Since the start of the school year, the Kenai Central High School choir has been singing. From the chambers during Borough Assembly meeting, to Soldotna Creek Park, to their own holiday concert on Dec. 17, the choir’s songs have been heard throughout the community.
The choir is made up of about 175 students of ranging ages and talents, but each of these 175 students is brought into harmony by Simon Nissen, the school’s choir teacher.
In early December, the group spent their class periods practicing for their holiday concert on Dec. 17. Rows of students filed into the bleachers, recapping the day’s gossip and making weekend plans, but with the wave of his arms and the sound of a few notes sung by Nissen, every pair of eyes turned to him.
“I was in choir freshman year but I stopped and then started again this year because I really like Mr. Nissen,” said Kenai Central High School student Jaden Kissee. Now in his senior year, Kissee said the energy and excitement of Nissen’s choir class brought him back to singing.
“With him it’s a really fun class and he actually makes you feel like you’re improving,” Kissee said.
His sentiments were shared among the choir students.
“You always leave his class with a smile,” said sophomore Taylor Conway. “I have it at the end of the day, so it just gives me this great feeling at the end of the day.”
This is Nissen’s fourth year at Kenai Central High School, where he leads shows in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium, named for his predecessor who held the position of choir director for four decades.
“I was too stupid and innocent to be nervous, too excited to finally be doing what I had always dream of doing and what I had always wanted to do, but as soon as I came into the community, I understood the gravitas that her name held,” Nissen said. “The students made it so easy, though. They were immediately so kind and accepting and willing to take part in the vision that I had.”
Nissen’s vision brings his classroom around the world through music. This year’s holiday concert started with a song whose lyrics were in the Nigerian languages Yoruba and Igbo.
“I think the big focus for me has been exposing students to different areas of the world through music,” Nissen said. “…I counted up with one of my students the other day and we’ve sung in about 18 different languages since I’ve been here. We’ve done the basics, the classics like German, French, Latin and English. We’ve done Swedish and Russian and many different African Languages. I think next semester I’m going to do some Haitian and Creole maybe.”
In his choir class, singing is cultural, creative and, even, physical.
“We start each class off with some yoga stretches,” said sophomore Kennedy Daniels. “And then we do vocal warm-ups while talking about how our day has gone.”
Nissen’s vision follows students outside of the classroom, too, as they sing choir songs in the shower and find themselves more involved in the community.
“He always gets us really involved in things that are outside of school, like singing at Odie’s Deli,” said Daniels. “And we’re going to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Anchorage.”
Conaway agreed with Daniels, adding that both in and outside of the classroom, Nissen makes an impact on their life.
“He’s not just a choir teacher, he’s someone you can go to and talk to if you’re down or having problems,” Conaway said. “He’s not a teacher, he’s a friend too.”
So, while Nissen thanks the students for helping him achieve his vision, the students thank him for making choir a unique and exciting opportunity for them.
“My favorite thing about choir overall is having a teacher that’s passionate about what we’re doing,” Daniels said.
Maintaining that excitement while wrangling 175 students to sing in different languages, at different volumes and through different choruses isn’t an easy feat.
“It’s really physically and emotionally taxing, and I feel at the end of every single day, like I have survived something catastropic sometimes,” Nissen said. “It’s so emotionally rewarding, though, to see those a-ha moments and seeing students being compassionate towards each other and seeing students value hard work and see students work as a part of a team… Seeing all of those little things that are all part of the goal.”
In the short term, Nissen said his goal is to put on a good concert, and on Dec. 17, the auditorium was jam packed with friends and family applauding the student’s performances. Each seat was filled and a line of parents leaned against the back wall to enjoy the holiday classics and more. Afterwards, bouquets, hugs and tears were abound.
In the long term, though, Nissen hopes to shape the students into good people.
“We want to help them becoming caring people and emotionally cognizant people,” he said. “… It starts at the elementary level. We have so many amazing teachers in this community and our community deserves the amazing teachers that we have and we need to do what we can to keep them. All of the coaches and all of the classroom teachers are really working toward the same goal, I just get to do it through music.”