By Amy Jo Cherner
Banner Photo – Judy Sagen conducting the Minnesota Valley Women’s Chorus and
Minnesota Valley Men’s chorus in concert
Inspiration from our Greatest Generation
An Interview with Minnesota Choral Director Judy Sagen
- School District 196 Rosemount, Apple Valley, Eagan
- 1975-80 Valley Middle School (Taught 6th-8th)
- 1980-89 Rosemount High School (Taught 9th-12th)
- 1989-97 Eagan High School (Taught 9th-12th)
- 1997-11 Eastview High School (Taught 9th-12th)
- University of Minnesota Twin Cities 2011-2013
- University of St. Thomas, St. Paul 2014
Positions held within ACDA-MN
- ACDA-MN President/Vice President/Past President
- ACDA-MN Metro East Chair
- ACDA-MN R&R Chair for Women’s Choirs
- World Choral Symposium: Co-head coordinator of all volunteers
- Co-Chair and Collaborator with Craig Hella Johnson for “The Tribute Concert, Celebrating Influence and Inspiration” (50 year Celebration of ACDA-MN)
- Honor Choir Director (7th/8th SSA; 9th/10th SATB)
Did you come from a musical family?
I was given a special gift from birth, and that gift was being born into a very musical family who valued music and the arts. My grandmother played the piano during the silent film Era in NYC at the Alvin Theater on Broadway, my mom was a violinist, my aunt taught elementary music and strings, and my great uncle was a child prodigy on the piano, and at the age of 11 played Carnegie Hall and toured the United States. I started taking piano lessons in the first grade and was fortunate to have studied with an outstanding piano teacher, Dorothy Bourgin. Both Mrs. Bourgin and my Grandmother were my inspirations at an early age. I remember watching Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on Sunday night, and being glued to the TV set!
What is your earliest musical memory and when did you begin your musical training?
My grandmother brought the Community Concert Series to northern Minnesota (The Iron Range) and I had the opportunity to attend these concerts at an early age. This series brought those up-and-coming musicians to perform in small towns when they were just starting out in their careers. Following their concerts, my grandma would host a reception at her home for these young performers so I was one lucky little girl to meet both Isaac Stern and Van Cliburn before they became famous!
When did you decide to become a choral director?
Unfortunately, I was never in a choir or studied voice! I took piano lessons and accompanied all through school, and also played the violin in orchestras beginning in the 5th grade. My original intention was to major in music with an emphasis on Piano Performance. At that time, I really had no interest in teaching, but my parents said, “Judy, what will you do with a piano performance degree? You need to also have a music education degree for “back-up!” (Now, I would never encourage anyone to go into education as a “back-up!) So, I took all the classes required for both degrees but most of my music ed classes were centered around teaching strings and not choral. However, as a piano major, I did a lot of accompanying for the voice department, and fortunately, I developed an interest in vocal music from observing and watching voice lessons.
At Drake University, I was fortunate to have an outstanding college piano instructor, Dr. Kenneth Drake, (no relation to the college) who was a phenomenal teacher and a gentle soul who devoted his life to his students. I was beyond blessed to experience his teaching and passion for music.
My original plan was to go to grad school and get my masters in piano performance or accompanying until it was time for me to fulfill my student teaching requirement! I worked under two great cooperating teachers at both the elementary and junior high school who taught me the ins and outs of working with young singers and their voices. It was this student teaching experience when a light bulb went off, and I realized that teaching kids was my passion and I wanted to do it through choral music!
What was your very first teaching job?
My very first job was teaching choir and general music at Valley Middle School in Apple Valley, MN. With no formal training in voice, it tapped into all my insecurities! Putting insecurities aside, I knew that I had a few things going in my favor; #1- I had the passion and desire to work with kids #2- I had an innate sense of musicianship, #3-I loved new challenges! I was the type of person who was open minded and not embarrassed to reach out to people in the music field for help. And boy, did I ask for help! I was like a sponge wanting to learn more and more about choral music. I was ready to make a commitment to lifelong learning in this field of vocal music education.
What was your first annual salary?
Approximately $7,000 my first year.
What are some memories of your first year as a choral director?
My first job was teaching middle school general music and choir. I loved working and building relationships with middle school students, but I have to admit, I really didn’t know what I was doing that first year!
How long did you teach middle school and when did you start teaching at the high school level?
