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Robert Peterson — Inspiration from our Greatest Generation

Diana Leland

Illuminating the Past • Informing the Present • Inspiring the Future
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Robert Peterson experienced an amazing 50-year career in choral music, 42 of which occurred in Minnesota. Everyone in our state knows him as ‘Bob’ rather than Robert. He grew up in Cambridge, Minnesota, where he graduated from high school in 1961. In 1966, received his B.S. degree from the University of Minnesota. While a student at the U of M, Bob worked as a professional singer at Schiek’s Café, St. Paul House and McGuire’s. He continued his education at the U of M earning his MA degree in 1969 and his Ph.D in 1994.

Following his first teaching job at University High School – University of Minnesota (1966-68), Bob taught overseas with the Department of Defense and American International Schools for eight years. His overseas career included teaching at the Johnson American High School in Tokyo, Japan (1968-72), the International School of Brussels, Belgium (1972-73), and at the Munich American High School, Munich, Germany (1973-76).

Edina HS Concert Choir Orchestra Hall 1981

 

Bob met his wife, Patricia (Pat) of 46 years, in a practice room in 1965 at the U of MN. Their first date was a caroling gig on Thanksgiving Day (1965) where they sang in the store windows of downtown Dayton’s to kick off the holiday season. They were married in 1969, and Pat then moved to Japan to teach with Bob.

After returning to Minnesota, Bob taught at Edina High School (1976-1998), Macalester College (1998-2008), and at The Chesterton Academy (2008-2014). He is currently the Music Director of the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale (TCCC), which presents an entire choral mass with full orchestra every Sunday at the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota. Bob has been directing the TCCC since 2001.

Bob has been an active member of ACDA, MMEA, MENC, NATS, MEA and NEA since 1976. He served as ACDA-MN’s state president from 1987-89 and was a member of the F. Melius Christiansen Endowment Fund Committee from 2010-14. In addition, Bob has held numerous leadership roles for ACDA-MN state conventions and ACDA North Central Division conferences throughout the years. His special recognitions include receiving the 1994 ACDA Minnesota Choral Director of the Year Award and the 2013 F. Melius Christiansen Lifetime Achievement Award.

Bob Peterson is truly a role model for everyone. He is inspiring, passionate, influential, dedicated, enthusiastic, creative, caring, charming, funny and a very special friend and colleague to many of us. Bob loves to spend his summers at his cabin on Lake Ida near Alexandria, Minnesota, where he and his wife Pat enjoy fishing, golfing, boating and entertaining family and friends.

Bob Peterson Choir Director Award 1994

Bob Peterson Choir Director Award 1994

 

Rachel Stoddard, Edina HS Class of 1982, from Phoenix, AZ shared: I consider myself extremely fortunate to have spent three years in the Edina HS choral program under the direction of Bob Peterson. His impact on my career as a choral music educator has been significant – not just because of the ways in which he modeled great rehearsal technique, quality repertoire choices and creative programming, but mainly because he took the time to personally become acquainted with his students. I have many fond memories of the amazing repertoire we performed in Masterworks concerts, working with guest director Dr. Charles Hirt of USC and singing at a National MENC Convention. What inspired me most about Bob was how he took the time to notice my interests and strengths; how he encouraged me to accompany the choir, take voice lessons, try out for a solo, and become a music teacher. I was one of hundreds of students he saw each week, and certainly not the most talented, but Bob saw potential and gave me opportunities to grow.

Macalester College Choir Japan Tour 2008

 

Dr. Mark Solfelt, Edina HS Class of 1978, Cardiovascular Surgeon at North Memorial Medical Center, wrote:

A special teacher will recognize a student’s hidden potential and inspire them to pursue it. For me, that teacher was Bob Peterson. When auditioning for Fiddler on the Roof, I thought I would be Motel the tailor; Bob saw a tall, skinny Tevye instead! From that high school musical production all the way to my current involvement in church music, Bob has been an inspiration. No director in my entire choral singing career has ever communicated a more passionate love for music or a more personal connection to his singers. It was indeed one of my proudest moments when I walked into the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul with my college-aged daughter, herself a choral singer and musical theater performer, to hear the Mozart mass at midnight on Christmas Eve, conducted by Dr. Robert Peterson. I wanted her to meet my mentor and see him in action. Now she gets it – choral singing is a lifelong passion with lifelong friends, and there’s always another beauty, another adventure, and another special musical moment. Thank you, Bob, for always inspiring your singers!

