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Thursday, 13 March 2014 00:00

Singing the praises of enthusiastic choir director

Written by  Ian Gronau
Williams Bay High School choir director Elaine Sellenheim shares her passion for music with her students and always is exploring new ways to get them engaged in musical pursuits. She recently received the 2014 Wisconsin Choral Director Association’s Outstanding Young Choral Director Award. Williams Bay High School choir director Elaine Sellenheim shares her passion for music with her students and always is exploring new ways to get them engaged in musical pursuits. She recently received the 2014 Wisconsin Choral Director Association’s Outstanding Young Choral Director Award. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- In the past four years, Williams Bay High School’s choir program went from an enrollment of seven students to 41, and the junior high program went from 32 to 48. As it currently stands, 40 percent of the student body is now enrolled in choir.

What could have initiated this rush? The answer: High school choir director Elaine Sellenheim. Sellenheim, who by no coincidence was hired four years ago, has made reinvigorating and amping up the school’s choir program her personal crusade.

Though it’s only been a short time, Sellenheim’s beyond-the-call-of-duty performance hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last fall, Principal William White went out of his way to nominate Sellenheim for the 2014 Wisconsin Choral Director Association’s Outstanding Young Choral Director Award. After the organization’s review, it was decided to grant Sellenheim the honor. 

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“I found out that I won the award in November,” Sellenheim said. “It’s really exciting. I especially appreciate getting an award from this organization because these are my peers who are out there doing the same thing as me, so they know what I am doing on a daily basis. It’s very special.”

Sellenheim received the award in January at the annual WCDA convention in Milwaukee. The award honors teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience. The candidate must be a current WCDA member who exhibits characteristics associated with master teachers, including enthusiasm, energy, musicianship, student rapport and professionalism; who has made a considerable impact on the size, quality of performance, festival involvement and program visibility; and/or who has also made a commitment to the community through church or civic choral organizations, youth activities, or civic service organizations. According to WCDA President Matthew Wanner, Sellenheim has all these qualities in spades.

“Elaine provides numerous opportunities for her students, certainly going above and beyond,” Wanner said. “She developed a course for advanced musicianship for those students who are interested in taking their knowledge in music theory and their listening skills to the next level, created a junior high swing choir, runs a junior high musical and she helps with the student-led musical production. All of the things she does are just huge.”

Wanner also mentioned that Sellenheim, among many more accomplishments, created the school’s Arts Experiences program that sends students on long weekend trips to Chicago and St. Louis for the purpose of artistic discovery, giving a lot of her personal time in the process.

A constant companion on her journey, Sellenheim’s husband has watched her pour her efforts into her career. He has had the advantage of not only watching as her as friend and spouse, but also as a co-worker. Joe Sellenheim was hired as the band teacher at Williams Bay High School two years ago, and now, according to Sellenheim, her husband is always just up the hall.

“She’s very student oriented and always does what’s in the best interest of her students,” Joe Sellenheim said. “She finds a way to help her students succeed by understanding what their needs are and coming up with instructional plans to meet them. She cares a great deal about her students, not only as learners, but also as individuals and she spends a lot of time building relationships with them so they are motivated to be successful in her class.”

Sellenheim’s life has been characterized by a lifelong dedication to music. Her father was a professional musician in a country band, so she grew up with the constant sound of music. At age 5 she started classical guitar lessons, and followed up shortly afterward with piano lessons. She went to school in Elkhorn and was instructed by “the fabulous teachers” there who are legendary in the area, she said.

“Music has been, since I was little, pretty much all I’ve done,” Sellenheim said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s really rewarding to me to get to share something that has been such a big part of my life with kids and get them just as excited by it.”

Joe Sellenheim, who also got an early start in music, began taking guitar lessons in fourth grade. He continued with vocals and percussion through college and feels that for both him and his wife, their musical endeavors outside class help bring an added legitimacy to their performance as teachers.

“As long as I’ve known her, everything she’s ever done has been dedicated toward being an outstanding musician and building an exceptional program,” he said. “Her jazz piano lessons and choral singing enhance what she does in the classroom.”

When you ask what’s next on the horizon for the Sellenheims, it’s clear they both have lots of dedication and ambition to offer their careers. He was just awarded his administrative license in curriculum and instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in December, and she is focused on continuing to grow her already busting at the seams choir program. However, there is an even bigger change on the way for the duo -- they are expecting.

“A lot is about to change, we are expecting our first child this upcoming summer. Parenthood is the next step, and from what everyone keeps telling me, it’s going to occupy a lot of our time,” Sellenheim said with a laugh. “But I want to continue to grow and expand the choir program here at Williams Bay. It’s a really wonderful community.”

The recent recognition of Sellenheim’s accomplishments highlight the amount of effort she has put into the program, and that leaves little room for doubt about her ability to keep improving it. As for things on the home front; it’s reasonable to suspect that, much like Joe and Elaine, Baby Sellenheim will grow up surrounded by music.

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