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'A true passion for music'

Lake Oswego School District orchestra conductor Nita Van Pelt wins the Mary V. Dodge Award and will have bronze star installed in her honor at Lakeridge High School

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Nita Van Pelt directs the Lakeridge High School orchestra during a practice on April 13. Already a recipient of the Oberlin Conservatory's Distinguished Music Education Alumna Award, Van Pelt received the Portland Youth Philharmonics Mary V. Dodge Award on Monday. Orchestra conductor Nita Van Pelt, a longtime music educator who is beloved by students on both sides of the lake, will bid farewell to the Lake Oswego School District later this year — but not before being honored with prestigious awards and a bronze star to be installed at Lakeridge High.

Van Pelt, who was given Oberlin Conservatory’s Distinguished Music Education Alumna Award in September, was presented with the Mary V. Dodge Award for music teachers Monday by the Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP) during an orchestra class at Lake Oswego High.

“It’s a real honor for me to be recognized,” she says, “and it’s especially an honor to close out my career with this award.”

Van Pelt is retiring at the end of the school year after serving in the district for 30 years. She will say goodbye with a May 18 concert at Lakeridge High and a May 21 reception at LOHS, but not before past and present students get a chance to celebrate the role she’s played in their lives.

Lakeridge High School alumna Tricia Bogdan is leading the effort to honor Van Pelt, who also conducts the Lakeridge orchestra. Students are raising funds to install a bronze star with her name on it in the pavement outside the school auditorium to recognize Van Pelt’s commitment to teaching music.

The star will be unveiled at the May 18 concert.

“She's an amazing role model, teacher and friend who has touched so many lives,” says Bogdan, a viola player and Portland State University senior who is graduating this year with a bachelor's in music performance.SUBMITTED PHOTO - In her senior year at Lakeridge in 2012, Tricia Bogdan told Nita Van Pelt how much of an inspiration she had been to her. Now a Portland State University senior, Bogdan is saying it again by leading an effort to get a bronze star with Van Pelt's name on it installed in the pavement outside the Lakeridge High School auditorium.

Bogdan, who plans to pursue a master’s in music therapy at Western Michigan University, says Van Pelt has been an inspiration to her and deserves recognition, including the Dodge Award that was presented Monday afternoon by PYP representatives who also brought a flower bouquet and dozens of large cookies.

At Van Pelt’s instruction, her students fell upon the cookies.

Of the nine winners of the annual award, Van Pelt is the second from Lake Oswego. Dave Matthys, an LOHS band teacher who retired in 2014, also earned the distinction. But upon hearing the news about the latest awardee, senior Emily Elott, a violinist in the LOHS orchestra, called out, “I love Ms. Van Pelt!”

“This is fantastic,” Elott says. “I think she has a true passion for music, and she helps her students realize that same passion.”

Portland Youth Philharmonic musical director David Hattner told the crowd that Van Pelt’s efforts to build the orchestra programs at both local high schools made her stand out from the other nominees. When she started leading the programs in 1993, there were fewer than 10 students at each high school involved in orchestra; there are now 63 players at Lakeridge and 70 at Lake Oswego High, and Van Pelt works with more than 500 players in grades four to 12.

Hattner says he’s pleased with the artistic atmosphere in the district.

“It’s just been a place where people feel very inspired to study music, and more than a few over the years have found their way into the Portland Youth Philharmonic,” he says, “so we’ve been very appreciative of that as well.”REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Portland Youth Philharmonic musical director David Hattner presents Nita Van Pelt with the Mary V. Dodge Award for music educators Monday while her Lake Oswego High School orchestra class looks on.

Students at both high schools — Maia Lee, Elena Lee, David Park and Timmy Chung from LOHS and Bettine Rehr-Zimmerman from Lakeridge — nominated Van Pelt for the Dodge Award.

“As longtime musicians in our school orchestras throughout our elementary, junior high and high school years, we can safely say that Ms. Van Pelt’s dedication to her students and passion for music is certainly deserving of the Mary V. Dodge Award,” the students’ nomination said.

Van Pelt has logged more than three decades as a school conductor, first teaching at an Ohio school for five years before coming to the Lake Oswego School District in 1986. Her job duties have shifted throughout the years, but she currently conducts orchestras not only at the high schools but also at Lakeridge Junior High.

In addition, Van Pelt directs more than 200 students in the multi-school elementary-level orchestra, which meets in the Uplands Elementary School building. (Anna Trobaugh leads the Lake Oswego Junior High orchestra.)

Van Pelt “is not just committed to orchestral music,” LOHS theater director Bob McGranahan says. “In fact, I don’t think it would matter what she was teaching, because for her it is all about the kids and exposing them to great music and great success in its perpetration and performance. She is an instructor who knows that it is all about the process and finds a way to make a place for each of her students in that process. That is difficult enough to do as a teacher in one building. Nita has been doing this in four or five buildings for years and has been successful in all of them.”

LOHS choir director Megan Perdue says Van Pelt’s success stems from to her ability to connect with students on a personal level.

“She respects their opinions and musicality,” Perdue says. “She always sets the bar high and inspires her students to reach further than they thought possible. She sees the best in everyone and is always fair and kind. It has been a privilege to watch her teach. I have learned a lot from her.”

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Nita Van Pelt has been an orchestra conductor in the Lake Oswego School District since 1986.Children get to know Van Pelt well, usually entering the strings program in fourth grade and working with a teacher before joining the full orchestra in fifth grade. Jonathan DeBruyn, a Lakeridge High School graduate, has known Van Pelt since the beginning of his musical career.

“She utterly and completely transformed my life,” says DeBruyn, a senior at Portland State University who is about to graduate with a Bachelor of Music in violin performance. “Nita Van Pelt is one of the greatest educators I’ve ever met, and I regularly tell people that she’s a genius — and I really mean it.”

Van Pelt is not only a school director. She joined Portland's Metropolitan Youth Symphony in 1998 as conductor of the Interlude Orchestra, a job she still holds. She is also the principal clarinetist of the Oregon Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.

Lakeridge High band director Corey Alston, an alto saxophonist who has performed in two Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra concerts with Van Pelt, says her central focus is always her students.

“She is wholeheartedly dedicated to their well-being and success, and that is what drives her,” Alston says. “That dedication, coupled with her incredible skill as a musician, has had such a positive impact on countless musicians throughout her career.”

Van Pelt says she has loved her entire musical career. She says one of her greatest moments was in May 2003, when her students performed a premiere of “Columbia River Suite,” a piece composer Doris Gazda had written specifically for the LOSD 4-12 strings program. The composition was published with a note saying it was commissioned by Lake Oswego orchestras.

Today, Van Pelt’s focus is less on past honors and excitement than it is on preparing her students on both sides of the lake for the state competition next week. Yet however students do in class or in competition, there’s one lesson in particular she hopes they all carry with them.

“Every year, I tell my seniors — because I know a lot of them aren’t going to play anymore, they’re just going to go off in their life — I tell them to make sure and keep music in your life in some way,” she says.

She’ll be keeping it in hers. Along with visiting family upon her retirement, Van Pelt will be preparing for a solo on her clarinet in a year with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. To get ready, she’s going to take the advice she usually bestows upon her students.

“I will be practicing with purpose,” she says.

By Jillian Daley
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Concert: 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18, in the Lakeridge High School gym, 1235 Overlook Drive

Reception: 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, in Lake Oswego High School cafeteria, 2501 Country Club Road

Note: To donate to the effort to give Nita Van Pelt a bronze star at Lakeridge High School, visit www.gofundme.com/r6z3zc7w. As of Tuesday, the fund had raised $1,055 toward a goal of $2,300.