Illuminating the Past • Informing the Present • Inspiring the Future
“My life goes on in endless song…” is the beginning of one of Ron Larson’s favorite melodies. It also describes his life before, during, and after his amazing 34-year career as a choral director in Minnesota. His life and song continued on for him after he retired from Waconia High School in 1998, in the voices of his former students who are teaching others to sing, singing in adult choirs, or singing professionally.
Ron grew up in Morris, MN knowing he wanted to become a high school choir director. After graduating from high school in 1960, Ron went on to get his B.A. degree from the University of Minnesota, Morris. He graduated from UMM in 1964 and began his teaching career in Monticello, MN. Ron taught vocal and general music grades 1-12 during his two years in Monticello. It is in Monticello that he met his wife of 50 years, Elaine. Ron and Elaine left there in 1966 and Ron continued his career at Oltman Junior High, St. Paul Park, teaching vocal and general music grades 7 and 8. In 1968, the Larsons landed in Waconia where Ron ultimately finished his esteemed career. Ron taught vocal and general music grades 7-12 until his retirement in 1998.
Ron was a faithful member of ACDA, MMEA, MENC, MEA, and NEA for 34 years. He served on miscellaneous task forces and committees for ACDA and MMEA. He served as MMEA Choir Vice President, MMEA President, MMEA All-State Tenor Section Leader, on the ACDA Board of Directors, ACDA Honor Choir Project Coordinator for North Central Convention in Minneapolis, and as an MMEA All-State Choir Adjudicator.
In his community, Ron directed an adult church choir for 28 years, directed the adult community theater for 10 years, directed an adult community choir, and served on his Church Council and other miscellaneous committees.
Ron’s recognitions include the ACDA of Minnesota Choral Director of the Year Award in 1996, MMEA’s Music Educator of the Year Award in 1997, and he was inducted into the MMEA Hall of Fame in 2002. Ron was a WCCO Good Neighbor in 1997 and in 2009 was inducted into the Waconia High School Hall of Fame.
Sonia Benson Esch, one of his music colleagues from Waconia, still speaks fondly of Ron years after she moved to Stillwater to continue her teaching. “Ron was always positive and upbeat. He was a great role model for students and colleagues.”
Kari Werdahl, who was hired to replace Sonia in 1986, says of Ron: “He was always very supportive of elementary music and curriculum growth and development. I appreciated his integrity, leadership and organizational skills within our district and later in ACDA. I was especially proud to know that he student taught with my dad, Donald Peterson, in Madison MN.”
Lisa Lozito concurs. “Ron ‘walks the talk and talks the walk’ in all areas of his life. He mentored me as we worked side by side at Bayview middle school for 4 years. I am forever grateful for his love, support and friendship.”
Eliott Kranz is a former Waconia graduate who now teaches vocal music at Cedar Falls High School in IA. “Not only did I learn so much from Mr. Larson musically from my time at WHS, but I have distinct memories of him teaching but still maintaining a sense of humor through rehearsal. He also showed a tremendous amount of caring for his students not only in the classroom but outside of the classroom. These qualities are what I try to take into my teaching everyday.”
Clark Machtemas currently teaches social studies at Waconia High School but hasn’t really stopped singing since being part of Ron’s high school choir. He sings with a group called Traveled Ground. Clark states, “Ron’s influence on me personally and professionally is something that I carry with me in the classroom as I teach, and on the stage as a musician. His attention to the overall personal growth that music gives a person is evident to this day in many of his former students and colleagues. A rare man indeed! I am fortunate to have worked with him and been taught by him.”
Ric Dressen, former superintendent at Waconia, summed Ron up best when he wrote these congratulatory words on his retirement in 1998: “Here are my top ten reasons why Ron Larson has been appreciated as an educator and an advocate for young people: (10) Outstanding knowledge base…(9) Effectiveness…(8) Always an advocate…(7) Energy, Energy, Energy…(6) Mr. Enthusiasm…(5) Talk About Creative…(4) Team Player…(3) Role Model for Us All…(2) You Care…and (1) A True Teacher for Life.”
