Inspiration from our Greatest Generation

An Interview with

Minnesota Choral Director Mike Smith

Michael Smith received a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Olaf College, Master of Arts in Music degree from the University of Northern Colorado, and has completed all but the dissertation for his Ph.D. in Music Education from the University of Minnesota. His teaching career includes vocal music positions at Aitkin High School, 1966-67; Brainerd High School, 1967-70; Brainerd Community College, 1970-74; Willmar High School, 1974-80; Brainerd High School, 1984-2006; Concordia College, 2006-2011. He was asked to come back to Concordia and direct the Concordia Choir for the 2014-15 school year while René Clausen was on sabbatical.

In 1989, Smith was named Brainerd Teacher of the Year and was one of nine finalists for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He was also honored to be named the 1990 Minnesota Music Educators Association Choral Director of the Year and the 1999 Minnesota American Choral Directors Association Choral Director of the Year. In 2014 he received the F. Melius Christiansen Lifetime Achievement award.

Smith has served on the Executive Board of Minnesota Music Educators Association and was the President of Minnesota American Choral Directors Association. He was very active as a choral clinician and voice teacher. He always thought of his choirs as large voice classes where individuals could learn how to properly use their voices as they sang great literature.

In 1997, Smith was given the distinction of being the first Minnesota high school choral director to conduct the Minnesota All-State Men’s Chorus.

In the Central region of MN, Mike became the consummate leader for many directors. His “welcome” sign was always out – and many choir directors visited Brainerd to watch him work with his choirs and get some time to visit with Mike. Mike always welcomed visiting choirs as well, and many times drove out to see them at their home sites. His impact on Central and Northern MN cannot be overstated.

Smith was a part of a group of directors that visited and cliniced each other’s choirs in the 80’s and 90’s.
Pictured are Les Dahlin (retired-Alexandria), Steve Deitz (Alexandria), Bob Sieving (St. Cloud Apollo), Murrae Freng (retired-Alexandria), Mike Smith (Brainerd) and Stan Carlson (Staples-Motley)

When did you first decide to become a choral director?

In my senior year in high school, my principal (also counselor) did interviews with seniors, and he asked, “What are you thinking to do in the future? I replied, “I would like to go to college to be a history teacher and golf coach. He said, “There are SO many history teachers and coaches! How about other interests? I said, “I do like to sing.” And he said “Why don’t you consider a career in music?” Joan Untinen (a St. Olaf grad) was my high school choral director. She encouraged me to consider attending St. Olaf College in Northfield. She took me over there one evening and we sat in on a St. Olaf Choir rehearsal. I remember being FLOORED upon hearing the choir sing “O Day Full of Grace” under the direction of Olaf Christiansen. I knew that night I wanted to be a choral director and perform that kind of music. My parents initially said no to my attending St. Olaf due to the cost. I did lots of begging to get them to change their minds – they eventually did.

Mike Smith in his early years as an educator.

What are some memories of your first year as a choral director?

Carol and I were going to get married and, in those days, you couldn’t be married and work in the same school district. I got an interview in Aitkin and the principal asked if I knew a Carol Jean Thom (my fiancé) who had applied for an elementary music position. On our way to the interview, we had to figure out if we were going to tell them we were planning on getting married. It ended up they already knew, and wanted us both!

I remember being scared stiff as a new choral director! I remember weekends driving down to Schmitt Music in Minneapolis and digging through the bins looking for something, that one special piece of music, to get us through another week. I remember the kids testing me to see if I really believed what I was teaching them. It took some of the seniors until contest time when the choir received a superior rating, (which they had never done before) to come around.

Carol and I were singing in the Brainerd Chorale, directed by Mark Aamot. He decided to leave to work on a Masters degree and asked me to come to Brainerd and take the high school position. I said, “No, I have to stay in Aitkin and build the program.” He told me I was making a mistake! I did interview and got the position, but had already signed the contract in Aitkin. I had to ask the school board president to release me and she said no! Her daughter was in 8th grade and she wanted her to have me as her director. I said, “What if I am in Aitkin being frustrated and unhappy?” She made a deal – get another St. Olaf grad to come up here and I will release you from your contract. That’s when I called Bryan Johnson. He took the job and stayed for 40 years!

What was your first annual salary?

$5200, and a $300 stipend for being the choir director. So, $5500 total.

Along with being a choral director, did you perform other duties?

Study Hall.

What were some of the ideas you implemented to build or recruit students into your program?

