Back in the ‘before times’ of our non-COVID lives, ACDA-MN hosted a delightful 2019 Fall conference. Along with the great sessions, inspiring and varied performances and wonderful conversations with colleagues, was our Annual ACDA-MN Awards Banquet. This year held special focus and excitement for me because I would get to watch one of my former choir directors, the lovely Nancy Grundahl, receive the prestigious FMC Lifetime Achievement Award. When I reflect upon my time in Nancy’s classroom as a young woman at Augsburg University (then College), her bright spirit and deep love for our choral community fills my mind. As someone who would go on to work with young singers, the imagery she used, the deeply varied repertoire she selected and the care with which she treated our developing voices would stick in my mind to this day; I find myself using her phrases, striving for her kindness and hoping to broaden my student’s musical horizons in the same way that she did mine.
As is often the case with our mentors, there was so much about Nancy I did not know. As such, I was delighted during this interview process to hear more about her story and learn that while choral music had always been an important part of her life, the art of choral directing was something that, in her words, ‘found her’. How touching to hear at the Awards Banquet last November that she would be receiving an award whose namesake had been a professor of her father’s during his time at St. Olaf! In fact, Nancy even shared an image of doodles her father had made in his textbook during a course with F. Melius Christiansen – a lovely example of how life brings itself full circle in so many unexpected ways.
My hope, as you read Nancy’s story below, is that you are as touched as I and so many have been, by what a dear soul she is and that you may know how blessed we all are to have her in our Minnesota Choral Community. May we continue to foster a love of singing and choral music so that there may be many more Nancy Grundahls emerging in our field. Below, her professional profile and answers to questions about how she was shaped as a choral conductor.
Nancy Grundahl – Professional Profile:
Voice Teacher: (1971 – 1992)
MacPhail Center for the Arts, St. Olaf College, Home studio
Festival Singers 1975 – 1995
Angelica Cantanti Concert Choir (youth) – 1992 – 2017
Angelica Cantanti Encore (Adult Alumni) Choir – 2012 – present
Augsburg University Riverside Singers – 1993 – 2019
Mayflower Church Adult Choir – 1985 – present
Mayflower Church Children’s Choir – 2018 – present
Positions held within ACDA-MN:
Honor Choir conductor
Member of the F. Melius Christiansen Scholarship Committee
What is your earliest musical memory and when did you begin your musical training?
In the second grade I remember begging my parents for a piano, and when it arrived, I started lessons immediately. I also remember the pleasant feeling I got singing a solo as a 6 or 7 year old at a church Christmas program and knew I would like to continue singing. But piano studies remained my main focus and I dreamed of a life as a concert pianist! When I got into high school and began my vocal training in earnest, I began my lifelong search for solid vocal technique. Singing in choirs was a normal part of our family’s routine, so that “training” was happening all along.
Which of your teachers had the most impact on your life?
My first piano teacher had me sing as I played scales, arpeggios and piano pieces. I think that made me a confident sight singer because I knew how pitches felt in my voice. She was my first impactful teacher. My high school choir director, Donn Mattson, was the most enthusiastic and supportive person in my young life, and I learned about passion for choral music from him. Olaf Christiansen gave me courage and confidence in my ability as a soloist and section leader, and in his very quiet manner, I learned about spirituality, humility and perfecting music so that it could reach the soul of the listener. Dale Warland was an enormous influence on my knowledge of choral music and rehearsal technique during my years singing under him. And I have learned a lot from my daughter, Randi. who unlike me, has her masters in choral conducting! And of course, the voice teachers in my life guided me as a singer.
Did you come from a choral family? As a child, how did your family impact your attitude toward choral music?
My parents met in their church choir and sang into their 80’s! My brothers have sung their whole lives, both of them marrying choir directors and creating more singers and choir directors. My husband and I met singing together in college, and he has cheerfully sung in all of my choirs. Our two children have participated in many choirs and met and married musical spouses with deep family histories in choral music. Our four young grandchildren all seem to love singing and participating in their church and school choirs! My daughter and I talk choral music to the exclusion of others! (She is a high school conductor.) Choral music is in my DNA although I didn’t appreciate this fact until I was mid-career.
