The year 2015 marks 50 years of music education for Steve Boehlke. In 1965, Steve was hired to teach choral music in Winthrop, MN. He continued his career as the Director of Choral Activities at Rosemount High School from 1976 until 2000. Since retiring from Rosemount, Steve has remained active in the field of music education and has continued to make significant contributions to both his community and the world of choral music.
Merriam-Webster defines retirement as the act of leaving one’s job or the period of time after one has permanently quit their profession. For Steve, teaching music was never a job; it was a vocation fueled by his love of choral music and education. It is certainly a field that he will never cease to contribute to.
After his career at Rosemount High School, Steve taught at University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and decided to form his own community men’s choir in 2003. His group, the Minnesota Valley Men’s Chorale, continues to thrive in our state today. It epitomizes Steve’s desire to provide a music environment for individuals after high school and college.
In addition to actively engaging in music education, Steve has been a dynamic member of professional organizations such as MMEA and ACDA. He has served in several leadership roles including: Choral Vice President of MMEA, President of ACDA-MN (1991-1993), President of ACDA-North Central Division (1998-2000), and various chair positions at conventions (Exhibits Chair, Metro-Chair, Newsletter Circulation Chair, and Housing Chair). Steve was on the board for the World Choral Symposium #6 and is currently a board member for the F. Melius Christiansen Endowment Fund.
Steve has been invited to be a guest conductor, clinician, or adjudicator nearly every year since 1970. Some of his most significant invitations have been received under challenging circumstances, such as the year he was asked to be the interim choir director at Maple Grove High School. That winter, he successfully led the Concert Choir through a convention performance at MMEA. In the fall of 2007, Steve served as interim director for the Gustavus Choir at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN. He also served as the interim choral director at Minnesota State University, Mankato in the spring of 2011.
The musical opportunities that Steve has been given throughout his lifetime are a true testament to his accomplishments as a music educator. His invitations to guest conduct, adjudicate, and clinic other groups are simply a continuation of the work he has done for the past 50 years. In addition to being recognized through invitations, Steve has received a number of awards. Some examples include: Teacher of the Year – Rosemount High School (1984), Choral Teacher of the Year – MMEA (1990), MN Choral Director of the year – ACDA (2000), and the F. Melius Christiansen “Lifetime Achievement Award” for outstanding contributions to choral music in MN (2005). He became the inaugural recipient of the Rosemount High School Performing Arts Legacy Award and was also inducted into the MMEA Hall of Fame in 2007.
Perhaps the most poignant validation of Steve’s accomplishments has been the personal recognition he’s received from over 10,000 former students in the past 50 years. Individuals he taught in Winthrop, those he taught for merely one year, and even those with whom he had only one encounter will go out of their way to thank him for how he changed their lives through music education.
Shakespeare said, “If music be the food of love, play on.” It’s clear that music truly is “the food of love” for Steve Boehlke, and there’s no question that he’ll continue to make meaningful contributions to music and education…even after 50 years.
Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of an interview with Steve Boehlke (SB), conducted by his daughter and former student, Sarah Boehlke Gilbertson (SG). The interview opens with a brief statement from Ms. Gilbertson. Sarah is the director of choral activities at Chanhassen High School, in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
I was a member of the Rosemount High School Choral Department from 1987-1990. I have vivid memories of my high school choral experiences and having my dad as my choir director. I was given so many opportunities not because I was his daughter, but because he believed in my talents.
Rosemount High School was extremely lucky to have such a dedicated and gifted choral director. My dad lived at his job. I find myself laughing as I now sit after school working in my office and remember being so angry with my dad after school because I wanted to go home, and he was my ride. I thought, “What could he possibly be doing in there?!” Well, now I know – he was and still is a master teacher!
To this day, when I have a question about running my program, need someone to help lead a sectional, need someone to come in and work with my men, or need advice about programming, I call my dad. I have learned a great deal from him. I am thankful for the opportunities I received as a high school student at RHS and the continued support I receive as a colleague and a daughter.
SG: When did you first decide to become a choral director?
