Reviving the NDSU orchestra

North Dakota State University has had a bright and amazing music program throughout the years. One thing that has been missing in the most recent of years is an orchestra program. 

Sigurd Johnson wants to change that. Johnson is the director of percussion studies at NDSU. He was also the director of the Gold Star Marching Band and pep bands for 14 years but has recently retired from his position there. Johnson has recently taken up the title of director of orchestral activities. 

“I think it is a very important part of a music program to have an orchestra,” said Johnson.

Johnson is starting “small” right now with just an ensemble called a string orchestra. Last fall there was not anything of the sort and the same with last school year. The last couple of years, there have been either small quartets or no program at all.

“COVID created a bad year. We’ve had a pretty small program the last couple of years because of it,” said Johnson.

NDSU is not alone in this. According to a report by the U.S. government’s Recovery Support Function Leadership Group, “COVID-19 has taken a deep toll on the arts sector.”

“If the trend continues, then the commensurate loss to the nation’s artistic and creative output may prove incalculable.”

Strings have been the big issue with trying to revive the program. Because NDSU does not have an official program, there are not many string players to participate. Johnson knows that there are students that are not just music majors but other students around campus who want to continue playing their string instruments.

There are not only students who want to continue playing, but community members as well. Megan Broton, a graduate of Concordia College, is one of them.

Megan has been playing violin for many years and she was drawn to Concordia not only for the education program but to be able to play in the orchestra without pursuing a music degree. 

“I found my way to the conjoined orchestra with NDSU and MSUM. Then, they eventually split and I stayed with NDSU. And I loved it. I still love it,” said Broton.

Broton loves that it is like a little break for her from her daily life as a teacher during COVID-19. Teaching during a pandemic has been hard and it is just the thing she needs.

Broton also enjoys being in the string orchestra as a community member because she gets to see the students go through a similar learning experience she went through at Concordia. The other community members make it fun as well. 

Broton also likes that it can bring the community together.

“A lot of people think that once you are done with high school, you have to quit playing and music groups. I love that these things exist and I tell people about them so they can join one too,” said Broton.

Concordia has an orchestra program that has been around for many years. Johnson is also a graduate of Concordia and participated in the orchestra program there as well. Johnson mentioned that it was his uncle, J. Robert Hanson, who had started the orchestra program at Concordia. Johnson knows personally how important an orchestra is for a music program.  

Johnson believes he is in the right position right now to help revive the orchestra program at NDSU due to him no longer doing the marching band. He has the time and energy needed to restart a program.

An issue at NDSU right now is they do not have actual string teachers there. The ones they do have are adjuncts so they have no full-time professors for the strings there. It is one of the reasons Johnson believes some music students are not drawn to the orchestra program they have right now.

“We are more of a band and choir school rather than an orchestra one,” said Johnson. “We don’t care if it is non-music majors who are playing. It is just a good way to get students across campus involved who want to continue playing.” 

Though the RSFLG report said arts-related giving is down, Johnson is getting support from all around the Fargo-Moorhead area from community members to the other colleges. 

“Some people look at this as a competition and that’s not what it is at all. It is another opportunity to give people in Fargo-Moorhead a chance to participate,” said Johnson.

Johnson is hoping to gain some “critical mass” with this spring’s string orchestra and get some momentum going with all the string players. Programs across the country have had to adapt to ever-changing circumstances and regulations, but Johnson continues to persevere.

He is hoping to get the program going next fall by inviting brass, woodwinds and percussion players to join and becoming a regular symphony orchestra.

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