Music should be fun
In a swampy backyard in summer 2019, Nick Love ‘19 debuted as a musical director for “Shrek The Musical” with Bunce Backyard Productions.
He had recently graduated from St. Olaf College with a Bachelor of Music degree and was preparing for a semester of student teaching before starting his career in vocal music education. As a lifelong Shrek fan, Love says that participating in this show was more than a dream come true.
“I think that Shrek is super important and that the story is just beautiful,” Love said. “Letting your freak flag fly — we couldn’t hear any better message.”
Bunce Backyard Productions is exactly that: an outdoor stage at the bottom of a sloping residential backyard in Love’s hometown of Maple Grove, Minnesota. Theatergoers bring folding chairs hours in advance to save their place in the audience behind a nondescript house nestled in the peaceful wooded canopy of Elm Creek Park Reserve.
Love began working with the show’s 60 performers in a living room months before the weather got warm enough to use the stage. During live performances, he conducted the show’s musical numbers from behind a keyboard at the front of the pit orchestra, covered by a tarp to ensure that — whatever the weather — the show must go on.
Dealing with people is the biggest thing that you learn in life.Nick Love ’19
“That’s been kind of the big learning curve this summer,” Love said. “Dealing with people is the biggest thing that you learn in life.”
Love was a first-year student when he met Noah Forslund ’19 at St. Olaf. While Love blasted The Beatles from his room, hoping to make friends, Forslund heard the sound and walked in with his guitar. The two had an instant creative connection and Forslund became Love’s first musical friend from outside the Music Department. Together they experimented with sound and comedy as part of the folk duo The Ring-A-Ding Bros.
“It’s the most chaotic thing you’ll ever see,” said fan and friend of the duo Johnny Goodson ‘20.
The Ring-A-Ding Bros. recorded 88 songs direct to Bandcamp and performed in the basements of St. Olaf honor houses to small groups of loyal fans.
“It was pretty much performance art,” Love said. “I would usually put on more layers as we went on and Noah would usually take off layers. I’m trying to think of examples that are okay to share. We used a lot of shaving cream. One time we tried to take our audience outside.”
Creating music with the band was Love’s first time writing songs. It was a freedom of expression that felt at odds with his St. Olaf education. For him, it highlighted a conflict between making music that was fun and making music that was technically excellent, which cast him into a spiral of doubt over his future in music education. St. Olaf promised a rigorous education, and it delivered, but the music education path left little room for individuality and Love was unsure how to focus his creative voice.
“By my senior year, I found making music, especially singing, to be an extremely anxious and strenuous activity,” Love confessed later in a Facebook post to his friends and family. “The various trials that I have faced over the last year … were all, at times, seemingly impossible tasks.”
Love finished out his Bachelor of Music degree, and prepared to be licensed after his required student teaching. Yet he still wondered if he might reroute his career.
After walking across the stage on Sunday, May 26, 2019, Love still had many questions about his future. But he knew, at the very least, he had plans for the summer in Bunce Backyard.
“All memes aside, Shrek is at its core all about loving yourself,” Love said. “I think that, in my early 20’s, I need to hear the message of loving myself and who I am. I think that everybody does every day of their life — the cast, crew, audience — I just think that you can’t go wrong with Shrek.”
While preparing for Shrek The Musical, Love found an analogue for his growing aversion to precision and classical training in the stuffy and status-obsessed villain Lord Farquaad. His eponymous solo number “The Ballad of Lord Farquaad” borrows musical riffs from such famous scores as “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” to deliver a pompous and self-important message about valuing the finer things in life and abhorring his humble roots.
By contrast, Love looked at his own musical roots — mere months from graduation — and felt they weren’t humble enough.
“I came to St. Olaf very intent on being a person who I found out that I wasn’t,” said Love. “But I did leave St. Olaf with some really great people, which I’m so grateful for.”
After joining the world-renowned St. Olaf Choir during his senior year, Love made the difficult decision to leave the ensemble just before their national tour and trip to Norway. He came to the decision by looking inward and receiving advice from counselors at Boe House.
Looking backward at four years on the Hill, Love craved more diversity from his musical experiences — something as unique and creative as the friends he encountered at St. Olaf — rather than something dominated by great composers of the past. Lord Farquaad had it wrong.
“The people that you interact with at St. Olaf, the different communities, and learning how to deal with different personalities and loving different personalities is something that’s been an essential part of my summer and something that I learned a good deal of on the Hill,” Love said.
“I think that’s why community theater has been such a good fit for me,” he continued. “It’s simply about finding the joys in singing. It’s about being in this backyard and pulling together this show, and having this ragtag setup for the pit orchestra. I think that fun has been the centerpoint for me. Achieving something that is both excellent and fun has been a cool thing this summer.”
Mentors that matter
Love’s experience with Shrek The Musical helped renew his enthusiasm for music, yet he continued to process questions about music and the type of teacher he’d want to be.
After completing his first student teaching position, he eventually found what he was looking for while working with Jennifer Thomas ‘92 at Groveland Park Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“She taught me everything,” Love said. “Everything I learned about teaching I learned from her.”
As alumni, they connected a lot on their experiences at St. Olaf — including their musical interests, which were much broader than the standard curriculum. She also gave him the real-world advice he was craving about classroom management, the difficulties of finding a job, and how to be warmly strict to get your point across.
“She led from a place of empathy, which I think is really at the heart of teaching,” said Love. “Being a music teacher is leading with empathy, and you should do that in anything that you do in life.”
Making music fun
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Love was working as long-term substitute music teacher for pre-k through sixth grade at Holy Name of Jesus School in Wayzata, Minnesota. He recently accepted a permanent position for this role and will continue teaching this fall, developing a flexible curriculum that includes many change-making artists and modern pieces.
Music can just be fun. And it should just be fun.Nick Love ’19
“Music can just be fun. And it should just be fun,” Love says. “And can also be really awesome and professional and sound really great and be silly and exciting and goofy all at once.”
Love is a lifelong pianist who received early instruction from his grandmother, a professional piano teacher. Addressing privileges like these, and confronting racism in music, is another of his goals for the year.
“I’ve evolved from wanting to simply have fun making music to teaching students how to become better human beings through music,” Love said. “Through appreciating music, through listening to music, and through performing music. If they can pick up on any of those things and connect it through empathy, I’ve done my job.”