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Donna Budil, beloved Forest Park schools music teacher, celebrated her final graduation ceremony at Proviso East High School yesterday, after 42 years of inspiring music in her students.
"Every child has music in them in some way," she said. "I don't believe there are people who can't appreciate music; it is a universal human experience."
Budil was a young singer/musician in 1970 when she started teaching K-8 music for District 91. She sang soprano locally, performing Verdi concerts, according the Oak Leaves newspapers of the era.
Performance is in her blood. Over the decades she has been charged with graduation, writing children's plays and organizing all the holiday shows and musicals, such as H.M.S. Pinafore a couple of years past.
But it wasn't just music that was dear to her heart: Budil was the founder of the District 91 Festival of the Arts in the 1970s. Originally four days long, the festival featured concerts with jazz band and chorus, swing choir, boys and girls choirs and the mixed-choir concerts. The festival also displayed student artwork. She helped bring orchestra and band programs to the district. A shortened version of the festival remains today.
The choirs back then had marathon practice sessions, she remembered, and met on Saturdays in the basement of the Wesley United Methodist Church of Forest Park - a space she shared with cast members of the emerging Circle Theater. The church burned down in 1988.
Choral music was always important in District 91.
"I think it was the German roots of Forest Park," Budil said. "Choral societies were always important."
The German Manner and Dammer Chor has been an active club in Forest Park for 120 years, beginning in a Harlem salon in 1890.
"The school choirs used to perform every year at Oktoberfest," she said.
The first 27 years, Budil taught children in all grades and then moved up to the older grades later on. For many years, she took her choirs around the district on an annual tour.
"Now they bring the little kids to us," Budil said.
Teaching older children has allowed Budil to introduce them to world music and "make a survey of the humanities," she said. She also has enjoyed teaching what she calls the Great American Songbook - Cohen, Berlin, Gershwin.
Technology has significantly changed how music is taught, she said.
"Now music teaching has to be very tech-savvy, with recorders and microphones and midi-hookups," Budil said.
Unchanged are the basics: "Reading notes, learning to sing on pitch."
She has always been an advocate of the arts.
"This district is fortunate that the arts have not really been cut," she said.
Budil is a longtime member the National Association for Music Teachers and of Sigma Alpha Iota, a national honor society for women musicians. As national project director, she helps award scholarships to female musicians who are getting advanced degrees.
"We just gave a scholarship to a woman who is going overseas to study in Sweden," she said.
As for those who believe they can't sing or are too shy, she says children are at the best age to learn to get past those stereotypes.
"If you are exposed to good music when you're young, it will always be a part of who you are," Budil said. "I want to create appreciators of music, whether [students] are on the stage or audience members."