What follows is an interview with Ron from Fall 2015.
When did you first decide to become a choral director?
“I knew as a junior in high school that I wanted to be a high school choir director. Nell Marie Hoyem, my Morris High School choir director at the time, strongly influenced my decision. Through her dedication and use of quality choral literature and striving for perfection, she instilled in me a love for music.”
What are some memories of your first year of teaching?
“Being overwhelmed! I was only one of two music majors who graduated from University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) and the only choir music teacher in Monticello. (Previous to that, the choir had been directed by the band director.) My teaching assignment was Concert Choir 9-12, 8th grade general music (with 90 in one class) and general music 1-6, traveling from room to room with a music cart. There were 3 floors in the building and no elevator! All for an annual salary of $4,700.
Recognizing my need for support and inspiration, I soon joined ACDA and MMEA and attended many clinics, conventions, and workshops. I was a sponge for ideas.
At my first Christmas concert at Monticello the choir sang “Still, Still, Still” by Luboff. The choir performed beautifully as snow was gently falling outside.
At the first large group choir contest, the Monticello Choir did not receive a superior rating. Although disappointed, life went on. It all changed the second year.”
What were some ideas you implemented to build or recruit students into your program?
“I was fortunate to step into programs that already had good participation in choir. In 1968 I began my job in Waconia. I was fortunate to be the benefactor of the work of outstanding music specialists in our elementary schools, including Sonia (Benson) Esch, Kari Werdahl, and Lisa Lozito, who nurtured the love of music and singing in their students, which carried over into middle school and high school. I always strived to bring the choirs up to higher standards. I tried to make choir the most important hour of the day. So choir became the place to be. Success breeds success.”
Who were the choirs and conductors that inspired you?
Don Peterson, who was my supervising teacher when I student taught at Madison, MN. He was my inspiration and great mentor. He was firm, fair, set high standards, sang great literature, and had wonderful choirs. He was respected and loved. Then there was Bud Engen, Carl Lipke, Roger Tenney, Dick Edstrom, John Hansen, Jan Gilbertson, Bruce Phelps, Weston Noble, and Bruce Becker, to name a few. In Minnesota we are blessed with marvelous choirs and directors in our colleges and universities. The list could go on and on. Then there are the All-State directors and the directors and choirs that perform at the ACDA and MMEA conventions. Actually, I never met a director I couldn’t learn something from.”
How did you go about selecting your repertoire?
“For me selecting music was the most challenging, time consuming and never-ending job. There is so much out there! I won’t live long enough to do all the great music. Once the literature was picked, the rest fell into place. The music had to be appropriate for the choir. It had to be of artistic merit. It had to be challenging. Did it merit the time needed to perform it? Was it crafted with interesting texts and singable voice leading? What could be taught from it? There needed to be a balance between a cappella and accompanied, sacred and secular, as well as many styles represented. I also kept the audience in mind. I was lucky to have Brook Peterson as a principal, who supported me with a good budget and a paid accompanist.”
Where did you look for music?
“Several places. At first I went through the music bins at Schmitt Music, which was very time consuming. I got many ideas by hearing other choirs at conventions, festivals, concerts, ACDA reading sessions, ACDA R&S repertoire lists, contest lists, and Schmitt Music and Augsburg reading sessions. With the new technology, I listened to music online.”
How did you conduct auditions?
“My auditions were not too stringent. I would check range, match pitches and test tonal memory. I found that most students that wanted to sing could pass these auditions. If a student wanted to sing, it was my job to teach them. My favorite story is a ninth grade boy who couldn’t “carry a tune in a bushel basket.” I put him in choir anyway because he had such a positive attitude. I worked with him individually and he soon came around. He made All-State Choir in his junior year. The moral of the story is never give up on a student.”
Back then, what style of multi-cultural repertoire was being performed?
