I have memories of sitting on the living room floor with my dad, listening to the Imperials, singing “All We Need!” together. My sister, Tracy, and I learned all the songs from “The Sound of Music” and would harmonize together as we danced around the house. Along with my brothers Tom and David, we participated in just about every church and school choir available and in addition to our own choir concerts we attended many of my father’s as well. A family road trip was a sing-along and often we sang together at church on Christmas Eve. I grew up on choral music. Growing up in the Phelps family was a constant musical experience.
Now, in my forties, as I look back on an experience that at the time I probably took for granted, I’m filled with wonder at my father’s career in the choral profession. His enthusiasm – infectious then – has never waned. He still has a boundless energy and a sparkle in his eye. He loves people and has not tired of the awesome joy and responsibility that comes from doing something musically meaningful with a group of singers. He is always looking for something new and even now, challenges himself with new endeavors. His excitement and work ethic are nothing short of inspiring.
I am honored to be able to offer a glimpse into the life and musical career of my father, Bruce Phelps. In addition to being a wonderful choral director, the qualities he shared with a countless number of students, proteges, and lovers of choral music, he never neglected to extend those wonderfully loving qualities in his role as my dad.
Bruce Phelps singing with a quintet at Christ The King Lutheran Church
When I graduated from high school, I was planning on going into the ministry. I was heavily involved in church as an organist, singer in the choir, and I was president of our Youth For Christ group at school. After my senior year in high school, I earned a “License to Preach” from the Methodist church and served as a supply pastor for churches when their pastor was on vacation. During this time, I was also heavily involved in music. I took organ and piano lessons, played for church and for a local TV show called “Welcome In” and worked at Carlson Music Center where I often played for customers and at county fairs.
I made the Concordia choir in my sophomore year and in my Junior year, I also served the Methodist church in Hawley and preached at a small Covenant church east of Hawley. I had my taste of what it was going to be like to be a pastor.
One day in the summer after my first year as pastor, I was playing golf with my dad and I broke down and told him that I could not do the pastor thing anymore. It was too hard with choir, college classes, etc. It was at that time that I decided for sure I wanted to be a choir director. My mentors/idols at that time were Murrae Freng and Paul J. Christiansen. I was in the education program so I did my student teaching at Moorhead High School in the fall of my Senior year, and interviewed for and got the job at Luverne.
I remember three things very vividly. First, I had my own office and my own choral library which I immediately dismantled and completely revised.
Secondly, I remember seating the choir. I was going down the row of altos, listening for the full rich dark sound of an alto that I remembered from my college days. After hearing a few, I heard the sound and I said, “Now that’s what I like in an alto, a big bottom.” Of course the kids fell off their chairs laughing and I turned as red as I have ever been. The alto singer was a good sport about it and after graduation, she sent me Christmas cards and signed them, The Alto with the Big Bottom.
Thirdly, it was April and large group contest time for the choir. Three judges listened as we sang. One of our pieces was Palestrina’s, Tenebrae factae sunt. One of the judges ripped me apart as I did not sing it in the Renaissance style, but rather in the style of Paul J. Christiansen. I got two out of three superiors which was enough but I was devastated at what he had written. Tom Haugen was the band director and he took me out afterwards and gave me words of encouragement.
I think it was about $6000 a year. My take home pay was a little over $400 a month. We had house payments of $140, so we had $260 a month on which to live. Eventually I got a church choir job at the United Methodist church and they paid me $40 a month.
I inherited a relatively good program. I had a concert choir of about 70 with good singers and well balanced. There was a girls choir of 10-12th graders that Dolly Talbert directed. There were a lot of great kids already in the program. I inserted a pops concert into the season which became a big draw for the community and a good recruiting tool. I had a lot of small ensembles and we started a caroling group, complete with long dresses, hats, and white muffs for the ladies, black coats, hats, and white gloves for the men. I also had a barbershop group that sang well and I gave lessons to every student in choir. I really did not have a plan as such, I just wanted to provide a wide variety of opportunities for the students. I also helped direct the musical we had every other spring. I also followed the athletic teams and was able to recruit some of the guys for the choir.
Murrae Freng – my high school director
Les Dehlin – my high school choir director my senior year.
Paul J. Christiansen – my college director
Curt Hanson, Paul Brandvik, Vern Opheim, Harold Skilbred, Paul Montan – all directors of high schools that participated in a director’s exchange. They came to Alexandria in the fall and we rehearsed with them for 2 hours, each taking one piece and working with it. They were all so good at their craft and it was a fun experience for us.
I attended some MMEA clinics and heard choirs by Ed Anthony of Park Center and Richard Larson of Austin, both of whom had extraordinary choirs which showed me that there were some excellent high school choirs out there.
Brad Holmes – Millikin University. He puts together incredible programs.
Rene Clausen – I worked as his choir manager and got to watch him work with the students. Not only was he an incredible musician, but a warm hearted human who truly cared for his singers.
Mike Smith – He had an incredible program at Brainerd while I was teaching at Anoka and I convinced him to audition for the chapel choir job at Concordia after he retired from high school work. He directed the Freshmen choirs and the Chapel choir and brought them to a new level of excellence. I always thought he should have been at a college somewhere and he got the chance of a lifetime when he filled in for Rene Clausen the year Rene went on sabbatical.
