When you look at her today, you’d never guess that Susan McCreary Duprey, the founder and artistic director of Windward Choral Society and director of the Kona Choral Society, once struggled to comprehend music. But when she was 27, she was faced with some tough challenges.
Susan was studying to become a choral director at Westminister Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey. She was in her final semester of graduate school when she developed a severe case of chicken pox that turned into meningoencephalitis. She became extremely weak and lost almost all her strength.
“The hardest part was the lethargy, I was always tired and felt mentally numb,” Susan said. “I remember looking out the window of my graduate school dorm room and seeing a couple of kids playing catch. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to that again.’ Luckily, I was wrong!”
The physical ailments were hard but most disturbing to her were the cognitive problems that came with the illness. She couldn’t make sense of the music she had dedicated her life to. She was sleeping 22 hours a day and the illness had paralyzed her vocal chords.
In order to try to make sense of what was going on mentally, she sought solace in the music of J.S. Bach. She listened to Bach’s Mass in B minor, over and over again, hoping to regain some sense of organization in her brain.
Just as she felt she was making progress cognitively and physically, she had a severe relapse and spent three months in bed. After this attack, the cognitive problems worsened and she stopped being able to write and hold simple conversations. She couldn’t even be around other people. Again, she turned to the music of Bach. The way he organized his music comforted her.
“I got active too soon and it set me back months,” she said. “I thought I was all better but my body said, ‘No! You need to rest and ease into things more slowly.’ I had joined a paddling team and after just a few weeks, wound up not being able to even open a door. I was so weak and tired.”
Susan grew up with music. Her father, John McCreary, was a well-known composer and for years directed the choral music program at ʻIolani School and was an organist at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Her mother also sang professionally.
It took a year for Susan to begin to feel that her cognitive abilities were starting to return and another five years before she felt normal enough to return to life as a professional musician. During this time, she was ready to begin paddling, playing golf and working out.
After completing her graduate degree program, Susan went on to be the founding director of the choral program at Hawaiʻi Pacific University, and worked there until 2007. This role allowed her to travel, sing, and direct all over the world.
She now splits her time traveling between Oahu and Hawaii Island to direct the two large community choruses. Outside of music, she enjoys paddling, golf, and hiking. She’s also backpacked up Mauna Loa over a dozen times.
The Windward Choral Society is a 100 member choir that brings international choral music to the island of Oahu with special performances on the Windward side. The Kona Choral Society, which started in 1990, is a 90 member choir which features both accomplished musicians and enthusiastic novices. Susan leads both choirs with a passion for music and her zest for life, which has proven to heal her through her darkest days.
Jan Montgomery is vice president of the Board of Directors for the Windward Choral Society.