Above the chalk board in the choir room is a sign that reads: “WE are FAMILY.” This is — and has been — a hallmark of the choral program at Staples Motley High School (Staples, MN); a program that has gone from strength to strength for over fifty years now. Starting in 1965, Stan Carlson crafted a powerhouse vocal program using imaginative leadership and creativity that continued all the way through his retirement in 1999, building a substantial legacy which was subsequently bequeathed to Stan’s former student, Steven J. Hoemberg, Jr. Steve has forged his own way since 2002, preserving and expanding that legacy, with the generous support of Carlson and the entire Staples community.
By outward appearances the SMHS program, as it is currently configured, doesn’t look all that different from the structure that Stan Carlson established. The curriculum is based on a biennial rotation of choral experiences including productions of musicals, madrigal dinners, major works (in collaboration with the Staples Area Men’s and Women’s Choruses), pops concerts, guest conductor concerts, and performance tours. Together with the Symphonic Band and Chamber Orchestra, the choir also tours every other year. Steve explains the program this way:
The SMHS vocal music program is entirely inclusive, regularly involving over 40% of the entire student body. We openly believe that singing is a good thing, and that all humans should have the opportunity to sing. Our singers develop solid musicianship skills, an understanding of healthy vocal techniques, an appreciation for the art of singing, and a recognition of what we can, and must, do to make our community and world a better place through singing.
Every singer is encouraged to participate in the MSHSL solo/ensemble contest. On average, SMHS features 50-75 sub-section vocal solo/ensemble contest entries. Additionally, SMHS traditionally auditions a significant number of students for the MMEA All-State choirs. Although many students have been selected to All-State, the philosophical belief is that students benefit greatly from the audition process, and from singing solos in general. Preparing auditions and solos/ensembles is a way for each individual to learn and apply elements of hard work, preparation, and courageousness in a way that fosters personal growth. The system is firmly supported by the dedication of two adjunct voice teachers (Brittany Pitts and Adam Reinwald) and an amazingly gifted accompanist (Sandy Paskewitz). The adjunct voice staff is funded entirely by the students who study with them — these are not positions paid for by the district.
Philosophically, the SMHS vocal music program is firmly rooted in the growth mindset, believing that of the utmost importance is providing opportunities for students to grow intellectually and emotionally. Contrary to many typical low-income, small school programs, the program does not focus on the disadvantages of its situation, but rather the opportunities created and the potential of its students. All students are expected to be leaders and to work toward developing their skills and passion for music. Students in the program learn the importance of effort, dedication, determination, passion, camaraderie, family, and tradition. Everyone is important, regardless of musical ability, and all students recognize the importance of participation at whatever level they are capable.
SMHS choir students thank their bus drivers, set up and tear down the auditorium for their concerts, know the custodian by his first name (Bruce), and recognize the importance of all those who came before them who upheld our very important traditions. Doing the best we can, with what we have, is what we do.
Stan Carlson did the best he could with what he had. He credits his work ethic and passion for music to his parents, Clarence and Elizabeth Carlson. Growing up, there just was not enough money for piano lessons. Stan relates that his dad was musical and played the harmonica. Stan’s bucket list includes learning to play that harmonica.
Stan studied music at Hamline University including beginning piano lessons. He came to SMHS as a young choral music director in the fall of 1965, intending to teach here for a couple of years, and then move to another location. But Stan fell in love with and married the young business teacher, Diane Krumwiede. Together they decided Staples was the place they wanted to live and raise their two children, Lisa and David. He was the Director of Choral Music at SMHS from 1965-1999; the Director of the St. Cloud State University Men’s Choir from 2006-2009; and was the Director of the Staples Area Men’s Chorus since 1971, finally retiring from that position in 2010, when Steve assumed the baton as the group’s second director.
Stan has been active in the cultural life of this community. He has served the Staples Motley Area Arts Council in various capacities for nearly 40 years, most recently as their concert programming chair. He leveraged his membership with the Arts Council and the Staples Host Lions Club to provide the summer “Music in the Park” concert series. He was a member of Staples Community Foundation Board, the Staples City Council, and served as president of Staples Host Lions’ Club. Stan was inducted into the Minnesota Music Educators Association (MMEA) Hall of Fame, recognized for his incredible career contributions to music education in Minnesota. Stan was the ACDA Choral Director of the Year in 1991, and the MMEA Educator of the Year in 1999. He was also awarded the Duane R. Lund Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Staples Community Foundation.