I taught at Valley Middle School for 5 years. One of the schools that my middle school students fed to was Rosemount High School, and the choir director was a gentleman by the name of Steve Boehlke. He always attended my concerts and made the effort to speak and encourage my students to join his high school program. He attended all my concerts, and became my biggest cheerleader and mentor. He knew that I was a “rookie” and still learning, but to my surprise, he asked me if I’d ever consider transferring to the high school to work with him as he was adding a second person to the choral program. I think that I laughed at first, not knowing much about high school choral singing, but he impressed upon me that he saw great potential and would work with me. As I look back, he really took a chance, but it was because of Steve that I developed a real passion for choral music. I still remember when we came close to our first concert of the year and I thought I’d be able to direct the choirs from behind the piano just like I did when I taught Middle School. I still remember Steve saying to me, “Oh no, Judy! You can’t hide behind that piano…you must get out and conduct your choirs!” I was scared to death!
Judy Sagen posing with her ensemble
We would sit for hours and talk about recruitment, building our choir program, choral repertoire, our philosophies of music education, and listen to recordings of great choirs. He also spent time working with me on conducting!
Steve also encouraged me to join our professional organizations such as ACDA and MMEA. I began attending State Conferences, meeting those choral experts in the field, and hearing their unbelievable choirs perform. One summer workshop I will never forget was at Grandby, Colorado where I heard and met clinicians like Dale Warland, John Rutter, Howard Swan, Knut Nystedt, Rodney Eichenberger, etc. speak on every aspect of the choral art. I was mesmerized and transformed! Every other summer I attended Eph Ely’s International Choral Symposium in Kansas City where I met legendary clinicians like Anton Armstrong, Janet Galvan, John Leavitt, Weston Noble, Steve Zegree, etc. As a participant, we got to know these clinicians on a personal level, as Eph insisted that each evening was devoted to dining together at a different famous Kansas City restaurant. He always ended the week with a gathering at his home. The knowledge that I learned from those people on a personal level, as well as sharing ideas with other participants was invaluable.
I also remember hearing Jan Gilbertson’s Women’s High School Choir sing at an MMEA performance. I was so impressed by the beauty and musicianship of her singers! I wanted to be just like her!
How did you feel about being a female in a male-dominated field?
To be honest, I didn’t really think about the fact that I was female in my role as a teacher and director. I first noticed the low number of female choral directors when I started attending conventions. In the 1970’s, most females taught elementary and males focused on the secondary grades. I always believed that skills were the valued asset, not gender! Right from the start of my career, I developed and maintained a network of female choir directors through MN-ACDA who have remained some of my closest friends. These inspiring ladies are Paula Holmberg, Stephanie Trump, Rebecca Wyfells, Robin Hughes, and Sarah Gilbertson to mention a few. I am also very proud of my daughter Amy Jo Cherner, who has followed in my footsteps as a choral director. I continue to be impressed by her accomplishments as an independent, young female, well on her way to success. They have been my support system and I feel I can call on them anytime for help and advice. Lastly, growing up I also had strong female role models (Mother/Grandmother) who always stressed the importance of hard work no matter what I would do in life.
Any advice on how to deal with an administration that doesn’t get what we do?
I feel that if an administration is effective, they do not necessarily need to understand the intricacies of everything we do as choral educators. An effective administrator is there to support and share in our vision, and allow us to do our job to the best of our ability. It is up to us to make them realize how important our art is in the lives of our students and they must “talk the talk” when it comes to visiting with parents, staff members and fellow administrators.
After returning from an ACDA Conference, stop in their office to show them programs of choirs you heard and share new things you learned from colleagues. Discuss the importance of attending these professional opportunities for your own growth as a choir director and in turn how the students will benefit. Invite them to welcome the audience at your choral concerts if that’s what it takes to get them there! Share your course syllabus and handbook with them and ask them later for feedback! Let them know how many students made All State Choir, State, Regional or National Honor Choirs, etc. It is up to us to do everything in our power to get these administrators to understand the importance of what we do! Toot your own horns!
Along with being a choral director, did you perform other duties?
- Valley Middle School: Directed the Middle School Musical Revue and coached Boys and Girl’s Swimming!
- Rosemount High School: Originated “ON STAGE,” Musical Extravaganza. Also was the Cheerleading Coach. (Shame on ME!)
