Although officially single, Marty Sirvatka was not short of company for three decades at Glenbrook South as choir director and supervisor of fine arts education.
“As I tell my friends, I kind of married my job and had a lot of time for my job and my kids,” said Sirvatka, who retired from full-time teaching in 2016.
His impact as an instructor has been manifold and continues in high school clinics and as a supervisor of student teachers in the music education department at Northwestern University.
One of Sirvatka’s former pupils, Rob Shellard, conducts the Glenbrook South Choir; other alumni perform in Imprints, a performance group Sirvatka started in 2017 that raises money for charity.
He was voted Professor Emeritus of the Year at Glenbrook South in 2007. The following year, Glenbrook South was named a 2008 National Grammy Signature School for its music department.
In 2016, Sirvatka was among three Illinois educators to win the Mary Hoffman Achievement Award.
Born in Glen Ellyn and a 1975 graduate of Glenbard South High School, Sirvatka majored in music education with a major in clarinet at the University of Illinois.
Beginning teaching in 1979 as a student teacher at Glenbard North in Carol Stream, from 1985 to 1994 Sirvatka was director of the Leiden Choir and Orchestra. In the summer of 1994 he arrived at Glenbrook South as a full-time choir director.
A resident of Arlington Heights, Sirvatka receives a steady stream of invitations to serve as a guest conductor at music festivals.
“I like doing that. I can come in, do my thing and go home,” he said.
After speaking with Sirvatka, the Herald emailed him several questions. His responses, edited for length, follow.
Herald: What are you doing today?
Sirvatka: I’m embracing retirement, which for me doesn’t mean playing more golf and gorging on Netflix shows, although I’m a fan of the new sci-fi series “Lost in Space.”
What I do is enjoy making choices about what to do each week. And some of the choices are so rewarding – I enjoy refinishing furniture, writing vocal arrangements, gardening, leading guests at various Chicago-area clinics and festivals, and spending time with my parents and still-healthy family. I never get bored and make sure I have a day off every once in a while.
Herald: Which was more satisfying, being named Glenbrook South Teacher of the Year in 2007, or the Grammy Award-winning music program in 2008?
Sirvatka: I was incredibly honored to have won the Teacher of the Year award, especially knowing that I was nominated by students, with a large amount of information from them to decide the winner. .
But I was part of a phenomenal team at GBS, and the Grammy Award recognized and celebrated the accomplishments of all music teachers. I am truly happiest when others receive accolades and honors. This award was a “look what we all did” and “look what we all got” moment, and the students were equally involved in the successes of the department. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Herald: How has music education changed since you were a student?
Sirvatka: I think this question deserves a 3-part answer.
In some ways, that hasn’t changed: great teachers teach great students and give them the experience of playing and learning great music. Good music lasts and will never change, and young students will inevitably react physically, emotionally and spiritually to its beauty and its ability to endure.
Second, music education has indeed changed for the better due to the rise of technology. Computers, recording programs and instruments have revolutionized the way teachers can reach students. And in turn, students are much more than, say, a clarinetist in a band, like I was when I was a student. All students can now compose, create, organize and receive immediate feedback on their creations – and all on their phone, if they choose.
Finally, as quality music programs have grown and become accessible to students of all socioeconomic groups, these quality programs risk being downplayed in an educational world that reveres high AP exam scores, the prestige of having more students in elite colleges, and high school programs that recommend freshmen to declare a career path. This deprives some of our most talented and gifted students of the opportunity to experience electives and, in particular, what music programs can offer to a human being. I believe that we are becoming myopic and that the comprehensive high school is slowly evaporating.
Messenger: A generation of students learned from you; what did you learn from them?
Sirvatka: I’ve learned that when you provide these students with a safe learning environment in which to grow, surrounded by teachers who balance encouragement and challenge, then the sky is the limit.
I learned that students can immediately spot when someone is wrong, and that students who are engaged and on board are the best team players anyone could ask for.
I learned from them how to freely celebrate, laugh and enjoy life.
Herald: Can you describe your nonprofit music company, Imprint? And how did you come up with his name?
Sirvatka: Imprint is a nonprofit that allows alumni to relive their days as high school musicians while singing and performing shows and concerts open to the public. Proceeds from those who attend are then donated to various wonderful charities in the Chicago area.
I knew from a young age as a teacher that there are few places where high school and college graduates can actually perform easily and with minimal time required once they find a house, started a family and pursued a career. Imprint seeks to fulfill that need and desire of great musicians to experience performance excellence again, even if it’s every once in a while.
The Imprint name was devised by a graduate who felt that I had left an everlasting imprint on the lives of my students and, in turn, pursuing excellence in performance can leave an imprint on future audiences.
Herald: As a clarinetist yourself, what were your inspirations? You’re not old enough for Benny Goodman…
Sirvatka: But I still listen to recordings and jazz musicians have had a bigger influence on me than classical musicians. So yes, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woodie Herman and Pete Fountain. My dad played piano in a band all his life, and my first personal experience was hearing a clarinettist/saxophone player and friend, Jim Phillips. He was awesome!
Herald: What kind of music do you listen to alone?
Sirvatka: I like all kinds, and I focus on one kind for a while, until I get bored. So I listen to symphonies and opera, then country-western. Then, for something completely different, I listen to Indian Bollywood music. Surprising. Next, I like a good show tune. And I always listen to film scores and, of course, wonderful choirs by the latest young composers. I really like Steven Paulus, Eric Whitacre and Gwyneth Walker.
Messenger: What do you do for fun?
Sirvatka: I still like to play the piano, and I just do it myself, especially when I’m stressed! I like to play board games and complex games like (Star Wars) Imperial Assault, Viticulture and The Quacks of Quedlinberg!
I like to travel when I can and I love historic parts of old towns. Rafting is great fun and I love all kinds of amusement park rides, especially roller coasters. I also like working with wood and fixing all sorts of things. I am also a spiritual person who enjoys reading all kinds of Christian literature.
Herald: What might surprise people?
Sirvatka: I really like cars from the 1960s. I can identify the year of any Chevy Impala from 1957 to 1970. And I’ve been able to since I was 4 years old. I also have quite a few miniature cars.
Herald: If you have a personal motto or defining statement, what is it?
Sirvatka: “Really talented people never have to prove it.” I used to say that to my students about arrogant artists who tended to brag, ha-ha!
Also, I used to say, “Avoid mediocrity at all times.”