Last summer, I was approached to write a Legacy Article about René Clausen to be published for ADCA of Minnesota. Certainly, I was honored to be asked because Dr. Clausen continues to be my greatest role model as a choral director. However, I was also overwhelmed with the expectation that I could write something remotely worthy of his contributions. Over the course of his career, he has influenced thousands of students, colleagues and audience members.
The following is an interview that takes us through René Clausen’s career as a teacher, composer and musician.
What is your earliest childhood musical memory?
Frankly, I don’t recall doing this, but my mother says it happened. When I was about 4 or 5, I would insist on watching a certain television show every day. After the first few minutes I would lose interest and go do something else. She finally asked why I wanted to watch it, and then lost interest. I replied that I liked the music at the beginning of the show but didn’t care about the show itself.
What was your most impactful musical memory as a child?
When I was a child there was a TV show on Sunday nights that was called “Sing Along with Mitch.” It was a half-hour show that featured a men’s chorus directed by Mitch Miller. It was a very fine choir and they sang mostly American folk songs. The texts were included at the bottom of the screen, and you followed the bouncing ball to guide you through the words. My family would sing together for a half hour every Sunday night as we followed the bouncing ball and sang along with Mitch. I am grateful to have had that experience. I think that families singing together is a lost part of our family culture, and I feel fortunate to have grown up at a time when family singing was a common activity.
When did you begin your musical training?
I was fortunate to participate in a school music program in which the local band director started kids on instruments in the summer of the sixth-grade year. I started on a school-owned saxophone, but soon found out I could check out other instruments from the school. So, I checked out a number of instruments along with the Rubank method books and learned to play them. By the time I got to high school I played alto sax in the concert band, trumpet in the marching band, French horn in the orchestra, and flute when needed. I was also in a community band. At one point this community band—the West Valley Youth Band—was going to Disneyland to march in the evening tradition called the Electric Parade. Our lone tubist was not able to do the event, so my director sent me home with a two-piece fiberglass Sousaphone and said I should learn how to play these couple of marches for the Disney parade. I figured out that if I could play tonic and dominants pitches, I could fake my way through it. I have always felt fortunate to have had a wide instrumental background.
One of my regrets from my childhood is that from the time I was a young boy I wanted to play the piano—but we never had a piano in our house, even though I begged for one. On Friday nights my parents would often play cards with another family while the kids would play board games, etc. Most of the families had pianos, and I would park myself at the piano for the entire evening and try to figure out how to play hymns from the Lutheran hymnal.
When I was in sixth grade it was announced that a new elementary school was to be built, and the old school building demolished. Each classroom in the old building was equipped with an upright piano. There was an announcement in the town newspaper that all the pianos would be given away before the demolition took place—all you had to do was come and pick one up. Of course, I begged for one of these free pianos, but my parents did not take the initiative to get one. I carried resentment about that for a long time. When I went to St. Olaf as a freshman music major, I was able to take one semester of piano lessons, but couldn’t afford more than one semester, but with the availability of pianos in all of the practice rooms, I would sit for hours and teach myself as much as I could. When my wife and I got married we lived in a mobile home. We had virtually no furniture in our living room, but the first thing we did was to go to Schmitt Music Company in Minneapolis and buy a Mason and Hamline grand piano, which we have had for 45 years.
Which of your teachers had the most impact on your life?
Delores Baudette, who patiently taught me saxophone in the summer of sixth grade. My high school band director John Pope and high school choral director Don Gustafson, both of whom afforded me many opportunities to play, sing, compose, and conduct while still in high school. My college choral conductor, Kenneth Jennings, whose choral artistry, interpretive skill and elegant conducting style was formative in my development.
Tell me about your first teaching position. How did your career advance from there?
After graduating from St. Olaf in 1974 I took a teaching position in the Crosby-Ironton schools just north of Brainerd, MN. It was a combined junior high and senior high position. It was a challenging position for a first-year teacher, but I learned a lot about teaching, classroom management, organization, developing relationships with teaching colleagues as well as staff. I was there for just one year, as I was accepted into the Masters program at the University of Illinois, and my wife found an elementary music teaching position in the area. We remained there for three years during which time I completed the Masters degree in choral conducting and did another year of study on the doctorate.
Who were the choirs and conductors that inspired you in those early years?
The primary conductor who influenced me as a young conductor was Kenneth Jennings, conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. Being a member of his choir was a daily learning experience in conducting artistry, interpretation, and rehearsal technique.
Who are the choirs and conductors that continue to inspire you today?
