“When we are singing it involves the voice, it involves the body, it involves breath, and then when you do that with the person next to you and another person and another person, there is just this human connection. I think that is what makes it come alive because it is alive.”
Sue Chrzanowski’s voice comes alive when asked what she is most proud of in her 26 years at Loomis Chaffee.
“It is meaningful, it is exciting to see alumni who remember our time as happy and joyful and a really rewarding part of their lives,” Sue says. “Many of the folks I worked with are singing or have music in their lives, even though music is not the first thing they are doing. But they've recognized how important it is in some realm.”
Sue first came to the Island in 1998 as vocal/choral director, became Music Department chair in 2014, and in 2020 was named Performing Arts Department chair. (The department encompasses music, theater, and dance.) Music has been a part of her life since she was a child. She recalls her parents sitting around with her uncle and aunt, passing a guitar around.
“We were supposed to be asleep, but, of course, we were listening,” Sue recalls. “And my dad led music at church as far back as I can remember. My grandparents liked to sing. I don’t think I can remember life without music.”
Sue plays the piano, but voice has been her instrument of choice.
“Music is intrinsic; it is a part of us,” Sue says. “When we are singing it involves the voice, it involves the body, it involves breath, and then when you do that with the person next to you and another person and another person, there is just this human connection. I think that is what makes it come alive because it is alive.”
Each year there are new students, new possibilities, and Sue helps them to create a community of singers.
“The most satisfying thing is building that community,” Sue says, “and what is even better is if I step away, how well those who are singing can function. As a conductor, I am guiding and leading, but I am not making the music. The singers are, and there is something powerful in that.”
She laughs. “You have to be willing to let go, though.”
At the start of a choral practice, the warmups are not scripted. One day, the students might jump to get started: Jump, breathe, jump, breathe. Another day they do something different.
“A lot of warmups are moving around; eurythmics might be a way to describe it,” Sue says. “The body and the mind being in a more balanced state is going to make better music, and we will be less judgmental of ourselves.
“We have to be able to make mistakes. The best thing about music is it is never done. We make a mistake, we try again. ... We try it one way and we learn something, and then we say let’s try it another way.”
For her students and for herself, Sue strives for a constant process of getting better.
She stays on top of trends in various ways, including being a part of three online discussion groups that she says share an amazing wealth of information and ideas. She describes the Connecticut chapter of the American Choral Directors Association as a vibrant organization with many resources, and she also maintains connections with the college music community.
Sue’s choral training was traditional, and while she enjoyed singing Beethoven and Mozart, she says she felt there was more. Choral music is global, she says. She started thinking there were other ways to reach the students, challenging herself to look into their worlds.
And when she got to Loomis Chaffee in 1998, she knew she had found a place that aligned with her philosophy. “This is a community that wants to look beyond itself,” she says. “I knew it was a match.”
She finds her students enjoy reaching beyond the familiar cultural environment. “What area of the world are we interested in, and what is happening in the world right now? That is so important, so last year we did a couple of Ukrainian pieces.”
When Sue is not working, she enjoys reading, cooking, and hiking. Mind and body. She says she generally has four books going at a time. One is always a biography. One is a piece of literature she feels she should read or that stretches her in some way. A third is something that she says is simply a fun, lighter read. The fourth is to improve her well-being.
She loves to cook using fresh herbs from her garden. She laughs and says her husband would say she never made the same recipe twice during the pandemic, when isolation was the rule.
And if she needs inspiration, you likely will find her listening to Mahalia Jackson, an American gospel singer who died in 1972 at the age of 60 and is remembered as one of the most influential voices in the 20th century.
“That is the voice that gets my heart,” Sue says. “There is so much power … something that didn’t have a heartbeat and listened to her would have a heartbeat.”