When did you first decide to become a choral director?
The choral profession chose me! Even though I was surrounded by choral singing, I wasn’t planning on becoming a choral conductor. I was more interested in the solo vocal repertoire and was about to attend the University of Illinois for a masters in vocal performance. When the Vietnam War intervened, my new husband had to enter the Navy and our plans changed. Unbelievably, he got stationed in Minneapolis as a recruiter, and I was able to get my masters in vocal performance at the University of Minnesota. During that time, friends from college choir days decided to form a singing group and needed a conductor. I thought I’d give it a try! I soon realized that the singing and interpretation of beautiful music is the same in both professions, and I began to enjoy performing music with my back to the audience! I continued to strive for a career in singing but found myself conducting choirs more often than gaining any foothold in the solo vocal world. The choral world was a much better fit for me.
What are some memories of your first years as a choral director?
Festival Singers was my first choir, and my co-conductor and I wanted to create a community choir that was unique. We were both getting our masters in vocal performance and felt that choral singing was sometimes at odds with solo vocal technique. We thought we had suffered from the blending that was demanded of singers (sopranos especially) in our college choirs and wanted to let our singers sing with greater freedom. As I traveled further into the choral art, I found myself asking my choirs for much more unity of sound. However, I think back to those first bright, colorful sounds of the Festival Singers with joy and satisfaction. As we created music for our own children to sing with us for portions of our programs, we included folk dancing and costumes from around the world. Those are treasured memories.
You have conducted a wide variety of choirs. Tell me about them.
At the same time that I was with Festival Singers, I was also conducting the Mayflower Church choir. Our young family had been so thrilled to find a progressive church in our neighborhood with a great choir. When the minister found out I was a musician, he asked if I would serve on the music committee. One thing led to another and after singing in the choir for a few years, I became the conductor and have been ever since. Finding music for the progressive church with a social justice focus has fueled much of my composition. I have enjoyed the privilege of guest conducting several community adult choirs also.
Even though I had worked with our Festival Singers’ children, I was quite sure that I did not have the skills to teach choir to very young people. Then I was offered the job of conducting the 6th- 8th grade choir in the Angelica Cantanti organization. When I heard the beautiful and sophisticated sounds this choir could make, I was very intrigued. I accepted the position and began my HUGE learning curve. Since I had no music education background, I learned almost everything about teaching choral music by working with those amazing young singers. I sometimes had difficulty finding repertoire that was appropriate and challenging for this choir, so I started arranging and writing for them as I was learning how to teach! I conducted them for 25 enjoyable and exciting years. I grew to love teaching young singers which has allowed me to be confident in conducting our Mayflower Children’s Choir (of which my granddaughter is a member!)
Nancy Grundahl with young singers from Angelica Cantanti
At about the same time (January 1993), Augsburg University needed a conductor for its Women’s Choir. I met a group of singers who lacked pride and confidence in their singing and in their choir. They were quite aware of choral hierarchy in the college setting. We learned together how to empower the treble voice with repertoire that challenged their minds and their voices. As I collaborated with colleagues from other colleges and our program grew, I found that I loved working with college age singers, discovering their vocal and musical strengths by creating a positive and joyful identity as a choir. I loved my 25 years with this choir!
Though I have retired from the college position and youth choir position, I am happily continuing with the Mayflower church choirs. I am also currently energized by being the Artistic Director of Encore, a choir made up of alumni, parents and friends of Angelica Cantanti, the Bloomington-based youth choir organization. This group of 60 adult singers enjoys challenging literature and the community formed by singing together. With my remaining choirs, I am trying to remain creative and hopeful as we face a year of online rehearsals and no performances.
Nancy Grundahl conducting the Mayflower Church Choir
What were some of the special performance events (festivals, conventions, tours) that your choirs participated in?