There is a plethora of outstanding choirs and conductors, both here in the United States and across the world. I dare say I have learned from, and continue to learn, from many different conductors. I am particularly impressed by those conductors who remain humble before the art of making choral music—those conductors who seek to realize the composer’s intent through intensive score study and knowledge of performance practice—those conductors who realize that each of us is a prima inter pares (first among equals) member of our choirs. I believe that conductors must be vulnerable to and genuinely respect and love their choir members. As I have said to my conducting students over the decades, most conductors will generally fall into one of two categories: those that are windows and those that are mirrors. Mirror conductors seem to be always shining themselves up, needing to transmit to the audience that they are the real show, whereas window conductors seem to be translucent, allowing the light to pass through them, and shining only by the reflected light of real and honest communication with their singers.
How did you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources did you seek ideas?
There are a number of factors which contribute to how I choose repertoire. First and foremost, you must love the music you are doing. This is a concept I try to impart to my conducting students: If you love the music, your passion and commitment for it will be reflected in your students’ attitude toward it.
I have to keep in mind that The Concordia Choir undertakes a two-week national tour every year. Bearing that in mind, I need to choose a program that will wear well in their voices over an extended performance schedule. The tour program must also include a variety of styles and languages, remembering that our audiences are comprised of listeners with a wide variety of musical tastes. I also believe that the program should provide a good balance between music that challenges both the choir and the audience and music that reflects our heritage to include hymns, folk songs, and that most-American of genres, the African-American spiritual.
There must also be a strong educational component for the students. As a choral music educator, I have a responsibility to expose students to the major compositional periods of choral music history. As a composer myself, I feel the need to support emerging composers, and to explore music of various ethnic and cultural traditions.
In terms of repertoire sources, I have tried to keep learning new literature by attending performances of other choirs, including professional, collegiate, high school and community choirs. ACDA events, including state, regional, and national conferences provide rich opportunities to hear outstanding performances of new literature. With our expanded technologies and online services such as iTunes, Spotify and YouTube, conductors can access recordings of choirs spanning the entire globe. I must admit, however, to having a love/hate relationship with YouTube. On the one hand, it is a wonderful resource for perusing a vast number of performances, however there are no effective means of quality control. A person with a camcorder and a built-in condenser microphone can record a performance from 200 feet away and post it on YouTube, often resulting in less-than-representative recordings of the actual performance quality.
What were some of the ideas you implemented to build or recruit students into your program?
It is always important to develop strong and positive relationships with high school conductors. Taking genuine interest in high school programs, attending their concerts, offering to work with their choirs, and connecting personally with students earns both students’ and teachers’ respect. If you earn teachers’ respect, they will encourage their students to seriously consider your program. Additionally, it is critical to realize that potential students are attracted by excellence; maintaining the highest degree of musical excellence and artistry in your choral program will attract talented students. To a certain extent, the phrase from the movie Field of Dreams is true: “If you build it, they will come.”
As a teacher, what are the three most important things you have tried to instill in your students?
We are all, students and conductors, vessels and conduits of a sacred calling that demands humility, commitment, discipline, perseverance, patience, and a love of community.
A lyric spirit and a willingness to give freely to a cooperative effort. Choirs are a specialized community built on trust, mutual respect, and a love of the power of communication that truly can’t be defined.
In a world of endangered sensitivity to the human condition, eroding cultural values, and growing lack of civil discourse, creating and sharing beauty has never been more important. It is hard to be angry when you are singing.
What do you believe are the three most necessary qualities in becoming a Master teacher/musician?
Never stop learning—your students have as much to teach you as you do them. Leave your ego at the door.
Teach the joy of discovery.
Be honest with students. Nurturing students includes constructive criticism as well as praise. Failure is also a learning experience. In some significant ways we have developed in students a fear of failure, and a lack of grit and determination. Compassionate teaching is not to be confused with lowering standards and the expectation of excellence.
What advice do you have to offer a young choral director just beginning their career?
Have patience with yourself as a teacher and human being. You will make mistakes, and you will learn from them. Learn to see music making as a tool for shaping young lives in multifaceted ways, and not as an idol. If the seeking out of perfection in performance becomes your idol, then your students’ best efforts will never be good enough. Learn to regard performance as the result of many hours of daily rehearsal –enjoy the process as much or more than the goal.
With that, what advice would you offer to a veteran choral director well into their career?
Keep finding ways to reinvent yourself. It is easy for all of us to become creatures of habit in our rehearsals and methods. I still like to imagine that the choral conductor I respect the most is sitting in the corner, observing my daily rehearsals. During times of approaching burnout (and it happens to all of us to some degree), I urge you to remember the thrill. That is to say: allow yourself to retreat back in time to an “Aha” moment when the thrill went up your spine—that moment of musical transcendence when you knew that you wanted to become a choral conductor. You are now the one to provide those “Aha” moments for your students, for you are the Johnny Appleseed who plants seeds in the souls of your students. It is a cleansing and renewing journey.
Concordia Choir Rehearsal
Concordia Choir 1987-88
As you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my students’ accomplishments—in Concordia Choir performances and in learning what they are doing with their lives post-Concordia, both in music and many other fields of endeavor. I am honored when I hear from former students how their Choir experience has helped to shape them in significant ways.
