When did you first decide to become a choral director?
I still have an essay that I wrote in tenth grade about my dream of directing choirs and getting my doctorate in choral music. At NDSU I was a piano performance major until midway through my junior year when I switched to vocal performance. That was the point at which I knew I wanted to direct choirs. After graduation I stayed an extra year to take music education classes, student teach, and get my teaching certification.
North Dakota State University Concert Choir (1977). Mary Kay is on the far left at the end of the second row. Directed by Edwin Fissinger.
What are some memories from your first year as a choral director?
The first choir I directed was the Fargo-Moorhead Chamber Chorale, an auditioned community choir I founded in Fargo, ND at the age of 23. I had no experience other than directing sectionals in the NDSU choir, plus I was the youngest person in the group, so it was a baptism by fire. I learned a lot and every week I was amazed that people continued to show up at rehearsals, but there were some hard lessons, too. At the end of my first year, a tenor (not a professional musician), gave me a two-page, typewritten list of 26 things I needed to change to become a better conductor. It was devastating. In time, though, I realized that if I was serious about being a choral director, I needed to honestly consider what he’d written. I didn’t agree with everything, but I did agree with many of his points and incorporated these changes into my work going forward. It was humbling, painful and educational. It also whetted my appetite to learn more. It’s very gratifying to know that the choir, now called the Fargo-Moorhead Choral Artists, is going strong 42 years later under the direction of Michael Culloton and is a respected cultural entity in that area.
You have conducted a variety of choirs. Tell me about them.
I’ve directed community, church and collegiate choirs over my career and have enjoyed all of those experiences. Here’s an overview:
I directed church choirs for 22 years starting at the University Lutheran Center in Fargo, ND in 1979. After that I directed the adult choirs at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Grace Lutheran Church, Boulder, CO, Westwood Lutheran Church, St. Louis Park, and Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton.
UNIVERSITY & SCHOOL CHOIRS
In the 1980s I substitute taught in middle, elementary and high schools across the Twin Cities metro area. As a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) I directed the vocal jazz group and was assistant conductor to two university choirs. My first full-time university job was as director of choral activities at Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD from 1995 to 1999, after which my family moved back to Minneapolis. I taught at the University of Northwestern St. Paul (UNWSP) from 1999 to 2011, took a one-year leave of absence to teach at CU, then returned to UNWSP for the 2012-13 school year before leaving full-time teaching in 2013. Prior to that I directed the St. Olaf College Manitou Singers in spring 2008, and since 2014 I’ve taught one semester each at Concordia University—St. Paul, University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, U of M—Morris, and University of Wisconsin—River Falls as a sabbatical replacement.
Northwestern College Women’s Chorale at Orchestra Hall after rehearsal for Holst’s The Planets with the Minnesota Orchestra and conductor Edo de Waart (May 2003).
Mary Kay pictured with the 2014 Minnesota All-State Soprano Alto Choir, pianist Stephen Swanson (in green sweater with the choir), and composer Jake Runestad whose piece Sing, Wearing the Sky the choir premiered. (Link to premiere performance at the MMEA All-State Choir Camps on the Concordia College Campus August 2014).
I was the founding director of the Fargo-Moorhead Chamber Chorale (1980-83), now the Fargo-Moorhead Choral Artists, and the Minneapolis Vocal Consort (1985-88). In the mid-90s I was associate conductor of the Longmont Chorale and director of the Longmont Chorale Singers in Colorado, and since 2010 I’ve been artistic managing director of Great River Chorale, a fifty-voice adult choir based in Saint Cloud.
Mary Kay conducting the Great River Chorale (with dancers) in concert at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Saint Cloud, April 28, 2019.
Photo credit: Thomas Patrick Photography
Mary Kay conducting Great River Chorale in concert at the Abbey Church, Saint John’s University, May 1, 2022. It was the choir’s 20th anniversary concert.
Photo credit: Thomas Patrick Photography
Which choirs and choral conductors inspired you early in your career? Who had the most impact on your life? Which choirs and choral conductors continue to inspire you today?
