2023 PAVA Hall of Fame Inductee: Ellen Seyer

‘Choir Seyer’ Hits High Note with PAVA Hall of Fame Induction

Ellen Seyer says what she has done for the Performing and Visual Arts at Notre Dame Regional High School (NDHS) over the past 30 years is nothing extraordinary.

“I’ve just done my job,” she said, deflecting all credit while shining a light on the many students whose lives she has touched. “I’ve been very blessed at Notre Dame with very talented students. I just piece together the gifts from God that come into my classroom.”

A giant in the performing arts scene in this region, Seyer is head of Fine Arts in the NDHS Performing and Visual Arts Department and has set the tone over the past three decades for high school choral music at its finest.

PAVA Hall of Fame Induction

Seyer is among the 2023 class to be inducted into Notre Dame Regional High School’s Performing and Visual Arts (PAVA) Hall of Fame during a luncheon on April 1 at the high school.

PAVA recognizes Notre Dame alumni or past or present faculty who have excelled in the performing or visual arts – dance, music, theatre and visual arts. PAVA inductees serve as role models of achievement for current and future students, instilling in them the knowledge that they, too, are capable of personal and professional success.

Seyer said she learned she would be honored while attending a recent PAVA faculty meeting.

“What?” was her first reaction. “Really?”

“Yes,” she recalls Jeff Worley, assistant principal for students, technology and facilities, saying. “And get on board with it,” he added.

Seyer said she has always thought about PAVA Hall of Fame inductees as “very professional artists and professional actors. It’s taken me awhile to wrap my head around this. To know that I’m associated with folks from Notre Dame who are applying their trade and looking at new ways of expressing the arts, I’m very humbled to be considered among them.”

She is looking forward to the April induction ceremony and is especially proud that a quartet from this year’s talented Men’s Choir will perform as part of the festivities.

“They love to sing together,” she said. “I hope it’s something I’ve cultivated in them.”

Being inducted into the PAVA Hall of Fame this year is especially meaningful to Seyer after losing her husband of 44 years, Dennis, last September.

“I know he would be over-the-moon excited for me and very proud,” she said. “Dennis has backed me all the way” and was always quick to volunteer with sets, lighting, music – really any Notre Dame music or theatre need – over the past three decades.

Seyer’s Early Roots in Music and Theatre

She and Dennis met in St. Louis, where they both shared a passion for music and theatre. She recalls participating in Catholic Youth Council performances beginning in elementary school and later at her high school alma mater, Cor Jesu Academy. She went on to attend Fontbonne College, now Fontbonne University, in St. Louis where she double majored in theatre and music, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Education.

“Theatre is kind of where I thought I would be,” she said. “I assumed I would be performing somewhere.”

That changed after meeting Dennis who took a job in Cape Girardeau as a faculty member, scenic and lighting designer, and director in the then Department of Speech and Theatre at Southeast Missouri State University in 1977. The couple moved to Cape Girardeau, where they settled, made their life and grew their family to include sons Sean and Geoffrey.

Because there were not many performing opportunities at the time in Cape Girardeau, Ellen began teaching, first at University High on the Southeast Missouri State University campus where she taught middle school and high school choir. When University High closed, she continued teaching music, sometimes simultaneously, at St. Ambrose School in Chaffee, MO, Immaculate Conception School in Jackson, MO, and St. Augustine School in Kelso, MO. Her evenings were spent teaching speech courses at Southeast Missouri State University, where she earned a Master of Arts in Education and a Master in Music Education.

Finding Her Rhythm at Notre Dame

One day she ran into Sister Mary Ann Fischer SSND, then NDHS principal, in the St. Mary Cathedral School parking lot who told her about a music teacher opening at Notre Dame. Shortly thereafter, she again bumped into Sister Mary Ann, who made a second overture.

Ultimately, Seyer interviewed for and accepted the Notre Dame teaching position, beginning her new role in the former high school building on Ritter Drive with the thought she would stay three or four years. If she couldn’t produce a good choir, she was would move on.

“Thirty years later, I’m still here,” she said. “I guess something clicked.”

It was in those early years that she earned the title “Choir Seyer,” a name that differentiated her from the school librarian at the time, another Mrs. Seyer.

“It was just easier to say ‘Choir Seyer,’ and it stuck,” she said, noting she has answered to this nickname for decades and signs most school correspondence as such.

She began teaching Mixed Chorus, Concert Choir and Treble Choir, later adding Men’s Choir and Select Singers. She also teaches four dual credit courses – Music Theory, Music Appreciation, Interpersonal Communications and Oral Communications.

In addition to directing various choirs and teaching, Seyer prepares music students for All-District Honor Choir, All-State Choir, the Quad State Music Festival, Treble Choir Festival, and the joint Mixed Chorus and Band Christmas Program. She also directs the annual Christmas Concert, a popular holiday event at Old St. Vincent’s Church in downtown Cape Girardeau, which ends each year with a rendition of In This Very Room, a classic that’s resonated with Notre Dame students and alumni through the ages. As tradition has it, NDHS choir alumni are invited at the end of that concert to join current students in singing this signature piece.

“It’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” Seyer said of In This Very Room, adding the piece also is sung at Notre Dame graduation ceremonies, funerals and alumni weddings. “I don’t know if it is considered to be a Notre Dame song, but it surely has become that,” she said, adding students joining Treble Choir often have indicated how excited they are to be able to sing this piece for the first time and notch their place in the nostalgia of Notre Dame Regional High School.

