If the sound of music wafts through the air in the Valley, stop and look around. You’ll probably see Dorinda Rendahl somewhere. And close behind that, you’ll hear the chorus that follows her . . . “Hi, Mrs. Rendahl! Hi, Mrs. Rendahl!” It’s the sound of kids and their grateful parents whose lives she has touched in her work in public schools. Or from some show she’s helped produce, or some choir she’s directed, some lesson somewhere that brought out the charm and joy of living that she exudes and instills in others. She’s just a music teacher, but what a music teacher.
This writer first encountered the Rendahl magic at a Christmas holiday program at Bellevue Elementary, where she was then music director. (She moved to the new Woodside Elementary in 2006.) As a veteran of two generations of obligatory elementary school holiday programs, I was unprepared for an evening with Rendahl. From watching my kids, then their kids, at endless shows in public and private schools in two states, I knew the pattern. Some of the kids can sing, some are little hams, most of the kids are just trying to follow and many simply stare into space. But at Bellevue Elementary, I watched what seemed like hundreds of kids file neatly onto the stage one evening and then galvanize into a real show. Kids participated like they were being paid. Rendahl, dolled up in a sparkly black dress and heels, her thick curly black hair all done, conducted and played piano and cheerleader throughout the show. The kids seemed to channel her energy. And they rocked! Even when it was jazz, or Broadway tunes, they were engaged.
After the program, Rendahl stood at the door, as she does after every show, to shake hands with audience members who line up to tell her how great it was. A really good elementary school show—how’d that happen? >>>
How it happened is one of those blissful coincidences of circumstance that combine to allow kids to get excellent enthusiastic teaching and allow Rendahl to achieve her personal and professional dreams. Most people who work here in the Valley have some story to tell of how they happen to be here and happen to stay and she is no exception.
For our interview at a Hailey coffee shop, Rendahl showed up in her civilian gear: tank top and sweats, her hair pulled back under a ball cap, her unmistakable square shoulders buff. (Though she has been working out at Wood River High, she says the shoulders are what you get from playing piano your whole life as she has done.)
She grew up in Boise, the daughter of Jerry Vevig, a singer and conductor in the public schools who became music coordinator for Boise schools. Rendahl swears that music and the arts in Boise are accorded the same importance as sports, and she grew up in a house alive with music. She remembers huge parties where “all the music teachers came” and played or performed. The kids in her family all played or sang, and Rendahl excelled at piano. She considered being a concert pianist, she says, but felt early on, “I’m not going to practice that much.” So she decided she wanted to be a classroom teacher and pursued that and piano.
She taught for eight years in Boise, and came to the Valley to fill in for a production of “Godspell” at a local church. And there, on his 30th birthday, she met her future husband, David Rendahl, a carpenter. She learned in short order that he fulfilled her very specific requirements for a husband: He was a cowboy, he skied and he could build her a house.
She got a job teaching third grade at Bellevue Elementary and moved here in 1986. The couple moved to Seattle for six years and she had two children a year apart, all the while playing piano at a big Nordstrom’s there. “They always have a Steinway in their stores and real music. It was wonderful.”
In ’93 they moved back and she raised her kids and taught at Bellevue. When the job of music director opened, she sought her father’s counsel. Should she go for the job? Her father told her words any kid would like a parent to say: “If you’d been in Boise, I would have hired you in a heartbeat.”
She got the job and moved right in, with great support from her principal, Gary St. George. She says she works hard to get the kids to do the same.
“You have to have fun. They have to have fun.”
Kids have far more ability than is usually demanded of them, she says. “It is amazing what they can accomplish.” She likes combining age and grade groups, “because it’s like a one-room school house, the little kids learn from the older kids.” And if she gets a shy or disinterested kid, she tells them,
“It’s not as good as it could be if you were singing. They learn they can make a difference.”
And she loves how music helps the kids who come in unable to speak English. “They can come in and they are given a place on a riser and they know they have that place, they have a place to stand. They can find their place and fit in immediately.”
She also has a sign she gives them, sometimes just to get everyone together, her hands raised, palms out, fingers spread. “Anyone can do this and it gives them another instant ability to fit in.”
Learning English through songs helps support other class work, she says.
Mostly she demands the best of all the kids. “There are very few things I’ll accept mediocrity in.”
She has seen blah shows, too, and she says, “It’s not an accident getting all the kids going. I deliberately teach every single kid. And want them to stop saying or thinking they can’t do this.”
She says support for music in Blaine County schools is phenomenal, that her bosses, like Superintendent Jim Lewis, show up at most of her shows. It’s an atmosphere she thrives in. The only thing that threatens the arts for kids in the district, she says, is what threatens everyone’s life: overscheduling. “It’s hard to fit in all they have to take and still have the interest to, say, sing in choir and take an instrument.”
She may have overscheduled herself. Outside the schools, she directs music and plays piano at Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, where she continues to act as children’s director for the Christmas event, “The Promise;” plays for the Saturday mass at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church; and teaches piano at the Sun Valley Summer Music Workshops.
But it all works for her and her family. Her husband just finished building their house on 20 acres in Bellevue. They’ve got four horses there and 17 acres in hay. Her kids—Ashley is a senior and Cameron is a junior—are her pride and joy. Her work is satisfying. To put it in a musical question: Who could ask for anything more?