Roland Woehr: A Life in Music

By Jan Alex

 

As I arrived at Mr. Woehr’s second-floor classroom on the Willow Grove campus for our interview, I couldn’t help but feel wrong for knocking. My knocks brought an abrupt end to the delicate melody emanating from inside his classroom and I wished that I had held off for just a few minutes longer.

 

He greeted me with his trademark smile while getting up from the grand piano at the center of his room. He was working at an original choral composition. As I took a seat by the beautiful black piano, I noticed that it still softly reverberated with the tune he had just been playing as if to remind me of my intrusion on a special moment between artist and instrument.

 

Roland Woehr’s relationship with music is a long one and even he can’t say that there was one defining moment that launched him into it.

 

He says, “It was always a passion for me, it was not something that I got interested in in high school. I didn’t get turned on when I was in 10th grade. It was just something I was born doing.”

 

His passion for music has come to define him and, in many ways, it has guided him through life. Born and raised in lower Northeast Philadelphia, Mr. Woehr first attended school at Hopkinson Elementary in Juniata Park. The school was far from a perfect fit, and Mr. Woehr’s clearest memories of the institution where of a strict and uninterested teaching staff. However, he had a permanent lifeline with the Philadelphia Boys Choir, and his musical abilities were acknowledged at an early age. It was at Central High School that Mr. Woehr first felt able to truly embrace the arts and music within a school setting. He found that at Central, a large and diverse school with over 2,000 students, there was a group for everyone. In his own words: “…rather than being pummeled for being different, you were recognized.”

 

After his four years at Central High, Mr. Woehr attended Temple for a degree in music education, and soon after graduating he found himself working at a Main Line church in the choral department and taking substitute teaching jobs on the side.

 

However, in March of 1985, his career took a sharp turn towards teaching and brought him to Chestnut Hill Academy. He came in to substitute for a beloved music teacher, and after his first class, he knew it was meant to be. He soon demoted his church job to a side gig and dived headfirst into teaching, claiming that his job at CHA was just as “sacred” to him as his job at the church.

 

It was the challenge of teaching that had Mr. Woehr hooked.

 

“Looking into the faces of those fifth graders and knowing that I have to be the best I can be, as a musician and as a teacher, for them. This was the more challenging job for me. I always kept my church job on the side, but school became the holiest of the holy.”

 

David Brenman, a senior at SCH Academy and a CHA lifer, can attest to Mr. Woehr’s devotion to his students and his admirable attitude toward life. David has known Mr. Woehr since he was in first grade and works with him as a member of the Hilltones to this day. When asked about the impact Mr. Woehr has had on his life David noted: “I think it’s pretty obvious if you’ve ever seen Mr. Woehr teach a class or just interact with a group of students the kind of effect he has not only on their mentalities that day but their outlook on life in general. He’s really just an example to follow.”

 

Senior Chris Markos, president of the Hilltones, and another longtime student of Mr. Woehr, remarked that it is Mr. Woehr’s persistent enthusiasm and passion for music that has had the most impact on him.

 

“He inspires that within you once you start playing music. He has taught me how to be a musician, not just in singing, but in drums, guitar and music in general.”

 

In short, Mr. Woehr’s impact as a teacher goes far beyond teaching technique and giving grades on report cards. He instills his unwavering passion for music in every student who chooses to listen, and most of those who pass through his doors have chosen to do just that.