I started a male chorus at Brainerd High School which was a good recruiting group. Recruiting was always a worry for me. I did a lot of stopping kids in the hall and kids brought friends to me that I would enthusiastically encourage to join choir. I always wanted to do what Roger Tenney did. He would take two weeks in the spring and listen to every 9th grader that was coming into the Owatonna high school.

My wife Carol and a co-worker, Fran Johnson attended a workshop presented by Anton Armstrong. He encouraged them to start an elementary honors choir. This they did, and through their efforts, the 5th Grade Honors Choir became a big hit. Every year approximately 100 singers performed at the spring Guest Conductor Concert where I was its “guest conductor.” Eventually, the A Cappella Choir was entirely made up of former members of the 5th Grade Honors Choir!

One of the traditions of the Brainerd choral program, dating back to when Curt Hansen was director, was the annual Guest Conductor Concert held in March. Every year a respected college director was invited to come and work with the three choirs at BHS for a day and then direct the groups in an evening concert. These directors brought fresh ideas and different interpretations. Watching them work with my students was amazing and a great learning experience for me.

Who were the choirs and conductors that inspired you in those early years?

At St. Olaf, it was Olaf Christiansen and Kenneth Jennings (my voice teacher) who taught me about music, about life and about discipline. I sang in a quartet at St. Olaf. I remember the quartet being booked at a local church to sing on a Sunday evening. Olaf called an extra rehearsal that was in direct conflict with the Sunday night quartet concert. We approached Olaf and asked to get out of rehearsal. His response: “You auditioned for this choir and made a commitment to it. That should probably be honored, don’t you think?” Needless to say, we cancelled our quartet performance!

Alice Larson, who directed the freshman women’s choir at St. Olaf, gave me wonderful ideas on how to work with the female voice.

Geneva Eschweiler, Fergus Fall Community College inspired me with her approach to teaching voice and her creative programming.

Stan Carlson, Staples High School director, along with Bob Sieving, St. Cloud Apollo High School director, Steve Deitz, Alexandria High School director, and Chris Fettig, Bemidji High School director, and I would meet once a month to work with each other’s choirs. Following the choral work, we would go out to eat and share what we had learned from the experience. It was a time of sharing ideas, good laughs, and it also provided a support group for when I needed someone to talk to.

Who are the choirs and conductors that continue to inspire you today?

René Clausen, Weston Noble, Craig Hjelle Johnson, Kathy Romey, Anton Armstrong, Sigrid Johnson and many more. Every time I listen to other directors as they explain their approach to choral music and then demonstrate what they are talking about, it opens my eyes and ears to new possibilities. Axel Theimer and the Voice Care Network changed my approach as a voice teacher.

How did you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources did you seek ideas?

Schmitt music bins, attending concerts, MMEA Mid -Winter Clinics, and ACDA State, North Central, and National Conferences. I collect the programs where I have heard great concerts and have starred the pieces that I would want to program.

Back then, what style of multi-cultural repertoire was being performed?

Spirituals would kind of be the norm. It was very limited.

In those early years, what was the typical balance of sacred and secular music on a concert?

About 80% sacred and 20% secular – because that’s what we were exposed to in college, so we continued to do it. There were discussions about being in the Midwest and our history of being settled by Scandinavian/German immigrants. The Lutheran church and the music associated with this church was a big part of their daily lives. Therefore, it was generally accepted that doing sacred literature was simply a part of being midwestern. We also had ongoing discussions about doing religious pieces in the public schools. ACDA helped in setting parameters for a balance of sacred pieces which were to be taught as historical literature and secular pieces.

Name five choral chestnuts of repertoire that you would recommend to the conductor of today?

  • If Music Be the Food of Love, Dickau
  • Sicut Cervus, Palestrina
  • The May Night, Brahms
  • O Day Full of Grace
  • Gloria, Vivaldi

What were some of the special performance events (festivals, conventions, tours) that your choirs participated in?

Singing in Larvik, Norway at F Melius Christiansen’s home church was truly inspirational. I was reminded of the musical passion of one man, who came to America, and founded a tradition that still influences so many people today. My kids were changed by our performance in that small Norwegian church, and every student I’ve had since then has been influenced by that experience – because I was so profoundly moved.

As you listen to choirs of today, how have the components of choral music performance evolved?

(tone…blend…diction, etc.)

I think we are much more eclectic now – but I also think fundamentals are taught much better and more consistently. The explosion of information technology and multimedia has opened up amazing opportunities to experience a wide variety of musical performances. Kids singing in choirs can be exposed to some of the great choirs of the world and already have those sounds and repertoire in their ears as they rehearse in a typical high school choir. We have a much larger palette of sound and colors and languages now. Pieces back then that pushed the limits were experimenting with dissonance and rhythmic complexity. Today it seems choral compositions are more like tone poems. Dissonance or color exists but is more sing-able – softened somewhat.

