SEQUIM — For John Lorentzen, it’s a homecoming of sorts — just a few miles down the road.
Lorentzen, Sequim High School and Sequim Middle School’s choir director of the past 10 years, is headed west to lead Port Angeles’ choir programs at high and middle school levels this fall.
Lorentzen graduated a Roughrider in 1978, and he and fellow choir classmates helped name the select group Vocal Unlimited the school uses to this day.
“I’ll be able to tell (my students) I named that group,” he said.
Lorentzen is stepping in to fill some proverbially big shoes after Jolene and Doug Gailey, longtime choir and band directors, retired from their Port Angeles High positions in recent years.
“They ran a top-notch, well-acknowledged program, and they were hit with a double-whammy when they both retired,” Lortentzen said.
“The choral program needs some TLC to get back to where it was. Part of me feels like I’m going to be a brand new, first-year teacher and build from very diminished numbers.”
Lorentzen’s shift from Sequim to Port Angeles means SHS’s arts programs will be under new leadership in 2021-22; longtime band director Vern Fosket recently stepped down from his role after 24 years with the district.
The choir leader said he received invaluable support from coworkers and in particular from administrators such as SHS Principal Shawn Langston, Assistant Principal Kristi Queen (now principal at Helen Haller Elementary) and former Assistant Principal Mark Willis.
But a difficult year under COVID-mandated restrictions along with a chance to get back to his former school helped motivate Lorentzen to make the change.
Port Angeles hosts the region’s adjudication and solo-and-ensemble events each year, annual school events he wants to preserve and bolster — particularly coming on the heels of diminished participation in arts programs across the North Olympic Peninsula.
“If we were to lose (those events), that would be a blow to every music program on the Peninsula,” he said. “I can still serve the Sequim kids (but) in a less direct way.
“This has been tough. I’ve agonized (and am) very sad about it.”
Lorentzen said his Sequim choir highlights were seeing his students perform at big events, including two performances at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall along with the choir’s biennial events in Anaheim, Calif.
The school choir’s final performance under Lorentzen — just before the COVID shutdown — came at the Washington Music Educators Association convention in February 2020, when Sequim’s young singers performed for convention attendees as they represented the state’s small schools.
“(That was) probably the most gratifying, and the most scary,” Lorentzen said.
At its core, Lorentzen said, participation in choir is so much more than hitting notes and keeping time.
“Singing in the choir gives kids an emotional outlet; they’re involved in something creative,” he said. “It’s an integral part of creating something bigger than themselves.”
Singing is also academic on a number of levels, he said, melding language, culture and traditions and mathematics.
‘Touches the soul’
“The most important thing is, it touches the soul,” Lortenzen said. “(It) gives them reason to do everything else, and they discover something about themselves.”
Delaney Nucci, a 2021 Sequim High graduate, said she had been singing for years before joining Lorentzen’s choir class in seventh grade.
“He encouraged me to do things with my voice,” Nucci said. “We learned how to sing harmonies, to make it sound coherent.”
Nucci and other students even learned different languages, getting tips from special guests Lorentzen would bring in to teach correct pronunciation (and translations) of Portugese and French words featured in their songs.
Nucci said she and other students particularly enjoyed the choir’s overnight trips to Warm Beach in Stanwood, where they would perform three different sets for the Festival of Lights.
“He connects with students. He said, ‘I’m going to help you feel comfortable, to find your vocal range … to just have fun with it, don’t be worried.’”
Nucci is carrying that interest in choir into college next school year at Hawaii Pacific University, where she’ll sing with an international vocal ensemble.
Fellow Class of 2021 graduate Maddy Dietzman started with Lorentzen in sixth grade and took choir each year for the following seven years.
“(Choir’s) always been my favorite class; I just absolutely adored it,” she said.
Her favorite moment came from a post-WMEA conference appearance, as she and other students sang songs they’d just performed on the bus ride home.
Dietzman said Lorentzen’s choir selections were always crowd-pleasers, from pop songs to classical to her favorite, Broadway tunes.
“I love that he was just so passionate about the songs,” Dietzman said of her choir instructor.
Lorentzen would spend time trying to get students to work on their facial expressions while singing, she said.
“He was always happy and bouncy in rehearsals, trying to get us to smile … (and) making these great faces,” Dietzman said. “He’s also really great in how he organizes, the process for us, to learn the music.”
In March 2020, a few short weeks after the WMEA performance, schools across the state shut down. The following fall, all performing arts students saw significant changes to their classroom experience.
They were mandated to stay 9 feet apart and wear special, tight-fitting masks that Lorentzen said were hot and uncomfortable. Classes were limited to 15 students each, and they were mandated breaks to air out their rooms.
While Lorentzen had a base SHS classroom on the south side of West Fir Street adjacent to Fosket’s band room, he wound up teaching classes at the middle school’s gymnasium and cafeteria; that meant packing up his piano and supplies on a cart and moving from the west side of the building to the east and back again each day.
Lorentzen wound up teaching to students who were often too intimidated to sing.
“I had classes that would literally not sing at all; especially at the middle school level, if they weren’t confident as singers, they wouldn’t do it,” he said.
“There was such a fixation on following protocol. (The students) kind of lost that love and passion for it that it was hard to counter-act it.”
In Port Angeles, Lorentzen will be working under first-year Principal Tanner Zahrt, who hails from Reno, Nev.; coincidentally, Lorentzen previously worked in the Reno/Sparks, Nev., area before moving to Sequim.
Lorentzen, whose wife Laura is the music specialist at Sequim’s Helen Haller Elementary School, has further Port Angeles connections: their son Mark owns and operates Ghostlight Productions, a nonprofit theatrical company that was on hiatus for much of the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Lorentzen said he’s helping Mark with an online revue and may be more involved as Ghostlight productions are revived.
“It’s all full circle,” Lorentzen said.
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].