SB: I was very active in the high school choral program at Mankato West High School, but it was my church choir director, Elias Halling, that got me into music. My high school English instructor, Harry Fitterer, was an important mentor to me because I wanted to be a teacher just like him. I started my studies at Mankato State (Minnesota State University at Mankato) but I wasn’t happy as an English Major. E. J. Halling, chair of the music department at Mankato State, and my church choir director, knew I wasn’t enjoying the major and asked if I would like to take some voice lessons and a music history course on Bach. I had sung in the adult church choir with my dad since I was in ninth grade. It was like a “light bulb” coming on. I couldn’t get enough music and I knew that this was what I wanted to teach!
SG: What are some memories you have from your first year as a choral director?
SB: My first job was teaching 1st-12th grade choir and general music in Winthrop, MN. The job was overwhelming and at times complicated. My high school principal was an old Marine sergeant and we had bells to ignore bells. I was really confused! Every grade consisted of two classes with about 30 students, and I taught each grade level every day. I started out my first year with a whistle just to get the students’ attention! The school put on a Christmas program every year as well, and I was single handedly in charge of over 300 students in the auditorium! All of my choirs were non-auditioned and open to any student wishing to sing. During that first year, the school asked me if I would start a wrestling program, which I did. I was a wrestler in high school and really enjoyed the sport. It was a great combination – Choir Director and Wrestling Coach!
SG: What was your first annual salary?
SB: I signed my first contract for $3,200 a year!
SG: What were some of the ideas you implemented to build or recruit students into the program?
SB: It was helpful being the wrestling coach in a small town! The men in my choir would sing for me during the day and wrestle for me (and the Winthrop Warriors) after school.
In 1976 I applied and was offered a job at Rosemount High School. This was a big move for my family at the time and scary to be moving to the “cities”, but Margaret and I knew it was the right move. ISD 196 was just opening up Apple Valley High School. I started at RHS with 11 boys in the entire choral program. I remember using all of the typical recruiting tactics that we as choir directors use to get males into the program, like talking with the girls to get names of boys who should be singing. I would visit the study halls and strike up conversations with boys sitting in the cafeteria. I invited them to just give choir a try, and they never left. Those strategies worked and two of the men I recruited that way are still singing with me today. Mike Champ was my first all-state tenor and is currently singing in the Minnesota Valley Man’s Chorale. Randy Schafer was one I found in study hall and he had no intention of singing! Randy is now the choral director at Eagan High School!
The choral program at RHS grew and in 1981, we were able to hire Judy Sagen. The program at Rosemount included The Madrigal Dinner, On Stage, a musical, solo and ensemble contests, large group contest, student recitals at senior facilities and, of course, our home concerts. The choral department became the “place to be”. In 1985 we were able to hire a 3rd full-time staff member and that person took over the voice lessons at RHS.
Recruiting is a never-ending project. You are only as successful as your next year’s choir and it’s important that a choral program offers a variety of musical experiences for your students.
SG: Which choirs and choral conductors inspired you in your early years?
SB: E.J. Halling became my first true mentor in college as he guided me through the music program as an undergraduate. Carl Kittleson was my first college choir director. Both men turned on the light to all of the possibilities in choral music for me. I watched the Gustavus Adolphus College Choir, St. Olaf, and Concordia College Choir knowing that I needed and wanted to learn more of the art. I went back to Mankato State to complete a master’s degree and I attended workshops almost every summer. I worked hard to improve myself as a director. In the summer of 1980, I attended a workshop in Granby, Colorado. There I met Eph Ehly, and he has had a profound influence on my choral career. Weston Noble has also played an important role in my choral life. He has taught me that spirituality exists in all music and that it’s up to us, as directors, to open that spirituality to the listener. He has also taught me the importance of vulnerability and the strength to share it with the listener. If I have had any success in my career, it’s because I was a great thief! I took ideas from everyone and if they worked in my classroom, I used them!
SG: Which choirs and choral conductors continue to inspire you today?
