs but I don’t agree with that because a lot of people have never really discovered their voices,” she said.
Cauter said many first-time choir students can be timid to start. Many like to join with a friend so they have somebody to relate the experience with.
“The beauty of being a choir director is, typically, you have those kids for more than one year,” she said. “I tend to have these kids for three to four years. When they first come in, a lot of them don’t have any confidence. That’s what we work on all the time. That’s something you take with you in whatever field you go into. Then they start taking those risks like trying out for a solo or they start taking some voice lessons. Then I start seeing the improvement over the four years.”
Cauter said a key component to a group singing well together starts with all members needing to like each other, along with having a good work ethic. “People don’t always understand how academic music is. There is so much involved in the mechanics of singing. It’s not just let’s get into a classroom and sing a song together.”
Although Cauter will be retiring from NKHS, she will still be the music director of Amabile Choir of Bainbridge Island and Bethany Lutheran Church, also on BI. Aside from that, she wants to travel and read books, along with learning how to play the cello and pickleball.