• Joey Goodsir

Silver-Lining Homecoming for New LFHS Choir Director

When Lake Forest High School began the search for a new choral director this past summer, it was hard to ignore that the undertaking required replacing a legendary figure who specifically built a choir institution through embodying the community across his 30+ year tenure. While such shoe-filling is difficult to accomplish, that quality of his legacy gave the school a clear direction to look: inward.

Half a school year later, meet new director Riley Worthen – a Lake Bluff native with out-of-state experience, ready to take on what he’s considered to be the perfect gig from the start.

Riley Worthen, new LFHS Choir Director, conducts during his previous choir-directing tenure at Heritage High School in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Heritage Student Media and courtesy Riley Worthen)

“It’s interesting because this job of coming back and being an LFHS Choir Director – I know it seems cliche to say – but it truly was a dream of mine that I had ever since I left Lake Forest as a student in 2003,” he told LakeBluffStrong.. “It’s always been in the back of my head, and I emailed Mr. Haskett all throughout my years in college and when I was teaching to always just update him.”

Upon graduation from Lake Forest High School (LFHS), Worthen didn’t wait to explore his interests in music education, attending school at Brigham Young University’s Idaho campus, before transferring into the main campus in Utah to complete his degree in the subject.

Worthen began his career with an equal sense of urgency, teaching at Crockett Middle School for two years at the city of Irving in his then-wife’s home state of Texas, leaving the originally 100-kid program at triple the size he found it. After assisting at R.L. Turner High School (Carrollton, TX) for two years and picking up his masters degree and first child along the way, he took the helm at Heritage High School in Frisco, similarly creating growth in the program – this time from 60 to 175 students across three years.

“It was an incredible experience to really have the paradigm shift from a choir class to a choir program or choir family. I think that’s the mantra that I teach and preach – where it’s not just kids coming in and out of class, but it is more than that and truly a communal feel,” Worthen said.

Throughout this seven-year run of building his reputation, Worthen looked onward and upward, but he never took an eye off of the dream job back at his alma mater up north – keeping in contact with LFHS’ tight music department family.

Photo courtesy Riley Worthen

“Mrs. [Janene] Kessler became band director my senior year, so it was interesting to be part of that process for her. I was one of her students on her search committee when she was being interviewed, so since graduation I would stay in contact with her for updates on the situation. Everyone in the community knew that I was wanting this job, but I had landed myself in Texas and it was just a matter of waiting for Mr. Haskett to retire,” Worthen said. “In my correspondence with [Haskett], we would always joke about ‘let me know when you’re retiring because you know I want your job, and I want to take over for you.’”

As the waiting game continued, Worthen landed a monumental choral directing opportunity that had opened up at Garland High School, one of the best music programs in all of Texas. The tenure didn’t last longer than a year, however, as Worthen went through a divorce, and the job was hard to accommodate alongside his custody arrangements.

Luckily, the director that followed Worthen at Heritage High School only lasted a year as well, giving him the uniquely convenient ability to back into his previous job while he assessed his new life as a single father.

“It truly was a miracle to go back to a school and not have to really restart over again. I knew the kids, faculty, parents … they may have initially been pissed that I left, but were so excited that I came back. It was awesome, but that was last school year when the pandemic first broke in March,” Worthen said.

Being mindful of the timeline behind the transition in Lake Forest High School choral directors, it should be no surprise what comes next. Worthen’s response, however, is quite the opposite when the context isn’t considered.

“During that time, I got a message from Mrs. Kessler regarding the job at Lake Forest. She let me know that the job was finally posted. I had to say ‘I appreciate it, but I unfortunately can’t apply for the job’ and the reason was because I had just gone through a divorce and the custody of my kids was in Texas and I wanted to be with them – I love my job, but I’m my son’s baseball coach...[taking care of my kids] is what I do.”

Worthen’s dream circumstance came with the unplanned shock of disappointment.