The choral mentor who had the greatest impact on me was Edwin R. Fissinger (1920 – 1990), my teacher, director and advisor at North Dakota State University where I got my B.A. in voice and my teaching certification. Fissinger was a very gifted musician, choral director and composer, and he had a profound impact on my musical development. Singing under his direction was a daily lesson in artistry and nuance and I soaked it all in and loved the challenge. His unwavering support for my professional and educational endeavors was profoundly important and I will be forever grateful. Other early choral influences include Dale Warland and The Dale Warland Singers and Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Choir.
I was also fortunate to sing professionally under the direction of Robert Shaw in the last iteration of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers in summer 1998. We rehearsed six hours a day for two weeks at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and prepared two full concerts which we presented in North Carolina and South Carolina the third week. The choir reconvened in New York City in January 1999 to perform three Stabat Maters–one each by Verdi, Poulenc, and Szymanowski. We were scheduled to rehearse with Shaw for a week and present a concert in Carnegie Hall, but he had recently become very sick and had to pull out. It wasn’t easy finding a replacement conductor on short notice who was available and knew these diverse choral-orchestral works. They ended up flying Charles Dutoit in from Paris the night before the concert, we had one rehearsal with him the morning of the concert, then we performed that night. It was a riveting, “on-the-edge-of-your-seat” performance and was absolutely thrilling. Unfortunately, Shaw’s health never recovered and he died soon thereafter.
How do you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources do you seek ideas?
In your view, how has the programming of repertoire changed over the years?
Selecting appropriate repertoire is probably the most important job a choir director has, and if done properly, it’s also one of the most time-consuming aspects of the job. The music a choir sings is the medium through which we teach people how to sing, to listen, to become better musicians, to communicate, to connect with others, to understand themselves, to learn “civic” responsibility, and so much more.
When selecting repertoire, I usually start with a basic concept or thematic idea for a concert. So much is available online these days that it’s made searching for repertoire much easier, but it still takes a lot of time. I average at least 30 hours online looking at reviews, publishers’ and composer’s websites, concert programs, recordings, etc., to see what is being performed. I check foreign publishers and the IFCM Choral Bulletin to see what is being performed out in the wider world, not just here in the U.S. One of the key elements I consider is the text. Is it a text of substance? Other factors to consider include the level of difficulty, whether it is accompanied or not, amount of divisi, vocal ranges, mood, availability and cost, listener accessibility, and so on. I don’t often rely on “bestseller” or “editor recommended” lists, but I do talk to friends and colleagues in the business to see what they recommend or composers I should check out or music they’ve been performing.
Jingle Bells arranged by Bob Chilcott.
Recorded by Great River Chorale in Nov. 2014.
Home on the Range arranged by Mark Hayes.
Recorded by Great River Chorale in May 2018.
You played a key role in ACDA-MN and the North Central Region as a leader. What offices did you hold? Why and how did you first become involved with ACDA?
ACDA OFFICES AND POSITIONS HELD
- Board Member (2016 – 18)
- 2013 National Conference – Site Chair, Fairmont Hotel (Dallas, TX)
- 2005 National Student Conducting Competition – Adjudicator (Los Angeles, CA)
ACDA NORTH CENTRAL REGION
- President (2016 – 18, 2010-11)
- 2018 Central & North Central Region Conference – Conference Co-Chair (Chicago, IL)
- 2016 North Central Region Conference – Program Chair (Sioux Falls, SD)
- 2008 North Central Region Conference – Member, Planning Committee (Omaha, NE)
- Melisma Editorial Board – Member (2005 – 11)
ACDA OF MINNESOTA
- Executive Director Search Committee – Chair (2021-22)
- F. Melius Christiansen Endowment Fund Committee – Chair (2015 – 17), Member (2007 – 18)
- R & R for Community Choirs – Chair (2014)
- 50th Anniversary Committee – Chair (2010 – 11)
- Summer Dialogue – Program Chair (2007, 2008)
- State Conference – Program Chair (2005, 2006)
- President (2005 – 07)
- R & R for College and University – Chair (2002)
- Collegiate Honor Choir – Site Coordinator (2001)
- Student Conducting Symposium – Master Teacher (2000)
- Membership Chair (2000 – 03)
SOUTH DAKOTA ACDA
- R & R for College and University – Chair (1998 – 99)
- State Conference – Site/Facilities Chair (1997)
EARLY INVOLVEMENT IN ACDA
My first introduction to ACDA was as an undergraduate student in the North Dakota State University Concert Choir directed by Edwin R. Fissinger. We performed at a national ACDA conference in Dallas and premiered several new pieces, including one by Gordon Binkerd on which I had a solo. After the performance legendary choral conductor Howard Swan (Conscience of a Profession: Howard Swan, Choral Director and Teacher, 1987) came backstage to congratulate the choir. At the time I didn’t know who he was, but I later learned that he was held in high esteem in the American choral world. On that same trip our choir was filmed by Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (Second German Television, similar to PBS here in the US) for a television special in Germany. It was thrilling and inspiring and affirmed my desire to direct choirs. I joined ACDA as soon as possible after graduation and made installment payments for several years to become a life member. I’ve always loved going to conferences, being surrounded by people who shared my passion for choirs, hearing different types of choirs and new music, and seeing friends, colleagues, and former students from all over the world.