- Eagan High School: Originated “ENCORE!” Musical Extravaganza
- Eastview High School: Originated “BRAVO!” Musical Extravaganza
How did you balance your career with being a mom and raising children?
Now that is the “million dollar” question! I would ask myself everyday whether I was shortchanging my family due to the number of hours I was spending at my career. Also, people continually asked me how I could juggle both. I will not lie…. I was not good at balancing my professional and personal life! I was always tired but I never slowed down for fear I would look weak.
I could never have done it without the help and support from my amazing husband. He supported me at home, at work, and when I pursued my Advanced Degree. On many occasions he would leave his work early to pick up the kids from daycare, bring them to their athletic events, made sure they got dinner, and even learned to put our daughter’s hair in pony tales! I was lucky in the fact that my husband also had a degree in instrumental music so he understood the time and commitment that it took to oversee a music program. It was because of him that I was able to do what I did!
There are plenty of partners who do not understand the additional hours we spend as music educators. I tried to keep a calendar of everybody’s schedules but I did screw up on occasion. Yes, our daughter missed one of her dance recitals due to my carelessness of only writing in one date when there were two recitals. She was devastated to have missed and to this day I still have the GUILT! There was also the time that my husband and I had miscommunicated who was picking up the kids from daycare (I had a dress rehearsal for a show and he had a late meeting) and we finally got a call around 7:00 pm from our private daycare provider asking us if anyone would be picking up our children that day? GUILTY AGAIN!!
Once my oldest child was entering high school, I decided to apply to the newest school being built in our district, Eastview High School so that I would be in the same school as both my children. That was one of the best decisions I made and I loved having my son and daughter in my choral program!
Sagen conducting Eastivew Choirs at graduation ceremonies.
Do you have advice for parents of young children on how to have balance in their career and home life?
We put so many expectations on ourselves, especially when we’re young and just starting out. As a woman, I always felt the need to prove myself because I was in a male dominant field. It was important to get a Master’s Degree as fast as I could so that I could get to the top of that pay scale so I felt I was contributing to my family financially. As women, we try to do everything, (raise a family, be good at our job, continue with our education) but I learned later in life that your health must be #1. “If mama ain’t happy, then no ones happy!” Have realistic expectations of yourselves! Be true to yourself! Know your limits, and know what is ultimately important.
In today’s society, men and women are sharing more equal roles in the management of the home and equal partnership raising the kids. This is such a positive change! I can’t stress enough how important it is to take time for YOU, even if it’s getting a massage or working out to stay mentally and physically fit. Remember, as difficult as it is, it’s okay to say “NO” to some things! It took me until I retired to realize how out of balance my life was, and I regret some of the decisions I made when it came to time away from my family.
Also, if you have a partner and children, communication is vital. Take Sunday evenings to sit down and plan for the week. I’m referring to making meals ahead of time, and having a calendar available to lay out everyone’s schedule. At breakfast time, review that schedule with the family everyday.
Have conversations with conductors you admire. You need to hear about their hardships and struggles as well as their accomplishments. Ask them how their personal and professional lives have intersected.
What were some of the ideas you implemented to build or recruit students into your program?
We continually recruited students into the High School Choral Program. We would speak to the feeder middle schools and perform for them at the holiday time, brought in elementary and middle school students to perform as a Children’s Chorus for our Musical Revues, talked to students in the hallways, had current students in the program invite a friend, wrote personal letters to feeder schools encouraging them to join choir, attended feeder school concerts, developed relationships with our feeder choral directors, made choir videos with students testimonials, brought “key students” such as star athletes with us to the middles schools at registration time, etc.
The students themselves were our biggest and best recruiters. Community visibility! We’d publicize student successes in local and school newspapers. Also, perform for local organizations in the community. We created sample schedules for students at registration time to show different ways a student can fit choir in their schedule. Establish a great relationship with counselors who can encourage NEW STUDENTS who have moved into the school from another district.
After 37 years of teaching, how did you adjust to Retirement?
My philosophy of teaching choral music has always been lifelong singing and I continually stressed to my students the importance of singing beyond high school. Upon retirement, I decided to start a non-auditioned community women’s choir called The Minnesota Valley Women’s Chorale for any one that wanted to participate. To my surprise, the choir started with 90 women, and many of the singers were former students!