Macalester College Choir

When did you first decide to become a choral director?

My decision to become a choral director occurred in 1961 during my All-State Choir experience with Dr. Charles Hirt. I was a student at Cambridge High School.

What are some memories from your first year as a choral director?

My first real choral conducting job was in Japan (1968) when I began teaching with the Department of Defense Schools in Tokyo. As a first-year teacher, I knew very little and every day was a brand new experience. I was teaching in a foreign land with very little support, and I had few materials. The program was very small and unnoticed. I also had to teach band for which I had limited to nearly no experience. Anything a teacher could do to bring a sense of normalcy to students was greatly appreciated by the community. There was tremendous support for concerts and activities! The program grew quickly. By the second year, my choir was invited to perform a Young People’s Concert with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

What was your first annual salary?

In 1966, I earned $3,500 for being a half-time teacher for a year while teaching at University High School at the University of Minnesota.

What were some of the ideas you implemented to build or recruit students into your choral program?

I always kept the choir active and busy preparing for the next event. There was very little “down time” in a busy and visible program. This worked particularly well overseas and while working at Edina High School. Our concerts featured male members of my choral ensembles as well as within small groups as soloists, and we frequently highlighted male voices in the various concert programs. I also connected with many sports and other activities in the schools to attempt to attract as many students as possible.

Which choirs and choral conductors inspired you early in your career?
  • Dr. Maurice LeGault, Cambridge High School
  • Dr. Karle Erickson, Gustavus Adolphus College
  • Dr. Kenneth Jennings, St. Olaf College
  • Dr. Charles Hirt, University of Southern California
  • Dr. DuWayne Jorgenson, University of Minnesota
  • Weston Noble, Luther College
Which choirs and choral conductors continue to inspire you today?

Weston Noble and Karle Erickson continue to be an inspiration to me. Both are still choral leaders around the US and abroad. There are also many new, young and outstanding directors. I would mention a few, but I really do not know where to start.

How did you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources did you seek ideas?

The first years were the most difficult. I only used choral literature from my wonderful high school experience, from choral repertoire classes at the U of MN, and literature from Schmitt Music’s summer reading clinics. When I moved back to the U.S. in 1976, ACDA became my primary source for new repertoire. In addition, my attending local choral concerts and going to conferences were also extremely important and key components in finding new choral literature.

How did/do you conduct auditions?

Teaching overseas was easy because I would take everyone who would walk in the door. As programs grew, I developed audition procedures using range finding, ear training and sight reading. Because Edina High School had so many talented young people, the audition procedure became quite involved. I kept careful notes and had to defend my decision to select one student over another for solos or top spots in the Concert Choir or Chamber Singers. These details could take a textbook to explain. Choosing singers at Macalester College was also quite difficult. At St. Agnes, I simply invite new singers to sing with the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale. If they survive two rehearsals and are able to contribute, they are in. Since we perform a major choral mass each week, new singers know almost immediately if they are able to meet the demanding expectations.

Early on in your career, what styles of multicultural repertoire were being performed?

In Japan and Europe, I searched for representative pieces that were solid examples of good choral works. Several local professionals assisted me in this search. At Edina, ACDA became such an important source for multicultural repertoire. Karle Erickson assisted many of us with performance practices with his fabulous chorus, World Voices. Music publishers and editors have also become quite helpful with performance practices and ideas.

In those early years, what was the typical balance of sacred and secular music on a concert?

I have always programmed an even balance of sacred and secular pieces. Lutheran choral music was such a standard in our state that it was impossible not to use some of these great treasures! My first years in Edina, we had a Jewish superintendent who loved choral music. He frequently dropped into choir rehearsals. When we performed at the National MENC Conference in Minneapolis, he sang a solo with the Edina High School choir! Our Edina Schools superintendent asked me to document the sacred choral repertoire we were performing and to justify the specific reasons I chose certain selections. This was good for me, and he loved the responses. I also featured an all-Jewish composer program during one concert at Edina High School.

Name five choral chestnuts of repertoire that you would recommend to the choral conductor of today?

Having been a fan of Randall Thompson’s choral music my entire life, two of my favorites by Thompson are: 1. Glory to God in the Highest and 2. Alleluia. Dale Warland introduced many of us to the music of Carol Barnett. I particularly enjoy 3. McKay from “An American Thanksgiving” with text by Samuel Stennett. Another one of my favorite sacred pieces is 4. O sacrum convivium by Olivier Messiaen. My final recommendation is 5. Sing Joyfully by William Byrd.