SB: We are blessed to have so many great choirs today. It’s quite amazing to just look at that choral scene in Minnesota. Where do I start? St. Olaf and Concordia, along with their directors Anton Armstrong and Rene Clausen have maintained a truly outstanding tradition in choral music. There are many other choirs in Minnesota that inspire me today. I admire the work of Axel Theimer at St. John’s and David Dickau at Mankato. I enjoy the works of Chor Leoni, the Canadian men’s choir, the programs at Michigan and Michigan State, and so many other collegiate and professional programs. Professionally, there are two names that have had a significant influence on my career as a choral musician. The first is Norman Luboff. I remember watching his “Norman Luboff Chorale” as they would tour the United States. I loved their sound! The second is Robert Shaw. Each of us has been influenced by his music: the sound, the rhythmic integrity, the balance and the blend.
SG: How do you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources do you seek ideas?
SB: I enjoy the process of selecting repertoire for my men’s choir and church choir at Grace Lutheran in Apple Valley. I find that it’s a different journey than when I taught high school. As a high school director, I worked with my choirs on an almost daily basis. Currently I see the Minnesota Valley Men’s Chorale, for 2 hours one evening a week. I have 12- 14 rehearsals with them before we present our concerts. I work on a balanced program, selecting repertoire that will be challenging to the singers and balanced as to difficulty, interesting to the audience, and interesting to me. I find music by attending conferences, going to publisher websites, talking to colleagues, and listening. Music is ever changing and evolving and we have to change with the times. We all want to program the newest material available, but as educators, we need to be thinking about our singers and our audience. Programming is challenging, yet it is the most important job we do as conductors.
SG: How do you conduct your auditions?
SB: Right now the Minnesota Valley Men’s Chorale is a non-auditioned ensemble. I listen to all voices, but no one is turned away from singing. This is a choice I made when starting this ensemble. I have always told my students that singing is a life-long activity. Now that I’m working with those adults, I can’t say “Sorry, you didn’t make the choir.” Minnesota is blessed with outstanding auditioned adult choirs. We feel that the MVMC is an outstanding non-auditioned choir. I have to be well prepared to help them be successful as they sing and enjoy the process. I do, however, listen to all voices for placement within the choir.
When I taught high school we usually had to audition in early February or March. I would post the results on Friday and leave as fast as possible at the end of the day. If students didn’t like the result of the audition, I would always welcome them to review their audition. Students were allowed to re-audition knowing that the result may not change from the first audition.
SG: Early on in your career, what style of multi-cultural repertoire was being performed?
SB: There was very little multi-cultural music being performed other than spirituals. We had great examples by Dawson, Smith and Hairston. We had a few folk songs from Eastern Europe and very little from South America or the Pacific Rim. Music was not as readily available as it is now. We are fortunate now to have so much multi-cultural music readily available along with several composers who are eager to work with us. All we really need for our search these days is a computer. Technology has really changed our art.
The only way to hear/find new music was to attend reading sessions at Schmitt music. I remember going to the Choral Associates workshop in Lincoln Nebraska, reading sessions in St. Cloud, and Jenson Publication had reading sessions in Colorado. Publishers did not mail out new listings like they do now so reading sessions were usually large and a great social gathering for directors. I will never forget the reading session in Minneapolis in which Curt Hanson introduced Gilbert Martin’s “When I survey The Wondrous Cross” and there was an immediate standing ovation!!
SG: In those early years, what was the typical balance of sacred and secular music on a concert?
SB: I don’t know if I ever thought about balance between sacred and secular. I know that my Christmas/December Holiday concerts had both sacred and secular works. In the spring, I would program some of the master composers and try to find good arrangements of American folk music. I would guess that I had too much sacred music but in a small town, that’s what the public wanted to hear in their school’s choral programs. I have to say that teaching with a colleague that was of the Jewish faith taught me to be more sensitive as to why I was programming any of the sacred/cultural music I was selecting. I was sensitive to the educational needs of the program. I have never had anyone ever question me in terms of the repertoire performed. It was balanced and always had an educational purpose for it being in the program.
SG: Name 5 chestnuts of repertoire that you would recommend to the conductor of today.
- O Magnum Mysterium – Victoria
- Der Gang Zum Liebchen – Brahms
- Gloria – Vivaldi
- Ubi Caritas – Durufle
- Any choral arrangements by Robert Shaw & Alice Parker
I really believe that we need to know the “chestnuts” that have brought us to this point in our careers and that we need to make an effort to share these works with our singers and our audience.
SG: What were some of the special performances events that your choirs participated in?