I don’t know if this is a first, but I was elected president of ACDA North Central Region (now Midwest Region) twice. The first time was in 2010, but I moved out of state to teach at the University of Colorado Boulder for the 2011-12 school year, and because I was no longer in the North Central Region I had to give up my position after serving for one year. After returning to Minnesota I was asked to run again for regional president in 2014, won that election and served six years—two as president-elect, two as president, and two as past president.
What were some of the most memorable performances you’ve witnessed at an ACDA event?
What was the most inspirational ACDA conference performance you’ve heard?
Two memorable performances stand out and they were equally inspirational to me. The first was the Moses Hogan Chorale performance at the 1995 national ACDA conference in Washington, DC. I’d never heard such a vibrant choral sound or seen such a riveting performance in my life. At the end of the concert I, along with everyone else in the hall, literally leapt to our feet, clapping wildly, shouting “Bravo!” The second was The Aeolians of Oakwood University performance at the 2019 ACDA national conference in Kansas City, Missouri, under the direction of Jason Max Ferdinand. The choir was intensely musical, exquisitely nuanced, with gorgeous rich tone and perfect intonation—extraordinary and beautiful in every way. This was another rare instance where at the end of the concert I leapt to my feet, applauding wildly with everyone else in the hall.
Volunteerism at all levels has been vital to the growth of ACDA-MN. How relevant is it for our future?
This is an important question with a problematic answer. Everything about ACDA is built on volunteerism—it has been the lifeblood of our professional organization. I’ve learned so much from my work with ACDA—leadership, budgeting, administrative skills, event management, working with creative people who hold strong opinions, and more. ACDA has given me an invaluable real-life education and I’m better at what I do because of it, but there have been trade-offs, and some have been more challenging than others.
That said, the pandemic has changed people and institutions in ways that couldn’t be foreseen and ACDA needs to take notice. Recent conversations with current and past regional leaders indicate that we’ve entered a new pandemic/post-pandemic era where there is little appetite for taking on volunteer work, especially for educators who already feel overextended. I know half a dozen people (former students, friends, colleagues) who are leaving the teaching profession, some in the middle of a school year, for jobs outside of education or early retirement. I’ve never seen anything like this before. The uncertainties of the pandemic have increased workloads and expectations, and have exacerbated political divisiveness and emotional and mental fragility. Everyone is exhausted, and as a result, many people are protecting their personal time more than ever before. This impacts people’s willingness or ability to take on volunteer work.
Instead of wringing our hands about a lack of volunteers or participation, we need to re-envision ACDA’s organizational model, at least to some degree. We should be asking questions such as “how do we best serve our constituents in a post-pandemic world?” or “do we need one or two state conferences plus a regional or national conference every year?” I realize that changes of this magnitude would have a big impact on ACDA’s existing way of doing business at all levels, but people have changed and we need to acknowledge how that changes what we do. Based on what I’ve seen and I’m hearing, it seems nonsensical to carry on as usual and expect the same results as before the pandemic. In all likelihood this is ACDA’s next big challenge.
Talk about your work in ACDA of Minnesota and other states; what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?
