Mounds Park Academy Vocal Music Program
By John Habermann
Top Photo: MPA concert choir 2018-19
Marlys Fiterman with first MPA Concert Choir in 1983
Founded in 1982 by Bob Kreischer and Sandy Kreischer Smith, Mounds Park Academy (MPA) is a pre-K-12, independent, private, college preparatory school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Marlys Fiterman built the choral program starting with seven singers in MPA’s first concert choir. In the fall of 2001, I inherited a program that included a 75-voice concert choir, grades 10-12, and separate SA and TB choirs each numbering between 40-50 singers. The chamber choir rehearsed Monday evenings while the SA and TB groups met before school. Concert choir, SA choir, TB choir, and chamber choir were all curricular. Modeled after college a cappella groups, the TB and SA quintets were extracurricular. More than 50% of the upper school student body sang in choir and nearly 75% were in one or more music ensembles.
Since then, the vocal music program has changed to meet the needs of the students, the school, and the current times. The quintets no longer exist, and the chamber choir expanded to 24 singers. The TB and SA choirs combined into varsity choir which serves as our non-auditioned choir for grades 9-12. A sizable percentage of the student body still sings in the upper school today. MPA’s daily schedule allows students to be members of concert band/orchestra and choir. In addition, the robust fine arts department includes visual and theatre arts courses. MPA’s graduation requirement is three fine arts credits and students often earn more credits. Because of the schedule and wide array of course offerings, the upper school choirs rehearse every other day for 40 minutes. A subset of concert choir, I am fortunate to work with the madrigal singers (formerly known as chamber choir) every day. All the upper school choir students are given solo or small group lessons where they work on their vocal technique through their concert repertoire. The upper school choirs perform three concerts a year while madrigal singers also carol prior to winter break. Faculty, staff, and alumni join the madrigal singers for caroling.
MPA concert choir 2017-2018 at their spring concert
Winter caroling with faculty, staff, madrigal singers, and alumni in 2019
In 2013, I assumed the role of teaching seventh and eighth grade choirs. Originally an elective, choir class is now a required course in middle school. In the 1990s the seventh and eighth grade students were assigned to SA and TB choirs. The rationale for choirs separated by gender was to address the needs of adolescents going through voice change. Recently, MPA saw the need to create gender expansive, inclusive spaces, so we combined the SA and TB groups into two mixed choirs of seventh and eighth grade students. Next year, my colleague and I hope to create separate seventh and eighth grade choirs where we can address the needs of each choir. We want to study two-part literature with the seventh-grade choir and three-part mixed music with the eighth-grade choir. Like the upper school choirs, the middle school choirs rehearse 40 minutes every other day and voice lessons are offered to students who are not involved in band or orchestra. The middle school students give two concerts per school year. In the fall of 2021, Jocque Warner was hired to teach middle school music at MPA. Jocque and I teach the seventh and eighth grade choirs. For me, team teaching has been an enriching experience and I highly recommend team teaching if you have not done so.
Starting in pre-K, singing is central to a student’s experience at MPA. Mari Espeland has taught lower school music at MPA for 33 years. Espeland teaches using the Orff-Schulwerk approach and subscribes to a whole-body approach to singing. When instructing students she starts with breath work, Brain Dance, body percussion, and imitating vocal sounds made by animals and other sounds found in nature. Students experience pitch matching through singing games not just in class, but in the community. Lower school assemblies include the school song, our alma mater, birthday songs, and songs that support MPA’s CHAMP program. In the spring, students share what they have learned in the annual lower school art and music program.
At MPA, a student’s education is focused on the whole child. Mari and I believe MPA students are smarter and more expressive because of the wide array of classes they take. I would argue that MPA students bring “more to the table” because they take other fine arts classes, history electives, robotics, team sports, etc. Singing may or may not be a student’s strength, but I believe MPA students experience the many benefits of making music together. A complete education at MPA includes students seeing how they function within the ensemble and what their role is within the larger group. Ultimately, I hope MPA singers apply these lessons about interconnectedness and interdependence to their lives, today and in the future.
Interested in collaborating with others, MPA invites other choir teachers and choirs to campus or MPA choirs venture out into the community. Below is a list of special projects the MPA choirs have been a part of during my tenure:
- MPA madrigal singers collaborated with the Oratory Bach Ensemble and the Cretin Derham Hall Chamber Singers in 2018.
- MPA hosted a Choral Festival with choirs from Minnehaha Academy and the Blake School, clinician: Therees Hibbard.
- MPA madrigal singers were selected to take part in the Choral Arts Finale in 2016.