SB: I had the privilege of directing on four European tours and one tour to Japan with my high school ensembles. Each was a unique experience that goes well beyond the music we shared with our audience. Those tours provided students with a broader picture of the world.
While at Rosemount we had the opportunity to sing in most of the collegiate choral festivals in the area, all of which were great experiences for the singers. In 1988 we sang at the North Central ACDA divisional conference. That same year we participated in a high school choral festival sponsored by Bringham Young University in Utah. That’s where I first met Mack Wilberg. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the RHS Concert Choir shared in an exchange in a spectacular setting. Another memorable performance was when the Rosemount Concert Choir introduced Minnesota to “Festival Sanctus” by John Leavitt at the state ACDA convention.
It may sound trite, but to me, each concert, festival and tour was a truly special experience. It was and always is about the singer. I love to watch their faces as they share their music.
SG: In your view, how has the programming of repertoire changed over the years?
SB: Choral music is so readily available to us these days because of technology. You wouldn’t have to go to any workshops or reading sessions. A person can sit in front of their computer and the world of choral music comes to them – it’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in the fact that choral music is at our fingertips. It’s bad in that we are losing some of what got us to this place. Our strength is our colleagues, who understand what we do each day.
The concept of listening with our eyes has had an impact on how we program. It’s a difficult balance between what we need to do as music educators and what we need to do to entertain the audience.
SG: As you listen to choirs today, how have the components of choral music performance evolved? (tone – blend – diction)
SB: Tone has changed for choirs. We know more about the voice today and we are much better prepared to work with that voice. There has been so much research on the changing voice for the male and female singer. Arrangers and composers are more knowledgeable in their works for those voices. We have more materials available to help us be successful in the classroom. We see that the voice changes are happening at a much earlier age and this affects our programs. Composers are experimenting with new sounds and our singers are eager to work with those sounds. Look at the impact that Lauridsen and Whitacre have had on choral music in the last fifteen years. There is a great group of young composers who are exposing us to new and exciting sounds as well. They continue to challenge the singers and audiences. We are in an ever-changing world of sound and it’s an exciting time for choirs and directors.
SG: How has the preparation of choral music directors changed?
SB: Technology has played a huge role in the evolution of young directors coming into the field. They have many more tools available for them in their classrooms. They have a greater understanding of the voice and tend to be stronger classroom voice teachers.
Only gaining experience in a choral classroom can help young directors balance all that takes place in a rehearsal that doesn’t involve singing. You can be the greatest musician in the world, but if you can’t communicate and connect with your students, you won’t be as successful of a choral director.
SG: How did you first become involved in ACDA?
SB: I went to a MENC Divisional Conference in Fargo, North Dakota in the early 1970’s. I had heard about ACDA, but at that time you needed three sponsors to become a member. I shared my frustration with some colleagues at the conference and they turned into my sponsors. To this day, I don’t remember their names, but I’m grateful they took a chance on me!
Shortly after that conference I learned that Wayne Kivell, president of ACDA of Minnesota at the time, was looking for someone to serve as division chair for the Southwest areas of Minnesota. I volunteered myself and I think we started with three members in the division.
SG: What were some of the most memorable performances you witnessed at an ACDA event?
SB: I remember my first North Central divisional conference in Minneapolis. The Armstrong High School Choir under the director of Richard Edstrom was the highlight of the conference. I remember the Turtle Creek Chorale in Los Angles, hearing the premier of “Sure On This Shining Night” by Lauridsen.
Every national conference has served as a reminder of how fortunate I am to be in this profession. I am overwhelmed and “washed” over by the excellence I hear and it sticks with me as I travel home to my own choir. There is a point of excellence that exists and can be achieved by ensembles of every level. Most of all, I cherish the friendships I have made through these events.
SG: What has been the most inspirational ACDA convention performance you’ve heard?
SB: I don’t know if I have just one. Each event has been inspirational to me, and I hope they’ve all me a better musician and choral director.
SG: What has kept you active in ACDA over these many years?
SB: The people! We are all in the same business and once a year, we come together and talk. It’s the collegiality we share. Music serves as our umbrella. I have been blessed to call so many of my ACDA colleagues friends.
SG: As a member & leader of ACDA-MN since 1972, what was the state of the organization in the early years?