“You mean, Latin or English? (Joke!) Very little multi-cultural music was available. The song “African Noel” comes to mind.”
In those early years, what was the typical balance of sacred and secular music on a concert?
“More sacred music was performed. You would hear more Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, Gretchaninoff, the “golden oldies”, chestnuts and spirituals. Back then our communities were much less diverse.”
What were some of the special performance events (festivals, conventions, tours) that your choirs participated in?
“The Waconia High School Concert Choir performed at the MMEA Mid Winter Clinics in 1977 and 1984. The choir sang at the 1985 Minnesota Prep Bowl. We sang at several upper mid-west college choral festivals including Luther College, Gustavus Adolphus College, Concordia College, Moorhead, Bemidji State University, Mankato State University, Crown College, Eau Claire, WI and Sioux Falls, SD. Preparing for the festivals, hearing other choirs, and singing together en mass under the direction of outstanding conductors were all wonderful experiences. The Waconia High School Choir also went to Disneyworld/Epcot twice.”
In your view, how has the programming of repertoire changed over the years?
“There is greater variety in the music performed today. We hear much more new music and multi-cultural music. It seems less a cappella music is being performed and more music with expanded accompaniments.”
How did you first become involved with ACDA?
“Early on in my career I joined ACDA. I am a life-time member. I joined because of all ACDA had/has to offer, like State Conferences, Summer Dialogues, Honor Choirs, Star of the North magazine, Award programs, R&S Reading sessions, to name a few. ACDA met my needs. ACDA helped me to keep focused throughout my career.
Volunteerism is a hallmark of ACDA that encourages involvement and ownership. I have served on the ACDA Board of Directors and as Honor Choir Project Coordinator for the North Central Convention in Minneapolis.”
Who were some of the key leaders along the way?
“Curtis Hansen, Murrae Freng, Diana Leland, Wayne Kivell, and Bruce Becker. There are many more, but these giants just popped into my mind.”
What advice would you give to the emerging choral director of today?
“Immediately join ACDA and get involved. Work hard, but keep a balance in your life so you don’t burn out. Keep a good sense of humor. Be flexible. Remain open to new ideas. Remember how lucky you are to be involved in the most noble of professions – working with youth, art and imagination, ultimately impacting lives. Music is a precious gift, handle it with care.”
Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in Minnesota, what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?
“Writing your own legacy is like writing your own obituary. My legacy is the satisfaction in knowing the impact I had on students. Helping students to appreciate and love music, to participate in it now and for a lifetime.”
High School: Morris High School, Morris, Minnesota, graduated in 1960
B.A. Degree: University of Minnesota, Morris in 1964
M.M. Degree: Minnesota State University, Mankato in 1977
Additional course work at University of Minnesota, studied with Roy Schussler
Paul J. Christiansen Choral Workshops
Voice Care Network
ACDA and MMEA Symposiums, Clinics and Workshops
Teaching Career: (34 years)
1964-66: Monticello, Minnesota, vocal/general music 1-12
1966-68: Oltman Junior High, St. Paul Park, Minnesota, vocal/general music 7-8
1968-98: Waconia, Minnesota, vocal/general music 7-12
June ’98: Retired
34 years membership in ACDA, MMEA, MENC, MEA, NEA
Miscellaneous ACDA and MMEA Task Forces and Committees
MMEA Choir Vice President
MMEA All-State Tenor Section Leader
ACDA Board of Directors
ACDA Honor Choir Project Coordinator for North Central Convention in Mpls
MMEA All-State Choir Adjudicator
Directed adult church choir for 28 years
Directed adult community theater for 10 years
Directed adult community choir periodically
Church Council and Misc. Committees
1996: ACDA of Minnesota Choral Director of the Year
1997: MMEA Music Educator of the Year
1997: WCCO Good Neighbor
2002: MMEA Hall of Fame
2009: Waconia High School Hall of Fame
This Article has been co-authored by: