Austin High School is part of a wonderful musical legacy that dates back to 1933 with great teachers and conductors such as C. Vittorio Sperati, Paul Heltne, Fred Nyline, and Richard Larson, among others. The choir program has gone through some changes since those early years, but what remains constant is the commitment to choral excellence through the varied experiences that AHS choirs have to offer students. I have been privileged to be a part of that legacy since 1987. But even though we have grown from 140 singers to over 300, and culture, demographics (and technology!) have changed immensely during that time, the joy in my students’ faces in performing and rehearsing music as well as making connections with each other every day — that has definitely NOT changed!
Sound Clip – Austin HS Concert Choir – Sure on this Shining Night
Students entering AHS, whether they are new ninth graders or transferring from another district, have three curricular choir opportunities: a beginning/intermediate Mixed Choir, an intermediate Treble Choir for women’s voices, and the advanced level Concert Choir. We are fortunate to have strong administrative support and can see the students for small group lessons during the school day to provide opportunities to assist, evaluate and connect with our singers. All groups perform at least four major concerts during the year and often more than that. Concert and Treble Choirs travel out of state every three years and have performed in New York, Orlando, St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville, and Boston. Those of us who have taken these excursions through the years know how the unplanned, serendipitous events become the best parts of these trips. For AHS that has included everything from singing at the JFK Library in Boston in front of the grandson of Ernest Hemingway (who just happened to be going to a board meeting) to an early morning, Gospel song thank you for a harried breakfast crew in Mississippi — complete with kitchen percussion!
AHS choirs are very fortunate to have three great connections that make our program flourish: our 1-12 music staff, our Austin community music organizations, and our Big Nine Conference music. At the high school we have a unique situation in that three of our four major concerts include groups from all three departments– choir, band, and orchestra. Both the students and the directors learn from each other, and it also fosters connections between the programs. I know I am very lucky to have many instrumentalists adding their musicianship and vocal skills to our groups! Our close collaboration with our other vocal teachers produce events such as our annual Choral Fest that includes a day of singing and rehearsing with over 700 5th-12th grade choir students. In our own community the Concert Choir has collaborated with Austin Symphony in large works such as the recent 2014 performance of “The Armed Man.” The Austinaires perform each year at “Why We Sing,” a choral celebration event hosted by Northwestern Singers, a long-time community choir. Music Boosters of Austin, made up of music parents, community music lovers, and teachers, provides financial, emotional, and physical support to our growing programs. Finally a highlight each year is the first Friday in May when twelve Big Nine schools come together for a full day of music making. This tradition is going on its 84th year and gives a chance for thousands of high school musicians to support each other’s musical endeavors in a non-competitive environment. It is the longest running festival of its kind in the U.S.—when it began, schools were using trains to get to the host site!
It has been a blessing to see our choral groups and individual singers blossom at many different levels. AHS sends students to MMEA All State ensembles, ACDA Honors Choirs, and Dorian Choirs each year. Concert Choir has performed at many MMEA state conferences, the St. Olaf Choir Festival, the Dorian Invitational, as well as the ACDA Choral Arts Finale, most recently in 2015. Our three co-curricular groups, the Austinaires, Vocal Jazz, and Choralaires, perform over 40 community and school events each year. Choirs often get opportunities to grow and learn through musicians and ensembles from outside our district; the last few years have included clinics with Tesfa Wondemagnehu and VocalEssence, the University of Minnesota with Kathy Romey, and Wartburg College. Austin is currently involved in a long-term partnership with the MacPhail Center with both on-site and remote learning.
Sound Clip – Austin Concert Choir – Go Where I Send Thee
Despite the many incredible mountaintop experiences my students have had through the years, one recent, smaller story caught my attention. An AHS choir alum messaged me that she had started a new job in a nursing home in Mankato and she came across a resident who seemed pretty down. She took some time to talk with the resident and found out that the woman was an Austin HS graduate, so the alum proceeded to do the first thing she could think of to connect with her—sing our traditional Homecoming song for her. The woman joined in and afterwards smiled and said, “I haven’t heard that song for ages, I need to call my family and tell them I heard it! Thank you, thank you!” What better way to show those lifelong connections we strive for than a moment like this, bringing our music-making full circle? Congratulations to all the Minnesota choral programs and vocal teachers that are a part of this wonderful tradition; Austin High School is honored to represent them as a Star Program!
Brian Johnson received his music education degree at Concordia College, Moorhead in 1982 where he studied under Larry Fleming, Rodney Rothlisberger, and Paul Christiansen. Graduate studies have included work at the University Minnesota and University of St. Thomas. Mr. Johnson taught 1-12 vocal music for four years at Gaylord Community Schools before its consolidation with Arlington-Green Isle forming Sibley East. In 1987 he took over the Austin High School choral program and has overseen three curricular choirs, three co-curricular ensembles, and the fall musical productions, as well as guiding a team to the state Music Listening Contest in 2013 and 2014. He has directed church choirs in Gaylord and Austin, the Sibley County Chorale, Austin Summerset musicals, and currently plays keyboard for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Austin. In 2012 he was a semi-finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Mr. Johnson has been lucky enough to count among his mentors Rodney Urtel, Phil Burkhart, and Brian Koser, among others, and appreciates all the support ACDA-MN continues to give to beginning and experienced choral educators alike.