Mary Jo Bot
Mary Jo Bot’s musical path began with piano lessons at an early age, learning violin, and singing under the direction of Aimes Dahl at Technical High School in Saint Cloud. As the child of two math instructors, Mary Jo had decided that teaching was not a career path of interest. Not seeing herself as a performer, declaring music as a major didn’t make sense since “what else do you do with a music major other than becoming a teacher or a performer,” Bot said. The further along in her college education she got, and the more invested in the music department she became, she began to look at the idea of teaching in a different light, desiring to pass that passion for music on to others.
In her career, Mary Jo has taught nearly every age of voice possible. From adults in church choirs, children in the Cantabile Girls’ Choir and St. John’s Boys’ Choirs programs, to mixed and women’s choirs at the university level, Mary Jo has had ample opportunity to find where she felt her passion for choral music could have the greatest impact.
Mary Jo Bot with Cantabile Colleagues Sarah Ludwig (center) and Jane Oxton (right)
After her student teaching Mary Jo began taking on positions with various churches, including Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud. In 1987, Mary Jo received a phone call from the late Steven Fuller, conductor of the St. Cloud University Concert Choir, encouraging her to apply for a newly created adjunct Women’s Choir Conductor position. “I remember hanging up the phone and thinking this man is crazy,” Bot said. “I was convinced that the students would figure out that I didn’t know any more then they did.” Mary Jo realized that an opportunity like this, especially for someone who had earned their Bachelor’s degree only six years previous, was rare. She was hired and said, “It didn’t take me very long to know that I found my niche.”
Since that time, excluding a short break in the 1990’s, Mary Jo Bot has served as the SCSU Women’s Choir Director. Under her leadership the choir has performed at many ACDA Men’s Choir/Women’s Choir Festivals, and in numerous collaborations with other ensembles within St. Cloud State University and the Central Minnesota community. She was a key figure in the founding of the Cantabile Girls’ Choir program at SCSU, serving as their administrator for eleven years. She has also served many roles with ACDA of Minnesota, has been on the artistic staff with the St. John’s Boys’ Choir, conducted with the Cantabile Girls’ Choir, St. John’s University All-College Choir, and served as conductor, clinician, and presenter at many conferences and events. Most significantly, Mary Jo is the founder of SCSU’s Her Story, Her Song concert, a community collaboration which has become a defining feature of the SCSU music program, and an inspiration for similar events around the state.
Mary Jo retired as SCSU Women’s Choir Director in the Spring of 2017.
When pressed about why she did not see herself as a performer, despite having a lovely voice and having performed often, Mary Jo was thoughtful. Many who know her well could likely predict her answer. “Well…” she paused, “I’m not fond of being the center of attention…” This speaks not only to her selfless nature, but also to her view of choral music.
As choir directors, if we only valued singing, we would all be solo singers. But instead we also value the communal aspect of singing and connection. We create something of beauty that we feel is far greater than what we can create alone.
This focus on community and connection permeates Mary Jo’s conducting, pedagogy, and the tenor of her rehearsals. As a choral leader who defines herself as an introvert, Mary Jo weaves space and community into her rehearsals. She admits that rehearsals can be exhausting because, for that duration, you take on an extroverted persona. But that introverted nature is an incredible asset to her leadership. She focuses on gesture that creates meaning as much as musical direction. She creates a minimalism and economy of words that allows space for singers to bring their own thoughtfulness into rehearsal.
There are many joys and challenges with directing a treble choir at a college level. While every choir digs into the challenge of perfecting music for a culminating concert, the challenge in a non-auditioned ensemble is that a lot of reading skills and basic music comprehension must be embedded in the process. In many regards, the singers in Cantabile Girls’ Choirs (middle school students) had an easier time reading music solely because they already had more experience than some singers joining choir in college. Equally as challenging was the fact that often times many singers only took one semester at St. Cloud State University.