In the last twenty-three years there has been tremendous change and growth in ACDA-MN, and I had a front row seat to much of that due to the various appointed and elected positions I served in during that time. When we moved back to the Twin Cities in August 1999 I wanted to connect with people in the choral field, so I called Wayne Kivell, then executive secretary of ACDA-MN, and offered to help. I was scheduled to work at the registration table for the fall conference with two other people, but I was the only person who showed up. Two months later I was asked to take over as membership chair and from there I just kept saying “yes” when asked to do something.
The state and regional presidencies are six-year commitments: two as president-elect, two as president, and two as past president. Here in Minnesota a president must plan two fall conferences and two Summer Dialogues over the course of six years. During my presidency I also began attending meetings of the F. Melius Christiansen Endowment Fund Committee and got to know many Minnesota choral legends as a result. I continued as a member and later chair of that committee after I finished my term as state president. I was part of the team charged with hiring a financial firm to manage the endowment fund, as well as the committee that hired a director of development to succeed Diana Leland, the first person to hold that position. State presidents are also involved on the regional level, so I was a member of the 2008 Omaha conference committee, then program chair for the 2016 Sioux Falls conference, and finally president and co-chair for the 2018 Chicago conference that combined the Central and North Central Regions. Recently I chaired the hiring committee for Bruce Becker’s successor, Jamie Andrews, and it felt as though I’d come full circle, since I’d also chaired the hiring committee for Bruce, who was ACDA-MN’s first full-time executive director.
What advice or words of wisdom do you wish to share with young and emerging choral directors who are entering the field today?
Take voice lessons. Study vocal pedagogy. Undergrad vocal music education students take voice lessons and typically present a half recital, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the singing voice. I taught choral and vocal music education at the university level for thirty-one years and was always frustrated that these students either weren’t required to take vocal pedagogy or were only required to take a minimal amount. Understanding how the voice works isn’t something that is easily acquired. You need to come back to it, review it and brush up on it throughout your career. Choir directors need to understand, teach and model healthy singing techniques for their choirs wherever they teach and work, whether that’s in a school, house of worship or in the community. The reality is that choir directors will be the only voice teacher that most people will ever have. We are responsible for giving our singers, regardless of age, a solid, healthy, pedagogically sound foundation that will allow them to sing throughout their lives.
Choral directors need to have more than a musical bag of tricks to be successful. Degree coursework focuses on acquiring skills, tools and techniques for use in educational settings and choral classrooms. We add to our knowledge base through observation, experience, and by attending professional conferences, but what works for someone else—even a beloved mentor–may not work for you. Try it, see if it works, and be ready to let it go if it doesn’t feel right. That’s how we learn. You’ll likely find that most of the problems you experience in your career—the things that weigh you down, occupy your thoughts, and take an emotional toll on you—will be extra-musical challenges related to working with people. That’s why I believe our success as choral directors is as dependent on our understanding of people as it is on our musical expertise.
10 Things to Remember:
- You will make mistakes. Rather than dwelling on them or getting defensive, learn from them. As Maya Angelou said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
- Admit what you don’t know. If someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer, say “That’s a good question. I’ll look into it.” Then look into it and report back at your next rehearsal.
- Respect is earned. It isn’t bestowed by virtue of your position, title or reputation. Use respectful, inclusive language. Treat people fairly. Don’t show favoritism. Start and stop rehearsals on time.
- Set realistic goals. If you repeatedly fail to meet your goals, then your expectations need to be adjusted.
- Be prepared. Have a Plan A, B, C and D in case you accomplish your objectives sooner than expected or if something isn’t working out as hoped.
- Pacing is key. A well-paced rehearsal keeps people on task and engaged and is one of your best classroom management tools.
- Become a choral diagnostician. If you hear a problem, diagnose the root cause and come up with a possible solution. Better yet, come up with five possible solutions.
- Anger isn’t a motivator. You might get frustrated in a rehearsal, but there is never a good reason to lose your temper.
- It’s not about you. Focus on the music and the choir. Personality cults surrounding a conductor are a thing of the past and have no place in today’s world.
- Lead with integrity. Doing the right thing, whether personally or professionally, isn’t always easy, but it’s always right.