I was fortunate to have 2 opportunities that gave me insight into teaching at the college level. Thank you to Kathy Romey for creating a grant, and for giving me the experience of working at the University of MN with students in the Music Ed Department as well as the opportunity to direct the Freshmen Women’s Choir while she was in Germany. Also, I am so grateful to Angie Kasper for trusting me to direct the St. Thomas Choirs during her sabbatical. Those two college experiences were invaluable to me and I know that I grew more as a person learning the ins and outs of working with college age singers.
In your view, how has the programming of repertoire changed over the years?
There is definitely more emphasis and consideration of programming inclusive repertoire representing different races, genders, and cultures. There is a better balance between Sacred and Secular music being programmed and each year more commission works are being written for all age levels.
Who are the choirs/conductors that continue to inspire you today?
Sig Johnson, Angie Kasper, Kathy Romey, Weston Noble, Nancy Grundahl, The Singers, Brett Amundson, Katelyn Larson, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Steve Boehlke, Jennaya Robison, Janet Galvan, Craig Hjella Johnson, Anton Armstrong, Greg Douma, Ruth Palmer, and Mack Wilberg.
How did you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources did you seek ideas?
In selecting repertoire, I’d always consider the make up of the group, keeping in mind the range and tessitura of the singers. Also, consider the musical integrity of each selection. I like a program that “flows” and is well balanced. As the director of a women’s community choir, I like exploring music by women composers and poets. I look for inspiring texts, consider subject matter, as well as representation of different cultures. I never hesitated contacting a seasoned colleague to ask for their favorite SATB/SSAA piece or ideas for repertoire. I also bought CDs of choirs I admired, and have kept programs from conferences that I attended over the years. Never be shy about “picking the brains” of colleagues you respect! Our own Minnesota Composers are a treasured resource! Selecting literature is one of the most important things we do. It is critical that each concert program or season is approached as a personal and emotional, as well as a LEARNING experience.
Name some of your favorite contemporary composers of repertoire that you would recommend to the conductor of today.
SATB – David Dickau, Dan Forrest, Rene Clausen, Moses Hogan, Ola Gjeilo, Kyle Peterson, Chris Aspaas, Eric Whitacre, Jeffrey Ames, Eriks Esenvalds, Morten Lauridsen.
SSAA – Sarah Quartel, Gwyneth Walker, Elaine Hagenberg, David Childs, Eleanor Daly, John Rutter, Rosephanye Powell, Jacob Narverud, Z. Randall Stroope, Andrea Ramsey, Susan Brumfield, Vijay Singh, Kim Andre Arnesen, Nancy Grundahl
What were some of the special performance events (festivals, conventions, tours) that your choirs participated in?
SSA Chorus Featured Performances:
Over the course of my career, I was honored to have my high school treble choirs and my MVWC perform at four ACDA Fall Conferences and two MMEA Mid-Winter Clinic performances. In addition, two of my high school treble choirs (Eagan/Eastview) were guests at the Dorian Vocal Festival at Luther College.
SATB Chorus Featured Performances:
Highlights of my SATB choir career include performing at an ACDA Fall Conference, participation in the NC-ACDA Raymond W. Brock Memorial Commission entitled, “All Works of Love,” composed by Joan Szymko with Wayzata HS, performing with Chanticleer alongside our 196 sister schools, two MMEA Mid-Winter Clinic performances, and singing with the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Eiji Oue performing Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. Lastly, being chosen to perform at the Dorian Choral and Vocal festivals over the years.
Three European/British Isles Tours with District 196 sister schools, including performing at the 50th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy in France.
Sagen (center) on a District 196 European concert tour in 1994 with directors and friends Bruce Becker (left) and Steve Boehlke.
Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in Minnesota, what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?
- Introducing and opening people’s minds to valuable “Jewish Music” that is suitable for all ages.
- President/Board of ACDA-MN
- Accompanist for MN All State SATB under direction of Craig Hella Johnson at Orchestra Hall
- Accompanist for various reading sessions at Summer Dialogue and State Conferences
- Presenter at Summer Dialogue and State Conferences
How did you first become involved with ACDA?
My first involvement with ACDA was in the early eighties when my co-worker, Steve Boehlke encouraged me to join the organization. It all started when I attended my first “Dialogue” at St. John’s University around 1985.
What were some of the most memorable performances you witnessed at an ACDA event?
- The Turtle Creek Chorale performing “The Awakening” many years ago at The National Conference in San Antonio, TX still gives me the shivers!
