We’ll miss Ciss!: Cissell to retire after 22 years

The dual legacy of OPHS’s choir director and ASB adviser

Click to watch: Cissell says goodbye

Student-designed posters of “The Incredibles,” “Sweet Revenge” and other past choir productions; a desk scattered with piles of paper and large bucket dividers; backpacks lodged under and around the risers — every corner of room B-2 exudes the history and legacy of Heidi Cissell as ASB adviser of 15 years and choir director of 22 years.

After earning her B.A. degree from Ball State University, receiving her masters degree in voice performance at Indiana University and teaching and performing in the Chicago area, Cissell began her career in Oak Park with 14 students in the choir program, which bloomed to around 80 students under her mentorship. Shortly after beginning to work at Oak Park High School, she took on the full-time position of ASB adviser.

“I realized I just really liked being in the classroom, and I didn’t want to be an administrator. So I just stayed with ASB because I enjoyed it so much,” Cissell said.

As the director of two large programs at OPHS, Cissell recalls the similarities and differences between managing these two student bodies. 

“ASB is so interesting in the fact that … I get to listen to the minds of young people … and I really can sit down and listen to what’s troubling [them] in the world and what we can do on campus to make things better for the student body,” Cissell said. “Choir is performance-oriented — what can they do to get out there and get on stage? — so [ASB and choir are] both outgoing, but in different ways.”

Among many of Cissell’s accomplishments include performing Christopher Tin’s 14-languages “Calling All Dawn” at Carnegie Hall, in celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl, and Michael John Trotta’s commissioned piece and the 2020 winner of the Director’s Choice Piece “You Are My Refuge.” More recently for the 2022 Spring Concert, OPHS choir performed “By Night When Others Soundly Slept,” a piece composed by Cissell and based on a poem by Anne Bradstreet.

“I was honored to sing the solo part of this song, and it was an incredible moment to sing one of her original pieces for an audience. The song is incredibly complex and has the most gorgeous harmonies and it is my favorite song we’ve done in choir,” senior Em Salzman wrote to the Talon.

OPHS band director, Zachary Borquez, commented on Cissell’s hard work ethic, and laughed when reminiscing on how he came to work at the high school. Borquez was originally a long term substitute at Medea Creek Middle School, when Cissell approached him about teaching the band classes at OPHS. He reflects on her leadership during their time working together.

“She’s a wonderful vocal teacher and all the concerts are always just super, super high quality and there’ll definitely be a big hole missing and some big shoes to fill for the next person coming in. But I’m eager to help keep the choral program with bringing in the new teacher to help keep the traditions that are important to the choral students,” Borquez said.

One of Cissell’s core principles is to not be afraid to try new things. Salzman, who joined choir as a sophomore and rekindled her passion for singing through the program, stated how this principle shaped her as a person and her future.

“I didn’t think I was good enough to get into top BFA programs. One day Cissell asked me if I was going to pursue theater and she was the first person who told me I could do it,” Salzman wrote. “I’ve grown so much as a vocalist, performer, and person because of having Cissell as my main source of guidance. She helped me throughout the college audition process, and she’s the reason I had the confidence to go for my dream.”

ASB President and senior Amaan Nabeel also recalls the impact Cissell had on him throughout his time leading OPHS’s student government.

Mrs. Cissell was a huge role model throughout my high school career. From her strong work ethic to her contagious laugh. She was so wise and always gave the best advice when it came to absolutely anything from friendships to leadership. Without her I truly do not know where I would be or who I would even be,” Nabeel wrote to the Talon.

Cissells leadership and perseverance is recognized by her students and administration alike. 

“It is not possible to overstate [Cissell’s] impact on this high school … In a very short time I’ve come to know [Cissell], and rely on her thoroughness, her professionalism,  and her immense care for her students,” OPHS principal Mat McClenahan said during the OPUSD retirement ceremony.

Cissell left choir students and parents with words of encouragement, as she wrapped up her last OPHS concert. 

“This program will be in good hands for those of you who will ‘carry the torch’ for me for years to come,” Cissell said in her speech at her final choir concert. “There is never a good time to retire in my field, because as a teacher, you become so attached to all of the students in all of your classes but there is a good time to retire, when you know that you have an amazing group of choir students who will be seniors and juniors next year who will be able to lead.”