By Robin Hughes, Interviewer
Karla Miller, one of Minnesota’s finest musicians, has been the Choral Director at North Hennepin Community College for the past 35 years and will be retiring in a couple of months. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview my wonderful friend and colleague about the impact that choral music has had on her life and career.
Karla’s first words when I spoke with her were, “Choral music has always been in my DNA.” At a young age, her mother sang in a church choir and was a soloist in the community. Because her father was a dairy farmer and didn’t always get to church right away, she sat with her Mom in the choir loft and pretended to sing with the adult choir. On one particular Sunday at the age of five, her mother sang the solo during Amazing Grace. Karla asked her mom, “Who wrote that music? It’s so beautiful.” Her Mom responded by telling her that it was an early American hymn arranged by Leland Sateren, Choral Director at Augsburg College. Karla exclaimed with enthusiasm, “Someday, I’m going to sing with that director.” Years later, Karla attended Augsburg College and sang in his choir. She said, “It must have been destiny because I was able to sing in his very last college choir before he retired. Both Leland Sateren, and her Northfield High School Choir Director, Wayne Kivell, provided her with amazing musical experiences, and inspired her to pursue the dream of teaching choral music for many years to come. Karla expressed thanks to Wayne for teaching her the in’s and out’s of being a choir director. She remembers that he was very young at the time and was President of ACDA. During this time, she developed the important skills of stuffing envelopes, attaching labels, and various other office duties.
Her first year as a choral director at Minnetonka East Junior High was a “rude awakening.” This part-time position consisted of directing seven choirs every day and one sixth-grade general music class. She came into a program where students learned by rote and sang along with reel to reel tapes. JoAnn Larson was high school director at that time, and they became close friends. She was a positive role model and helped Karla develop a curriculum to teach music literacy, sing in parts, and build the musicianship skills that would prepare them to be in a prestigious high school program. Her hard work and diligence paid off, and many of her students auditioned and were selected.
North Hennepin Community College has been her home away from home for the past 35 years, and the students who have been fortunate enough to be in her choral program have had wonderful experiences and opportunities under her direction. The philosophy of the community college is that all courses are open to all students and therefore, the choir was a non-auditioned ensemble. With that requirement in place, Karla said, “I always felt that I had a great task of instilling a love of choral music in students who had never sung in a choir.” With the population becoming more diverse over the years, Karla focused on incorporating an extensive amount of multicultural music in her program. She recalled a time when the Dean of the College provided her with a list of pieces that she might consider performing with her choir. However, Karla has already programmed and conducted all but two of them.
Karla Miller in front of the Carnegie sign before North Hennepin Community College Choir’s performance.
A feeling of great pride was shared when she spoke about her students performing at Carnegie Hall in a Masterworks Festival Chorus on ten different occasions. She specifically stated, “I want to express my thanks to Manhattan Concert Productions and Craig Arnold for allowing me to bring students to participate in an exceptional chorus and perform music that they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to sing.” She also loved having her students participate in the highly successful Two Year Community College Choral Festival every Spring and expressed many thanks to Geneva Eschweiler and Chet Sommers, or ran the festival and became were terrific mentors.
The influence of her church as a young child inspired her to serve many congregations. She was the choir director/organist at her home church, Highview Christiania Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnetonka United Methodist, Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center, and Brooklyn United Methodist. Karla is currently the Director of Music at Family of God Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Park where directs two youth choirs, an adult choir and is the organist/accompanist.
For the past seven years, Karla has directly the 9/11 Tribute Concert held every September 11th since 2002 at the Lake Harriet Bandshell. Many choral musicians from the metro area participate in this significant event and only rehearse three times with the choir and once with the orchestra.
Karla’s involvement with ACDA is quite extensive, and she specifically said, “I want to give a shout out to Bruce Becker for getting me involved when he was President.” That initial request resulted in Karla serving ACDA as the Repertoire and Standards Chair for Two Year Colleges for many years. In addition, she was the Metro Area District Chair and has accompanied at numerous concerts, facilitated Honor Choirs, served on the FMC Endowment Committee and was selected to receive the ACDA Choral Director of the Year Award in 2014.
Karla Miller pictured with her ACDA Director of the Year Award in 2014 with good friend and colleague Robin Hughes.
The friendships that she has made through ACDA are ones that she holds close to her heart and indeed treasures. Her ACDA Summer Dialogue journey began in 1988 at Bemidji State College where she roomed with Twink Starr and Rosie Tabbut and laughed until the wee hours of the morning. Tim McConnell on the first night of dialogue when Karla walked into the room said, “Well now the party can begin!” Everyone knew that we would all have a great time and Karla could light up the room. There were endless jokes told, and we would go home with a stomach ache from laughing so hard. I have fond memories of being roommates at many National ACDA conventions and Summer Dialogues. There were many times in our early years when we were section leaders for the MMEA All-State Choirs, and although it was a great responsibility, we would stay up until 4:00 a.m and still be able to lead sectionals. Those were the days!
Karla said, “I always feel inspired and uplifted by being around my ACDA colleagues and friends.” She enjoyed spending time with Curt Hansen, Paul Brandvik, Leland Sateren, Ed Anthony, Sandy Munson, and Dwayne Malewicki and loved listening to their choirs. She also mentioned creating wonderful memories with Judy Sagen, Lin Warren, Laura Tempel, Robin Hughes, Paula Holmberg and the late, Greg Goldstein. She continues to love being a part of a nurturing and caring environment and specifically talked about how even though we don’t see each other often, and even at our age, we still want to get together, share ideas, and learn from one another. One of the things that she currently enjoys about the younger generation in ACDA is seeing choirs and directors embrace movement and more expressive involvement in their programs. She said, “We old Norwegians were told to sing well, sing in tune, and never move.”
Here is some advice that she would like to share with new directors. “Enjoy spending time together and find a person that you can share and confide in when dealing with issues in your job. Be willing to go out of your comfort zone and welcome more inexperienced singers into your program or church choir. It’s important to provide a safe environment regardless of experience or talent. Some of my singers were never selected for their high school choir and now are finding great joy being a part of a choral ensemble. They feel my passion for choral music and hopefully my compassion for all people.”
Following her retirement in May, Karla is looking forward to spending more time and sharing her love of music with her two and a half year old twin grandsons. They love classical guitar music and will be starting suzuki lessons.
Thank you, Karla, for pouring your heart and soul into your journey and career as a choral director and for the many ways that you have served and continue to serve ACDA of MN. Your students and church choir members have been incredibly blessed to have you as their director, teacher, mentor, and friend. We are all thankful that the beginning of your love for choral music began right at home listening to your mother’s beautiful voice singing Amazing Grace and how this was the start of you becoming one of Minnesota’s finest Choral Directors. How sweet the sound!