At age 15, Louise Foster knew she wanted to sing, but her high school in St. Clair, Pa., didn’t have a choir.
So she started one.
That began a lifetime of music for Foster, who is now choral director at Cape Henlopen High School.
Foster grew up in St. Clair, a small, central Pennsylvania town south of coal mining country. An accomplished piano player, as a teenager, she used her music skills to direct the high school choir and play organ at her church.
She continued her music education at Penn State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music and later a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
Her first teaching job was in Kingston, N.Y., not far from Woodstock, the legendary music venue.
“I loved it,” Foster said. “I got a lot of teaching skills there.”
But the pull of city life proved too great for the single music teacher, and she soon moved to the Washington, D.C. area where she worked for several Prince George's County Schools. At one point, Foster said, she worked with Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who would died in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after take-off.
“I was in a music store when I heard the news,” Foster said.
A slice of home
Hundreds of miles from her hometown in Pennsylvania and working as a music teacher in Prince George’s County, Foster met many new people. But as fate would have it, it was a boy from St. Clair whom she met and married in 1975. Tom Foster worked at Defense Intelligence when the two St. Clair natives’ paths crossed.
The two established a home near Rockville and vacationed in Bethany Beach. When Tom was given an early out from his government job, Foster said she was panicked.
“I wasn’t ready to retire,” she said.
Foster left teaching music in public schools in 1982 for a music and theater director job at Leisure World, a retirement community in Silver Spring, Md. Two years later she took a job directing church activities, all the while giving private music lessons.
When Tom retired, the couple decided to build a vacation home in Wolfe Pointe. Foster took a music job at the Jefferson School in 2006, while keeping her job in Maryland.
“I juggled the two jobs for a year and a half,” she said.
In 2007, a chorus teacher position opened up at Beacon Middle School, and Foster took it.
She’s been with the Cape Henlopen School District ever since.
“It was like a miracle. Like it was meant to happen,” she said.
High school aspirations
Foster had never taught music at the high school level, but when a chorus director position became available at Cape Henlopen she said she didn’t think twice.
“When I moved to the high school, we just clicked,” she said.
In the three years she has been there, Foster has taken the chorus to a new level.
Last year, the chorus traveled to Washington, D.C., where they performed at the presidential inauguration and participated in a choir competition.
The chorus won a 93-gold, a top honor based on points, Foster said.
“It’s not easy to get a gold,” she said. “We took second in the whole competition.”
In the spring, a chorale traveled to Lenox, Mass., where they competed against other singing groups.
“They learned a lot because they heard a lot of groups there,” she said.
This year, the chorus returned to Washington, D.C., where they sang near the National Christmas tree before performing at Leisure World. Students finished the day with a White House tour.
Since she started teaching at the high school, the number of students in choir and the select chorale singing group has doubled. Currently, she said, there are 42 students in the general choir and 33 in the chorale, open by audition only.
“I think it has to do with my connection with the kids,” she said.
"We're all like one big family," said Nora Carle, a senior alto. "She treats us like her kids. I'm going to miss this like crazy when we graduate."
Seniors Alyssa Mocci and Elizabeth Sparks have known Foster since middle school when they took voice lessons from her and sang with her at Beacon Middle.
"We were so excited when she came here because we knew she was going to take us places," Alyssa said.
Foster said she spends hours going over music to make sure it will work for the group.
“I think the main thing is to know your students and pick the appropriate music for them,” she said. “I’ll spend days going over music to make sure it’ll work for the group.”
It’s a formula that works. Last spring, the chorale gave the Cape Henlopen school board a glimpse of what earned them the gold. Melody and harmony blended perfectly to fill the middle school cafeteria with sound as Foster led the group through a mini-concert.
Foster credits a supportive administration for much of the program's success. In addition to chorus, Foster teaches an introduction to voice class. Soon, she said, she hopes to add a musicology class that would include music history and an AP music theory class.
As long as enough students are interested, she said, new classes can be added. “They are very open here.”
For now, Foster said, she is finishing up the holiday season and looking forward to a European vacation over break.
She encourages any student interested in singing to give chorus a try, especially young men. Too often, she said, boys are reluctant to try out because it is not cool. She hopes to change that mentality, and she welcomed a couple of jocks to the group this year.
While not every student is bound for music school after graduation, Foster said, a student last year now attends University of Michigan’s school of music, one of the country’s best programs. She said she is working with several current students who are interested in music careers. Her willingness to go the extra mile for her students may be the secret to her success.
"She's taught us how to believe in ourselves," Nora said.