Photos of smiling students and stacks of choir sheet music cram Norb Rossi’s tiny office at Walla Walla High School while music and singing from an adjacent classroom drift in.
It’s pretty much what one would expect to see and hear in the school’s longtime, popular and very successful choir director’s milieu.
But to Rossi, he’s as much a student as he is an instructor.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “The students have been my teachers.”
And that kind of synergy has been a part of his journey since he started singing in his eighth-grade choir.
“It was the music,” he said. “Hearing a choir produce an amazing sound and knowing you are part of it brings a feeling of completion that you don’t get in everyday life.”
Rossi decided in college to become a choir teacher and in 1974 received his degree in choral music education from Anderson University in Indiana. He taught in Montana until 2000, when he brought his expertise and dedication to students to Wa-Hi.
If there is one thing he’s learned, it’s that a good choir is really no different than a champion sports team. In choir, he said, students have to trust and be committed to each other, and be committed to music.
Added Wa-Hi senior Isaiah Stodola, choir president: “It takes a constant desire to improve. When I started I was not confident, now I’m starting my fourth year; I’m much more comfortable with singing.”
Rossi said there’s a huge misconception that singing simply requires talent or just a good voice, a misconception that Stodola added is one that prevents many people from joining the choir.
“Actually talent is way down on the list,” he said, explaining that he’s known people with average voices who’ve become superb singers because of their desire and hard work.
“Even if you’re the smartest, if you don’t apply yourself and have a goal ... it’s no good,” Rossi said.
To him, an a challenging highly regulated environment Rossi is delighted in the progress of the students. “Any time I can watch my students perform expressively without a conductor is a great moment.”
What makes a good singer? In addition to dedication and practice is “a willingness to be vulnerable. Your voice is your instrument, it’s part of you, and something you share. It’s a scary thing, especially for teenagers.”
Rossi has about 75 choir students. Within the main choir there are five smaller choirs: Belles Voix, Treble Ensemble, Chansons and two mixed choirs — Chamber Singers and Concert Choir. They all are currently preparing for an all-choirs concert Oct. 30 to be held at 7 p.m. in the Wa-Hi Auditorium.
To make it all work, he said, it’s important the he connect with all the students.
“They need to know they matter. I greet each student,” he said. “When a student leaves a class, they need to know they matter to you.”
Stodola is considerably impressed with Rossi’s ability to keep everyone going in the same direction.
“He’s very humorous at times and serious when he has to be, and balances them to get the work done,” Stodola said. “He’s part of the group as well. It’s amazing that in choirs as large as 75 people he really gets to know the kids.”
Stodola has seen Rossi teach shy, insecure students and really break through.
Wa-Hi senior Christina Swanson, student conductor said she enjoys choir so much that “it doesn’t feel like it’s really a class ... We just have become a family.”
Rossi said he’s visible because he directs the choir, but he praises the many teachers and students who do essential work in the background.
“Any time I can watch my students perform expressively without a conductor is a great moment,” he said. “I’m very blessed God just dropped me in this place.”
When he’s not teaching what he knows, he’s exploring new things to learn.
He attends the Oregon Bach Fest every summer to experience choirs from around the world.
“I am always amazed at the wide variety of influences in the music of various cultures — different rhythms, approaches in tone color, harmonies,” he said. “But when you sing together, all of the ‘differences’ fade away. You are just singers sharing something you love.”
Walla Walla High School’s choir under Norb Rossi’s direction has been recognized far and wide for excellence. Here’s a partial list:
2001 — Chamber Singers win first place at the Washington State Ensemble Championships for large mixed ensemble, and are selected to perform at the State School Board Conference in Spokane.
2004 — Treble Ensemble selected to perform a full concert at the State Music Educators Convention
2005 — Chamber singers selected to perform at the Northwest Music Educators Conference in Bellevue.
2005 and 2006 — Concert Choir and Chamber Singers receive a Gold Rating at the Washington State Gold Standard Choral Festival at the University of Washington. In 2006 Chamber Singers also win the Judges Choice Award for the Most Artistic Performance by a Mixed Choir.
2011 — Seven of the eight soloists from the Southeast Washington region selected to go to State were from Wa-Hi.
Spring 2011 — Treble Ensemble and Chamber Singers selected to perform in the Honors Concert of the Columbia Basin Community College Choir Festival. Treble Ensemble took first place in its division for the second year in a row.