The Colonial Choraliers

“Music IS Basic” read the button that I wore as a high school senior in 1978 at Washington High School. Budget cuts were endangering the school’s award winning music program, really the only thing that kept me connected to education at that time. As students we all did our part to ensure that this vital part of our learning experience remained intact.
In 1978, Washington High School was one of the smaller high schools in the Portland Public School District. Many of its students were bussed in from North and Northeast Portland. This contributed to the school’s multi-ethnic make-up, but also added a degree of racial tension. Back in 1978 there was no dialogue with students about cultural differences enriching your world. Rather, we were told to get along without the full benefit of understanding why. With this backdrop the students at Washington High School struggled at times, to find a peaceful co-existence. There was one educator who had the capacity to bring together students of all different backgrounds and instill in them the love of music, the joy of singing together and the desire to stay in school. That man was the school’s music teacher, Mr. Don Gissel.

Now remember, we are talking about the seventies here. Think disco, afros, lots of polyester and “Soul Train”. Mr. Gissel was undoubtedly the whitest, skinniest man I had ever met. Formal in dress, he was always in a bow tie, a plaid flannel suit coat and shiny dress shoes. His calm demeanor was essential when dealing with those teenagers in 1978. His expectations were high; you needed to come to class prepared and ready to learn. In return, Mr. Gissel had an unmistakable heart of gold, a gift of uniting a student body and a strong love of teaching music to his students.

Mr. Gissel directed several choirs as well as the award winning vocal jazz ensemble, The Colonial Choraliers. Competition to make his groups was tight; you had to show you were willing to work hard. Early on, he taught his students how to read music, understand different rhythms and learn intricate harmonies. Students who did not make the cut and ended up in his office in tears were encouraged to continue to work hard and contribute toward the school’s music program. Mr. Gissel had the gift of pointing out his student’s strengths and their contributions. Eventually the student left the office still feeling like they had something to give the program and probably chewing on a peppermint candy he would pull out of his plaid coat pocket.

Mr. Gissel’s command of his students was such that he yearly took them on a choir tour of the Pacific Northwest. We knew what kind of behavior he expected from us and we knew there would be consequences if we got out of line. Truth be told, no one wanted to disappoint him and so we represented ourselves and our school in such a way that would make him proud. The vocal jazz ensemble won many awards throughout his teaching career, competing with other high schools from Oregon and Washington. These competitions took place on the weekends, meaning Mr. Gissel gave up those weekends to provide us with an extraordinary experience.

We were good and the trophies that filled the display case in the school’s front hall were a testimony to an unselfish teacher. Working with Mr. Gissel was always a collaborative effort. Students felt comfortable enough to offer suggestions to an arrangement or bring in a song that they wanted to try out on the group.

One year, Mr. Gissel walked the group through the exercise of writing to a publishing company and getting permission to perform one of their songs. Once we got the green light, we worked together to find an arrangement that would work with the genre of music we performed. This process sticks in my mind 30 years later as one of great accomplishment. We learned many things from that experience but most importantly we learned to work together as a team. Soon people’s differences were not what I saw as I walked in to the music room. Instead this was a group that I belonged to, was always welcomed into, and dearly loved.

Now, as my 30 year high school reunion nears my thoughts have turned to the “Music IS Basic” button I still have sitting in my jewelry box. I have so many reasons to thank Mr. Gissel. His devotion and high expectations kept me in school. I lived for those two class periods of the day when I would sit on the edge of my chair, back straight and be directed in warm up exercises. Occasionally, when the full power of the choir was strong and our voices were united in an incredible harmony, Mr. Gissel would stop us with an “Oh Man! You guys sound good today!” He must have seen a sea of beaming faces each time he said that.

Because of Mr. Gissel I learned to love all kinds of music. From rap to country, jazz and pop and Broadway. I learned to work as a team with a group of people who were all responsible for their own part that made our group whole. I learned that a caring adult can make a huge difference in the life of a teen whose home life was chaotic and unpredictable. I am happy to say that the love of all kinds of music has been passed on to my daughters. I was always the Mom who didn’t mind listening to rap, hip hop and what I call “head banger music” on the car radio, making our car the carpool car. I have taken my daughters to see Phantom of the Opera in New York, not to mention Motley Crüe, Kanye West, the Rolling Stones and an American Idol concert or two. Like I said I may not be a fan of the type of music I am hearing but I can appreciate the work and effort that goes into it.

Mr. Gissel’s influence steered me toward college where I majored in music for the first two years. An unbelievable feat, considering my lack of interest in academics. Although I ended up changing my major I did graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree, one of the first people in my family to do so. While I did not grow up to be the next Barbra Streisand, music continues to be an important part of my life to this day even though most of the time my audience consists of the family cats.

I know I speak for many of Mr. Gissel’s students when I say “Thank You”. You may not, thirty years later, remember my face or name but I will never forget your dedication and strong work ethic, your love of teaching and your timeless energy. You kept many of us in school long enough to graduate and move on to bigger and better things. It is true, Music IS Basic, and so much more.

Susan (Love) Gano
Class of 1978
Washington High School
Colonial Choraliers