“I was kind of stuck, and it was really sad because for 17 years I had this dream of coming back to Lake Forest, where I grew up, and I felt like that dream was just being taken away,” he said.

But due to other longtime contacts, it wouldn’t pass on short notice.

“Mrs. [Andrea] Taylor, my choir director from 6th/7th grade at Lake Bluff Middle School, sent me a message in January of the link for the job and texted ‘hey, didn’t know if you saw this’ and I said ‘yeah, I can’t apply for it. I’ll call you later and let you know what happened in my life,’” he said. “Her husband, Mr. [Mark] Taylor, who happens to have been the band director at LFHS prior to Mrs. Kessler, sends me the exact same message a few minutes later. I thought it was kind of weird, and I said ‘yeah, no, sorry, I can’t, I’ll call you guys later.’”

Sometimes things are just meant to be, and this case began to prove it was no exception.

“I end up calling them that night just to explain the situation, and we talk about it, and {Mrs. Taylor] says ‘Riley, what if there is a chance that your kids could come to Chicago if you get the job? You don’t want to live with that what-if, you might as well just apply anyway.’ And then I said, ‘were you and your husband out to dinner together? It was weird that you guys texted me at the same time?’ and they weren’t,” Worthen said. “In my faith-based values, I thought if that wasn’t God talking to me, then I don’t know what is.”

Upon deciding to still take his shot and apply for the Lake Forest High School job, the conflict of custody arrangements still stood in the way, but upon explaining it all to his ex-wife, Alison, he received a remarkable blessing.

His children will grow up in the very community he was raised in. (Courtesy Riley Worthen)

“She then told me out of the blue, and it kind of caught me off guard, that she would support me and go to Chicago with me. I wasn’t expecting that, for my ex-wife to support me and move to a city and state that she has no family, friends, career … she has nothing here, but she would be supportive of me knowing that if I was able to get this job, this would be the best job for me and for our kids that we obviously share,” Worthen said.

“She said that, and I just had nothing but love and support in applying for the job, and the rest is kind of history.”

The rest may have been history when it came to the application process, as Worthen was soon hired as Lake Forest High School’s newest choral director, moving up to his hometown with his two kids, his ex-wife moving to nearby Highwood – but a global pandemic continued to rattle the state of the world, holding the 2020-21 school year to circumstances not yet seen in history. Choir, understandably, was initially one of the most difficult classes to adjust.

“It has been very challenging. You ask yourself why kids sign up for classes like choir or band, and you go through the list and literally this year has taken away every single one of those reasons,” Worthen said. “I’ll be honest, if I was a student – and this might seem weird for me to say – I’d have a really hard time wanting to be involved in music programs this year because it’s so challenging. Unlike other subjects, there is no such thing as an online choir class. That’s never existed, as music will never sync up perfectly in that kind of setting.”

With LFHS’ full-time accompanist Mrs. Natasha Mah at his side, Worthen has worked to adjust so the time his students spent in class could remain valuable.

“Mrs. Mah and I ended up focusing on what we could still do to build our students a true music education and skillset that they need,” he said. “One of the biggest things that we observed the program needed a boost in – as each one is approached differently – was that sight-reading was not a strength of the program. There were other aspects that were strengths to the program, but this was one thing that we wanted to boost.”

At the outset of the year, Worthen implemented weekly assessments on an online software named Sightreading Factory. While it took quite the adjustment for the students to get there, the venture has ultimately proven to Worthen that his teaching not only survived despite the year’s challenges, but had the unique chance to explore skills that may not be touched on otherwise.

“There was obviously a lot of pushback [from students] at first, and there is a reason why: collectively we weren’t good at the skill. It was incredible to really hone in on this, and on top of that it was incredible to see how the kids actually got that concept and are now sight reading music very successfully,” Worthen said. “We do some sight-singing in a normal rehearsal, but it’s not the main focus, so this has been something that we’ve had the unlikely opportunity to make a central focus – to teach a true bonafide choir skillset that’s very important to singing and to help them build that skillset.”