Given these formidable achievements, one wonders what was going through Steve Hoemberg’s mind when he learned that he would be taking on the leadership mantle from his former teacher and mentor. Steve has this reflection: “Well, first off, people often mistakenly believe that I directly followed Stan. In fact, Garrett Lathe, currently the director of the Central MN Youth Chorale, followed Stan directly from ’99 to ’01. Garrett is a fine music educator, and the program was in good hands while he was here.
My approach was, and always has been, not to reinvent the wheel, but to spin it in ways that kept the program relevant and that worked with my skills and personality. When I was a student, I decided that I wanted to be a choir teacher. From that point on, I watched everything that Stan did — not just the music stuff, but how he talked with students, the ways he organized tours, the amount of time he spent at school, and so on. As I got older, I became even more infatuated with his teaching methods, classroom management techniques, attention to details, and his endless desire to make everything he was part of better.
When I took over the SMHS program in late 2001, I absolutely intended to follow in Stan’s footsteps, to “be the next Stan,” as some people in our community would say — but I never thought of being a copycat. I felt pride and honor, certainly, but most of all an enormous sense of responsibility to our school and our community.
My other mentor, after Stan, was my college voice teacher and conducting professor, Axel Theimer. As I have often told people, after studying with Stan and then Axel, I have never seen the job done wrong! So, admittedly, I often feel like I’m underachieving. That has gotten much better over the years. Not too many people in the world can say that they’ve had close friends and great mentors like these two guys.
Further reflecting on the transition at SMHS, Steve said: “I didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. I embraced the traditions and the challenges. Regarding students, I made no effort to be everything they needed all at once — there was no way that I could be — I was just as green as most new teachers. What I did do was work my tail off. I stayed at work at least until 9:00pm every night, often staying until I was forced out at 11:30pm, when the custodians kicked me out so they could turn on the security alarms. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was even working on the right things, but what I was sure about was that Stan was the hardest working teacher in our high school, and he was there all the time. Caution: that kind of dedication, though, can come with a price; it can easily begin to affect your personal and family life, if you let it.
I also made sure to publicly acknowledge the greatness that had built the legacy to my students and to the community. I know Stan would agree with me that although it is often referred to as “Stan’s legacy” or perhaps now even “Steve’s program,” this program has always been the result of 60+ years of students (dating back to Les Dehlin in the 1950s) who are hardworking and desire success. Consequently, we have a community that values the arts and supports our youth participants at every level. Just as Stan did, we continued performing collaboratively with our local adult and elementary choruses. This gave students a chance to perform with community members, and community adults a chance to support and participate directly in the success of our current students. Equally importantly, this gave students a chance to perform and rehearse with Stan, the legend, in Stan’s capacity with the Staples Area Men’s Chorus.
“Stan’s approach was to do anything and everything he could to support my success,” continued Steve. He was not willing in any way to risk stepping on my toes; he gave up any and all control out of respect for me. Meanwhile, as I was growing as a teacher, I stayed true to my ideals, many of which were a direct replica of Stan’s, and still are today. In my early years, I was open with my students about having much to learn. I apologized when I made mistakes, and was demanding when I knew I was right. Stan had a way of teaching that some might have characterized as an old-school “rule by fear” style, but that’s only part of the reality. Although Stan had “the stare” that could put the fear of God in a person, what really kept students engaged and loyal was his relentless belief that every single student in the room could grow musically.
I remember once in my early teaching years when Stan attended the ACDA-MN Summer Dialogue with me, I think to be certain that I had a friend and that I could meet as many people as possible. He introduced me to everyone he knew, literally. He always said something to the effect of, “This is Steve Hoemberg; he’s the new person at Staples Motley, and he’s taking them way beyond where I could.” Wow… we all knew that wasn’t true, but we also knew that was the kind of leader that Stan was. He was never working for his own benefit. His goal, in everything he has ever been a part of, was to make it better, and that included being my mentor. And, as the saying goes, Stan will forget more than I will ever know!
In front of the choirs, I turned that ethos into a respect for every student as they walked through the door, regardless of initial ability or potential. Stan never phrased it this way, but he taught me to approach teaching like farming: we spent all our time talking about how to cultivate and prepare the soil, how to sow the seeds, how to nurture the crops as they would grow, and then how best to use the harvest, whatever that may be. Every step in the process was of equal importance — every class at every level was essential.
