St. Olaf College Instrumental Music Programs

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • January 10, 2020

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At many schools, at almost every level, the image of their instrumental organizations, bands and orchestras, overshadows their vocal programs.

At St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, their choir is widely known and almost synonymous with the college. But excellence in music pervades St. Olaf and their two bands, two symphonic orchestras, three jazz groups and numerous ensembles also have commanded respect across the music and instrumental world.

The origins of the St. Olaf Band date back to the brass band era and the very founding of the college. At St. Olaf, known for its musical excellence, the very first musical group ever organized was the Boys in White in 1891. This was a typical cornet band of that brass band era. Fourteen young men in white military style uniforms met on their own time three times each week. This band did perform at the Northfield City Park. A St. Olaf graduate acted as this band’s director until a formal music department was established in 1903.

Norwegian-born Frederik Melius Christiansen became the first band director in addition to his duties as the choir director. Christiansen, himself the product of a musical family, was proficient on clarinet, violin, piano, and pipe organ. After emigrating to the United States at the age of 17, he eventually became both the city band and Lutheran church choir director in Marinette, Wisconsin.

Following a music education that spanned both American and European Conservatories, he was recruited to head the new music department at St. Olaf College. Many of the directors of the St. Olaf bands and orchestras have followed this early example and are highly trained and experienced instrumentalists.

Timothy Mahr is celebrating his 25th anniversary as the director of the St. Olaf Band this year. He comes from a musical family, where his mother directed the church choir and taught piano. His interest and musical talent was demonstrated early with his first original composition while still a student at a La Crosse (Wisconsin) high school. A few of his friends from that high school were attending a campus visit at St. Olaf and Timothy decided to “tag along.” “It was the St. Olaf College 100th anniversary, a really big weekend, and I saw the band, the orchestra and the choir…I was hooked,” Mahr told SBO.

So, like his counterpart on the choir side of the St. Olaf music department, Dr. Timothy Mahr is a graduate of St. Olaf (1978) with both a bachelor’s in music theory and composition along with a Bachelor of Arts in music education. Mahr then earned his master’s in trombone performance and a doctorate in instrumental conducting, both at the University of Iowa. Mahr’s teaching and conducting career began at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1981. In 1994 he was appointed as the conductor of the St. Olaf Band ensemble. The St. Olaf Band toured California in 1997 and was also invited to perform at the American Bandmasters Association National Convention in San Diego that year. An annual one-week domestic tour in February had become an Olaf’s band tradition. This current musical outreach by concert tour actually was initiated by a fifteen-city St. Olaf Band tour in 1904. This was long before airplanes and buses! One can only imagine the logistics problems that were encountered. This year’s tour will begin in the Midwest and then will again visit California. Most tour concerts are performed jointly with the local host band or orchestra, somewhat innovative.

The director of the Norseman Band, the other St. Olaf concert band, is Arthur Haecker. He holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music and others and is passionate about wind ensembles and Arabic music. This latter interest came about from his tenure on faculty at the National Conservatory of Music in an Amman, Jordan. This band only tours in the immediate region but has become particularly known for performing modern pieces and attracting young listeners.

In 2005 both the St. Olaf Band and Orchestra joined the choir on a trip to Norway. St. Olaf College, born out of Norwegian heritage, became part of the centennial celebration of Norway’s independence from Sweden. The St. Olaf Band has toured Japan and also performed at the College Band Director’s National Association National Conference.

St. Olaf‘s Orchestra actually dates back to 1906. With over 90 student musicians, the orchestra has been conducted for thirty-six years by Steven Amundson. Amundson had an extensive conducting background even before coming to St. Olaf. This experience included being the resident conductor at the Interlocken National Arts Camp. The orchestra performs and tours nationally and internationally.

The St. Olaf Philharmonia was started in 1975 as the St. Olaf Chamber Orchestra in response to student demand. It initially drew the younger, less experienced string players and performed as a small, 12-member string ensemble. Within just two years it began to grow. At first it just became a larger string ensemble and then winds, and percussion were added.

