Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Doris and Lynn Sjolund, long-time vocal music teachers in Southern Oregon.
Q: Both of you taught music in Medford schools for many years. What do you love about teaching music?
Doris: What I like about teaching music — elementary music — are those many “ah-ha” moments. When you teach music so that children love what they’re learning, it’s not a job. It’s having fun.
Lynn: The thing that’s most rewarding is to see the change that happens with kids as you work with them, and, finally, the joy they have in performing. They love to show off, and when they do they just begin to glow. It is really wonderful.
Q: Lynn, you founded the Rogue Valley Chorale, and Doris you founded the Rogue Valley Children’s Choir. What are you most proud of with these two organizations?
Doris: The Children’s Chorus was an idea from a Hoover Elementary parent. She came to me saying, “We need to have a children’s chorus. I accompanied a children’s choir when I was in McMinnville.” So we started with about 40 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Everybody loved it. They wanted to sing more than just in their music classes, and this was their outlet. Every week was a get-together with people who loved to sing. Now the organization includes singers from third grade through 12th grade, in four different choruses. It works as a part of The Rogue Valley Chorale Association.
Lynn: Doris started The Children’s Chorus about nine years after The Rogue Valley Chorale started, which was in 1973. I think I’m most proud of the growth. With adults, you expect them to have skills because it’s an auditioned choir. As music director I helped them grow from doing some very good literature to performing great literature. There is nothing better than being able to sing the great works of Bach and Handel and Mozart.
Q: Why is there nothing better?
Lynn: Because that’s the epitome. It’s like looking at the Mona Lisa and saying, “Oh, I could do a better picture.” No, you can’t. It can’t be done.
Q: How did you end up making Southern Oregon your home?
Lynn: I came here so long ago, when the freeway through town was being constructed. I was teaching in Lebanon, Oregon, when I got a phone call: “This is Mayfield in Medford. Do you want the job?” I said, “What job are you talking about?” I’d not applied for it, but it had come through my acquaintance with Lorraine Evenson. We’d been in a summer class at the University of Oregon together. I drove down to see about the job and to attend a junior high musical. It was amazing. It was so good. That’s how I came to Medford, and then I just stayed and stayed and stayed.
Doris: Lynn took a sabbatical for a year and participated in the German Center for Music Education at the University of Oregon. I was teaching high school in Iowa and applied to the same program. Germany is where I met Lynn. After the German Center program, I returned to Iowa. Just before the school year started I got a call from the assistant superintendent in Klamath Falls. He said, “We think we have a job for you.” Somebody at the University of Oregon knew me. So I taught in Klamath Falls. I had to switch to teaching elementary chorus and added elementary band. After a year, that was hard work, there were gas bills and phone bills to pay, so we decided to get married, and that’s what brought me to Medford, except I didn’t have a job. I ended up teaching in Eagle Point and then for many years in Medford.
Q: What does singing do for people?
Doris: Singing reaches a part of our body that can’t be measured by tests. It reaches to the soul. With elementary children it’s one class that they can go and just produce, create and seldom have to do pencil and paper tasks. The songs really go to their souls. You could tell by how they sang what they thought the music was all about, what the text was about.
Lynn: The same thing is true at high school. It’s physical, it’s creative, it’s intellectual. It’s a language that everyone understands, but oftentimes can’t talk about very well and explain exactly what’s happening to them. It’s a release for many. It’s an opportunity to get away from the mundane things that we have to go through in our everyday lives.
Doris: And healing for many.
Lynn: You’re experiencing, in a very esthetic way, some of the greatest literature that was ever composed and that speaks to you about the eternal. On the other side, it can also be plain old fun. It’s a release you can laugh or cry with.
Q: What does music do for the community?
Lynn: Music brings a community together. As an example, a month ago we had a sing-along at the Craterian Theater, and about 500 people came. We distributed some vocal scores and sang eight choruses from the "Messiah." Listening to everybody sing, you understood the real community. Nobody hated anybody. Nobody argued with anybody. Nobody did anything but try and do their very best to express what was in this music. Everybody knows the Hallelujah Chorus, but the other choruses from that magnificent work also talk to them. It was very exciting.
Q: If you could raise your baton and wish for anything in the music realm, what would it be?
Doris: My wish would be for daily music for every child K through sixth. It’s proven that music is the greatest thing for your brain, connecting all the synapses. Something actually happens to your brain, and it doesn’t happen when you have music only once or twice a week. That would be my wish.
Lynn: Yes, that’s probably mine too, but I would add to Doris’s comment that it should be taught by professionals who really understand the art and what it can do. I know we would be amazed at how fast kids can pick things up and what a relevant part of the whole curriculum it would be.
Doris: True, that whole reading thing: music; the tracking; the steadiness; the fluency. It’s all there, but it takes a professional to accomplish that.
Q: Can you tell a story about a musical performance that stands out in your mind?
Lynn: There was one concert in 1967. We had been working on a Bach motet with the high school choir. The motet was "Jesu, Meine Freude" and we’d performed it. It was a moment you’d never forget if you were a part of it. Kids came off with tears streaming down their faces. Here’s something that was written around 1650, but had those eternal qualities that they understood. It was absolutely wonderful.
Doris: When I was teaching at Hoover Elementary, I decided to form a choir at the Manor to sing the same music as the Hoover choir. There wasn’t a choir at the Manor then. The Manor choir and the Hoover choir practiced together a couple of times. We held the concert in the Manor auditorium. The place was packed. They were all singing the same music, and wow! It was pretty amazing! It was an intergenerational choir. That’s something we should think about doing again.
Q: What is it about Southern Oregon that makes you call it home?
Doris: Right now it’s probably longevity. We can’t think of any place that we’d rather be. It’s a wonderful arts community. We have outdoor things happening. It offers everything that we would look for.
Lynn: We’ve looked, and I’ve had offers to go other places. ... I don’t think there’s really anything better than the situation we’re in right now. After we retired from Medford we taught in New Orleans at Loyola University for three years. We went with the idea of filling in for a year, and then we were asked us to stay a couple more years, which we did. “Are you going to stay for longer?” We said, “No, we want to go home.” This place calls you back.
Q: Where is music taking you now?
Lynn: I played violin all the way through university years. I played in the symphony when I came to Medford. It’s fun to go back to it now. It’s interesting to find the skills that you had, which are very technical and not easy at all, come back. I’m still not a great violinist, but I wasn’t to begin with. I am now playing with a group here at the Manor that has some really very nice people and are very good players too.
Doris: I grew up playing clarinet in the band through college years. It was my major instrument. Now I’ve picked up the clarinet again, and I’m in The Southern Oregon Concert Band and loving it. It’s interesting, not that we’ve forgotten singing, but we don’t do it as often as we used to.
Q: What about conducting?
Lynn: And conducting is more fun than anything
Doris: It feeds your ego.
Lynn: It’s really an opportunity to share your personal experience, things that somebody else might not come up with. Years of experience help me bring techniques, ideas and instruction to become relevant to the performance.
Doris: It’s the feeling that together we’ve created something that none of us by ourselves could have.
Lynn: Doris and I said we wouldn’t be, but we are sort of in charge of The Joyful Voices, the chorus at the Manor. You work differently with older voices, but it’s basically the same. These are people who typically have had choral experience and they understand how to read music. They are intelligent people with interesting backgrounds and an appreciation for music. No matter how old we are, we all want to sing together.
— Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.