Mary Jo Bot with department colleague Dr. Lee Nelson, composer Stephen Paulus, and lyricist/poet Michael Dennis Browne
Another challenge was helping singers feel grounded and secure in their place in the choir and in the department. In a collaborative department where all ensembles perform together, an ensemble like the Women’s Choir is fully aware of the tiered nature of choirs. In Mary Jo’s experience, it is incredibly helpful to give the choir a sense of ownership and place in the community. “Taking them out of that setting and creating something that is theirs alone, or is shared but in a different way, benefits their image of their own choir, their school, the community, and even their own musical growth.” That sense of ownership and accomplishment not only contributes positively to the community, but also builds the morale of the choir.
The breadth of music performed by Mary Jo’s women’s choirs, even before the advent of YouTube, has always been impressive. She states that one of the challenges of finding repertoire for this type of ensemble is identifying music that was approachable musically, but also mature enough textually and harmonically to appeal to young adults, especially since hardly any recordings of women’s choir music were in existence early on. In the beginning of her career, selecting music included going to the second floor of the Schmitt Music building, digging through boxes of music, going into a small room with a piano, and determining on site if you wanted to order that music for the coming year.
Mary Jo Bot conducting the SCSU Women’s Choir at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud
Influences on her music selection were the recordings of Sigrid Johnson (professor emeritus at St. Olaf), and a session Kathy Romey presented on Women’s music. Naturally, the advent of YouTube and the increase of attention on Women’s Choir music, especially from diverse perspectives (particularly Bulgarian music) increased her ability for creative programming exponentially.
Mary Jo Bot has been active in ACDA as a District Representative, Repertoire and Standards Chair, and Facilities Chair. It was connections made at ACDA events that not only plugged her into the organization, but also made her feel at home in her career. At her first Dialogue, she recalls feeling out of place as a beginning teacher amid the “real” choir conductors. “Bruce Becker [president at the time] asked about who I was and where I was working, and, most importantly, he made me feel welcomed and made me feel as if I did, indeed, belong.”
Since that time ACDA has been a point of community and relationship. ACDA “is the best avenue we have for building and maintaining those important connections that also become our best support system.”
The single greatest contribution Mary Jo has made to the choral community is a signature project titled “Her Story, Her Song.” This concert, currently in it’s 17th season (living beyond Mary Jo’s tenure), features music performed (with few exceptions) entirely by women. The focus is on women’s music for women, but more importantly, featuring collaboration with a community partner. These partnerships involve organizations that serve women at risk, children, transitional housing, and many other service-minded organizations.
Her Story, Her Song artwork
What differentiates this project is that it is not entirely a musical endeavor. Participants in the concert also make some sort of connection with the community partner. Whether it’s volunteering at a service center, or creating or collecting goods for those who are served by the organization, singers do more than sing for a cause. They engage, learn about, and commit time to other organizations, and in turn see change in themselves through the experience.
Central to the project, for the Women’s Choir in particular, is reflection. One of Mary Jo’s favorite aspects of Her Story, Her Song (HSHS) is the rehearsal after the presentation when she and the singers reflect on the project. When discussing the musical and communal aspects of such a project Mary Jo says “You are planting seeds. All singers may not get the fullness of what you hope, but you know they will look back and say ‘I got more out of this than I realized at the time.’”
Mary Jo Bot and choir members in front of a partial hospitalization program home for children – a past community partner for Her Story, Her Song
One of the goals HSHS is to use music as a change agent. While one of the objectives is to move an audience to action, or a shift in how they view the world, this reflective process brings a more permanent, indelible change in the singers. “I am the one who is changed,” Mary Jo says of the singer. “We change how we react to the world.”
Mary Jo Bot (left) with “Still I Rise” collaborators Stephanie Trump (Northwestern College), Angela Mitchell (St. Thomas), Bret Amundson (St. Scholastica), and Susan Cogdill (College of Saint Benedict)
Many conductors have created similar experiences with their choirs around our state and region. This principle, of connecting singers to community, is not original to Mary Jo, but the structure and practice she established with Her Story, Her Song has had an impact on other programs. The project has received local and community awards, and she has presented on the topic several times for ACDA and other organizations. Bret Amundson, founder of Still I Rise, identifies Her Story, Her Song as a major influence on his community’s continuing project.
More importantly, Her Story, Her Song has had a significant impact on the Central Minnesota community, and the hundreds of singers involved over the past sixteen years.