The Alexandria High School Choir Program
History, tradition, and “culture of quality” are words to describe the choral program at Alexandria. There have been only three Choir Directors at Alexandria High School in the past 65 years.
Murrae Freng (1952-1965), Les Dehlin (1965-1987), Steve Deitz (1987-present), photo taken Spring of 2012
The very first extracurricular activity on record at Alexandria’s high school was a 15-voiced girl’s glee club, formed in 1900. Later, the Girl’s and Boy’s Glee clubs merged to create their first “Concert Choir” in 1939.
The Alexandria Choir Program consist of a Concert Choir, Select Women’s Choir, Boys Chorus, Girls Chorus, and three extracurricular ensembles (the Silhouettes, Les Marquise, and the Pop Group/Carolers); all are open to grades 9-12 by audition. Basically there are two “auditioned” choirs, and two “non-auditioned” choruses. Choirs meet every other day for 86 minutes in an A/B Block schedule. Choirs perform no less than 4 concerts a year, and the Concert Choir additionally participates in a Choral Festival in the fall and the Central Lakes Conference Music Festival in the spring of each year.
Alexandria Area High School is one of the newest high school buildings in Minnesota and serves a school district population of about 30,000. There are approximately 1150 students at AAHS. Currently our 9-12 high school supports four bands, four choirs, three full string orchestras, seven extra-curricular music ensembles, and serves over 450 music students. Our community and administration deeply value music and arts education, so much gratitude is owed to MANY people and music instructors who have contributed to our rich past and progressive future. In 1994, the Alexandria Music department was awarded Minnesota Music Educators Association “Exemplary Music Program,” class AA. In 2004, the Alexandria Music Department receives the Education Award for “outstanding professionalism and examples of achievement that serve as an inspiration to the community of Alexandria.” In 2012 Alexandria Choral program receives public Commendation from ACDA MN on its 50th anniversary.
Steve Deitz has been Director of Vocal Music for Alexandria High School for 30 years, and is only the third director in the past 65 years. He graduated cum laude from Moorhead State University and earned a Master’s Degree from St. Cloud State University while working in Alexandria and raising a family. Prior to his current teaching position, Mr. Deitz was Choir Director for Windom Area High School for 2 years. In 1990, Steve was named Outstanding Young Choral Director by the ACDA of Minnesota. Steve has served MMEA as section coach and Adjudicator for All-State Choirs, and has served ACDA-MN in a variety of roles since 1985.
The Alexandria Concert Choir has performed for ACDA-MN state conventions at Augsburg and Gustavus Colleges, Alexandria Festival of the Lakes, and has had their performance of “Beethoven Choral Fantasy, Op. 80,” featured on Minnesota Public Radio. They have performed extensively including twice with the Choral Arts Finale Concerts at Orchestra Hall (hosted by Concordia University), at Choirs of Note festival with Dale Warland, at St. Olaf, Concordia, Bemidji College Choral Festivals, and the USA Choral Festivals featuring Jo-Michael Scheibe and Dr. Craig Jessop. In 2015, Minnesota Public Radio featured the Alexandria Concert Choir in “MPR School Spotlight”
The Visiting Director Sessions (Crazy 8 Or “Group Of Six”)
Several years ago, Murrae Freng worked with other directors from central Minnesota to establish a league of directors who could share ideas to bring forth better experiences for his students. The plan was simple: on school nights throughout the year (usually Mondays), the directors would visit a particular high school choir. Arrangements were made early in the school year to find dates as schedules would allow. Then, when all directors had agreed on a schedule, they would convene at a given school and work with the local choir. Each director would work with the local choir for a certain number of minutes while the others observed. After the rehearsal the directors would go out for a meal to discuss the key points each director had offered. It is my understanding that they were not always “nice” to each other but together they continued to explore ways to be more effective as directors of choirs.
Les Dehlin, Curt Hanson, Paul J. Christiansen, Vernon Opheim, Murrae Freng, Cornell Runestad, Paul Brandvik
Participating directors also included:
Paul Montan (Wadena), Ames Dahl (St. Cloud), & Harold Skilbred (Glenwood)
A similar group re-emerged with different personnel in 1989. With the encouragement of Mike Smith of Brainerd, and Stan Carlson of Staples/Motley high schools, the “Visiting Directors Sessions” continued again in Central Minnesota for 12 years.
