Founder and artistic director of the Princeton Girlchoir (PGC) Janet Westrick is a sociable creature. That’s how she came to be a choral conductor. “I was a piano major in college,” she says. “In preparation for my junior recital, I was spending an hour and a half daily in the practice room, and I found myself wandering out into the hall looking for company. I decided that I had to do things that were more group-oriented, so I shifted my focus.” Her story resonates with a performance I heard at a satirical cafe in Basle, Switzerland, called “Solitary Confinement at the Piano.”
The gregarious Westrick, who prefers an in-person interview to one by telephone, agrees to come to my house. It is the first time an interviewee has made a house call on me. She arrives promptly at 9:30 a.m. Over her coat she wears a discreet long grey scarf decorated with treble clefs. Her dangling earrings amplify the muted red of her sweater. Her hair appears to be prematurely white. Her eyes twinkle. She is energetic and unpretentious. Within two minutes of meeting her, I am convinced that she would make a good lion-hunting companion.
Her musings on the founding and development of the Girlchoir come on the cusp of her retirement from her position of artistic director of the Princeton Girlchoir at the end of the 2008-’09 season. She will continue as an advisor. “I want to develop and strengthen the alumnae network,” she says. A search committee is looking for her successor.
As head of PGC, Westrick has had a lot of company. The population of the Girlchoir consists of 200 participants divided among five ensembles. Her colleagues in the organization consist of two conductors, two accompanists, and an administrative staff of three. Since she started PGC 20 years ago, the organization has turned out 400 alumnae.
Membership in PGC depends on an audition. Rigorous weekly rehearsals train its members in vocal skills, sight singing, and musicianship. “Girls’ voices change but not as dramatically as boys’ voices,” Westrick says. “With the youngest voices there’s a purity of sound. With the high school girls, their sound has a richness and maturity. When all the choirs sing in a single concert, the differences in voice quality are obvious.”
Two of the five components of the Girlchoir join three college ensembles for a benefit concert on Saturday, February 7, in the Princeton Regional Schools’ Performing Arts Center at Princeton High School. The concert is a cappella, that is, without instrumental accompaniment. PGC’s Concert Choir and its Cantores ensemble host coed ensembles Off the Beat from the University of Pennsylvania and the N’Harmonics from New York University, along with Rutgers University’s all-female ShockWave.
The PGC Concert Choir consists of 12- to 15-year-olds; its Cantores ensemble is made up of 15- to 18-year-olds. Off the Beat is known as a modern rock group. The N’Harmonics take on instrumental roles, rather than conventional voice assignments. ShockWave stresses rhythm and words, as well as music.
Singing unaccompanied is new to the PGC. “Last year, we tried ‘a cappella’ for the first time just to see how it would go,” Westrick says. “People had a great time. The size and enthusiasm of the audience made us want to try it again. We hope to make it an annual affair.
“In some ways, singing a cappella is not that hard,” Westrick says. “You have to listen carefully to the other parts, and avoid having one voice stick out. The singers have to pay attention to balance, blend, and tuning while they sing.
“The tuning is difficult,” she continues. “You can drift off in either direction. If you go drastically flat, it has to do with breath and support. If you sing high, it’s due to stress and tension.
“A cappella is a big deal on college campuses now,” Westrick says. “The groups have houses together and live together. The Yale Whiffenpoofs are the traditional a cappella group. But a cappella has gone through transformations. It’s been influenced by the music scene today and by people listening to their iPods.
“College a cappella groups do that kind of music in their own way. It’s not all loud, banging rock. I’m really happy about that. I think people have always been enhanced by singing together, and I think that always will be. I’m glad that so many young people are participating, rather than just being in the audience.”
Westrick was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1938. Her father operated a drill press in a factory. “He was a good tenor and sang in a church choir,” she says. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Westrick’s maternal grandfather and an uncle played piano by ear. Her brother, an engineer, now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, focused professionally on water quality. A music lover, he plays guitar and sings.
A Hamilton resident until she entered Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, Westrick was an honors graduate at Capital, and did graduate work at Kalamazoo’s Western Michigan University and at Princeton’s Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
Escaping from the loneliness of practicing piano as a college junior, Westrick took on her first job as a choral conductor when she was a college senior. “I had a church choir,” she says, “and told people my parents’ age what to do.”
Westrick taught kindergarten through grade six in Columbus, and then moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she had babies, directed a choir, and attended graduate school. A full-time position at Princeton Day School brought her back to Princeton. She recently retired as chair of the music and performing arts department at PDS.
Princeton’s American Boychoir inspired Westrick to create the Princeton Girl Choir. “I adore the American Boychoir,” she says, “but I was thinking, ‘I have girls at PDS who could sound like this.’ I wanted to provide something comparable to the Boychoir.”
Twenty years ago, at PDS, Westrick started the community-based program that became the Princeton Girlchoir. The core membership consisted of girls in grades seven, eight, and nine. “It spread out,” Westrick says. Girls didn’t want to stop singing just because they were entering high school, and younger kids got interested.”
The five choirs that make up today’s PGC come from over 45 schools in the greater Princeton area, including Pennsylvania. Some singers are home-schooled. Auditions are required. The Grace Notes range from roughly age eight to age 10; the Semitones are approximately ages 10 to 12; the Concert Choir, ages 12 to 15; and Cantores, 15 through 18. The Princeton Girlchoir Ensemble consists of about 15 girls selected from the 70 or so members of Cantores. “The Concert Choir is the core,” Westrick says. “The high school kids are the busiest. They have the most difficulty adding extra projects to their schedule.
“The boundaries about grades and ages are blurry,” Westrick says. “We like to move girls up when the time is right for them.”
Officially, being the artistic director of PGC is a part-time affair. “Most of the 20 years since it started, I was teaching full-time at PDS, so PGC had to be part-time. “But I do what needs to be done.” This is the kind of part-time job that’s not over until everything has been accomplished, I propose. Westrick doesn’t argue.
Westrick’s husband is Fred Schott, pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Kendall Park. She directs the choir and plays piano and organ for her husband’s church. Together, the couple has five adult children and three grandchildren. “Fred is my biggest fan,” Westrick says. “He has not missed a single PGC concert.”
When she decided to announce her retirement, she says, “I wrote a letter saying why this is the right time. I have a long list of things I want to do. I had to claim time for myself. I want to learn Spanish, I want to learn to swim well, and I have three grandchildren that I want to spend time with, none in this area.”
The transitional event marking Westrick’s departure is a gala concert in her honor at Trenton’s War Memorial on Saturday, May 30. All five choirs will sing. The program will be a retrospective of well-loved PGC repertoire through the years. Paul Caldwell, recently retired as music director of Camp Albemarle, the American Boychoir summer program, has been commissioned to write a choral work to be premiered at the concert. “I asked him to write something that would express the joy and love of singing,” Westrick says, “maybe something that could be used as signature piece for PGC. I didn’t give him a text; I’m familiar with his work.” Caldwell will be on hand to direct three of his compositions as the culmination of the Trenton concert.
As an advisor, Westrick will be available to the Girlchoir in the future to continue dispensing her philosophy of choral directing. “It’s the joy of collaboration,” she says. “I can’t do it alone. If I stand in front of mirror and wave my hands, nothing happens. I depend on the girls for results. We need each other. When everything clicks in performance, it’s something you never forget.”
Concert, Princeton Girlchoir, Princeton Regional Schools’ Performing Arts Center at Princeton High School, Walnut Lane & Franklin Avenue. Saturday, February 7, 7:30 p.m. “Absolutely a Cappella.” $25. 609-688-1888 or www.princetongirlchoir.org.