The Angelica Concert Choir sang at several ACDA-MN conventions. Because travelling was a priority in those days before 9/11, we found festivals around the country and enjoyed those experiences in places like Canada, San Francisco, Milwaukee, New York City and Vermont. My Augsburg singers participated in WomanVoice every year, a collaborative concert with other colleges including music of, by and for women or those who identify as soprano or alto. These were my favorite annual collaborative concerts and finding music for singers that was authentic, meaningful and diverse was challenging and satisfying work.
Nancy Grundahl with participating directors at the Woman Voice collaborative concert
How did/do you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources did you seek ideas?
Because I had limited knowledge of choral repertoire, other than the sacred anthems sung in the St. Olaf Choir, I was at a slight disadvantage. I didn’t know how to search for music, and I spent hours going through the bins at Schmitt Music. If I needed a certain text setting or genre that I couldn’t find, I began to write or arrange one to fill the need. I also got many ideas through the ACDA reading sessions and convention bins, or through programs of other choirs heard at conventions. Once the online opportunities for music searching became available, it was much easier.
I was most concerned about three things: 1) exposing choirs to historical repertoire and styles, 2) creating programs with diverse soundscapes and themes and 3) having the choirs sing texts that would have meaning in their lives. Knowing that we all remember words to songs forever, I wanted to be sure that children, especially, had inspiring texts to sing and continually guide them through life. I always felt that I needed to be researching and including non-Western music in my programming, but always got caught in the dilemma of wanting notes on a page. I was most happy to find arrangements of non-western music which made those exciting genres accessible. We are now at a pivotal time when we are examining the ways in which we can be truly authentic with our repertoire choices, and I am eager to see how choral programming will continue to become more inclusive.
How do your two “hats” (composer and teacher/conductor) balance and influence each other?
Because I knew the abilities of my choirs, I could write music that would hopefully be successful for them and for me as the conductor. I was also able to teach the music efficiently because I knew the music well and could talk to the singers about why the notes were written the way they were and what the musical expression behind the notes could mean. The two skill sets worked well together, one influencing the other.
Who is your biggest influence as a composer and why?
I have always loved the colors and compositional techniques of Copland, Vaughn Williams and Debussy, but I find my compositional fingers often following the part-writing rules attributed to Bach that I learned in Music Theory from Kenneth Jennings! Having sung so much Lieder and French mélodie, I learned the importance of setting text to music effectively and expressively.
What is a favorite composition of yours?
I have recently written a piece for my church choir called Do Not Be Daunted (by the enormity of the world’s grief.), a rephrasing of the Micah 6:8 text. I found this text at the time Philando Castille was killed in Minneapolis, and it sat on my computer for a year or so before it begged to be set to music. It has become a staple in our church choir repertoire and has become a favorite of mine. During this time of the Pandemic, it is being published as a solo and/or duet through Kjos Music Publishers.
How did you first become involved with ACDA and what keeps you active?
Because I came to choral conducting later in my musical career, I found the ACDA to be my go-to place for learning about the choral art. I reap incredible amounts of information and inspiration from conventions, workshops, The Choral Journal, Star of the North and watching, listening and talking with other choral musicians and colleagues. I enjoy the musical bond that we experience as members of the organization and as friends, linked by our love of choral music and all that it can mean for us and for all singers who love to sing in community. I enjoy giving back through the F. Melius Christiansen Scholarship committee where we grant scholarships for honor choir singers, graduate school attendees and ACDA and World Choral Symposiums participants.
Conducting Angelica Cantanti at Orchestra Hall
I will continue to be a lifelong learner with the help of ACDA. I have taken from ACDA much more than I have given, and I am especially grateful for the valuable information being shared at this overwhelming time of the pandemic. Though I am not conducting choirs in an educational setting at this time (church only), I am trying to learn all I can about teaching online as we meet, sing, learn and create community. As I attend virtual seminars and read articles and posts through ACDA, I have great admiration for the teachers who are creating new techniques for serving our singers at this difficult time. We may not be singing together in the same space, but we will be nurturing our choristers, and by the time this article is published, I pray that we will be closer to getting a vaccine. The world needs our choral art!