It’s a good thing Heather Orr didn’t miss her calling, because she says she has the best job in the world. For the past 23 years, she has taught high school choir, 17 of them as the head choir director at Montgomery High School. Her choirs consistently win awards, both at University Interscholastic League competition and at festivals, and Heather herself has earned awards, including the Fine Arts Teacher of the Year Award for Montgomery County. In June, she was selected as the artistic director of the Montgomery County Choral Society, bringing her love and knowledge of music to a different group and audience.
Off duty, Heather is dedicated to her family. She met her future husband Will a few days before his senior—and her freshman—year at Heidelburg College (now Heidelburg University) in Tiffin, Ohio, and they have been married for 25 years. They are the parents of four children, who are Heather’s “pride and joy.”
What influenced your decision to choose a career in music education?
I might have been one of those students who would have fallen between the cracks if not for my parents. I had a passion for music, and they supported me in that passion. I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Ohio—ironically, Montgomery, Ohio. I took a different route instead of majoring in music education. I originally wanted to perform. I thought I would perform and teach private lessons. I went to Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, majoring in voice performance. I got my master’s in vocal pedagogy at Ohio State.
I was performing in a summer stock theater program, and it was amazing. They asked if I would help with their children’s theater, which was performing The Wizard of Oz. I absolutely loved it. I was performing at night and teaching kids during the day. That’s when I thought, “I am missing my calling.” It was such a high. It was so exciting for me to be with those kids, to watch them grow and develop and just to see them improve, and I knew that I needed to get my teaching certification. The following year, I finished my master’s degree and classes needed for certification. I student taught and then started teaching. It was definitely a situation where I knew that was what I was supposed to be doing. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Tell us about your first teaching job.
I taught six years at Eisenhower High School in Aldine ISD. I was 24 when I first started teaching. Eisenhower was an inner-city school, but had great kids in the program. It was my first job, so I really didn’t know any different. They were all so sweet to me. They called me Momma Orr. There were 30 kids in the program when I started at Eisenhower. There were over 150 when I left. Anyone can join choir. Anyone can be taught. Something I’m pretty passionate about is music and teaching people how to sing. When there is passion, kids are attracted to it, and they want to be a part of something that is good.
How did a girl from Montgomery, Ohio end up in Montgomery, Texas?
Bobby Morris [then the principal of Montgomery High School]called a good friend of mine who was teaching in Spring and said, “If I can’t have you, who should I hire?” She recommended me, and he called me and asked, “Will you come talk to me? There’s this position, and I want you to come look at my school.” I walked in, and I was in an interview. I don’t know why I didn’t know…why I didn’t put it together. I thought I was just coming to look at the school.
It was a really hard decision to leave the students at Eisenhower High School, because they had become part of my family. I still keep in touch with a lot of them. I’ve always had the notion that I wanted to change the world. and I just really thought that Bobby Morris, the principal, had the same type of passion, so I decided to come to work with him. I came to Montgomery in fall of 2001, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I will be indebted to him forever for giving me this opportunity.
How has the choir program at Montgomery High School changed over the past 17 years?
They had a good program. It was a small program; there were only 1,064 students in the whole school. Now, we have over 200 on our roll. Since the school split [into two high schools], it’s a little different this year. We have seven choirs: the Chorale Women, the A Capella Women, the Bel Canto Women, the Concert Men, the Chorale Men, the Jazz Choir, and the Madrigals, which most people around here know. They give a Madrigal dinner during the Christmas season and dress in period costumes.
We are so fortunate being here in Montgomery. Parents are amazing. They are so supportive of their children. We have five private voice teachers who come in, and a lot of the students take lessons from those teachers. It’s amazing to be with these students. They are wonderful kids, and I get to teach them and help them find passion and direction. I would love for every single person to go into music, but what’s more important to me is teaching students to be good people, to be passionate, to have a purpose, to be compassionate, and to work together as a team, because those are skills that can carry over to all areas of their lives.
And now you are the artistic director of the Montgomery County Choral Society!
The previous director, Ann Lee, passed away, and accompanist Craig Stephan became the interim conductor. They asked me to submit an application and to interview, and they made the announcement in June. I’ve got very big shoes to fill. I want to continue to do something that will make her proud.
Tell us about the MCCS.
There are currently 84 on the roster, which is pretty exciting because we have grown significantly. We have a range of abilities. We have everything from members who have sung all their lives to members who have always shown a passion for singing, but have not been a part of a structured group. Some of them even have music degrees or are earning music degrees right now. They’re all people who love to sing, and that’s really the focus.
Is teaching high school students different from directing adults?
Not much changes. The students at Montgomery High School are very advanced. They are polite, and they have great rehearsal procedure. The men and women in the choral society are awesome to work with. They show the same passion. And we just learn music.
What are some things you are looking forward to as artistic director of the MCCS?
It’s a definite thrill to direct a choir. It’s invigorating to see the members show excitement for the music and improve their fundamental skills. I want there to be joy in the room. I want there to be positive energy and just to unite the voices so everyone can come together and feel great about what they are doing and contributing to the group. I have received several emails thanking me for the structured rehearsals and the joy they’ve had when they leave. That’s very inspiring.
Yes, and it’s so much fun. I have planned their year. When I select music, I am actually thinking of both increasing the audience size and inspiring the membership—not only inspiring the membership to sing, but inspiring people to come. The first concert was That’s Amore, which was paired with an Italian dinner. All the songs were about love and celebration, and it was everything from opera to The Beatles. For Christmas, we will be singing Vivaldi’s Gloria, the major work. We will also be singing some Christmas favorites. Also, the Montgomery Madrigals will be singing at that concert. I am hoping everyone receives it well. Right now, the membership is quite excited about the music we are rehearsing.
Cross Fit at 5 a.m., then I teach all day. After school, we have rehearsals. When I go home, I do a lot of preparation for the choral society and the high school, whether it’s researching music or planning or communicating with other choir directors.
Tell us about your children. Did you teach them in school?
I did! It’s the best ever to teach your kids. Abby and Carly are twins. They are 22. Abby is a voice performance major at the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio. Carly is a voice performance major at Baylor University. Christopher is 20. He is a church music major at Baylor University. Claire is an 11th grader. She will probably major in music and minor in business.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
I love everything. I like musical theater, pop music, rock music, 70s, 80s and classical.
What is the best thing about being a choir director?
The best part is knowing I can use music to change people’s lives. Music has such an incredible impact on people. I am extremely passionate about what I do. I love it. I was able to find my purpose. I have the best job in the world. I do.