Retired Upper St. Clair choral director to be honored

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Most people can name a teacher who inspired them, whose instruction went beyond the classroom and whose influence left an imprint on their lives.

For a group of Upper St. Clair High School alumni, that teacher is Robert Gielas.

Beth Fulton Foss, a member of the Class of 1981, said the former choral director did more than teach -- he touched lives.

"This is a chance to go back and say, 'Thank you so much,' " she said of an upcoming reunion. "It's such a rare thing to be able to go back 20, 30, 40 years later to someone and say thank you.

"He's the one who got [the choral program] going and gave the department the reputation that it has now."

The group will honor Mr. Gielas of McMurray, who served as choral director from 1969-1981, with a reunion weekend Dec. 14-15. The weekend will begin with a song rehearsal at 2 p.m. Dec. 14 and include dinner and dancing that evening at the Crowne Plaza in Upper St Clair.

At 10 a.m. Dec. 15, the group will meet Downtown to relive the chorus tradition of caroling through the streets. That evening, the former choristers will perform at 7 p.m. at South Hills Village and gather at 8 p.m. in a hospitality suite at the Crowne Plaza.

The reunion is open to all current and former Upper St. Clair High School choral students.

Ms. Foss, who now lives in Naples, Fla., where she owns a travel agency, said the response from former students has been wonderful, but it wasn't easy tracking down the guest of honor. She described Mr. Gielas as "quiet" and "unassuming" and said he was difficult to find until a chance encounter on Facebook led her right to him.

Mr. Gielas started a Facebook page at the prompting of a friend and uploaded recordings of past performances with comments about each and things that he remembered from them. To date, he has uploaded 225 songs.

"I've been extraordinarily blessed. It feels like it's my turn to give back," he said. "They gave so much intensity and so much of their lives, now it's just my turn in a little way to say thank you."

The page was a hit among his former students, and soon Ms. Foss said she was connecting with other former choir members. When she pitched the idea of a reunion with their beloved teacher, she said they jumped on board.

Ms. Foss said Mr. Gielas was reluctant at first but is now excited about the idea and is helping the members find the traditional music they used to sing.

A self-taught piano player, Ms. Foss said music was always special to her and helped her to overcome her shyness.

In middle school, she said, her choir director criticized her singing and had her sit in the back of the room. But Ms. Foss took the music home and taught herself piano accompaniment.

By the time she entered high school, she said, she accepted the idea that she couldn't sing and she almost didn't audition for choir. When Mr. Gielas heard her play piano, he asked her to be an accompanist. But after hearing her sing, he placed her in the Chanteclairs, a traveling choir made up of only six girls, who were chosen each year.

"I got so much confidence from that," she said. "I felt so much better about myself ... he did that for me."

Mr. Gielas is a graduate of Duquesne University, where he was a Tamburitzan, and has a master's degree in music from Arizona State University.

Ms. Foss said he employed methods that "raised some eyebrows" but ultimately created what became a stellar vocal music program.

"He was not the kind of teacher who was out to get people to like him," she said. "His job was to produce the best-sounding vocal ensemble that he could."

She described his classes as boot camp. He required his students to sit on the front 2 inches of their chairs and walked around with a ruler to ensure they did so, she said. They also did breathing exercises that she said were reminiscent of a Lamaze class.

Ms. Foss said he was very serious about their training and expected them to be just as serious about it as he was.

"It was not an easy 'A.' You had to work for it," she said. "Consequently, he got amazing results, and a lot of us loved being part of that. Whatever we had to do, we would do."

Ms. Foss said Mr. Gielas also understood the importance of having fun. Every fall, he would stage a tenor versus bass football game at half-time during which the sopranos and altos would play against each other. The group also would go to midnight bowling, sing carols Downtown at Christmas, perform at the mall and go ice skating.

After serving as choral director at the high school, Mr. Gielas taught strings at Boyce Middle School until his retirement in 1993. He no longer writes music and instead enjoys listening to what he described as a "magnificent amount of music" as well as reading and volunteering with Meals on Wheels.

The man who spent most of his life helping young people find their voice said he has been rendered nearly speechless by the outpouring of love from his former students.

"I'm just honored. I can't tell you how much this has meant to me," he said. "I've had a long career, a blessed career. I just loved it. It was marvelous to teach such talented, respectful and dedicated students."

Reunion details: bethfoss@comcast.net.

education - neigh_south

Shannon Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com


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