SB: Those early years were a lot of fun! We were all young and eager to build a strong state organization. Sometimes we jumped before we looked where we were going, but there was always a vision for excellence for choral music in the state. We continually wanted more for our members. Remember, this was before Dialogue was started on the campus of St. John’s University. All we had to offer our members was the state fall conference. It has been exciting to watch the state organization grow.
SG: Looking back, what were some of the key turning points in our history?
SB: Three things come to mind. The concerts at St. Olaf College to honor the legacy of F. Melius Christiansen played a major role in our growth as a state organization. The money we received was used to begin the ACDA Endowment Fund, which is rapidly approaching one million dollars today. With some of the money, we were able to envision a time when ADCA-MN would be able to hire an Executive Secretary. Up until that point, the state president and the board of directors organized everything. Wayne Kivell was our first part-time Executive Secretary. Finally, a small group of people at the North Central ACDA conference in Sioux Falls, South Dakota talked about a summer dialogue where we would come together to talk and share. Axel Theimer was instrumental in getting Summer Dialogue organized on the campus of St. John’s University.
SG: Who were some of the key leaders along the way?
SB: Wayne Kivell and Diana Leland played a huge role in getting ACDA-MN off and running. Roger Tenney was the first chair of the Endowment Fund. Bruce Becker, Bob Peterson and Robert Sieving provided strong leadership as we strived to provide a clear vision in choral music for the membership. I was on the board when we opened our wallets to help the organization meet its budget. We’ve come a long way from those days!
SG: How did our national award-winning newsletter “Star of the North” begin?
SB: It started as a two-page mimeograph. We used to have to address the envelopes by hand, stuff the envelopes, and sort them by zip codes. I would meet Diana Leland and she would take the newsletter to Minneapolis post office.
SG: What were some of the factors that went into developing our annual awards program and recognition program?
SB: The board wanted to recognize an individual for the FMC award. Later, the awards program expanded to include a director of the year and an outstanding young director. Finally, ACDA added the ACE awards to recognize individuals in the community who support our music programs. These ACE award recipients help support the vision for choral music in our designated districts.
SG: Without the benefits of today’s digital age, how did ACDA-MN communicate with its members?
SB: The communication was all through snail mail. There was no such thing as a mass email blast. I laugh now because at the time, we thought that first-class mail was too expensive. Just think now with the Honor Choir deadlines and audition submissions. Everything is faster, easier and a click away.
SG: In your view, what was the original vision of ACDA-MN and how has it evolved?
SB: The state vision was the same as the national vision: we were to support our members and enhance choral music. This vision has not changed – it has just expanded since 1976. We used to be very limited in the resources we had available to us. There is no way we could have done what we are doing now back in 1976.
SG: Volunteerism at all levels has been vital to the growth of ACDA-MN. How relevant is it for our future?
SB: Volunteers are important and it’s getting more difficult to find people who are willing to volunteer for the organization. We all seem to be busier than we were years ago. People would rather write a check than volunteer. The success of ACDA depends upon our volunteers.
SG: Looking back, what has been the value and impact of ACDA upon your professional career?
SB: ACDA has given me more than I have given the organization. It has allowed me to serve in leadership positions and develop collegiality. I have friends nationwide because of ACDA. The organization has given me opportunities to grow and perform, and it has provided me with role models for excellence at the state, divisional, and national conferences.
SG: Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in MN, what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?
SB: I have given my time – my time to volunteer for what I believe is an impressive organization.
SG: What advice or words of wisdom would you give the emerging choral director of today?
SB: Keep the excitement and fun in program. It’s a lifetime journey and not all years are good. Become active in ACDA because of what it does in terms of support for you and your career. Everyone at dialogue can empathize with what other directors are going through and we all understand where our colleagues come from. You must have passion! You have to fight for the relevance of choral music and for what it does for the soul. Choral music teaches people to work together. The choral classroom should be the safe classroom that allows you as the director to take the singers on a journey. If I did my job right, my singers were (and still are) turned on to music. Music provides community and passion to people at all stages of life. I have learned that the men singers I now work with are just as excited as the high school students I used to work with. The feeling we get from singing does not change because of our age or the difficulty of the music.