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Music teacher comes out of retirement as long-term substitute

  • May 18, 2011

Virginia Walker recalls the first time she heard a choir.

"I couldn't even sleep that night. I had been privy to something unusual and great," says the Concord resident. "I couldn't wait to audition."

She was 13 at the time, and attended a concert at Bear River High School in Tremonton, Utah -- and never looked back.

Walker went on to study choral music, majoring in music at Utah State and then earned a master's degree in vocal performance at Cal State East Bay in Hayward.

Her professional life -- until retiring in 1999 -- was devoted to infusing youth with the same awe for music, directing choirs at Concord High School, and 17 years at El Dorado Middle School.

"It was so exhilarating to see the progress they'd make, to hear them progress in their vocal abilities and for them to experience the joy when they realized they were sounding good, and they'd buy into it. That would increase my own enjoyment," she says.

"I used to say 'sign up and we'll make a singer out of you.' If they would work with me, I could teach them how to sing. That's happened 99 percent of the time. There was only one student; I couldn't get her to sing on pitch," Walker remembers.

So when Liz Emigh, director of choirs at Clayton Valley High School, asked if Walker would consider taking a break from retirement and fill in for her while she was on emergency maternity leave, Walker did not hesitate.

Emigh, whose twin sons were born prematurely at 24 weeks, needed to find a substitute that had to "conduct, play piano, have good classroom management and be an inspiration to her students."

She thought getting Walker, whom she described as a "legend in the Mt. Diablo School District," was a long shot. Instead, Emigh got all that in one teacher, whom she says, "takes a mole hill and builds a mountain" -- and thus got much more.

"(Virginia) is old school tough, completely passionate, loves the kids to death and wants what's best for them before even meeting them," says Emigh, on a break at the hospital from caring for her son, Aiden, now 35 weeks old, and who is the surviving twin.

Walker is directing a choral performance, which will be held May 25, at Clayton Valley High School. One of the pieces, "In Remembrance," is in honor of the Emighs' deceased son, Barrett.

"I just picked it out because it was a gorgeous piece of music, having no idea what it would come to mean to us," Emigh says.

So, Walker's days are routinely long, teaching 66 choral students to sing in six languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Latin, rehearsing seven hours straight.

"I have been amazed at how I've been able to do this. You feel the energy coming from the kids. I realized how much I missed this. The adrenaline gets you through the things that you enjoy," says Walker, 71.

Going above and beyond is not new for her.

Naomi Miller, who studied with Walker at Concord High School in the mid-1980s, recalls a lot of overtime.

"(Virginia) always made me feel really special. She took a lot of her own personal time and mentored me as a budding musician. She heard something in my voice, and that has stayed with me the rest of my life," says Miller, a soprano, who sings in community choruses, including the Blackhawk Chorus.

"I'm so pleased to pass this on to the students. I've seen music touch their spirits "... It has such a power to affect your life. It's like a truth serum "... There's so much integrity "... It transforms you," says Walker. "(Singing) gave me a lot of self-esteem, to know that I could participate in that, to add my voice to that total effect."

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