- Performed at Concordia University-St. Paul and at Orchestra Hall under the direction of Joshua Habermann.
- A thirty-year MPA choir reunion featuring a former SA quintet, professional musicians (alumni), concert choir members, and an alumni choir led by current and former directors in the fall of 2012.
- MPA concert choir workshopped and performed with Cantus, a professional vocal ensemble, as part of their Artist-in-Residency program in the spring of 2011.
- MPA concert choir collaborated with the Oratorio Society of MN and composer Elizabeth Alexander in the spring of 2007.
- MPA concert choir selected to take part in the Choral Arts Finale in 2006. Performed at Concordia University-St. Paul and at Orchestra Hall conducted by Dale Warland.
- MPA chamber choir performed at the Minnesota Music Educators 2005 mid-winter convention.
- MPA concert choir invited to sing at the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) 2004 state convention.
MPA choir reunion in 2012
Honor choirs and beyond
MPA consistently sends two or three students to the ACDA of MN 9-10 honor choir and MMEA (Minnesota Music Educators Association) All-State choir programs. I enjoy working with students on the audition material and further developing their vocal technique and expression. Several students continue to sing in college and community choirs, and a few have gone on to sing professionally including Laurent Kuehnl, Jack Cotterell, and Kelly Turpin who founded “An Opera Theatre” (https://anoperatheatre.org/). A Twin Cities based company, “An Opera Theatre” introduces opera to new audiences and is dedicated to making the world just and equitable.
During my tenure at MPA, I hosted six student teachers from the University of St. Thomas. Working alongside a student teacher is an invigorating and rewarding experience that gives you an opportunity to reflect on your craft and to learn from the next generation of teachers. Hosting a student teacher may be especially meaningful for those who do not have other music colleagues in the school where they teach. MPA students always love hearing a new voice and learning from a young teacher. I highly recommend hosting a student teacher if you get the opportunity.
Honestly, I envied choir teachers who could write music with their students in mind and was inspired to write several pieces for my students. And though I do not consider myself a composer, I did find writing music a learning process. (No longer did my students and I guess the intentions of the composer!) Writing music for MPA choirs was a lesson for me in creativity. In “The Melodic Voice: Conversations with Alice Parker”, Parker said, “I think that one of the things we find when we begin to explore our creativity is how our mind works” (2019, p. 139). I hope to incorporate composition into my teaching so that MPA middle and upper school students further explore how their musical mind works. As the MPA motto goes, “we teach our students how to think, not what to think.”
I am fortunate to have worked with so many wonderful colleagues and musicians throughout my career. Students at MPA are smart, caring, motivated, and musically interested because of my colleagues. My colleagues have included: (a) Mari Espeland, lower school music teacher, (b) Mindy Mennicke, former lower school music teacher, (c) Leah Abbe, former music teacher, (d) Renae Wantock, band director, (e) Laura Goucher, former middle school band director, (f) Rosa Glade Arnold, former orchestra teacher, (g) Hannah Lawson, orchestra director, (h) Jocque Warner, middle school music teacher, and (i) Michelle Gehrz, former middle school music teacher.
Current MPA music teachers from left to right:
John Habermann, Mari Espeland, Hannah Lawson, Renae Wantock, and Jocque Warner
Covid-19 has been hard on choir teachers and their students. The numbers in MPA’s beginning high school choir are half of what they have been in the past, yet I am confident that our choirs will be full again. However, I do see a need for the MPA music department to expand to offer non-performance-based classes such as songwriting, digital production, world drumming, and music theory. Regarding student input and learning music from non-Western musical traditions, I know more is possible. The pandemic required choir teachers to think beyond what we have done in the past and makes me ponder what Geoffrey Boers asks his students, “What is now possible?”
Madrigal Singers rehearsing outside during the pandemic in spring of 2021
MPA Concert Choir 2021-22
LaBarr, C and Wykoff, J. (2019). The melodic voice: Conversations with Alice Parker.
GIA Publications, Inc.
About John Habermann
I have been a choir teacher since 1996 and spent my first four years teaching at Centennial High School in Circles Pines and completed my twentieth-year teaching at MPA in 2021. A church musician since the age of 14, my longest tenures were at Mizpah United Church of Christ (UCC) in Hopkins and now at Saint Anthony Park UCC (2012-present). I graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Minnesota in 1995 and received my Master of Arts in music education from the University of St. Thomas in 2008. Currently, I am a doctoral student in music education at Boston University. I am a member of the Minnesota Music Educators Association and ACDA of MN where I serve on the Diversity Initiatives Committee.