Bret Amundson: I think I feel successful when I’m pushing myself and learning new things. Both when I’m feeling good and strong in the classroom but also when I’m balanced and I have a life outside of my work. With choirs, I feel most successful when they’re taking control, when they are in charge, and I’m just there to facilitate. I love it when they say, “We got this. We are here because we want to be great, and we’re willing to push ourselves.”
Richard Carrick: Please tell me more about finding balance in your life, because I think that’s something that a lot of us are struggling with, and I think it’s something you do very well. What has been your journey of finding that balance between professional and personal life?
Bret Amundson: I remember sitting in your seat (Director of Choral Activities at the College of St. Scholastica) and trying to build a program with zero singers. Literally, that first day, I started doing a warmup and no one sang! No one even made a sound. There was a lot of progress to be made. In the beginning, I was moving 3 million miles an hour and was feeling very stressed out. No one was doing it to me–I was stressing myself out. I had to come to terms with the fact that things were getting better, but the rate of change was three miles an hour. At its best, the rate of change was three miles an hour. There was a big gap between my pace and the actual pace of change.
Richard Carrick: Can you go into a little bit more detail explaining what that looked like for you to slow down?
Bret Amundson: I learned that I could go three hundred miles an hour (instead of 3 million) and still be ahead of the game, but not be upset with myself and not be frustrated with the pace of progress. That was a big learning curve. For a while, I was frustrated because I was thinking “We’re not getting enough music majors, we’re not getting this, we’re not getting that.” Then I had a conversation with a colleague who said “Well, can’t you just be the best institution for singing nurses?” which was an “ah-ha” moment.
Richard Carrick: And that brought you fewer frustrations or greater enjoyment in your job?
Bret Amundson: As people, we’re in charge of our reactions and emotions (for the most part), and we get to choose how intensely we respond. So, if I feel myself getting frustrated, that’s on me. I get to change that. I don’t want to be frustrated because then I end up being crabby in rehearsal, which doesn’t fulfill the ensemble’s mission. It’s also not who I am as a human being, and it’s not how I want to attend to people. And I don’t want to be crabby when I go home to see Alex (my husband). It’s not good for anybody if I am freaking out about some random thing that I have no control over. If I am, then I’m not actually spending quality time with Alex. So, at some point, I just decided, “I’m not going to do that anymore.”
Richard Carrick: That is true and seems so simple, but it is so challenging! We like to think that we have control over so much in our lives, but the only thing we have control over is how we respond. So, when you were focused on all of the things that weren’t happening, those aspects became mental roadblocks to your feeling successful. But when you were able to change your mindset to notice what you did have, you were able to redefine what was possible, and that provided a clearer avenue for success?
Bret Amundson: Yes, and it redefined what success looked like.
Richard Carrick: The ensembles you conduct always sing with such artistry. What were your expectations for your students’ quality of music-making in those early days, and did you ever get frustrated because your expectations weren’t being met?
Bret Amundson: This is something I say to students often. I don’t get frustrated if we sing a chord out of tune. And I don’t get frustrated if we sing wrong notes. What I get frustrated about is if we are not all working at 100%. I’m being honest with that. Because if we are all going for it, all those other things will fix themselves. The real issue is, can we get 40 people in the space who care deeply about one another and what we’re doing together for an hour and a half twice per week? And if the answer is yes, then musically, we can do almost anything. That’s always been the mindset that I’ve had about making music.
Richard Carrick: What do you think can block us from keeping that mindset?
Bret Amundson: I think ego is a big piece of that. It is easy to think that your students’ singing will somehow define you. No! I will do my best and hope to create a meaningful journey for people. And then when they come on board, we’re going to rock. But I’m not going to let that define who I am as a human being. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have high expectations for myself or for them – those are two different things.
Richard Carrick: What does that look like in your choirs, and how do you do to share your vision and foster those high expectations?
Bret Amundson: I think that first and foremost, I have high expectations for myself. That includes how I’m going to show up in a space, how I’m going to lead a rehearsal, and how I attend to my students as humans, as musicians, and as a community. And because I set those expectations of myself, it clearly comes across to my students without me having to really say anything. The students see what community means, what a great work ethic is, and what high intensity looks like in this space. And then they can either choose to be a part of it or can say, “That’s not for me.” And that’s okay, right? That’s not a dig on any human being or their passions. I think that that’s how you cast the vision. I don’t think you actually need to say it all the time.
Richard Carrick: I love that. Can you tell me more about what community looks like in your choirs?
Bret Amundson: I think one thing that’s cool about choir is the expectations the singers have for each other. This is what an active community actually is. For me to be a part of a community, I have to be active in that community. It’s a two-way street. It’s reciprocal. We set up this space where we rely on and support each other. In doing so, we have to be aware of how much we are taking. Sometimes, someone has a bad day, and will take more from the community than they’re giving. But, if a person is constantly taking from the community and never giving back to the community, that’s when we need to have a conversation. Sometimes, there may be a sense that we’re taking control of people. But that’s not it! Instead, we’re trying to build something with people. I think one of the best things about choir is we get X number of voices, and every voice is important in a million different ways. Our job is to help our singers see the full capacity that they can contribute. Both for themselves and for a bigger community. It’s not, “What will you do for me so I look good?” But sometimes, that’s the way that it ends up manifesting itself.