Visiting Directors in this era also included:
Rolf Anderson (Willmar), James Hawthorne (Little Falls) Mike Ortmann (Wadena), Mark Hemingway (Little Falls), Chris Fettig (Bemidji), Paul Montan (Wadena retired), & Karen Jacobson (Pequot Lakes).
The Central Lakes Music Festival
In the spring of 1987, schools of the Central Lakes Conference began another long-standing musical tradition in central Minnesota. The original participating schools included the band, choirs, and orchestras from Alexandria, Brainerd, Little Falls, St. Cloud Apollo, St. Cloud Technical, and Willmar High School. The conference has since expanded to include Rocori, Sartell, and Sauk Rapids-Rice High School.
The CLC Music Festival has become an important performance for each of the participating schools. An attempt is made to prepare and deliver music of the highest possible standards and quality. Many feel that it is here that our performing groups “peak” near the end of the school year. Usually when area schools meet they are “competing” in athletic contests. Our festival is more a collaboration/exposition. Students have the opportunity to perform for each other, work with a guest clinician, and as they are listening, complete critique sheets. Schools host the event in rotation and have to find LARGE local venues for each of the disciplines (band, choir, and orchestra) as well over 1000 students participate each year.
Other important aspects of the festival are the All-Conference groups. Music Directors from the participating school have the opportunity to select and honor their best students to be a member of the All-Conference Band, Choir, or Orchestra. These students are granted an opportunity to rehearse directly with the guest clinicians and perform in the finale concert on the day of the festival.
Year / CLC Host School / Guest Clinician / Institution
1987 / St. Cloud Apollo / Kenneth Jennings / St. Olaf College
1988 / Willmar / Thomas Rossin / Augsburg College
1989 / Little Falls / Rene Clausen / Concordia College
1990 / St. Cloud / Axel Theimer / St. John’s University
1991 / Brainerd / Dwayne Jorgenson / Moorhead State University
1992 / Alexandria / Larry Bach / North Central College
1993 / Alexandria / Paul E. Oakley / Bach Society of MN
1994 / SJU / Sigrid Johnson / St. Olaf College
1995 / Little Falls / Paul Brandvik / Bemidji State University
1996 / Willmar / Kathy Saltzman Romey / University of Minnesota
1997 / SCSU / Lawrence Burnett / Carleton College
1998 / Tech / Jerry Rubino / Minneapolis, MN
1999 / Brainerd / Axel Theimer / St. John’s University
2000 / Alexandria / Karle Erickson / Gustavus College
2001 / Sartell / Ken Hodgson / U of M, Morris
2002 / Apollo / Michael Tamte-Horan / St. Cloud State University
2003 / Little Falls / David C. Dickau / Mankato State University
2004 / Willmar / Paul Nesheim / Concordia College
2005 / Rocori at SBU / Dan Johnson-Wilmot / Viterbo University
2006 / at St. Ben’s / Greg Aune / Gustavus College
2007 / at SCSU / Lee Nelson / St. Cloud State University
2008 / Brainerd / Russell Svenningsen / Southwest State University
2009 / Alexandria / Timothy Sawyer / Northwestern College
2010 / Sartell / Michael Smith / Concordia College
2011 / Apollo / Chris Aaspas / St. Olaf College
2012 / Willmar / Charlotte Moe / North Dakota State Univ.
2013 / Brainerd / Matthew Ferrell / St. Cloud State University
2014 / Sauk Rapids / Bret Amundson / College of St. Scholastica
2015 / Tech / Michael Culloton / Concordia College
2016 / Brainerd / Michael Weber / North Dakota State Univ.
2017 / Alexandria / Tesfa Wondemagegnehu / Westminster Presbyterian, Mpls
The original Carolers from 1962
The Carolers were formed in the fall of 1962. Helen Freng and a few of the student’s moms designed and created the first Caroler costumes. The Carolers were an immediate hit and would become one of the most visible and requested performing ensembles in the history of the Alexandria Schools. Membership is secured by audition and a commitment to a VERY busy December. Typically, the caroling season begins the day after Thanksgiving, and continues until the high school breaks for the Christmas holiday. At its smallest, the group had 12; at its largest it had 20.
