Janet Hitt sits in a tall chair, her hot-pink sandals firmly planted as she waves a thin baton, guiding a choir of teenagers through Vivaldi’s “Gloria.”
“Hold the r’s,” she shouts above the sounds of voices and violins.
In exelcis deo-
“Breathe after every ‘gloria’!”
At this point, Hitt is off the chair, bouncing rhythmically as she leans over her music standing toward the risers of students, urging them on. Minutes later, she’s up again, this time on tiptoes.
“Basses! … Altos! … SING IT!”
By the end of the rehearsal, Hitt is out of breath.
“This is hard, but it brings me joy,” she tells the students and the adult orchestra members accompanying them.
A student shouts from the risers: “We love you, Mrs. Hitt!”
Hitt is less visible these days in the Henry M. Jackson High School choir room since being diagnosed with breast cancer. But if her energy has waned in its treatment, she isn’t letting on.
The animated figure still wears a bright scarf, though now it’s over a wig. And hours from a chemotherapy session, she’s still throwing her entire body into the work of guiding students through classical scores, just as she has done for the last 20 years.
Hitt was at the podium June 1 for the Vivaldi portion of the choir’s finale concert.
Students decided to honor Hitt by making it a benefit. The event raised $2,279, and all proceeds went to the Avon Foundation Breast Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. Admission was by donation for the concert at Everett Civic Auditorium.
Hitt stresses that the focus should be on breast cancer research and not on her. Two other teachers at Jackson also have breast cancer; they are among more than 200,000 women nationwide diagnosed each year with the disease.
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, second only to skin cancer. The chance of a woman developing the disease is 1 in 7, with the chance of dying 1 in 33, according to the American Cancer Society.
Jackson senior Emily Slater, 18, a second soprano in the choir, said her grandmother died of breast cancer.
“I can understand how hard it is” for Hitt, Slater said.
Donating concert admissions to cancer research is something different, yet special, she said. “It feels good to do it for a cause and not just for our parents. It makes you want to work harder.”
Parent Pete Morgan agreed. “I think it’s good to get the kids actively involved in something bigger than themselves,” he said.
At a rehearsal leading up to the concert, Morgan held out a cell phone to let his mother hear her grandson and other teenagers sing. “I was giving her a taste, just to get her hooked” on the concert, he said.
The symphonic choir of nearly 90 juniors and seniors took on the technical difficulty of Vivaldi, directed by Hitt, along with other works under the direction of junior Aubrey Logan.
The combined concert choir and women’s ensemble also performed and were directed by Joni Herbert, who is serving as Hitt’s substitute until Hitt’s return to the classroom in the fall.
Senior alto singer Jennifer Craig said the choir has been working all year on the Vivaldi selections, honing their pronunciation of the Latin words, their pitch and blending. Their progress without Hitt is a credit to the teacher’s training.
Students learned of her cancer diagnosis in March.
“It hit us hard,” senior Jennifer Whetzel said.
“Everyone was really sad,” senior Harmony Viray said. “You can tell she’s an inspiration to a lot of people. She’s the most caring teacher and really gets involved. She wants you to do your best.”
Hitt learned she had cancer in late February after her sister, diagnosed earlier in an advanced state of the disease, urged her to get a MRI in addition to her regular mammogram. The magnetic resonance imaging test showed an area of concern, which an ultrasound confirmed as cancer.
Hitt was glad to have caught the cancer at its second stage. “It would have been a lot farther along if we waited for my next mammogram,” she said.
Still, she did not expect to be dealing with cancer.
Her husband, Mike Irons, also a school music teacher, and her two grown children have helped her deal with the news and treatment, which will later involve radiation.
Her students have helped, too.
“If I’m directing or just listening and being their cheerleader, my heart is touched by them doing choral music and the quality work they do,” she said.
And then there’s the music itself.
Hitt, 50, first fell in love with music as a child in Tacoma, watching her father direct the Pacific Lutheran University choir. After her own children were in school, she returned to college to pursue the passion and began teaching at age 30.
She also directs the Skagit Valley Chorale in Mount Vernon, made up of about 100 adults.
“I love choral music. I feel it’s my job to share that joy in peoples’ lives. It helps throughout your whole life,” Hitt said. “Singing is something that just helps heal people.”
Melissa Slager is a reporter with The Herald in Everett.