Her students also lead liturgical music and cantor at school Masses throughout the year, and in the spring, she prepares students for the MSHSAA District and State Music Festivals for solo and small ensembles, competitions in which they annually excel. She also coordinates the annual spring Pop Concert, when the individual musical talents of Notre Dame students are on full display.

Outside of the classroom, she supports a number of extracurricular activities as moderator of Encore Club and Tri-M Honor Society. But she is, perhaps, best known as vocal director of Notre Dame’s annual spring musicals, where she says she gets to put her background in both music and theatre to use.

An Unwavering Commitment

Seyer’s dedication to Notre Dame and its students is beyond measure. She is, admittedly, the first person in the building every morning at 5:30-5:45 a.m. That’s when it’s quiet, allowing her to record various voice parts for pieces she wants her students to learn.

“You can’t have interruptions and bells ringing and students coming in” when you are recording, she said.

It is also the best time for her to access multiple copy machines to duplicate classroom instructional materials. It’s not surprising that during the second semester when spring musical rehearsals are in full swing, her days usually do not come to a close until about 8 p.m.

The Spring Musical – A Notre Dame Mainstay

That’s where she is now. Seyer is in the thick of rehearsals for this year’s spring musical, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, running March 30 – April 2 at the high school.

Notre Dame’s spring musicals have garnered sold-out crowds for decades, delighting audiences of all ages. Her office walls are papered with every poster from the 30 musicals she has directed since 1993. The shows have been a Notre Dame mainstay and a much-anticipated harbinger of spring, produced on the shoulders of multi-talented students every year since 1966, with the exception of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation.

Over the years, there’s nary a classic musical that has not been performed on the NDHS stage. Each has been a rousing success, yet Seyer won’t name her favorite.

“Every show is so unique. Every talent is unique,” she said.

Having the right combination of talent at a given time that gels to produce a particular show is what has made the NDHS musicals a success over the past three decades, Seyer said. She uses the production Into the Woods to illustrate her point, saying the show was intentionally selected for performance a few years ago when Notre Dame had students with the necessary talent to bring that score to life.

“My job is not to create singers. My job is to make musicians, someone who can make sense of the dots on a page and transform them into sounds and to bring that sound to life,” Seyer said.

Secret to Success

What is her secret to success? Seyer is not sure but says former Notre Dame Assistant Principal Brad Wittenborn may have said it best.

“They come into Mixed Chorus (because students must earn a fine arts requirement) and they stay,” she recalled him saying. “I don’t know what it is. I show them I enjoy what I do. Maybe it’s that I show them that I see something in them that maybe they don’t see in themselves.

“I try to make the classroom light. I tell them to leave everything else at the door,” Seyer said. “My classroom is loud, but they know when it’s time to get down to business.”

She added, “Someone once said the definition of a good teacher is that we are ‘redundant’,” meaning students take the tools they are taught “and don’t need you anymore.

“They don’t need me,” she said. “So, I guess I’m doing something right.”

‘Find a Way to Keep Singing’

Seyer is reluctant to single out former students who have gone on to excel on national stages, although she admits there are many. She is also proud that many former students have found ways to put their musical talent to use after high school, even if they have pursued careers in other disciplines.

“We have fabulous musicians who have gone on in other fields,” she said, saying some continue to share their talent as cantors in their parishes or at Newman Centers on colleges campuses. “Many have a hidden passion for music and try to use it in some way. I always tell them – find a way to keep singing. That’s a gift meant to be given away. Find a way to use what you have. You have been blessed.”

A Valued Contributor

And Notre Dame has been blessed to have “Choir Seyer”.

“We are beyond blessed to have had Ellen educating Notre Dame students for the last 30 years. Her dedication to her students and her art is unmatched,” said Notre Dame Principal Tim Garner. “She is almost always the first person in our building and many days the last one to leave. She pours an immense amount of time and passion into each class, choir and performance. All you need to do is visit her classroom once to know the love and respect that her students have for her. I am very grateful for her, and look forward to hearing her students perform for years to come.”

While Seyer’s contributions are deeply valued within the Notre Dame community, they have not gone unnoticed elsewhere. She has been honored with the Apple Teacher Award from Encore Federated Music Club, has twice been named an Outstanding District Director by the Missouri Choral Directors and has received the 30-year Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocesan Teaching Award presented by Bishop Edward Rice. She also has been recognized by the National Society of High School Scholars.

She draws inspiration from colleagues as a member of the National Association for Music Education, Missouri Music Educators Association-Southeast Representative, American Choral Directors Association, Missouri Choral Directors Association, Southeast Missouri English Teachers Association, National Catholic Educational Association, and the Speech & Theatre Association of Missouri.

NDHS Has Been Music to Seyer’s Ears

“I can’t believe it’s been 30 years,” Seyer said, reflecting on her NDHS teaching career. “It seems like we just started in this building” at 265 Notre Dame Drive. “They say time flies when you’re having fun. I guess that’s true. I’ve had so many more good times than bad. I have a lot of good memories” at Notre Dame.

The high notes have been many; and for those wondering what’s next, she’s not yet contemplating her swansong.

“I plan on being here a few more years,” she said. “I’m not a sit-at-home person. I don’t know what I’ll do when I retire.

“I haven’t thought about another chapter,” she said. “I’m not done writing this one yet.”