- Premier of Morten Lauridsen’s “Dirait Ton” at Los Angeles National Convention
- The Aeolians performance at the last National Conference in Kansas City blew me away!
What has been the most inspirational ACDA convention performance you heard?
Craig Hella Johnson’s (Conspirare) performance of his PEACE EVENT at Omaha Divisional Convention in the early 90’s
What has kept you active in ACDA over these many years?
The people! My colleagues! Since retirement, I am still very involved in our organization and I hope to be for many years! I continue to search for quality repertoire for The Minnesota Valley Women’s Chorale and I hope to never stop learning or being challenged. I continue attending State, Regional, and National ACDA Conferences and of course Summer Dialogue. These events are where I get “my fix!” Also, I still enjoy presenting interest sessions and conducting honor choirs when asked.
I look forward to meeting all the new young upcoming choral directors. The future of our state’s organization is bright! We have so many, talented, intelligent, hard working, and enthusiastic young choir directors ready to light the world on fire! I continue learning from them and love seeing their excitement!
Looking back, what were some of the key turning points in ACDA-MN’s history?
- The addition of Bruce Becker as the organization’s Executive Director.
- Addition of more Honor Choirs and Honor Choir Chairs
- Growth of the FMC Endowment Fund: Awards scholarships annually to members to attend Conferences, Dialogue, graduate school, etc.
- Vision 20/20…A comprehensive study on the current structure and programming within the organization to better serve a growing and more diverse constituency
- Added Director of Development paid staff position
- Web Editor as a paid staff position
- Executive Assistant staff position added
- Including more “out-state” leaders/board
- Went from one All State Choir to three
- More participation of conductors at the College Level
- More than doubled our membership
- Connected the Summer Dialogue Program with All-State Week
Who were some of the key leaders along the way?
Curt Hanson, Diana Leland, Bud Engen, Murray Freng, Wayne Kivell, Steve Boehlke, Bruce Becker, Mike Smith, Larry McCaughy, Jan Gilbertson, Paul Brandvik, Axel Theimer, Roger Tenney, and Bob Peterson to name a few.
Looking back, what has been the value and impact of ACDA upon your professional career?
- Sharing ideas, visions, and even tears with my choral colleagues has been invaluable
- Opportunities to attend state, regional and national conferences and learn from hearing the best choirs.
- Resources for choral repertoire and useful information through reading sessions and interest sessions
- Opportunities for performance
- Most of all, I have treasured all the personal relationships that I’ve formed and maintained over the years through ACDA of MN.
What do you want to see from ACDA in the future? ACDA in 50 years?
It is vitally important that we continue to grow our membership. I would like to see all conference performances (including honor choirs) in secular venues. This is crucial for the continued inclusivity of our organization. Lastly, I want to see more participation/sessions at the elementary and middle school levels.
What advice or words of wisdom would you give the emerging choral director of today?
- Working with singers is first and foremost about developing relationships!
- You must have PASSION for the art, and you have to be fearless!
- Focus on being prepared and working hard
- Have balance in your life!
- Be flexible and open to change!
- Scary, but trust your innate musicianship!
- Never stop learning!
- Last, but not least… We all have those special people along our journey who have directly made a positive impact on our lives, whether in our career or us as human beings. It is vitally important that you take the time to say thank you and show your gratitude. So, please sit down, write an email, or make a call to that special someone before it’s too late.
About Amy Jo Cherner
Amy Jo Cherner has been teaching since 2007, and is in her 3rd year at Eagan High School.
Previously she taught at Apple Valley High School, Valley Middle School, and South View Middle School in Edina Public Schools. At Eagan, Amy Jo directs three curricular treble choirs, three co-curricular ensembles, and co-directs their Musical.
She holds a B.M. from Drake University and a Master’s Degree in Music Education with a Choral Conducting emphasis from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. She is an active member of MMEA and ACDA, where she held the post of registrar during 2011, has presented at ACDA-MN’s summer dialogue, served on the MN Sings committee, and served as a section lead (2018) and section coach (2017) Minnesota All-State SSAA Choirs. In 2015, her non-auditioned 9th grade women’s choir from South View were chosen to perform at the North Central American Choral Directors Convention in Sioux Falls, SD, and in 2013, her choirs performed at Minnesota Music Educators Associations Mid-Winter Clinic.
She and her husband Dave reside in Eagan and their proudest accomplishments are their three children.