Richard Carrick: Absolutely. I think it’s a product of our performative profession. We are putting ourselves out in front of an audience. And if we have that mindset of “these students are reflecting me as a musician and as a teacher,” that is our ego setting us up to fail our students.
Bret Amundson: Yes. I think that what we’re talking about can come across as a bit simplistic. But that’s not the case. We’re still here to do something collectively together. There is a vision, but you’re feeling that vision out with the ensemble as you go. I might want us to be something, but collectively, this group of people may want to be something else.
Richard Carrick: Right, our job is to keep holding the mirror up to the ensemble. As the leader, we have to say, “I know that this is possible for us. Do you want to go there with me?”
Bret Amundson: Right, you’re cheering them on and pushing them. But I don’t even think it’s because of the music, which may be controversial to say – I think it’s because we’re building a community, and we’re teaching people how to be the best version of themselves. So, I’m going to help push them out of their comfort zone in a way that is loving and caring, and they know that I’m doing it with a hug and not a finger wag.
Richard Carrick: What encouragement do you have for other choir directors who are struggling with all of this or are doubting if they are being successful in the classroom?
Bret Amundson: I wonder if what we are reevaluating is the “why.” One of the things that I often think about is, “Why do we do this?” I think it’s about reconnecting deeply and honestly with the “why” and the purpose at its very core. I don’t think many people would say the “why” is performing at a conference or things like that. They’d say the “why” is because “I want to help create a safe community for students” or “I want to help students see their full potential.” It’s almost like we have to not even reevaluate success, but we have to come to terms with our “why” even more deeply than we had to pre-pandemic when things were just rolling. Things kind of blew up, and now they’re not rolling the same way. We have to, in some cases, start all over again or start from a different level than where we were before. These experiences force us to think about “why am I doing this” or “why are we doing this together?”
Richard Carrick: We all feel good when we receive positive feedback. We all feel good when we present and perform for a critical audience and receive those accolades. But it’s not why we’re doing this job. Is that what you’re saying?
Bret Amundson: Exactly. I mean, maybe there are some people who are doing this job for that, and then that’s a different conversation. But that should be our litmus test. Sometimes we say, “My why is this,” but “My success looks like this.” Some people say my “why” is the holistic growth of students, but success looks like a conference performance. Those aren’t mutually exclusive, but when we’re talking about what success actually looks like, I think that we could more closely tie some of those things together. This connects to other aspects of our jobs, like repertoire selection. Of course, selecting diverse repertoire and teaching historical context are important things. But articulating how we marry those aspects even more clearly with the reason our students want to be involved in music is important, as opposed to saying, “I feel like I have to pick a piece from the Renaissance because some random person is going to think less of me if my whole performance is 20th century works.”
Richard Carrick: Our professional egos can battle with what we think is best for our students at those moments.
Bret Amundson: That is, from my perspective, the thing that we all need to be attentive to.
Richard Carrick: It is so hard. I’m continually relearning these lessons, and it is especially hard when the musical quality is lower than I hope for on any given day.
Bret Amundson: Which may not be exactly what you envisioned before the pandemic.
Richard Carrick: Absolutely. But when I stop focusing on my ego and focus on my deeper why, the joy comes flooding back. I’d like to shift the focus a bit away from ensembles and towards the different roles we play during our careers. You’ve worn many hats throughout your career. Can you describe your journey? I think many readers might be interested in expanding what their careers look like in similar ways that you have.
Bret Amundson: I’ll start with transitioning into administrative roles. Shortly after I arrived at the College of St. Scholastica, I became interested in the process of learning. I wondered, “How do we set up structures that help support that process?” I got interested in that from an institutional level, from a systemic level, and began to dabble in higher-ed structures. I think that’s how I ended up as a dean, because the way that I see my role in this position is a lot like I see my role as a choir director. Just like a choir of voices, faculty have voices and desperately want their voice to be heard in multiple ways. Just like a choir, the best results come when faculty are allowed to do just that. So I think that leadership from that perspective is very, very similar. And that’s the best part of the job.
Richard Carrick: You also serve as the Artistic Director for the Lake Superior Youth Chorus. How do you apply these principles there?
Bret Amundson: If we truly, deeply believe that singing will transform lives because of all the things we’ve already talked about today, we need to create a space for that. I see my role as helping to create a space where other people can engage. If I’m confident that everyone’s doing that to the best of their ability, I know the end result will be really awesome. Of course, the singers do that, but the staff get to do that, too. Many of the Lake Superior Youth Chorus staff are music teachers in the schools during the week. They get to do things in LSYC that they wish they could do in their school choirs, but they don’t have the autonomy in those structures. But they do in LSYC. They can say, “I’d really like to try this thing.” And we get to say, “Okay, let’s try it!” And then they get excited. I think that’s been the growth of LSYC. It’s not like we had a huge influx of cash to make things happen. It’s that people are passionate about doing things that connect to their “why.” When you (as a leader) give people the space and permission to try new things, we grow and get more invested.
Richard Carrick: Absolutely. Well, thank you for your time. We’ve covered a lot in a short amount of time, and I think it’s going to be really helpful for our readers.
Bret Amundson: Thank you!