While such a traditional concert rehearsal class format was not possible over the past semester, students were rewarded with a unique project to display the skills they developed – a virtual version of their traditional holiday concert, a central event on Lake Forest High School’s music calendar.

In a time where core tenets of the music education experience were not possible, Riley Worthen has found the silver linings in such an odd start to a job he imagined differently for years.

“I’m grateful for [this unprecedented time] too because it’s not a normal school year. I’m able to get my foot wet in kind of a backseat driver’s way because I can’t do things how I normally would,” he said. “It’s more or less going with the flow, and for that it’s been very interesting because the kids will at least have gotten a glimpse of who I am in a virtual and hybrid setting for a year. And then, when we actually get to what choir is, it’s going to be a much steadier transition than what it might have been if this was a normal school year.”

Outside of reinventing the music educational experience for current times, the building of lasting relationships in the music community – which are inherent to the beauty of the choral program – also required reinvention.

“I saw this as a problem at the beginning of the year, knowing that some kids had signed up to be fully remote, so I wouldn’t ever see them [in person] regardless,” Worthen said. “Especially as a brand new teacher to a school, the most important moments are in that first week of getting to see the kids hands-on, to talk to them and interact with them so they understand your personality and how you operate, as well as those first interactions with the parents on meet-the-teacher nights and after concerts. Those moments are so vital and I realized that all of that was gone for me in building this connection to the community.”

To rebuild such a structure that would otherwise be so vital to building the trust and transparency he needed to take over the program in the shadow of a beloved director, Worthen had to fully commit to his new position, even outside of class hours. After an initial “Meet Mr. Worthen Night” prior to the start of school, in which he introduced himself to the students and gave them a sense of who he was as a person and teacher, he began an undertaking that ultimately took months.

“I felt that [Meet Mr. Worthen Night] was a great way to initially bridge the gap before school even started, but I still felt a disconnect and a little weird because it was still virtual,” he said. “I decided that I wanted to do something that would take me a long time to do, which were my porch visits.”

For four nights a week, Worthen would spend his evening hours driving on a pre-planned route to the homes of every one of his students. Outdoors and socially distanced, he would get a chance to break the ice with each student and their parents for anywhere from five to 15 minutes.

“I knew the value long term if I made this little step to make those simple connections early. Normally you never get that kind of individual time in a normal classroom setting, and I was also able to meet some parents I would have otherwise never seen. Out of the whole program, there were only about two students who didn’t feel comfortable with it, which was fine, but we always kept a six-foot distance and had masks on, and it was an incredible way to connect,” he said. “It was a daunting task, but worth the sacrifice because it is what you have to do as a teacher. If you want to be invested in the community and the kids, you’ve got to find a way – and during this time I thought what better way to make this happen?”

It’s hard to imagine any teacher being this dedicated to going the extra mile, especially as a single dad managing kids of his own through a global pandemic, but knowing this is a native to the community working a dream job – it’s way easier to wrap your head around it.

“My parents are responsible for sharing the dream with me growing up in Lake Bluff,” Worthen said. “We were not a typical family, even for the area – there were nine kids in our family, and knowing the sacrifices that my parents made simply because they knew the value of the education system in Lake Bluff and Lake Forest. To me, I know the value it gave to me and my life, and my family’s life, and I knew that I wanted to pass that along.”

Emulating this standard is at the center of the legacy Tim Haskett imprinted on LFHS’ choral program by the time he left, and to Worthen, continuing this foundation is an essential base to what he plans to construct at 1285 N. McKinley.