Paris 1973

Paris 1973

What were some of the special performance events (festivals, conventions, tours) in which your choirs participated?

I’m not certain where to begin to answer this question. In Japan, our performance with the Tokyo Symphony was outstanding! It was the first Young People’s Concert presented by this fabulous organization. My choir was featured and I was invited to conduct. In Belgium, the music director of the International School of Paris and I started the Paris International Arts Festival, which still continues today. My choirs sang major Latin masses with a professional orchestra and soloists at the American Cathedral in Paris. Who knew that I would continue with this experience later in my career?

At Edina High School and Macalester College, my choirs toured the US extensively and Japan and Europe several times. Presenting concerts at my former schools while touring in Japan and Europe were very special events for my wife, Pat, and me. The performance of my Edina Men’s Chorus (150-voice intergenerational choir consisting of high school men singers and their fathers) at the 1998 ACDA North Central Conference in Minneapolis remains a favorite memory. Every Sunday morning at the Church of Saint Agnes in St. Paul the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale performs great works (i.e, Beethoven Mass in C, W.A. Mozart Requiem, Schubert Mass in Ab, Gounod St. Cecilia Mass, etc.), under my direction with featured soloists and members of the Minnesota Orchestra. I have to ask myself each Sunday morning – “How did I get so lucky to have this experience?”

In your view, how has the programming of repertoire changed over the years?

Perhaps other directors feel the same, but I frequently think, “Where is this new repertoire coming from?” I almost feel left out! I don’t know much of the current choral repertoire, what it is about, who the composers are, or the languages. I find it very interesting, but perhaps I need to go back to school to learn about this new repertoire. I guess it is called “getting old.” I certainly enjoy hearing these works and watching these young conductors dive into new things! World music has certainly moved us to include much more than the European choral masterworks.

As you listen to choirs of today, how have the components of choral music performance evolved? (tone…blend…diction, etc.)

The choirs featured today have really changed the playing field. Regarding tone – almost everyone has developed a solid, free singing technique. It is thrilling to hear such beautiful singing. The other aspects, such as diction, have also developed. It’s nice to understand the texts while blend and balance are also carefully controlled. I also think it is exciting to witness new and young directors improving their choirs each year. When I first began my career, few women held important choral positions in Minnesota. That has also changed significantly through the decades. Top choirs at every level are now directed by women. I also believe that colleges and universities have revised music education expectations, which has afforded prospective teachers earlier and more varied experiences in the classroom.

US Embassy in Tokyo - Edina HS & White Bear Lake HS Concert 1987

US Embassy in Tokyo – Edina HS & White Bear Lake HS Concert 1987

How has the preparation of choral music directors changed?

Incredibly strong choral programs exist not only in the private and religious colleges in Minnesota, but also in our state colleges and universities. These programs continue to produce outstanding choral music graduates. I am so proud of ACDA-MN and its F. Melius Christiansen (FMC) Endowment Fund for offering scholarships and outstanding opportunities for student members. Recent graduates are far better prepared for a career in choral music than ever before.

You played a key role in ACDA-MN’s early development. What offices did you hold? Why and how did you first become involved with ACDA?

I was given no choice! When I began teaching at Edina High School in 1976, I was introduced to Diana Leland. One of her first questions to me was, “Are you a member of ACDA?” I had been teaching overseas since 1968 and knew nothing about the organization. That changed in a hurry. I immediately joined and, with Diana’s encouragement, started to “volunteer” for various ACDA activities and functions. I was encouraged to run for the office of West Metro Chair on the ACDA-MN State Board. When that term was ending, Diana insisted that I run for State President. She had indicated that I probably would not win, but they needed another candidate. I was elected and served during a difficult financial time for our organization. I remember making a personal contribution to ACDA-MN to keep us in the black after an early winter storm caused limited attendance at our fall conference. The very next year we started the “elementary school honor choir” program. This idea became extremely popular and funds from these expanded honor choir programs throughout the years have kept our organization fiscally responsible and solvent. With the assistance of the FMC Endowment Fund, we are now financially secure and able to offer so many programs for our members and their choral singers.

What were some of the most memorable performances you’ve witnessed at an ACDAevent?

