Passing the torch

Jan Wightman, conductor of the Minnesingers, will retire this year.

Janis Wightman is retiring as director of the Minnesingers. —Gabrielle Mannino

“I was always meant to be a teacher. I enjoyed performing when I did it, but I’m much more comfortable carrying on the teaching of the music,” said Jan Wightman, reflecting last week on her 20 years at the M.V. Regional High School. In the midst of preparing for the Minnesingers’ big 50th Anniversary Celebration and Performance, Wightman will retire when the school year ends.

Although passionate as ever about teaching and its rewards, Wightman is looking forward to a new chapter, and time to enjoy the Island where she and her husband John moved when she began at the school. She wants to spend time with friends, “play the piano for myself, and get my voice back in shape. Music will still be there, but in a different way.”

Bouncy and trim in print leggings, black tunic, and delicate black flats, Wightman’s presence is more teenage than retirement age, though her extensive experience and rich insights indicate otherwise.

From suburban Chicago, and educated at Indiana University with a master’s degree in music in education from Boston Conservatory, Ms. Wightman taught high school music in Attleboro and Wellesley for seven years. Vacationing on the Vineyard where she and John had honeymooned, Wightman visited the school to explore employment. She secured a part-time post in 1998 that included accompanying the Minnesingers. Her role expanded to full-time teaching and department head in 1999 with veteran teacher Bob Nute’s retirement, and she became Minnesingers conductor in 2008.

Her days have been packed with teaching, rehearsing, working on Minnesingers performances, and providing musical direction for annual stage shows with orchestra leader Abigail Chandler.

Countless high points and special moments filled Wightman with reminiscing.

There were 15 musicals, including “Rent,” “Carousel,” “Chicago,” “A Chorus Line,” “Camelot,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and this year’s sold-out smash, “West Side Story.”

There was the thrill of watching Minnesingers perform in exotic European venues, touring Spain, Denmark, Austria, Paris, Prague, Lithuania, and beyond. A standout came last year in Venice where, after students sang during Mass at St. Mark’s Basilica, the priest applauded.

Trips abroad held smaller precious moments too, like the evening stroll in Croatia, when the teenagers spontaneously serenaded an elderly couple seated on their balcony.

But for all the delight and satisfaction of bringing Broadway music to the school stage or conducting Minnesingers as they filled Island hearts with Christmas spirit at the Old Whaling Church each December, Wightman found intimate Island performances especially moving.

The Minnesingers appeared at senior centers, Windemere, church halls, Christmas tree lightings, and community events, even performing “The Star Spangled Banner” to honor wounded veterans here for their annual fishing trip.

Wightman appreciates the many Vineyarders who support performing arts programs, from cheering at shows to building sets for musicals, and playing in the orchestra. Minnesingers Parents Group members are among those she has especially enjoyed working with.

“For a small school, there’s an amazing pool of talented and dedicated kids who will commit time and effort,” she added gratefully.

With Wightman’s departure, Abigail Chandler takes on full-time teaching and leadership of the department.

After 27 years with high schoolers, Wightman believes deeply in the importance of music education. “Even if they never sing another note, the sense of teamwork, the positive reinforcement of their peers, the self-confidence, are great, lasting benefits,” she said.

She is touched when former students share meaningful memories. “You never know how you’re going to affect a kid, and what it’s going to mean to them in the future.”

For her, the best part is watching students perform after painstaking preparation: “They’ve taken what we’ve given them and moved forward. I enjoy watching other people develop. Being a part of that and watching them go off and do it on their own, that’s probably the most gratifying thing about it.

“It will be fun to see growth in the department; I know it will just continue to improve.”