Blooming Where You are Planted: An Interview with Dr. Michael Culloton

Michael Culloton

Michael Culloton attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota between 1994 and 1998. Today, Dr. Culloton is an Associate Professor of Music and the Director of Choral Activities at his alma mater. This article follows Culloton’s journey from an aspiring music educator to where he is now – an inspiring mentor to future choral directors. His story is filled with insightful comments and observations that encourage readers to bloom wherever they are planted.

Even though Concordia College has one of the richest choral traditions in the United States, Culloton was unaware of the depth of that tradition when he applied as an undergraduate: “When I came to Concordia, I actually did not know who René Clausen was.” In fact, it wasn’t the choral program but rather an orchestral concert that inspired him to apply. Culloton remembers: “One of my best friends from high school, who was a couple of years older than I was, went to Concordia. I went to campus and visited him on the weekend of the Concordia Orchestra home concert. They played the Enigma Variations of Elgar, among other things, and I thought ‘if that’s the orchestra, they must have an absolutely stunning program.’”

In fact, Michael Culloton’s goal was to become an orchestral conductor. “In my late high school years I found video tapes of Leonard Bernstein conducting, and I wanted to do that.” In recalling his youthful ambitions, Culloton joked: “After a lifetime of singing in choirs and playing the alto saxophone, I thought I would like to be an orchestral conductor. I was delusional.” It didn’t take long for him to change paths back to his choral roots. For high school, Culloton attended St. Cloud Apollo where the brilliant Robert Sieving taught. “I had one of the greatest high school choral experiences in the state of Minnesota. I think, deep down in my heart, I knew I wanted to be a high school choir teacher. Soon after starting at Concordia I realized that high school choir and vocal music education was the path – and it was a great one.”

Culloton’s path back to Concordia can teach younger conductors a great deal about patience, flexibility, resilience, and dedication in one’s professional journey. “I knew I would love to end my career at the collegiate level. And I fully understood that the path to teaching at the collegiate level would need me to stop first on the path of teaching high school choir.” Despite this clear vision for his career, Culloton’s actual path was far from a straight shot. Rather than taking a teaching position straight out of his undergraduate degree (which Culloton still recommends his own students do), a time-sensitive opportunity presented itself. Paul Nesheim, one of Culloton’s mentors when he was a student at Concordia, “suggested that I go study with Maurice Skones at the University of Arizona. Skones had come out of retirement and, if I wanted to study with him, the time was now.” Culloton took Nesheim’s advice and went straight on from Concordia to graduate school at the University of Arizona for his master’s degree.

Halfway through his second year in Tucson another timely opportunity presented itself, once again delaying his arrival in the secondary classroom. “Tim Peter from Luther College called Maurice Skones asking if he had anybody who would love to be a sabbatical replacement at Luther.” Culloton chuckled as he recalled how Skones said: “Yes, I think I do know somebody who would like to do that.” Michael Culloton, with his master’s degree fresh in hand, got the gig. He spent a year at Luther where he conducted choirs, taught voice and a conducting class.

After this invaluable experience, it was time for Culloton to finally enter the public school classroom. “I still knew that I wanted to be a high school teacher. I really just wanted to give high school students the kind of experience I had at St. Cloud Apollo. So, after my year at Luther, I went and taught at Winona Senior High School.” His time teaching in Winona served him well. “I tell my vocal music education students that you can take choral methods classes for your entire life, but you won’t become the teacher you’re going to be until you are running a program and rehearsing every day.”

While Culloton was teaching in Winona, an upcoming levee referendum vote (in a city that hadn’t passed one in a very long time) prompted him to consider other opportunities. With a smile, Culloton said “a liberal arts education prepares you well for any number of things.” For Culloton, that meant working as Artistic Director and Conductor for two non-profit organizations in the Rochester area – the Choral Arts Ensemble and Honor Choirs of Southeast Minnesota. While not a full time teaching job, he gained similar experiences through these positions. “For eight years, I was working with high school aged choirs. I wasn’t teaching in a public school, but I was still developing my chops. It’s all about becoming the best teacher you can be and living the daily routine of rehearsing choirs, selecting repertoire for choirs, and spending time with students of the high school age.”

