On closing night of the choir’s two-day fall performance, singers arrived two hours before the show to discover the WHS campus darkened by a power outage. Rather than cancel the Oct. 14 concert due to a blown transformer, Rolniak sprang into action.
She enlisted parents to move the production from the theater to the cafeteria to take advantage of the emergency lights, assigning them to reposition risers and hunt for candles and flashlights. Once the crowd huddled into the makeshift venue, the students sang for their parents in the dim light.
“I can’t describe it as anything but magical,” the choral director said.
Rolniak‘s resolve and ingenuity saved the night, impressing the entire audience, including Westlake parents who are just getting introduced to her.
The 48-year-old took over the school’s award-winning choir program this summer after longtime director Alan Rose retired following three decades at the helm.
Debbie Sipos is vice president of the choir booster club, and her son Joseph is a junior who sings in A Class Act, the program’s elite choir. Any apprehension about the future of the program under new leadership was put to rest that evening, Sipos said.
“There were a lot of families concerned about the transition, but after I met her I knew the kids were in good hands,” Sipos said. “It was never more evident than that night.”
As choral director, Rolniak is responsible for more than half a dozen music ensembles, including a main choir, two freshman choirs, two auditioned choirs and a men’s ensemble.
Before coming to Westlake, she taught music at Viewpoint High School in Calabasas and Charter High School of the Arts in Van Nuys.
Aruna Natarajan Iyer’s daughter, Anagha, is a sophomore in the choir. Iyer said Rolniak is “building her brand” by encouraging more parental involvement and by connecting with students on a personal level. Iyer said the Iowa native has instilled a sense of family in the students.
“She brings out something deep within the kids that’s more than technique,” she said. “It’s not about perfection. It’s about the joy of music.”
Sipos, a mother of five who works as a music specialist, said the new director has created a culture of warmth and acceptance.
“I know how important it is for children to walk into a music room and have a sense of belonging, where they can be themselves, express themselves and know what they do has value,” Sipos said. “That doesn’t happen by accident.”
Rolniak said Charles Clark, her high school choir director at Valley High School in West Des Moines, inspired her to teach. His choir room was her saving grace in high school, she said, and she wants to give the same experience to students at Westlake.
“When you give a kid a place to belong, they show up to learn,” she said.
The Simi Valley resident and mother of two has music degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Arizona in Tucson.
As she settles into her new role, Rolniak said she plans to expand the program by performing more jazz and a cappella pieces. She also hopes to bring in more students and, with any luck, more awards.
“I don’t think it’s a pipe dream.”
It’s possible, Rolniak said, due to the mentality behind the WHS choir motto: “I am because we are.”