1964 Carolers: back row includes Bruce Phelps (Anoka Retired) and Bob Johnson (St. Olaf Retired)
1987 marks the first year that the Carolers were directed by Steve Deitz. Steve decided to keep the group going throughout the school year and renamed them as the Pop Group/Carolers.
The group currently sings pop, jazz, and chamber music during the fall and spring, and still maintains the traditions of the Carolers during November-December. New costumes were built in 1998 & 1999. This year marks the 30th year the group has been directed by Mr. Deitz, and there is a “Reunion Alumni Concert” slated for December 23rd.
American Choral Directors Association (ACDA)
Also relevant is Alexandria’s role in the formation of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA). The national ACDA began in 1959 because of the vision articulated by a small group of choral directors who met informally in Kansas City at a national convention of the Music Educators National Conference.
The first issue of ACDA’s official publication, the Choral Journal, appeared in May of 1959. It was printed in an eight-page octavo-size format and contained the constitution, the names of the national officers, and a list of the 81 charter members who had paid dues as of that date. Among those named were three Minnesotans: Olaf C. Christiansen, St. Olaf College, Northfield; Murrae Freng, Alexandria High School; and Lamar Runestad, St. Peter High School. The second issue of the Choral Journal (January 1960) also adds Minnesotans Walter Collins, University of Minnesota; Keith Forstrom, Fairmont; and Curtis Hansen, Brainerd High School. All who joined the first year were considered charter members.
Harvey Waugh became Minnesota’s first state president in 1962. In 1964, Harvey Waugh convened a business meeting at the annual Minnesota Music Educators Association (MMEA) Mid-Winter Clinic. The Minnesota Chapter was formed in 1972 with Murrae Freng as a formative contributor. In its first year there were 66 members and the organization now contains a membership somewhere of 900+.
The organization continues to flourish on a state and national level, supporting the efforts of all choral directors who wish to refine their craft. Les Dehlin was a member, and Steve Deitz has been a continuous member of the organization since 1985, and has served on the state board in a number of roles.
The Alexandria Sight-Reading Program
Mr. Deitz thought that it was very important to meet with students individually throughout the course of the year to monitor the individual progress of students’ vocal health and sight-reading ability (both being difficult to assess in the large-group setting). He appealed to administration for lesson support, and found that not only were there no funds to support it, there were no persons available in the community to assist.
Both the band and orchestra students were receiving a minimum of 4 group or individual lessons per quarter, and in 1990, the Alexandria choir students were required to attend one lesson per quarter as part of their grade. Mr. Deitz found it very difficult to find time in his teaching schedule to see each of his 100 singers individually, and he noticed a very wide range of sight-reading ability and aptitude within the 10-12 choral program. Perhaps the musical leaders in the program could assist with giving individual lessons?
Mr. Deitz was taking classes for his Master’s Degree work at St. Cloud State University, and was able to get graduate credit for most of the work and research he was doing at Jefferson High School. He made sight-singing a primary objective in all academic pursuits and you could say he “became obsessed.”
Popular at the time was Nintendo’s “Mario Brothers” video game, where Mario and Luigi had to move through obstacles, collect coins, and battle a dragon within the confines of time. Mr. Deitz devised and wrote a graduated, 10-level sight-reading program (independently of Alexandria Alumni, Bruce Phelps), for the choir students of Alexandria.
Students who passed level 6 could then apply to become “Student Adjudicators” (an enrichment opportunity for student leaders), and help students with less experience pass levels 1-5. The program works, and is still in place to this day. Many of our former Adjudicators use this distinction on their resumes, and on job, scholarship, and college applications.
Students who pass level 10 become members of the Alexandria Sight-Reading Hall of Fame, and their names are engraved and displayed on a plaque in the music department.
The 10 Levels:
Level 1: Major scale by steps. Simple rhythms. Basic time and pitch is assessed. Rhythm: Q, H, +W.
Level 2: Adds occasional leaps. Includes triad and octave recognition. Rhythm: add 8th’s
Level 3: Rhythm only. Test is in two parts: written and performance. Students demonstrate correct counting & rhythmic accuracy. Introduce compound meters like 6/8.
Level 4: Includes some abrupt, tricky leaps. Triads on re, fa, and la. Rhythm=simple, yet progressive.
