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For the Love of Music
Jo Ann Miller '74 has spent more than 30 years exploring music and directing NDSU singers as they develop their craft. She reflects on her time in the Challey School of Music, the music she's brought to students and the community, and her legacy.
by Nicole Thom-Arens | January 18 2023
When distinguished professor Jo Ann Miller ’74 was in graduate school, she made two important discoveries that would set a course for her career. First, she found a talent for conducting.
“I was never the best singer, never the best pianist, but I figured out pretty quickly that I had good ears, and I could hear what was going on. I learned how to work with a choir so they would get better and would enjoy the music. I think when I realized my musical expression came out of my hands and arms, I discovered that that was where my musicianship was the strongest,” Jo Ann recalled.
The second discovery came when Jo Ann encountered a new, challenging repertoire of music that motivated her to earn her doctorate and pursue a career in higher education.
“I got into some repertoire that I hadn’t experienced before, and I realized that I couldn’t teach that music at the high school level — they would never be able to do it. That challenging repertoire was something that challenged and inspired me,” Jo Ann said. “When we started the graduate programs at NDSU, that sort of solidified everything. It’s been really wonderful working with master’s and doctoral students in choral conducting.”
In 2013, Jo Ann was selected for the NDSU 53rd Faculty Lectureship Award, which recognizes sustained professional excellence in teaching, scholarly and creative achievement, and service. During her lecture, “A Conductor’s Art,” Jo Ann discusses the work of a conductor and demonstrates that work with the support of the NDSU Concert Choir. She notes three broad responsibilities the conductor must master: developing technique, leadership, and inspiration. A conductor’s skillset, Jo Ann says, includes vocal technique, language and listening skills, keyboard ability, analytical and theoretical skills, music history knowledge, conducting skills, and repertoire knowledge to interpret the composer’s intent. The ensemble must, in turn, internalize that intent in order to communicate it to the audience.
“We [conductors] have no instrument without our students,” Jo Ann said. “We invest in them in order to realize our own artistic aspirations so they, in turn, will be able to realize some of their own.”
Jo Ann completed her master’s degree at the University of North Dakota and earned her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She returned to NDSU in 1989 as the director of choral activities. For 34 years, she has inspired students and future music educators. She’s traveled with NDSU choirs across the country and on European tours, conducted choral orchestral works, performed at major choral conferences, and organized three international NDSU Choral Symposia with colleagues Mike Weber and Charlette Moe.
“I certainly feel that I’ve had the opportunity to do everything I wanted to do at NDSU,” Jo Ann said. “Whatever I could dream up for my choirs I’ve been able to do, and everything has been supported by the Challey School of Music, the College, the University, and, at times, the Foundation.”
In the 2006-2007 academic year, Robert ’67 and Sheila Challey established the Challey Family Music Scholarships, which have awarded $1.4 million through the 2023 spring semester.
“Philanthropy really began impacting us when the Challeys began gifting to our scholarship funds,” Jo Ann said. “Music students are a little bit different than other majors because there are often scholarships in most of the music schools in the region. Where a history major wouldn’t necessarily expect to get a history scholarship, a music student who is gifted would expect to get a music scholarship, so we needed to be more competitive in that area to attract more talented, gifted students.”
The music keeps Jo Ann inspired after more than three decades of teaching. Every three months, she revisits the curriculum and the repertoire.
“I love the music that I get to present to the students — and to see them find something that they’ve never experienced before and also love — it is great,” Jo Ann said.
Since the late 1960s, each spring tour has been recorded. Recently, Jo Ann sifted through 32 years of recordings from 1990 to 2019, which included nearly 700 songs, to categorize an anthology. She divided the best music from those years into seven volumes that span 500 years of choral music: contemporary European composers and Canadian composers; music of Edwin Fissinger and Fissinger composition prize winners 2010-2019 (Edwin Fissinger was a noted composer and director of choral activities at NDSU from 1967-1982. Each year, the Challey School of Music holds a composition competition in honor of Edwin Fissinger.); early music; Romantic Era music; contemporary American composers; contemporary Minnesota composers and NDSU composers; and spirituals, folk songs, and anthems. The finished anthology is a compilation of 144 individual selections.
While the collection is a great accomplishment, Jo Ann says it’s not what she hopes she’s remembered for.
“It’s nice that this anthology is going to be there. When I was putting it together, I wasn’t really thinking of it as a legacy, I was more thinking of it as a resource for other teachers,” Jo Ann said. “When I leave, and someone else is here doing this job, I have no concern that people won’t remember me in another couple of years — the students I taught will. Those students are my legacy.”
The complete anthology is available for free on the Challey School of Music website.