These three, especially, impressed me because not only did their choirs sound good, but they cared for the singers as well.
I started with pieces I had in the choral library. My successors were good choral people so I inherited a solid library. I relied on my high school and college experience for pieces. I went to MMEA clinics and kept programs of the choirs I heard and picked up a lot of ideas from others.
I had all the students sing for me individually. I had them sing some scales to determine range, I played some short melodic patterns and asked them to sing it back to me so I could hear their tonal memory skills, I had them sing the first line of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” to see if they could sing an ascending major 6th and a descending minor 3rd in tune. Then I had them sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” to hear how they handled style and language. I also listened for their musicianship, phrasing, and expression while singing the solo.
Primarily African-American Spirituals. We sang some European folk as well but I don’t remember singing anything else. I would say 70-80% of our music was sacred. We did a Christmas Concert and all the music was sacred. We also did a pops concert where none of the music was sacred.
Luverne High School Choir – MMEA convention in 1976.
Anoka High School Choir:
Two things have happened: Schools were encouraged to provide a better balance between sacred and secular repertoire. Secondly, choirs are now singing music from all over the world. I think that movement was spearheaded by Anton Armstrong when he came to St. Olaf. He programmed some and was an advocate of looking at music from different cultures. Now it is hard to find some choirs doing some of the classical repertoire.
I was a contest adjudicator for over 40 years and I think that a few things have changed. The young conductors are coming out more prepared and with a better background of repertoire. You can tell those that have a concept of what a choir should sound like.
MMEA (Minnesota Music Education Association) was the main event for all music educators. I don’t remember how I got involved or when. I gradually attended some functions, got to know some people, and was invited to serve on the repertoire committee. The organization was run by volunteers in those days and while they struggled, they managed to keep things afloat and gradually it grew to challenge MMEA in terms of what could be offered to choral directors.
In the early 1980’s I attended the national ACDA convention in Salt Lake City. I flew in on Wednesday night and started attending performances on Thursday. We heard some of the cleanest, purest choirs you can imagine. It was like checking for dust with your white gloves and night finding any. We heard great college choirs and a professional choir Thursday night that were awesome but for me, something was missing. And then, Friday afternoon, the Albert McNeil Jubilee singers hit the stage and the audience went wild. This choir engaged the audience by bringing life into the music. From then on, things were incredible. We heard the King’s Singers, Luther Nordic Choir and of course the grand finale with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I can still feel the joy and excitement of that Jubilee Singers performance. That became my concept of what a choir’s performance should do for their audience.
I was not involved in the start-up of the organization of ACDA. I was working 3 jobs and raising a family which didn’t allow for further involvement. I did serve a short stint and acted as repertoire chair for high school choirs but it was not until I retired from teaching in 2004 that I became more fully involved. I was invited to serve on the FMC Endowment Committee and am presently in my 11th year. I served on the scholarship committee, then as its chair, and am now acting as past chair of the FMC Endowment committee. Changes have gone the way of the world. We are now much more digital, including on-line application reviews, auditions, Zoom meetings and performances. Information is much more accessible than before.
Volunteerism is an important part of ACDA for two reasons. First it saves budget money for other programs. Secondly, it gives membership a feeling of ownership and involvement. Members get to know each other and can share program ideas and friendships.
ACDA is a very important presence in the Minnesota education field. It not only provides learning opportunities for directors but also new choral experiences for elementary age students all the way through high school singers. FMC Endowment provides thousands of dollars of scholarships each year to students and teachers alike. The website is a wealth of information including job postings, audition announcements, concert news and much more. The Choral Journal is a valuable tool for research, articles of interest, and goings on in the choral world across the country. For me, the most important influence it had for me was the association and friendships I developed.
I wrote a sight reading manual and self-published it. It is basically a collection of over 800 short sight singing exercises in ten levels, each more challenging than the previous. I know many of my colleagues have used it and it has made an impact on their students and in their programs.
Secondly, I served as the Master Adjudicator for contest judges and ran the certification clinic for a number of years. I also judged solo and ensemble and large group contests for over 40 years. I am guessing I judged over 400 events.
And thirdly, I directed many groups beyond my high school ensembles. I led male choruses, church choirs and community choirs. I started the community choir “Two Rivers Chorale”, and then a few years later, I started another community choir “The Northern Lights Chorale.” I am currently serving as part time music director for Lord of Life Church in Ramsey and am the artistic director of Voices of Impact, a 35-voice choir for people living with dementia and their caregivers. I have a love of working with people and a passion for making music come to life with my singers.
Bruce Phelps and the Northern Lights Chorale in their tenth season
To all you newcomers to the choral world, I say welcome. This is the most rewarding thing one could ever do. Your challenge is to take the symbols and words on a piece of paper and turn them into inspirational, beautiful, and meaningful music. There is no music on those octavos. The music dwells within you and your singers. It is your job to pull it out of your singers and show them the joy, the love, and the fun making music can be. The process is as rewarding or more-so than the actual performance. When you invest your soul into your music, your efforts will indeed bless people who are fortunate enough to sing for you or attend your concerts.
After all, music is the universal language.