After eight years of teaching, conducting, and running these two arts organizations, Culloton decided he wanted to return to school to earn his DMA. “I always knew I wanted to get back to teaching at the collegiate level. Enough collegiate job openings had come and gone that I really couldn’t apply for because I didn’t have the terminal degree.” It was not dissatisfaction with his work that prompted Culloton to continue his education, but rather a desire to be as prepared as possible for future opportunities. “I could have stayed in Rochester for the rest of my career and been happy. I wanted to at least have the degrees, the tools, and the education in case the right kind of job opened up.”

The right job did open up in 2012. “As I was working on my doctorate, Mike Smith retired from the Associate Director of Choirs position at Concordia. Dr. Clausen called and I ended up back at my alma mater.” This surprised Culloton, who was planning on returning to Rochester until the right collegiate position became available. With another laugh, Culloton says “You just can’t write your own ticket for timing.” Indeed, sometimes things just work out.

When asked to look back on the winding path that has been his career, Culloton responded: “Mike Smith would tell his students ‘bloom where you are planted.’ The path isn’t always what you think it’s going to be. You have to find those experiences that will help you to grow as a musician and, more importantly, as an educator.” Culloton passes this wisdom on to his students, who often express a desire to teach in the Twin Cities metro. “I tell my students that my dream for them is that they will spend five years in a really small town, teaching and running a program.” One of the reasons Culloton wishes this for them is so they have the experience of building and developing a culture around their choral programs. Culloton says: “I have witnessed a lot of great programs in small towns, and one of them that I use as an example is Kasson-Mantorville down in southeast Minnesota. Clark Johnson was teaching there when I was working in Rochester. I would go to a choir concert of his and I couldn’t park within blocks of the school because everybody in town was showing up to see the spring concert at the high school – because that’s what they do.”

That same commitment to building an excellent choral culture is one of the reasons that Culloton was excited to return to Concordia. “Many of my teachers were still working at Concordia all of those years later. I thought to myself ‘the culture and community here must be good because they’re all still working here.’” When asked how the culture has changed since he was a student, Culloton responded thoughtfully: “A positive change is that we see a lot of diversity on faculty that I have very little recollection of from the 90s. But it still feels like Concordia to me. We still value music making at a serious level, but with great enjoyment and kind of a musical experimentation.” To keep making music at a high level, Culloton and his colleagues work hard to maintain a standard of excellence. “You can’t get caught up thinking ‘Oh, isn’t Concordia great?’ Well, it’s great if we continue to do everything that we can to bring in great students and to give them great opportunities and great experiences. And that is hard work.”

To build a great culture at Concordia, Culloton and his colleagues keep the students at the center of their decisions. “In faculty meetings I make sure we attend to being as student-centered as possible.” Being an alumnus of the program influences him as a professor in different ways. “The most obvious way is in programming and curriculum. Colleges of the Lutheran choral tradition have two responsibilities. One is to continue to wave the flag and support the tradition that we come from. And the second is to embrace the Lutheran Church’s ideals of being a global church and bringing in new ideas to the music making that we’re doing.” Part of Culloton’s success at Concordia stems from his willingness to be a visible member of the community. “I am serious about not only making great music at Concordia, but making Concordia a great place to come and make music. I have been involved on at-large committees on campus, conducted the choirs in the chapel services, and let people see that I was about the bigger picture Concordia College – not just the niche corner of choral music making at Concordia.”

Not everyone has the opportunity to teach at their alma mater, but Michael Culloton has some advice for those who are given that chance. For many who return home to teach, years will have passed since they were students. “You have to be ready to embrace those things which are different from when you were a student.” Culloton also gives interview advice: “Sometimes ‘sins of the student’ can follow you into job interviews at your home school. Sometimes people remember you more for who you were as a student than who you might become as an educator. You have to really present yourself as a professional.” When asked how to do that once they get the job, Culloton says: “You just work hard to do your best and lead students through meaningful musical experiences that help them grow as musicians and as humans. If you do that, everybody will see who you are and what you mean to do for them in short order.” Recognizing his place in a legacy of choral excellence at Concordia, Culloton joked: “And of course my goal was ‘don’t mess anything up!’ We have a good thing going here.” Culloton mentioned how fast time was moving since he joined the Concordia Moorhead faculty: “Ten years at Concordia has flown by. I hope I’m here to stay for the long haul.” Ever kind and jovial, he laughed while saying: “I feel like that’s probably a goal that can be achieved – if I don’t mess anything up.”