How has the preparation of choral music directors changed?

They are prepared much better than we ever were as choral music educators. Most colleges are preparing their students to be good conductors/music educators. Student teaching time has increased dramatically. I had maybe six total weeks of student teaching experience. The exposure that conductors get now is amazing with so many live and recorded performances. I always say though, that ten people can get the same education and only two will understand what they’ve been taught and have success. Staying connected to ACDA seems really to be key for growth and survival!

How did you first become involved with ACDA?

Jim Glenn got the Brainerd job when I went to the Community College in 1970. He brought me to my first ACDA conference – and I was hooked! There was an “old boys” kind of club where some of the leaders would get together and figure out who should be in leadership positions. Steve Boehlke and Bruce Becker approached me and said it was time for me to run for President. Today it is much more democratic!

What were some of the most memorable performances you witnessed at an ACDA event?

At the first North Central in Des Moines, I heard the St. Olaf Choir perform Totentanz, by Hugo Distler – I had never heard anything like it and was totally impressed!

What has kept you active in ACDA over these many years?

I owe so much to ACDA – the experiences, the relationships, the exposure to other choirs and conductors. I grew so much musically and professionally because of ACDA.

As a member and leader in ACDA-MN since 1972, what was the state of the organization in the early years?

The organization was smaller and tended to be a college and high school organization. Those two areas benefitted the most. Elementary, middle school and church musicians didn’t feel it really was for them. Attending Dialogue in those early years – with Axel Theimer and his discussions on choral tone. These dialogues were heated and were really a great thing to be a part of. Traditions from Christiansen, Shaw and Flummerfelt all being discussed with great passion!

Looking back, what were some of the key turning points in our history?

The beginning of Summer Dialogue was the best thing that happened to Minnesota ACDA. It brought about the building of a choral community because we had time to get to know one another in a relaxed atmosphere.

Who were some of the key leaders along the way?

Wayne Kivel, Bruce Becker and Steve Boehlke were stellar leaders then and today. Curt Hansen, Brainerd High School director and one of the original founders of ACDA, told me he would sit in a chair at his lake cabin on Pelican Lake and use his mechanical typewriter to type letters of invitation to potential members. In the early years of ACDA, you had to be invited to become a member. While I was at Brainerd HS, Curt would stop by the choir room every year and work with the choir and then talk about the history of the Brainerd A Cappella Choir. He was a major influence in my life.

Other important leaders: Paul Branvik, Bemidji State University; Steve Fuller, St. Cloud State University; Leland Sateren, Augsburg College; Bob Peterson, Edina High School; Roger Tenney, Owatonna High School; Anton Armstrong, St. Olaf College; Sigrid Johnson, St. Olaf College; Dale Warland, The Dale Warland Singers; Kathy Salzman Romey, University of Minnesota; Richard Edstrom, Armstrong High School; and many, many more.

How did the first Summer Dialogue develop?

Axel Theimer wanted to have a discussion about what should be considered “good choral tone.” He sent out invitations to the Minnesota choral community to come to St. John’s University for a two-day discussion on what is good choral tone. The discussions were enlightening and sometimes quite tense! It proved to be a wonderful way to dialogue with other choral directors in a relaxed format over a longer period of time. It has grown to be the “must attend” activity for Minnesota ACDA. Having Dialogue meet at the same time and place as the Minnesota All-State Choirs was a stroke of genius!

How did our national award-winning newsletter “Star of the North” begin?

Wayne Kivell was the force behind getting the “Star of the North” started.

What were some of the factors that went into developing our annual awards and recognition program?

A need to recognize some of the great work of people “in the trenches.”

What were some of the considerations that went into moving our organization to affiliate status with ACDA national?

It gives us more independence which is a good thing.

Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in Minnesota, what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?

For ACDA – the one little thing I did as president was to create a phonebook for members. It was a HUGE project. I guess believing that music is important in people’s lives, and making beautiful music changes people’s lives. My students, I believe, became better people because of the music we made together. Keeping that ideal, that music changes lives is something I believe I helped fostered in our state.

What advice or words of wisdom would you give the emerging choral director of today?

Be a zealot! (being fanatical and uncompromising in one’s beliefs.) Because if you are not a zealot and believe wholeheartedly that music changes lives for the better, then why are you in the profession? We need people who are making positive changes in the world. Choral music does that. Great music with great texts, when experienced in a choir, reaches inside that choir member and changes the way he/she thinks, acts, and relates. So, be a zealot! Help make the world a better place.