DeKalb Music Boosters present Muse Award to first president


Courtesy Nancy Apperson

Sheila Barrow (from left), Gloria Hollifield, Nancy Apperson and Cathy Carter.

By Jamie O'Toole, Columnist

In 1997 Nancy Apperson walked into her son’s school auditorium, prepared to take annual pictures of the Huntley Middle School band that her son was a part of. To her surprise, there was no designated place for band practice and music equipment as she assumed an auditorium would reserve. Scattered all over were wrestling mats that the wrestling coach only agreed to move after Apperson confronted the high school principal. Wrestlers, who were committed to the band as well as wrestling, began to see favoritism and competition between the athletic and arts departments. And so did Apperson. There was a clear inequality between two extracurriculars students were equally passionate about. 

All throughout middle and high school, Apperson’s son was involved in music programs. 

“My son, who’s now a theater teacher in Rockford, was in band, choir, madrigal, jazz band [and] musicals,” Apperson said.

After Apperson’s husband Larry seized a job opportunity as the Dean of Student Affairs at Kishwaukee College, they moved to DeKalb and she took on a job at NIU as a coordinator at the employee assistance program. Growing up in New Jersey, the Appersons, like their son, were involved in music in highschool. 

“I was in a marching band, [and that’s how I] got my interest in music,” Nancy said.

However, when the Appersons went to high school, there were mini lessons in place for student excellence. Nancy was shocked to see, along with equipment, her son’s school lacked these one-on-one meetings with the teacher to ask questions and nail any skills they needed to master. 

Seeing the auditorium stirred something in Nancy and two other parents whose kids were also involved in music at the middle school. Two years after that incident, on May 31, 1999, three mothers joined to mimic the school’s Sports Booster Program to get music students the same attention as athletes, calling it DeKalb Music Boosters. Nancy and her husband’s efforts to support music programs in the DeKalb School District would later lead them to the 2020 Muse Award, which honors outstanding music advocates who have made a significant impact in developing and fostering the growth of DeKalb School District music programs, according to the Music Boosters. 

Nancy knew the arts and sports were equally important in our culture. Together, Nancy, the president, Gloria Hollifield, and Cathy Carter created a mission for Dekalb Music Boosters: service, fundraising and promoting music in the district. Initially they began raising money by offering cards with discounts to local stores to people in the effort to get kids uniforms and instruments if they could not rent.

Following their start to supply music programs with the same access to resources as sports teams, the Appersons helped a former band teacher raise the question to those in charge and established a rationale for why music programs would benefit from “Mini Lessons” to go along with regular ensemble instruction. Sure enough, they implemented it. Travis Erikson, music teacher and highschool choir director at DeKalb High School, saw an immense change in students’ musical performance with the implementation of “mini lessons.” A time set aside to learn a skill a student may have not grasped as quickly as others put the entire ensemble on the same page. Performances flourished. 

Nancy and her husband consistently volunteered even after her son graduated in 2003 and a new group of officers took over. Every year the choir ensemble, made up of 30 students begins rehearsals in August for their Madrigal Show that takes place in November and December. Dressed in Renaissance costumes they sing traditional carols, sacred music, and music from the Renaissance, baroque, and medieval periods. 

I got the recognition I needed when I saw change. Just being a part of this was an honor.”

— Nancy Apperson

Students seemed to have a difficult time getting along while practicing 4-9 hours every week for three months. To ease conflict, Nancy decided to start what’s called the Madrigal Retreat in 2004. For 2 days before rehearsals Nancy taught the kids emotional mastery, to be impeccable with your word, and not to assume things of others. With simple handouts she put together, she instilled leadership and communication skills every year until 2007, when she officially retired. Being an elementary education major at Elizabethtown College, Nancy had first hand experience in understanding children. It was at George Williams College in Downers Grove, working on a master degree in Social Work, however, that Nancy learned about organizational structuring and group dynamics.

“I love teaching people how to do that. The only group I haven’t taught are doctors. I wish I could. They can use some great communication skills,” Nancy said.

Erikson believes the Madrigal retreat had a lot to do with the development of students’ leadership that they later applied to key roles in their lives.

“Some students have gone into careers in group dynamics and leadership training, multiple have become presidents of college choir,” he said.

Erikson continues to strengthen communication between students at the Madrigal Retreat every year. 

Nancy’s favorite memory throughout her journey at Music Boosters was the pride she felt to be able to create a program that ended up with the school realizing they needed facilities to recognize arts, just as greatly as sports. In 2011, DeKalb Highschool did construction, incorporating a designated building for athletics and the arts. Built with the same attent, they’re right across from each other. The Music Boosters at the time worked with music teachers to support their design ideas with fundraising and advocacy. Athletes cannot wrestle around instruments; it shouldn’t be expected the other way. It was a rewarding moment for Nancy, 14 years after walking into the auditorium to see wrestling mats scattered, to now see equal amounts of money spent on the success of both departments. 

Nancy turned to Larry, who had been sitting in the room with Nancy to assist with recalling information and finding the right words, and said, “That was a high time, don’t you agree honey?” Side by side, the couple volunteered together at the school. 

72 year old Nancy and Larry never expected this award. 

“I got the recognition I needed when I saw change. Just being a part of this was an honor,” Nancy said.

Over tears Nancy said that at this time in her life there’s a lot going on, she’s in a lot of pain these days. As a cancer patient, it’s getting harder to perform everyday tasks, as she gets tired really quickly because of her failing immune system. A lot has been postponed in life since being diagnosed with cancer.

“It will get better,” she repeats two times, wiping her tears and clearing her throat to finish her thought.  “At least it’s sunny. I celebrate the sun everyday. That’s all you can do,” she said.

Once the Appersons and other parents moved on after their children graduated, Nancy wanted to make sure the group would continue yearly. So, she made a constitution early on in her journey. Julie Spahn, current Co-Chair of the DeKalb Music Boosters Honoree Committee, joined the music boosters when her kids participated in music throughout middle school and highschool. Although her kids have graduated, she remains a part of the boosters, and has been active for over 10 years. 

To this day, the Music Boosters supports all music groups from band orchestra, choir, as well as steel band orchestra, the chamber program and the competitive and noncompetitive acapella groups. If teachers need a grand to help supply microphones or uniforms, the Boosters will help raise money. For students looking to further their education in music, the Boosters has raised money to reward specific music scholarships, as well as general scholarships. In the meantime, throughout junior high and high school, there are scholarships available if a student wants to attend a summer camp or if they need traveling expenses to get to national competitions.

DeKalb High School Auditorium
Patrick Murphy | Northern Star
DeKalb High School Auditorium

The Hall of Fame is only a three year old addition to the boosters incorporated after a teacher saw it in another school. Each year they’ve added a new category: the Muse Award was the first, second being the Maestro Award, and the newest one, added this year, is the Virtuoso Award. Every year around December, the Boosters put out a call out for nominations. The committee, made up of music booster members, administrators and teachers go through the list and choose who’s best fit to win. Erikson was one of the many individuals who picked the Appersons for the Muse Award. 

“Being recognized as a Muse to people is kind of special, because my life goal is making a difference. There’s so much going on right now, but this is so special,” Nancy said.