When the new choir room opens at Firestone High School, it will be named in honor of Sally Schneider, who has inspired a love of quality vocal music in students for nearly 31 years at Akron Public Schools.

Superintendent David James surprised the beloved educator with the honor — which came about thanks to a movement by vocal alumni — May 20 at Schneider’s sold-out final concert, which featured her six Firestone High School choirs.

Schneider, 55, will retire today, saying it is because of upcoming changes to her state pension formula, not because she’s ready.

“It’s bittersweet. There’s just no doubt about that but I plan on supporting quality music education in some fashion,” said Schneider, vocal music director for 21 years at Firestone. She worked previously at Kenmore and Garfield high schools.

More than 300 alumni signed a Facebook petition to honor Schneider with the choir room naming at the new Firestone High School. A number of them came to her goodbye concert at the current building’s auditorium and gathered to sing the final song to her a cappella: Softly As I Leave You.

Among them was Tim “Ripper” Owens, a 1985 Kenmore High School graduate who was lead singer of Judas Priest from 1996 to 2003. He sang in Schneider’s Kenmore choirs in 1984-1985, his senior year, and remembers having her listen to Judas Priest records in the school practice rooms.

“She was young and energetic, just always so animated,” Owens said in a recent phone interview. “She was more open-minded to all kinds of stuff.”

Owens made an impression on Schneider, too: “He could sing a Renaissance madrigal, he could sing a Brahms motet, and then he could just whale on heavy metal.”

Valuable life lessons

Many alumni who sang in Schneider’s choirs at Kenmore, Firestone and Garfield high schools continue to make music a central focus in their lives, from solo artists like rocker Owens to opera singers such as Chris Bozeka, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music.

A common refrain among students and parents alike is that Schneider has instilled in her singers not only music lessons of the highest standard, but also valuable life lessons.

“She teaches with passion; she teaches from her heart,” said George Bozeka, father of alumni Jon and Chris and president of Friends of the Akron School for the Arts. “She prepares them to be not only good musicians, but also good people.”

The morning before Schneider’s farewell concert, she rehearsed the Men’s Chorus at Firestone, urging them to delve deeply into the Russian song Blagoslovi, dushe moya Ghospoda, which is a prayer.

“You’ve to got to sell what’s going on in your soul, and that takes discipline!” she told the young men.

For a festive Punjabi number called Wedding Qawwali, she encouraged the singers to be open with their body language in the call-and-response song. The students responded with joyful improvised swaying, dancing and even doing acrobatics at the song’s climax.

Senior Gavin Markowitz of Silver Lake said Schneider’s personal relationships with her students add to the emotion of their music.

Senior vocal student Reilly Dougherty, headed to St. Bonaventure in New York to study chemistry, said she appreciates Schneider’s high expectations. “She expects the same things of us that she expects of herself.”

Hired as consultant

Schneider, an Alliance native, is a Mount Union graduate with a master’s degree in music education from the University of Akron. She was teacher of the year at Firestone in 2008 and Outstanding Music Educator of the Year for Ohio in 2000.

She is retiring, but her passion for quality music education will never wane.

“I just cannot sit and start joining the garden club right now and knitting. I’ve got to get out there and advocate for good arts education,” she said.

Principal Lavonne Humphrey said Schneider will return to Firestone as a consultant to work with the new vocal director as well as new band and orchestra directors next year.

Schneider talks passionately about awakening latent skills in students. She also stresses that a good arts education develops problem-solving, resourcefulness and the ability to look at things from multiple perspectives.

“My focus has been to prepare students that come through my door, all 175 a day ... with skills so that doors open for them when they leave high school,” she said.

Opening doors

In her school’s college-prep vocal program, Schneider has graduated students who can analyze musical scores, sight-read, recognize a range of musical styles and manipulate vocal techniques to emulate those styles so they’re competitive in college auditions.

Among her students who have landed scholarships to sing in college choirs is senior Ben Hayes, who will receive $13,000 annually at the University of Mount Union.

“He has an incredible, advanced skill set,” said Schneider, who said Hayes sings in five languages.

Schneider’ singers have gone on to a large array of careers, but many continue singing in community or church choirs. Others have careers in the arts.

Karen Stansifer, a 2001 Firestone graduate, is finance manager for the Metropolitan Opera, while 2000 graduate Ryan Albrecht has put his musical knowledge to use as a recording engineer.

“We have many students actually paying their light bill and living very comfortably and enjoying their families, and they’re making their money as professional artists,” Schneider said.

Albrecht recently moved back to Akron and works on projects throughout the country. He is married to international opera singer Elizabeth DeShong.

Albrecht, who was a vocal performance major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, said performing in Firestone’s rigorous choir program gave him a leg up in college. He’s among the many graduates who return to Firestone to mentor vocal students.

Building collaborations

Over the years, Schneider also has worked to build collaborations between her choirs and outside music organizations, including Tri-C Jazz Fest, the Akron Symphony and Summit Choral Society to help open students’ eyes to the many musical possibilities beyond high school.

Fellow Firestone music teacher Julie Lehman has seen five of her own children go through Schneider’s vocal program. The youngest, Tom, who graduated last year, studies jazz at Cuyahoga Community College.

“It’s never been about her,” Lehman said of Schneider. “She has got so much passion and love in her heart and love for the kids.”

Schneider has enjoyed teaching her vocal students all the way through high school: “I see them coming in with all their awkward weirdness at age 13, 14, and then here they are walking out these graceful swans, and these confident young men and women just waiting to embrace the world.”

Her successor as Firestone isn’t official yet, but she said the vocal music candidate is “fabulous.”

“It has been a privilege to serve these kids in this public school system. They have made such amazing art on a shoestring of money. It’s just really what you do with your soul and with your brain,” she said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.