A concert presented by the Armstrong High School Concert Choir, directed by Richard Edstrom, at the 1978 ACDA North Central Conference in Minneapolis set a new standard of high school singing for me. I did not know this sound was possible with high school singers. Weston Noble conducting the Luther College Nordic Choir at that same conference was also fantastic. I had never heard a college choir sing at this high level. Weston showed us the possibility of “under-conducting.” His hands barely moved – yet the sound was heavenly. I immediately got to know Weston and became his friend. We have so much to learn from this gifted director and inspirational teacher. By attending state, division and national ACDA conferences, I became acquainted with so many talented directors from around our country and world. These events changed my professional life.

Celestial Spring FM Christiansen 1982 Edina HS Concert Choir
What was the most inspirational ACDA conference performance you’ve heard?

The grand finale performance presented by the Dale Warland Singers at the 1987 ACDA National Conference in San Antonio is one of the most inspirational concerts in my memory. Beautiful tone quality, balance, blend, vowels, and precise singing of difficult repertoire were all a part of this fantastic concert. I believe this performance was extremely significant in Dale Warland becoming renowned throughout the United States and the world.

What has kept you active in ACDA for so many years?

I cannot imagine being a serious choral director and not being an ACDA member. As I became acquainted with so many choral colleagues from around the country, I utilized ACDA to continue my studies on every aspect of the choral art. I heard “super-star” concerts at conferences and workshops. I received numerous repertoire ideas from every event. I cannot envision myself missing a major choral event in my field. Attending or assisting in the planning of our conferences became essential to building my choral programs.

As a member and leader in ACDA-MN since 1976, what was the state of the organization like during those early years?

As I mentioned earlier, the financial condition of our state organization was a concern for everyone on the ACDA-MN State Board. The Honor Choir programs that began during my term as President certainly changed that position. I am very proud of that accomplishment and the people that continue to work on this monumental project! Membership has continued to grow since those early years. When ACDA-MN hosted the ACDA North Central Conference in 1978, our membership took a gigantic leap forward. We worked very hard to continue to build the membership and attract new members throughout the following years.

Edina HS Choir at MMEA 1990

Edina HS Choir at MMEA 1990

Looking back, what were some of the key turning points in our history?

That 1978 ACDA North Central Conference was so outstanding. We worked very hard to make this a successful major choral event. The concerts and interest sessions were spectacular. I believe this was the most significant event in our early years. Having Diana Leland elected as North Central and National President of ACDA certainly put us “on the map” as well. She was a natural leader with tremendous ideas. We have had so many outstanding ACDA-MN state presidents and numerous people in leadership roles in Minnesota. This has kept our state in a key leadership position throughout the country. The 1998 ACDA North Central Conference was also very significant in our leadership role. As we prepare to host the 2017 ACDA National Conference, all of us will be asked to assist with making this another world-class event.

One of the most important events in ACDA-MN’s history was the selection of Bruce Becker as full-time Executive Director. As the job of serving as State President has become so very demanding (due to the numerous activities of our organization), Bruce continues to be an essential detail person and is necessary to keep us growing and going.

Who were the key leaders in ACDA-MN along the way?

I was not in Minnesota during the early years, however, Curtis Hansen was at the center of so many choral music activities when I first started. I became acquainted with Curt during summers when I would attend the Schmitt Music new music reading sessions. I always walked away with many new choral titles for the next season. Murrae Freng also became a close friend and outstanding mentor. Axel Theimer was my classmate at the University of Minnesota during our Masters degree and Doctoral programs. Axel and I both had Roy Schuessler as our voice teacher and we shared so many ideas about singing and teaching. Diana Leland, Bruce Becker, Anton Armstrong, Kenneth Jennings, and Karle Erickson were key figures as I got started. Other very important ACDA-MN members who guided me were Steve Boehlke, Alice Larsen, Bruce Phelps, Michael Smith, Judy Sagen, Paula Holmberg, Rebecca Wyffels, Stephanie Trump and Roger Tenney.

Without the benefits of today’s digital age, how did ACDA-MN communicate with its members?

The “Star of the North” was our primary method of communication. It was one of the best newsletters in the country, having received top awards annually. Our ACDA-MN conferences were also critical in the communication process. Summer Dialogue was very small when it started, but it has now become a major annual event for our organization. I am grateful to Summer Dialogue for allowing me to do personal research that became the product known as Vivace and finally SmartMusic.

Sleep Whitacre Macalester Choir 2005
In your view, what was the original vision of ACDA-MN, and how has it evolved?

