Life filled with music composes beautiful symphony of stories

Nancy Cornish conducting her students

Once more with feeling:

Nancy Cornish, who is leaving, instructs enthusiastically in the ways of music.

Photo by Will Hebert

Classical music fills the room. On the upright grand piano a little girl, about 4-years-old, plays songs by ear.

Today, a single tear rolls down the woman's face as she talks about one of her favorite concerts— her University of Kansas doctoral recital in 2003 at a cathedral in Lawrence, Kan.

She had the college choir and orchestra perform Mozart's "Missa Brevis in C." Furthermore, she had the college choir and the men's glee club singing, under the dome of the church, three pieces from Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil." "It still gets to me yet," she said.

Her family and her daughterin- law's family were there. Her dad said: "Now I really understand what choral music is all about." Finally, he understood why this music gets to her in the way it does.

The little girl and the woman are the same person: Nancy Cornish, Laramie County Community College's director of choral music. Talking with Cornish truly lifts the spirits because it would be hard to find another person so enthusiastic and enlightened by music and the spiritual world.

Cornish's parents have always lived in Rhode Island; actually, they never moved farther than 60 miles from Plymouth, Mass. "I am the one that moved the furthest away," Cornish said. "The rest of the family stayed close to where our ancestors landed with the Mayflower."

Music became second nature early

Cornish was born in 1946, right after the end of World War II. Her dad, a retired Navy veteran, had just come home, having served aboard the USS New York. "The only ship that has seen the most continuous days of combat of any U.S. ship before then and since then," Cornish said proudly.

Service to this country and love for music are themes tightly webbed throughout her family.

From the tender age of 4, she knew music would always play a role in her life. Cornish was influenced by her greatgrandmother—" come here and sing for me"—and by her grandmother, whose mahogany, upright grand piano she played and still owns.

By the age of 6, her parents decided to pay for piano lessons in order to encourage her musical education. "Whenever there was any kind of music or singing going, I was a happy person," said Cornish, while laughing.

All teachers know those students whose arms enthusiastically shoot up in the air first when they really like to do something. Cornish was, and in many ways still is, that student.

Cornish played the piano as a child and then the flute. In junior high school she started the cello; in high school the percussion and the string bass and the church organ.

During her summers growing up, all the neighborhood children would perform in front of their parents.

Yes, televisions were around by then, but most parents had the rule of "only" one show a day. "You had much more time to do high–quality things, i.e. practice instruments, communicate with others, homework, etc., than being a coach potato," Cornish said. "It was more about you being a person who does the active learning and participation, to do things and not just watch them." Children were encouraged to achieve.

Her biggest opportunity at that time was a high school teacher asking her to direct the choir in front of the whole school. "I was on a natural high," Cornish said. "I decided that I want to do something where I could this all the time."

Other great experiences during those times included being a part of the All–State and All–New England orchestra and choirs, singing and playing for hours and hours every day for a week and then performing at the end. The conductors were so motivational and inspirational that Cornish, once again, knew this was what she wanted to do.

Cornish's' career in choral music, directing music and taking over music programs at colleges started in 1980 with an "angel experience." She was on the way to perform for a music club in Humboldt, Kan., when she encountered car trouble and two "angels" who came to help.

First, a very pale-looking woman stopped and helped Cornish get more gas. Then a truck driver who had just been released from a mental institution assisted in putting the gas into her car that was tilted too far back. As the woman refused payment, she urged Cornish to "just pass it on, pass the good deed on."

Cornish was able to make it to her concert. Afterward the president of a community college nearby asked her to save his music program.

After another stop at a different college and building its music program from no students to 166 students, Cornish set out to earn her doctorate at the University of Kansas.

Dr. James Ralston, choir director at the University of Kansas; Jack Ergo, conductor at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Mo.; Simon Carrington, founding member of the King's Singers; and Rachmaninoff were her major influences outside her family.

Final notes of cherished song

In 2003, Cornish came to LCCC. Of her favorite concerts at LCCC, the performance by the college choirs and the Cheyenne Capital Chorale, a community choir, of the Rocky Mountain regional premiere of Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace" at St. Mary's Cathedral in 2006 stands out. The choir and Cornish had heard its United States' premiere in New York City at Carnegie Hall. After the concert the students asked her if they could do it.

However, after nine years at LCCC Cornish is leaving and returning home to Rhode Island to help her parents, who will be 102 (father) and 94 (mother). And she might teach some classes at the local community college there because music is her life.

Cornish's face lights up when she talks about her sons, Stephen and Christopher, both musically inclined and serving in the armed forces. Stephen is a U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant on his way to Okinawa, Japan, with his family. Christopher joined the Marine Corps, but as the time came for his reenlistment, the U.S. Air Force snagged him, and he is a fighter pilot.

Arts and Humanities dean, Kathleen Urban, said Cornish will be missed. "The college and her friends here will miss her tremendous depth of expertise, knowledge and the energy she brought to the department," she said.

"Sabat Mater" also by Karl Jenkins, will be her, shall we say, farewell concert on April 29.

Cornish became rather quiet, serious and emotional as she said: "Choral music will always be part of my life. Vocal music is an expression of your soul. And spiritualism, not religion, is and always will be a part of me."

As she proudly showed off her students working, she stopped. "I forgot to say something," she said. "I think the best teacher teaches his students everything they need to know and how to do it right, so that they then can do things by themselves and teach others. I am very proud of my students, like the Glee club you just saw. They are putting on this performance completely by themselves, and I am just giving pointers."

She beamed all over as her chest lifted proudly. Yes, those teachers who touch our hearts and influence us for the rest of our lives are the ones who teach with such passion, emotion and enthusiasm that you cannot help but be infected by it. Nancy Cornish is one of those teachers.

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