“To see what Mr. Haskett built, I just knew with my training and what I had I would love to come back to this school and build upon what he already established and add to it as well. I felt I had a wealth of knowledge growing up in Illinois, but then going to school in Idaho and Utah, and teaching the last 10 years in Texas – it is known as one of the best music education states in the nation, hands down. It is unreal how they value music education collectively across the state,” he said. “Knowing that I would have that chance to come back, it was exciting to know I could bring a new perspective home with me. That’s why this has been a dream job to be here.”

And it is in the spirit of that duality in his experience that Worthen hopes to preserve the choral institution at LFHS, and build on it as well. In observing the second half of Haskett’s tenure as a student, alumn, and aspiring music educator, Worthen focuses on the consistently high expectation held throughout.

“It’s interesting to see how the culture has progressed from even when I was around to the later years of his tenure. From my own knowledge of what I wanted to keep, to me the number one thing is sustaining a standard of choral excellence, and that’s been one thing that I have always done at every job. It doesn’t matter what kid or community it is, and I have taught on all parts of the spectrum, but what defines the quality of the program is your vision of the program and giving the students the tools necessary to obtain that and believe they can obtain that,” he said. “I believe that Mr. Haskett had a very high standard of excellence, and he demanded things from us, and I appreciate that. I know that I can even demand more, and part of that drive comes from my competitive nature – I was big into sports and even in college I’ve always been very involved.”

That sports-like drive not only motivates Worthen to push forward on a well-loved consistency in the Haskett era, but even expand on the aspirations of the program. While LFHS choral program dipped its toe into the competition setting in Haskett’s early years, it hasn’t been explored as much more recently. Worthen currently seeks to bring that back into the equation upon his homecoming, putting awareness to the excellence he’s known in Lake Forest on a larger scale.

Worthen conducts a full symphony orchestra and choir at Heritage High School.

Courtesy Riley Worthen

“I’m a competitive person. I like to win. I want to have the very best program wherever I’m at. I like to compete in music, I like to go to competitions and festivals and win. I like to give the kids those experiences,” he said. “I want to get back on that scene of competing and getting the name out there where people know in the state of Illinois the LFHS music program, and all my colleagues in Texas know that I’m bringing the same work I did down there to my hometown high school. It will take a few years for students to understand me and adjust to that give-and-take, but that is the vision I can’t wait to get them believing in.”

These passionate aspirations set up quite the climb ahead, but Worthen notes that his longtime intimacy with where he is working will keep him steady along the way, and even provide him advantages through the challenges that will be faced.

“The fact that I’m a hometown kid coming back, I’ve got a leg up on most teachers that are not from the area. I’ve experienced it and grew up here – my family still lives here. I actually moved back in with my parents during the pandemic just because it was easier to do that,” he said. “To me what I love is that I’m truly invested in the community that I grew up in, and also teach in because I’m raising my own kids in it. My son is going to sign up with the same Lake Bluff Baseball program that I was a part of...I’m not necessarily viewed as much as an outsider when they hear my backstory that I was a graduate of the high school and studied under Mr. Haskett, which definitely makes an easier transition happen in terms of trust.”

In the meantime, faith in future achievements can be found through the man’s sheer love for what makes the community so exceptional.

“You try to describe Lake Bluff to someone who doesn’t live in the community, for example, and you can’t. Until they are actually here and realize what 4th of July looks like and what Halloween looks like – what all these little things that are so close-knit – until you’re here and walk through Artesian Park and walk downtown. It’s hard to describe that, but I wanted that for my family. As a student being part of all that, I just loved it.” Worthen said, “To me, that’s what excites me – to give back and also know what the community is about.”

And while it might not look the way he originally expected, Mr. Riley Worthen looks forward to when life normalizes, so he can live the dream he’s been actively pursuing his whole career.

“I’m most excited for people to finally get to know me for me. It’s just all about getting back into the classroom and doing what I am best at. That is what excites me: being able to showcase that,” he said. “Doing what we’re doing now, to be honest, is not choir, so just to get in a classroom and teach, and to feel why we initially signed up for choir in the first place – that’s what I’m ready for.”