The Choir Workshop

Tryouts

The St. Olaf Lutheran Choir has always been a student organization and as such has been subject to annual change in membership due to graduation from college. Approximately thirty percent of the members have been lost to the organization each year and new material has had to be found. This has been no easy task, for the number of applicants has usually been fifteen or more times the number of vacancies to be filled and to try out that many voices is indeed a tremendous assignment. Some of those who try out have been members of one of the other choral groups during the preceding year and therefore are not complete strangers to the St. Olaf Choir director. Nevertheless, it has meant many days of arduous and fatiguing testing every fall to select first of all a fairly large preliminary group, and then out of this group to make the final selection.

In the fall of 1910 a constitution was adopted in which certain requirements for membership were specified. This constitution, by the way, was not drawn up in a hurry. Many hours of discussion and careful consideration preceded the adoption of each requirement and I have great respect for Dr. Christiansen’s insistence on the importance of each of these in the formation and maintenance of a superior choral organization.

Dr. Christiansen was a strict disciplinarian and demanded hard work and strict attention to what was required at the moment. It was therefore to be expected that punctual attendance at sectional and choir rehearsals would be one of the strictest regulations. The rule adopted and followed was that for every absence a valid and certified excuse be given to the director. Three unexcused absences forfeited membership in the choir.

Other qualifications and requirements were, (1) a good voice; (2) a good ear; (3) rhythmical perception; (4) ability to sing at sight; (5) knowledge of the rudiments of music; (8) good pronunciation; (7) educated taste; (8) musical temperament; (9) experience in choral singing; (10) a spirit of willingness to sacrifice self-interests for the general welfare of the choir. Comments on some of these qualifications may not be out of place.

It sometimes happened that an applicant was much surprised when not accepted by the director. Breathy voices and tremolos were usually not accepted by Dr. Christiansen. Among sopranos the director differentiated between reed-like and flute-like voices and very carefully selected the right proportion of each kind for the most effective presentation of the various numbers on the program he had selected for the year. Those who had had experience in choir work, who could easily sing at sight, or who were musically inclined and interested, were given special consideration. The choir has always been an eight-voice group and in order to get proper balance in the ensemble singing, the selection of the right volume of desirable voices in each section has been a major consideration.

Choir interests come first! Other dates and appointments must never interfere with choir interests. This regulation was of special importance on choir tours; for there were many distracting interests, much to be seen during the day, and a strong temptation to stay up late at night. Dr. Christiansen demanded that every member be in the best possible physical and mental condition for every concert. He insisted on early retiring when on tour and on using the liberal daily allowance for a well-balanced diet and not for sweets and cheap meals.

A knowledge of the applicant’s personality was also considered of real value. Freshmen, as a rule, were not accepted but were advised to join one of the other college choirs during their first year. This gave time and opportunity to become personally acquainted with each new student before the final decision was made regarding admission to the St. Olaf Choir.
During tryouts a record was made of each singer’s response to the questions asked and to the various tests given by the director. These annual fall tryouts were given both to new applicants and to those who had been members of the choir during the preceding year. One of the choir’s rather unusual regulations made it necessary for each member to resign at the close of each school year. “Once a member, always a member” did not apply to the St. Olaf Choir. This made it possible for the director to start anew each fall and choose just those voices he regarded the most promising for that year’s successful work.

Rehearsals

When the selection of members was finally completed intensive work began at once. Five hours of choir rehearsals were held each week, three in the forenoon and two in the afternoon. In addition, each section — tenors, altos, sopranos, and basses — met separately for half an hour three times a week. Each section elected a leader from among their group and decided on the place for the sectional rehearsal. These leaders conducted section rehearsals and checked attendance. They also checked attendance at choir rehearsals. Some music was handed out at the first rehearsals and members were urged to memorize their parts as soon as possible. Dr. Christiansen explained very carefully that a certain amount of mechanical work had to be done first. Only after the various numbers could be sung from memory would the polishing process begin. Choir rehearsals were interesting as well as exacting, and comparatively few absences occurred. From the start of work in the fall a spirit of friendly cooperation pervaded the entire group and every member had great respect and sincere admiration for the director. The choir was like a large family.
At times it may have been difficult for members to try to measure up to the requirements of the director, especially when he called on them to sing their part alone. But on the other hand, what joy and real satisfaction was experienced when the director seemed pleased with the efforts put forth! Of course he was sharp and critical. He expected much and strove earnestly and endlessly to encourage the singers to grasp and attain to the beauty inherent in message and music. Perhaps the basses were singing a passage rather listlessly. He would stop the singing at once and tell them in a stern voice: “That phrase you are singing is a powerful prophetic utterance. Sing it that way! There is a big difference between a bar of steel and a rubber hose.”

When the program numbers had been well memorized the polishing began. The printed music was laid aside and from then on all eyes and ears were held in strictest attention to the director’s moves and words. Only sacred music was sung and attention was frequently called to the glory of the message as well as the beauty of the music which conveys the message. As previously mentioned, the choir’s repertoire was not large as the director felt it to be more important to sing comparatively few numbers supremely well rather than a much larger number only moderately well. Dr. Christiansen was not easily satisfied and phrases were sung over and over again in an effort to attain to the most perfect and beautiful expression possible. The result of such drilling is well known. Hard work and strictest attention to minutest details were important factors in the making of the St. Olaf Choir.

In addition to the daily rehearsals at the college, the choir sang an anthem every Sunday morning at services in St. John’s Lutheran Church. Dr. Christiansen was organist as well as choir director and both organist and choir very materially helped to make the services of surpassing beauty and inspiration.

Membership in the choir at St. Olaf College has always been looked upon as the highest honor that can come to a student from participation in extracurricular activities. It has meant, however, that the student has been obliged to give much additional time and work in order to meet requirements. To memorize a new program each year is quite an assignment; and to attend all rehearsals takes time.

Furthermore, it has been a standing rule at the college that no student is permitted to join or retain membership in the choir unless his grades in all college subjects at the end of the preceding semester are eminently satisfactory.

Having been a singing member as well as manager during all the years Dr. F. Melius Christiansen was director, and also during some years following his retirement, I have memorized approximately five hundred choral compositions, have attended five thousand rehearsals, and have sung in more than two thousand concerts, the great majority of which were directed by him. This, of course, has meant that in our years at St. Olaf we have spent much time together. Besides the daily choir rehearsals we frequently met to confer about choir and band matters. On tours we always shared the same hotel room and spent much of the day in each other’s company. I have come to know him intimately, and although in the chapters I have written so far, I have told the story of my own years at St. Olaf, that story is largely my association with a man who was the dominating personality in the events that have been described. Without him my years at St. Olaf would doubtless have been much more drab and commonplace.

Having been with him on three concert tours to the land of his birth and having heard him frequently speak about his relatives, his friends, and his early years in Norway and America, I would like to write a brief biography and try to describe the man, his personal traits, and his achievements as I knew them.

My Years at St. Olaf

Chapters:

Foreword
Early Family History
My Years at St. Olaf’s School
Interim Days at the University of Minnesota
Teaching and Administrative Assignments at St. Olaf College
New Interest in Music at St. Olaf
The 1906 Band Tour to Norway
Band Trips — 1907 on…
The Founding of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir Tours of 1912 and 1913
The First Choir Tour to Metropolitan Centers in America
The 1930 European Tour
Some Interesting Experiences
Other College Interests
The Choir Workshop
Dr. F. Melius Christiansen, A Brief Biography
A Notable Achievement