Level 5: Able to identify ALL MAJOR KEYS. Discuss minor keys re: fixed and movable “do.”
Level 6: Pass level 6 and become musically independent. You now have the tools to continue without the aid of the instructor. You are now eligible to become a Student Adjudicator.
Level 7: Same as Level 6. Rhythms trickier. Add accidentals.
Level 8: All Minor (Natural, Harmonic, Melodic). Pitch and rhythmic complexity increases.
Level 9: Good luck. Tough as nails.
Level 10: Pass this and become top dog, member of the AAHS sight-reading hall of fame, rescue the princess, and enter the world of musical greatness. You now have the skills of (roughly) a college sophomore music major. You will also be “certified” to pass students on 7.
In addition to all of the home concerts, here is a brief list of some cool things the Alexandria High School Choirs have done since Mr. Deitz started in 1987:
Mr. Deitz establishes the “Pop Group” (Same personnel as the Carolers)
St. Olaf Choral Festival (Honor Choir), Bob Johnson (’66), Manager, Dr. Kenneth Jennings, Conductor
Carolers perform for MN Council of Music Teachers at Arrowwood Resort
Silhouettes are formed
Concordia Choral Festival (Honor Choir), Moorhead, MN. Rene Clausen, Conductor
Les Marquise is formed
ACDA MN Fall Convention at Augsburg. Deitz honored as ACDA MN Outstanding Young Conductor
Exchange with Plymouth High School Choir, Rebecca Wyffels, Director
Choral Clinic at St. Olaf College with Dr. Anton Armstrong
Bemidji State Chorfest (Honor Choir), Dr. Paul Brandvik, Conductor
40-year celebration concert with Murrae Freng & Les Dehlin (home concert featuring former and current directors)
Choral Vocal Clinic with Liz Grefsheim
Exchange Concert with Wayne State College Choir, Cornell Runstad, Conductor
Awarded by MMEA “Exemplary Music Program” Class AA
Perform “African Sanctus” with Guest Composer, David Fanshawe
Combined Concert with Bemidji High School Choir, Chris Fettig Conductor
“Carols for Christmas” recording with Delta Records, Chicago. Dr. Karle Erickson, Producer
Perform for MN School Boards Association, Minneapolis Convention Center
Alexandria Festival of the Lakes. ”Beethoven Choral Fantasy, Op. 80” Featured on Minnesota Public Radio
Vocal Clinic with Catherine Verrilli, SCSU
JHS Music Department receives the Education Award for “outstanding professionalism and examples of achievement that serve as an inspiration to the community of Alexandria.”
King’s Singer’s Residency: Concordia College
Clinic, in-service and concert with vocal band “InPulse”
Joint Concert with Millikin University Choir, Brad Holmes Conductor
Clinic and In-service with “Tonic Sol-Fa”
Choral Clinic and Concert with Dr. David Dickau, Mankato State University
Choirs of Note Competition at SWSU. Russell Svenningsen, Dale Warland, Jeffrey Douma, Hilary Apfelstadt, Jonathan Talberg, David Wheeler, Judith Willoughby, Conductors
Clinic and In-service with “The Rose Ensemble”
Choral Arts Finale at Concordia University and Orchestra Hall. David Mennike, Director
Choral Clinic and Concert with Dr. Rene Clausen, Concordia College
Choral Clinic with composer, Stanford Scriven
Clinic and Inservice with “The Rose Ensemble”
Concordia Choral Festival (Honor Choir), Rene Clausen, Conductor
Choral Clinic and Concert with the Rocky Mountain High School Singers. Timothy Tharaldson, Conductor
“Carmen” production with Minnesota Opera
ACDA MN Fall Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College
Choral Exchange with Robbinsdale Armstrong HS Choir, Stephanie Trump, Director.
Perform “Carmina Burana” with Central Lakes Symphony Orchestra, Brad Lambrecht, Conductor
Clinic and concert with Vocal Band, “Six Appeal”
Choral Exchange with the Stillwater High School Choir, Erik Christiansen, Director
Alexandria Choral program receives public Commendation from ACDA MN on its 50th anniversary
The 2012 JHS Christmas Concert, Brad Lambrecht and Steve Deitz, Directors
Choral Festival with Craig Jessop; Upsala, MN
Host Rose Ensemble educational outreach.
