Classical or contemporary works, show tunes or jazz pieces, Susan Pawlak has played every genre over her 24 years as the accompanist for Homewood-Flossmoor High School’s music department.
Pawlak was a freelance musician in the H-F community giving piano lessons, playing at weddings, doing church work and accompanying singers. When her son Michael was in choir at H-F, he came home telling his mother their accompanist was leaving. She applied for the spot.
“I thought I’d stay while the kids were here,” she said. Her son graduated in 1995 and daughter, Dina, in 1998, but Pawlak found she loved H-F students.
The music department “has always been so strong. It’s such a great place throughout the entire department: band, orchestra and choir. It’s been great,” she said as her retirement nears.
Although Pawlak has worked a daily schedule, her day never ended there. Oftentimes she spent evenings learning new pieces.
She rehearsed music with students after school, was available weekends for competitions and concerts and traveled internationally four times with the choir and orchestra.
The Internet is making all styles of music easily accessible. Pawlak said the range of performance music has shifted to include more contemporary works. It’s been challenging for her at times because the pieces aren’t as melodic as the familiar Mozart works, but she gives the students credit for tackling these new pieces.
Two of Pawlak’s recent H-F graduates have careers in the arts. She remembers when Prentice Onayemi had the role of the King in H-F’s production of “The King and I.”
In 2011 he starred in the Broadway production of “War Horse.” And Austin Smith was “the whole package of song and dance” at H-F, she said. He is featured in the cast of “Hamilton,” the hit musical now on Broadway.
Whether the students have gone on to stardom or set music aside after H-F, the accompanist knows she’s touched the lives of thousands of students with her beautiful music.
For Pawlak, her favorite phrase says it all: “Feed the body food and drink, it will survive today. Feed the soul art and music, it will live forever.”
This story first appeared in the May 2016 print edition of the Chronicle.