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updated: 5/30/2013 2:01 PM

District 23 bids farewell to longtime orchestra leader

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  • Susan Blaese rehearses the combined orchestra Thursday morning.

      Susan Blaese rehearses the combined orchestra Thursday morning.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Susan Blaese directs the orchestra in a rehearsal of the 1812 Overture.

      Susan Blaese directs the orchestra in a rehearsal of the 1812 Overture.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Susan Blaese isn't retiring from teaching altogether, as she will join a program at Elmhurst College.

      Susan Blaese isn't retiring from teaching altogether, as she will join a program at Elmhurst College.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

By Mackenzie Dye

As Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 says goodbye to another school year, it is also saying goodbye to a woman who is leaving the orchestra program on a winning note.

Susan Blaese has been both a teacher and director of the orchestra for 33 years. On Friday she will lead players from all of her schools together for the first time, at the Sue Blaese Farewell Concert, 7 p.m. at MacArthur Middle School, 700 N. Schoenbeck Road.

In addition to the combined performance of the "1812 Overture," former students, retired faculty, colleagues and important people to Blaese's career will attend and honor her lifetime of work.

"She's been amazing," said MacArthur Principal Steven Lee about her leadership.

"She took the average middle school program and turned it into a state-recognized program," he said. "I've often commented, if you listen to the performance and close your eyes, you'd never guess it's a middle school."

Blaese is ending her career as an orchestra director with District 23, but it's also where she started her career.

"I student taught at Buffalo Grove High School and in District 57 in Mount Prospect," said Blaese, "When I was student teaching, my core teachers knew this job was open, and directed me toward it."

Blaese was hired as orchestra director for Districts 23 and 26, but as the program grew, four years later she focused on District 23 alone. This includes directing five orchestras, with students from fourth through eighth grade. Seventh and eighth grade students are in a combined orchestra.

Blaese also directs the Serenading Strings, the advanced middle school orchestra. The Serenading Strings play throughout the community at special events, luncheons, weddings and other celebrations.

They will perform two pieces at the farewell concert: "Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Ungar (viewers of the Civil War series by Ken Burns will recognize it) and highlights from "The Sound of Music."

The orchestra program has not always been this expansive.

"We had 16 students at MacArthur in 1980, now in the middle school we have 100, and 200 districtwide," said Blaese.

This is not the first program that Blaese has had a hand in building. When she was in fourth grade in Normal, IL, Blaese and her orchestra teacher, Deanne Bryant, worked to create a program that at the time did not exist.

Bryant, who is retired but still conducts at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, will speak at the farewell concert on Friday.

Just as she was inspired by her own teacher, Blaese has also inspired her students to keep music in their life, and even teach it. Former District 23 student and current Wheeling High School senior Adam Korber credits Blaese for influencing his decision to pursue a career in music education.

"I'm going into music, and she started my passion for it," said Korber, calling her teaching "phenomenal and energetic." A cello player, he will study music education and performance at Lawrence University in the fall.

"I hate to see her go, but she's done good work; she's earned it," he says.

This lifelong love of music is what Blaese has hoped for in her students.

"I think my philosophy has always been the enjoyment of music for a lifetime," she says. "I'm about building students who will continue their love of music, and many of my students have done that."

Former students who attend the concert will be recognized for their participation in the program under Blaese. Alumni should check in at the door.

The audience will also learn about a summer music camp scholarship to start next year. Members of a new instrumental league will collect money at the concert and fundraise throughout the year.

The scholarship will go to a seventh grader so he or she can attend the summer music camp of their choice, such as Illinois Summer Music Camp held at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Although Blaese is leaving District 23, she is not ending her career in music education. Blaese will be an adjunct faculty member at Elmhurst College next year, and will be a part of a new String Academy premiering there in the fall.

Despite her moving on to a new phase in music education, her feelings are bittersweet.

"It's been a rewarding and fun career, so I'm sad to leave," Blaese said. "I've had such wonderful students; they've been like my kids."

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