Clinic and concert with Vocal Band “Home Free”
Combined Concert with the University of Northwestern Choir, Timothy Sawyer, Director
Host the Concordia Chapel Choir, Michael Culloton, Conductor
Choral Exchange with U of M Minneapolis choirs, Brainerd, Staples/Motley & Crosby/Ironton choirs.
Clinic and world premiere of “Slender the Willow” by American novelist, LaVyrle Spencer
Host Rose Ensemble educational outreach.
Vocal Clinic with Thomas Speckhard of St. John’s University
Carolers perform with “Home Free” Vocal Band, NBC TV winners of the nationally popular show, “Sing Off!”
Exchange concert with Andover High School Choir, Melanie Kjelberg, Director
Perform Die Zauberflöte with the Central Lakes Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera Company
Perform with Los Llaneros (Latino musical group funded through grants from Lakes Region Arts Council)
2014 Choral Arts Finale at Concordia University and Orchestra Hall.
David Mennike, Director
Murrae Freng passes away on May 31, He never got to see the new building or performance center.
Alexandria Area High School opens fall of 2014. State-of-the-Art facility is the newest high school in Minnesota, and is a “lighthouse” for tours and other building projects throughout Midwest.
Tesfa Wondemagegnehu visits; Minnesota Public Radio features Concert Choir in “MPR School Spotlight”
Choral Clinic with vocal group “Cantus”
Clinic with Vocal Coach, Tom Speckhard
USA Community Chorus Choir Festival in Swanville with St. Cloud State University Choir, Brainerd High School Choir. Jo-Michael Scheibe, Clinician.
Concert Choir selected for the St. Olaf Choral Festival, November 2, Dr. Anton Armstrong, Conductor
Performed commissioned composition “From This Hour, Freedom!” by ’93 Alumnus, Timothy Tharaldson
The St. Olaf Choir appears in Alexandria, May 2nd. Bob Johnson retires in his hometown after 35+ years with the St. Olaf Choir.
100 YEAR ANNIVERSARY: MUSIC IN ALEXANDRIA’S HIGH SCHOOL
For the 2015 Kiwanis Concert, the Band Choir and Orchestra programs at Alexandria High School acknowledged the 100th year anniversary of the music program by commissioning original compositions by the following composers:
Orchestra: The Legend of Big Ole by Steven Amundson
Choir: From This Hour, Freedom! by Timothy Tharaldson
Band: Kensington Stone: Mists of Time by Bill Locklear
In 1899 there were no extra-curricular activities, but singing was taught about half an hour each day in the Alexandria high school, in which all students participated. The few who either could not (or would not sing), were made to spend that period in a classroom, learning the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by heart.
In 1900 a Girl’s Glee Club was formed, and represents one of the first (if not the first extra-curricular offering at Alexandria’s High School.
It was during the 1914-1915 school year that Alexandria first had a “division of disciplines” within high school music offerings. There was an organized Girl’s Glee Club of 21 members, and a fledgling orchestra of 11 members. Both organizations met outside of the regular school day.
Today, (one hundred years later) we have 4 choirs, 3 bands, and 3 orchestras offered during the regular school day. There are approximately 1200 students at Alexandria Area High School, and nearly 500 are involved in music. There are also 9 extra-curricular groups that include: The Pop Group/Carolers, Silhouettes, Les Marquise, Rainbow Strings, 2 Jazz Bands, Pep Band, Summer Marching Band, and Winter Drum line.
Tesfa Wondemagegnehu visits September 17 & 18. Offer Choral Leadership Clinic for the Presidents, Secretaries, and Section Leaders of all four High School choirs: Concert Choir, Select Women’s Choir, Boys Chorus and Girls Chorus (total choral enrollment 178).
January 29 & 30: Concordia Choral Festival at Concordia College, Moorhead. René Clausen & Michael Culloton, conductors. Honor Choirs: Alexandria, Minnetonka (Paula Holmberg), and Stillwater (Erik Christiansen)
March 6: Symphony at the Cinema Concert with the Central Lakes Symphony Orchestra, Brad Lambrecht Conductor
March 10: Exchange Concert and collaboration with the Armstrong Concert Choir, Stephanie Trump Director
October 15 & 16 Camp Ripley Retreat with Dr. Craig Jessop, former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the USAF Singing Sergeants.