As you look back on your career, what are you most grateful for?
My wife and family, students that were willing to learn, a college that supports the ongoing mission of The Concordia Choir, and a gifted and dedicated music faculty. It truly does take a village to educate a student.
You’ve had a multitude of fantastic performances in your career. What was one of your most disastrous? How did you feel about it at the time? How do you feel about it now?
Frankly, I don’t recall any flat-out disastrous performances. Of course, there were those that were less good than others for various reasons. I recall a tour in which, for several days, it seemed like half of the choir was sick. In one concert I had 5 of 9 first sopranos sitting out. There were a few occasions when the student blew the wrong pitch, necessitating starting over. Just this past Homecoming (in fact, my final Homecoming Concert) I was conducting the concert from memory and forgot the order of pieces. So, I gave a rather energetic downbeat for the spiritual we were doing—when in fact the next piece was a slow, soft piece. What an embarrassing moment!
You are also well known for your contributions as a composer. How do your two “hats” (composer and conductor/teacher) balance and influence each other?
In my career it would have been difficult to give up one for the other. Conducting has to do with recreating through performing, though, of course, conducting is very much a creative process—it is just different from compositional creativity. To a large extent, composition is a gift one is given, and that gift is given to composers in varying degrees. It is not a skill set you can systematically learn, although the refinement of compositional gift also demands the mastery of certain skill sets, one ultimately teaches one-self to compose by hearing and absorbing the work of other composers. I feel very fortunate that I have been able to pursue both areas across my career. I have to write in the same way that I have to conduct—there really isn’t a choice for me
Who is your biggest influence as a composer? Why?
I couldn’t name one. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Aaron Copland, to name a few. Why? Their gifts of lyricism, augmented by a sense of drama.
Clausen Christmas Concert 2009
If you could pick your most influential composition (yours), what would it be?
It would be tempting to list those compositions that represent the most investment in stretching myself on a technical basis, both compositionally and in terms of performance challenges. It is often easy to equate technical difficulty with excellence. I will answer in two ways: those that are my favorite compositions and those that—to answer your specific question—are the most influential.
Works that are the closest to me in terms of compositional satisfaction would include O Vos Omnes, In Pace, Tonight Eternity Alone, Three Whitman Settings, Memorial, Mass for Double Choir, The Passion of Jesus Christ, Before The Whirlwind and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.
In terms of the most influential, it would include several more simple pieces, such as Set Me As A Seal, O My Luve’s Like A Red, Red Rose, Prayer, and All That Hath Life and Breath Praise Ye The Lord.
How did you first become involved with ACDA?
As a first-year teacher in 1974, membership in ACDA was a formative factor in my growth and development as a choral music educator. The opportunity to attend conferences that featured excellent performing choirs, thought-provoking and informative interest sessions, and dialoging with many conductors on an informal basis were invaluable experiences.
What has kept you active in ACDA over these many years?
ACDA’s continuing commitment to choral excellence, the informative and well-written articles in the Choral Journal by experts in various areas, the resources and choral reviews that provide us with illuminating information about the wide world of choral music. Of course, the inspiring performances by wonderful choirs and conductors from not only our country but around the world have been and continue to be motivating experiences for me.
Looking back, what has been the value and impact of ACDA upon your professional career?
ACDA creates opportunities for life-long learning, the making of life-long friendships, and the experience of transcendent moments that transform and inspire the community of choral conductors.
ACDA has been an important resource and provided a sense of community for many people in the field of choral music. How has this establishment supported and guided you at both State and National Levels?
I am grateful for the steady hand of excellent leadership exhibited by both the state and national levels of the ACDA that has been extended to myself, and all choral conductors. In particular, I have been blessed with and honored by invitations to compose new music for state, regional, and national ACDA conferences, together with opportunities for The Concordia Choir to perform at several regional and national conventions.
Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in Minnesota, what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?
I have been afforded the opportunity to compose new music for the Minnesota All-State Choir as well as other Minnesota ACDA conferences and events. I was twice given the honor and privilege of conducting the MN All-State Choir. I have a size-able number of former students who are now successful choral music educators across the state at the elementary, middle school, high school, college, community, church, and professional levels of music making.
How have you measured your personal success over the years?
My wife Frankie has consented to be married to me for nearly 46 years—I married up. Our children, Joshua, Katie, and Rachel are intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate, well-rounded, confident and kind human beings, who are each gifted in their own ways, and are making a positive difference in the world.
Where does your musical journey go from here?
Hopefully to more composition, especially for the stage, perhaps film, and instrumental ensembles.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I think that is something best left for others to write.
And that is where the interview closed.
As I search to articulate what his legacy may be, a phrase Dr. Clausen used frequently in rehearsal resounded. “It’s no mistake your voice is halfway between your heart and your mind”. I believe his intent in stating this was for singers to find that balance in music, and also in life. And perhaps that is his most powerful legacy.