Amid the chorus of feet drumming through hallways and lunchroom conversations at full volume, there is a peaceful oasis within Minnetonka High School (MHS): For many students, the choir room offers respite. “One of the boys said, ‘This is a sanctuary,’ ” choir director Paula Holmberg says.
Holmberg thinks the choir brings students together in a special way. “We become a family when we’re here,” she says. “Our learning is so different. We put the iPads down. We put the technology away. Singing is such a personal thing.” As a 22-year veteran of the school, Holmberg (who serves as the school district’s choral department chair and the director of the MHS Concert, Varsity and Treble Women’s choirs) recognizes that students make sacrifices to be in choir. “The reason they make time in their schedule and make an effort to be here is that the music touches a piece of their humanity,” she says. “It’s worth their time to be here, and they like what it does in building their character.”
Throughout her career, Holmberg has witnessed changes—but not always in terms of students. “They haven’t changed very much,” she says. But the way kids learn has indeed evolved: “You can get music from any corner of the world.” Technology has opened a window to other cultures, ethnicities and religions. “When I started teaching, I was pulling out records,” she says. Now her students can add depth and authenticity to performances by using the internet to dig deeper into a song’s origin and meaning.
With about 230 choir members for the 2015–16 academic year, Holmberg (who’s also the president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Choral Directors Association) says participation levels have ebbed and flowed but mostly held firm, despite the demand on students’ time and attention. “Once they experience it, it’s meaningful beyond words,” she says. “You look at their faces and you can see a spiritual connection between them.”
During this past school year, the MHS Concert and Treble Women’s choirs performed for the Minnesota State High School League choral contest, and both groups earned superior ratings. The Concert Choir performed as a featured choir at the Concordia College Choral Festival in Moorhead. Internationally recognized conductor Rene Clausen coached the choir and noted “both its musical sensitivity and the focused discipline,” according to Holmberg.
The Concert Choir has performed in California and Hawaii and will travel to New York City this year. Every three or four years, the group travels internationally and has performed in Canada, England, Ireland, Italy and Norway. Vocal Support, the parent-led booster club, has a hand in making those performances a reality for all the members. “They work hard to eliminate obstacles that might get in a student or staff member’s way,” Holmberg says, explaining the group raises funds to help defray travel expenses, performs ushering and clerical tasks, and sends choral directors to professional conferences.
Parents participate in the program in other ways, too. Anne Babcock, whose daughter Ingrid Seeland graduated last year and was a choir member, has volunteered with the choir. “What is so clear is the kids’ respect for her,” Babcock says, adding that students trust Holmberg’s leadership. “She’s able to do amazing things with the choir because of who she is as an individual,” she says. “For my daughter, it’s been a real privilege to learn under her teaching. It’s been the highlight of Ingrid’s high school experience.”
Recent grad Emily Gilk sings Holmberg’s praises. “She’s extremely respectful of all of us.” While music is clearly important to Holmberg, Gilk says she helps students understand the value of the art for themselves. “She instills in us a sense of purpose in the choir. She tells us, ‘Sing to express, not to impress,’ ” Gilk says. “That has to do with life, too.”
Holmberg finds motivation as each school year brings new harmonies—of voices and personalities—to the choir.
Paula Holmberg’s honors include the 1999 Music Educator of the Year award from the Minnesota Music Educators Association, the 2005 Choral Director of the Year award from the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota, the 2011 Teacher of the Year award from the Minnetonka School District, and nine honors from Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Holmberg grew up in North Dakota and has degrees in music education and choral conducting.