Sometimes it seemed as though the “best” jobs out there were the high school-only choir gigs. In conversation about this, Stan would instantly talk about how the most important class in the program was the 7 & 8th grade boys choir. Teaching young men to get through voice change, helping them build foundational singing skills, and most importantly, keeping them from becoming behavioral problems due to embarrassment in front of girls. Stan said this about his work with the Men’s Chorus, but I believe he felt that it applied equally to all of his students:
[They] realize how much joy and richness music-making has brought into their lives, and there is a special feeling for the realization that [they] are on the same road to lives filled with the joy of singing, and that the art form they love will continue into the next generation.
Hoemberg continues, “My approach to maintaining and building Stan’s legacy was pretty straightforward — I have always tried to emulate the same principles of teaching, here in this community where Stan established them originally. Every student likes the feeling of success, every student can get better, and my job is just to help them achieve that. Students like how hard work feels. We will always have some students who are better musicians than others — or than us, even! — and we embrace that. And perhaps, most importantly: we aren’t just “pretty good for a small town,” we are pretty good for any-sized town!
Since Stan’s time here at SMHS, much has changed as a district, as well as in education overall. Declining enrollment has plagued our small school district, just like so many others. I was a member of the 1997 graduating class of 165, whereas now class sizes now usually number in the 80s and 90s. The majority of Stan’s career was in one building, and for a number of years there was another teacher handling at least the 6th grade choir and the 7 & 8th grade girls choir. Some years back, the 6th grade choir was dropped. My typical teaching day now involves 5 different choirs in two different buildings, with three of those choirs sharing students with instrumental groups. Over my career, budgets have been slashed, just like in so many schools, and the cost of music seems to have skyrocketed.
But, all that being said, the three most important aspects of the program are still intact: the community support for singing is as great, if not greater, than it has ever been; students still have a significantly high amount of pride in the program; and the head of choral activities 7-12 (me) believes more in the hearts of students than ever before. The students in the choir program here are all about wanting to be great people, a family, and a significant part of what will make the world a better place.
Steve wants to make sure that one contribution is especially noted; perhaps the most important supporter of the SMHS choral program: accompanist Sandy Paskewitz. “She has been the staff accompanist since 1991, Hoemberg adds, and she is outstanding!” Sandy was born and spent her first 18 years in Truman, MN where she started playing piano at age 5. She graduated from high school there in 1978, after accompanying the choir and playing clarinet in the band. She studied music at the University of Minnesota for 2 years. In 1982 she married Bruce Paskewitz and moved to a dairy farm near Staples, MN. Sandy and Bruce have 3 children, along with many other four legged children who demand a lot of attention. She has loved being a “mom” to lots of students and calves over the years! Sandy has worked for the Staples Motley High School music department since 1993, accompanying the high school and middle school choirs, and has played over 1,000 student contest solos. In addition to accompanying the 7-12 choirs, she also serves as accompanist for the Staples Area Men’s Chorus, the SCSU Husky Men’s Chorus, and the Colla Voce Girls’ Choir. When she is not busy taking care of calves or playing the piano, she is active in her church, and helps with many of the 4-H activities in her area. Steve adds, “Sandy’s role is every bit as much that of a parent and teacher as it is accompanist. We are so fortunate to have her as a colleague!”
Steve notes, “Looking ahead, for 2016-17, I have been granted a 1-year leave of absence for educational purposes, and I intend to wrap up my Masters of Music Education degree from North Dakota State University. I was just notified that I have been awarded a graduate assistantship for next year. While completing my degree, I hope to have time to do some more judging and working with/observing colleagues in other schools.”
Looking back, we (my students/parents/community/me) are particularly proud of our MMEA convention performance opportunity. We felt like we represented ourselves with class, and we showcased a snapshot into the kinds of music we perform, our style of performance, and the talent and work ethic of our kids and community. Of all the successes — convention performances, all-state selections, etc. —I am most proud of the way our students have created a family out of our choir program: the way we represent our school and community, and the way they have embraced me as a teacher and a learner, just as they are to me.
That sign above the chalk board in the choir room? It still rings true; we’re still living it every day.