Again, in response to burgeoning student demand, it was expanded to a full-size symphony format in 1996 and renamed the Philharmonia. The Philharmonia rehearses twice weekly and performs primarily on-campus with an occasional weekend concert tour.

The Philharmonia has been under the baton of a number of conductors over the years. Today this ninety-member symphony is conducted by Dr. Martin Hodel. Hodel is also an active trumpet soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player and serves as professor of music and trumpet at St. Olaf.

The jazz component of St. Olaf’s instrumental music program has three groups simply known as Jazz I, Jazz II and Jazz III. They are faculty directed by artist in residence Dave Hagedorn. Each group is formed in the traditional big band size and instrumentation. Twenty-one musicians playing trumpet, trombone, saxophone (incidental clarinet), piano, guitar, drums and percussion. Styles performed by these groups include swing, be-bop, fusion, funk, salsa and African American, Brazilian and New Orleans grooves. This year Downbeat magazine recognized Jazz I for “Outstanding performance by a large, undergraduate jazz ensemble.” They were previously recognized as the “Best College/University Big Band.” This group has performed in Cuba as part of an international cultural exchange.

Three handbell ensembles at St. Olaf include the Handbell Choir, Chapel Ringers, and the student-led Manitou Handbell Choir. All are directed by Jill Mahr with degrees in flute instruction and music education and perform both chapel services and concerts.

The St. Olaf Collegium Musicum is an ensemble that utilizes period instruments performing appropriate period music. Both the instruments and the music have historic musical history.

The most recent addition to St. Olaf’s music experience opportunity is a unique expression of diversity and inclusiveness. The Javanese Gamelan is a group, actually a family, of instruments which includes bronze gongs, metallophones, a drum set, zither, bowed fiddle, and a flute. This “family” of instruments was donated early this year by an Ole alumni to provide, “an opportunity for St. Olaf students to broaden their exposure to non-western music.” Javanese Gamelin performances are scheduled on campus this spring.

Not every St. Olaf student music organization is faculty or staff directed. A number of grassroots, student run groups, including the Valhalla Band, Manitou Handbell Choir, and the Pep Band function right alongside the staff and facility supported units.

Successful music programs, like all endeavors, require resources that frequently are nearly invisible. One of these rarely mentioned resources is a music library. Far more than just a row of file cabinets full of sheet music the Halvorson Music Library is home to 25,000 music scores, seventeen thousand recordings (both audio and video), 18,000 music-related books and access to a staggering 10 million tracks of streamed music.

This significant number of student music groups might suggest a hierarchy of junior, intermediate, reserve or feeder groups. This is definitely NOT the case at St. Olaf College! Each group is a competent and accomplished entity with a focus on its instrumental mix and repertoire. Each, as noted, is conducted by highly competent and experienced faculty.

Although widely known for its choral groups, St. Olaf may have its “best kept secrets” in its instrumental programs. Time magazine senior reporter, Richard Osterling, once reported, “I’ve always known about the great St. Olaf Choir, but when I saw the St. Olaf Christmas Festival on National Public Television, I was astonished by the music of the St. Olaf Orchestra. It has to be one of the best college orchestras in the nation!”

Among the St. Olaf College opportunities for high school band and orchestra students around the country is their summer music camp and academy. This academy is described as “an intense week of music-making under the direction of St. Olaf College’s acclaimed music faculty.” The days are filled with classes, lessons and rehearsals.

Evenings combine faculty recitals, student performances and social-recreational activities directed by St. Olaf music students and staff. Attendance at this year’s (June 21-27) St. Olaf Summer Music Academy may be all that it takes for one of your students to “be hooked” and eventually become the fifth St. Olaf Band conductor! Additional information about the Summer Academy and all the instrumental music programs at St. Olaf College may be found at

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