Eberwhite teacher overcomes vocal chord trauma, enjoys life on stage

By Casey Hans
AAPSNews Service

Jeffrey Willets is back in the classroom for a new school year, encouraging Eberwhite Elementary students to tune up their vocal chords and share his love of music.

A lifelong Ann Arbor-area resident and product of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, music has been an integral part of who Willets is and what he does but he thought, at one point, it had abandoned him.

Jeffrey Willets, who performed the lead in the summer production of "Phantom." Willets returns to the classroom at Ebertwhite Elementary School this fall where he teaches vocal music.

In 1994, he developed a paralyzed vocal chord. Without knowledge of what had happened to cause it, he flew around the country seeking help from experts – both singing coaches and then medical professionals – only to be told by most that there was nothing that could be done. They tried Botox shots and other therapies, to no avail.

Not only did it affect his singing, but his speaking voice as well. He was a lifelong singer and teacher who had effectively been silenced.

A friend suggested Dr. Steven Zeitels of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, an innovative leader in the approach to voice disorders and a professor of laryngeal surgery at Harvard Medical School. Zeitels is also the professional that helped singing legend Julie Andrews find her voice again.

Willets knew had the right guy. After surgery and five years of voice therapy and Zeitels’ help, he was able to retrain his voice. “Everyone told me to hang it up, you’re finished,” he said. “I’ve been singing and doing great ever since. My philosophy? Don’t ever give up.”

Today, Willets is back in form and a listener would never know the damage he had sustained. This accomplished tenor played the lead role of the Phantom in the summer stock production of  “Phantom” at Canton Township’s Village Theater at Cherry Hill Village, a production of 8th Wonder Theatre (www.8thwondertheatre.com) – a company composed of professionals and faculty from the Eastern Michigan University Theater Department. Proceeds from their productions go to scholarships and service awards for EMU students who are studying music, theatre or dance.

But the paralyzed vocal chord changed Willets forever. It changed his approach to life and encouraged him to see things differently.

Willets on stage during "Phantom" at Canton Township's Village Theater at Cherry Hill Village.

“It made me look at myself and realize that we all look at ourselves based on our accomplishments,” he said. “It made me realize I’m more than that. I’ve been given a second chance and I’m very grateful for that.

“I know now that it’s OK to make boo-boos. It’s OK to fall down. Just pick back up again and keep going.”

Willets was raised in Pittsfield Township where he was the second youngest of five children. His dad was an EMU accountant and his mom a teacher. Although his dad is deceased, Willets remains close to his mom, who is now 79 and has traveled the world.

He attended Carpenter Elementary, then Scarlett and Huron where he graduated.

He was encouraged by teachers Ken Westerman, then at Scarlett, and Rick Ingram at Huron to pursue music as a vocation. Ruth Datz, now-deceased, who, among others, helped to found the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, was instrumental in his decision about music, as was EMU professor Glenda Kirkland. “She said here it is – the world is your oyster. Go get it,” he said of Kirkland.

Willets studied and trained at EMU and the New England Conservatory of Music and has tackled a variety of roles over the years ranging from opera and operetta to musical theater, cabaret and everything between.

He began teaching in Ann Arbor in 1985 and has worked at many elementary schools. He started in the district’s Open School program at Wines, Bach and Mack and also spent time teaching at Mitchell, Northside and Angell. Before arriving at Eberwhite a couple of years ago, he also worked at Pittsfield and at Clague Middle School.

Will he do any local theater in the coming year? “That depends on how much energy I have,” he said. “I give it all to the kids. I love the kids and seeing what they can do. When they do their musical plays or do things for their parents, it just blows me away.”

One more little piece of timely trivia: Willets turns 48 today.  Students who have him in class can sing him a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Casey Hans edits this newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. E-mail her or call 734-994-2090 (internal ext. 51228.)

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