I believe the original mission statement of our organization holds true today. It has certainly evolved over time, but it remains central to who we are and what we care about.

You served on the FMC Endowment Fund committee for four years. Please comment on your service and the importance of the FMC Endowment Fund for ACDA-MN’s future.

During and after the 2002 World Symposium on Choral Music, which was held in Minneapolis, the FMC Endowment Fund began to take on new meaning. Because of new matching funds and several concert opportunities, the FMC Endowment Fund became a key financial component for ACDA-MN. The work of this committee has been outstanding. The scholarships, which are available annually to student members and young teachers, are wonderful. I was very pleased to spend time on this important committee and to be able to witness the Fund growing over time. We can all be very proud to have the FMC Endowment Fund working for our organization.

Volunteerism at all levels has been vital to the growth of ACDA-MN. How relevant is it for our future?

When you join ACDA, one is expected to volunteer frequently. I volunteered to take photographs at conferences, hand out programs, set up performance facilities, transport clinicians from place to place, etc. The list is endless. This is how organizations like ACDA-MN continue to thrive and survive. Do not wait to be asked! Simply volunteer, whenever you can.

Looking back, what has been the value and impact of ACDA upon your professional career?

I truly believe that ACDA has been at the center of my professional career. The choral music I have heard, the people I have met, and the education I have received through this organization have been central and vital to my successful career.

Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in Minnesota, what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?

My most important contribution to choral music in Minnesota was, of course, to my students. My time, dedication, energy, musicianship, and leadership all come full circle when a student says, “I really love this piece”, “Choir has been so important to me”, “Can we sing another piece like this one?” or ,“I am going to try out for choir in college.” My friends in the business world talk about receiving annual bonus checks. My bonus check arrives as I continue to receive letters from my former students after teaching for 50 years. I am also particularly pleased with the large number of students who have become music teachers and/or performers.

I discovered that my work with solo voice students (especially at Edina High School) was central to my research which led to my PhD and the development of the Vivace and SmartMusic software programs. These products made it possible for students to access much solo voice literature with the help of a computer. The development of the individual voice was always a key component in my work with choirs and young singers.

What advice or words of wisdom do you wish to share with young and emerging choral directors who are entering the field today?

The early years are tough. Each year you learn so much from your students. Do not attempt to reproduce your college experience with your high school choir. They will find their own voice with your guidance. Love going to work each day. If you don’t, please find something else to do with your life. What can be better than a life making music with people you care about?

Ave Maria Busto Macalester Choir 2005
Other Reflections or Comments:

After 50 years of directing choirs and teaching young people, I can only hope that other directors can find the joy and satisfaction that I have found within my profession. Recently, a student from my early teaching years sent me a note on Facebook quoting lines from pieces we had performed in 1968. This note was very special and has a great deal to do with why I remained a teacher.

Nothing in my career could have happened without the support and constant encouragement of my wife, Pat. I refer to her as “the musician in the family.” She was a choral director and teacher for over 30 years, and most of her career was spent at Hopkins West Junior High School. In addition to being a superb teacher, she is also a fabulous pianist and singer. When we were teaching overseas, Pat was the elementary/junior high teacher and I was the high school teacher. Her students always came to the high school well-prepared and had enjoyed exciting programs and opportunities. She still teaches voice and piano and finds time to sing in my choir at the Church of St. Agnes.

My current position with the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale has turned out to be such an excitingopportunity. Those who have attended our masses can agree that the experience is like stepping directly into a music history textbook circa 1750. The church building is magnificent, the repertoire is the best sacred music ever composed for the Catholic Mass, and the total experience is quite remarkable. It seems as if I had been preparing for this my entire life, and I did not even know it existed before I assumed my role as the director. ACDA-MN members are invited to attend a Sunday mass anytime so that you can enjoy this fabulous experience.

Twin Cities Catholic Chorale at St. Agnes


 

Interview was conducted and authored by:

Diana-J-LelandDiana J. Leland

Bob Peterson and I worked together at Edina Schools for 22 years, from 1976-1998. My middle school choir students fed his Edina High School choral program. Bob has a passion for excellence in choral music that is absolutely contagious; it defines his total being. He consistently produced first-class choirs while teaching in Edina and was a master at recruitment. To attract more men singers into the Edina High School choral program, he started an intergenerational male chorus, inviting the fathers of choir students and community men to join his choristers. The Men’s Chorus continues as one of his legacies at Edina High School today.

 

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