Wilson to retire after 34 years of making musicCue the music and bring down the lights – longtime Cloquet choral director Beth Wilson is about to retire! Wilson’s final Cloquet Middle School Spring Concert is tonight, Monday, May 24 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Cue the music and bring down the lights – longtime Cloquet choral director Beth Wilson is about to retire!
After three decades of teaching music to students in grades 7-12 – most of which were spent in Cloquet – the tireless and inspirational instructor, director and creative muse plans to take a little time for herself for a change.
“Not long ago,” Wilson related, “my son said to me, ‘Mom, you’ve done this for 34 years. It’s time to do something different because there are so many wonderful things in life to do while you still can.’”
And even as Wilson departs at the close of this school year, one thing is for certain – she’ll always have music wherever she goes.
“For me, singing and music have always been just like breathing,” she reflected. “It’s something that has always been there. The whole time I was growing up, it was the same for everyone around me – we ate, and we had music in us. That’s just how it was.”
Wilson grew up in Bayport, Minn., near Stillwater. Her grandfather had been an actor in the University of Minnesota theater department and “listened to classical music a lot,” she said. Her aunts and uncles all sang, and her dad played accordion and harmonica.
“But my biggest influence was my mother,” she said. “She played violin from the time she was five years old. Hers was the typical little Norwegian farm family, and she was so shy she’d hide in the closet in order to play her violin for the neighbors!”
Wilson’s mother went on to Valley City State Teachers College to train to become a choral director and taught music to all grade levels at the rural schools of the area. She ended up as high school choral director in Stillwater, where she later married. When Beth was born, however, her mother had to quit work because at that time women weren’t allowed to teach until their children were in kindergarten.
In the meantime, her mother continued to direct a church choir in Stillwater.
“I remember as a little girl tagging along to Sunday school, looking through the legs of all the ‘big people’ in front of me as she stood up front and directed the choir. On Wednesday nights, she had choir practice so my brother and I would stay at home with my dad.”
Wilson said music was everywhere as she was growing up, since many of the neighborhood families were musical as well.
“Some of the parents of the neighborhood kids brought in people from the McPhail Center for the Arts to teach piano for all of us,” said Wilson. “That was really nice, and we grew up with wonderful teachers.”
Wilson’s mother had many recordings of classical music from her teaching days, so Beth and her brother would lie down for their naps to the music of Brahms.
Wilson joined the school choir in fifth grade and enthusiastically stayed with it throughout school.
“In seventh grade,” she recalled, “I remember that we had to line up in auditorium seats and the teacher would have us leave a row open behind us. We sang a capella, and she’d have her pitch pipe with her, go around behind us, and then tap on our chair and say, ‘Sing it! Sing it just like that!’”
When Wilson was a sophomore in high school, she was one of two to make the concert choir at so young an age, an experience that she said brought with it many benefits.
“Because we were so close to the Twin Cities, we got to perform things such as the ‘Brahms Requiem,’ accompanied by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. We also were given tickets by people in the neighborhood so we could go and see wonderful performances at O’Shaunessey Auditorium, and sometimes the choir got to go and sing with the University Band. There was a wealth of music available to us, and it was just wonderful!”
Wilson was also a member of Girl Scouts throughout the time she was growing up, “and with that,” she said, “there was a song for everything!”
After high school, she went on to St. Olaf College, well known for its strong music programs.
“There, you walk into chapel and everyone automatically sings in four-part harmony, even if they’re not majoring in music,” she exclaimed. “It seemed as though nearly everyone there sang or played an instrument, even if they were majoring in pre-med or something else.”
Her original plan was to start out majoring in both chemistry and music, but she soon realized there was no way she could do both, between all of the lab work, the studying and the performances.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d have the patience to teach like my mother did,” she confessed, “but I had the opportunity to be a counselor at a Girl Scout ranch in Colorado for three summers during college, and that’s when I discovered I actually loved it.”
She said though her mother loved teaching music, she never pushed Beth to go into it.
“She asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? It’s a way of life and it takes up every second of your life,’” related Wilson. “And it does. Teaching music isn’t your typical job. There are so many outside commitments, and even when you’re at home, you’re always trying to think, ‘What music can I do next?’ or ‘What can I do to fix that voice?’ And you’re always going home to correct papers or trying to learn a score. There were many, many evenings I spent at school – and my mom knew that would happen long before I did.”
Wilson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in vocal music education in 1976, and the following fall she took a job teaching music in grades 7-12 at Hermantown.
About that same time, she began working on her master’s degree, and when she learned a voice teaching position opened up at the University of Minnesota Duluth, she applied for the position.
She worked there for three years as a teaching specialist, directing the freshman chorus as well as the University Chorale, teaching secondary methods, doing the vocal coaching for the college musicals, and taking on 40 voice students as well.
Then, a job opened up in the Cloquet School District teaching grades 7-12. She applied, was offered the job and started work there in 1984. She’s been there ever since.
During her time with the Cloquet schools, Wilson has worked on all but two of the fall musicals, mostly with former English teacher and play director Julie Bartholdi.
“Part of the reason I wanted to come here in the first place was because I’d heard about Julie’s work,” Wilson attested. “There was a girl named Kara Francisco who was in one of our shows at UMD, and I thought, ‘If all kids from Cloquet can sing like that, what a wonderful place!’”
Over all of her years in Cloquet, Wilson said she’s had wonderful community support and great parent support as well.
“On all the trips that we’ve taken – to New York, Chicago, Colorado Springs, Nashville, Branson – they’ve been wonderful,” she said.
Many of Wilson’s music students have gone on to succeed in music careers, and still others have been highly successful in pursuing music as a hobby, including musical theater, bands, and even opera.
As for what Wilson will now do following her retirement on June 10, she admitted it’s most anybody’s guess.
“I don’t know – whatever comes along,” she admitted, though she has many different irons in the fire.
She currently has four horses of her own and boards six others on her 90-acre farm in Solway Township, where she also practices equine massage. She said she plans to spend a lot more time with her father, and she would also like to take some time for gardening.
“Last year I planted tomatoes, picked them, and they just sat on the counter during the fall musical,” she said. “By the time I got to them, they had gone soft on the bottom! The year before, I planted potatoes and they ended up sitting in the ground all winter because not once did I have the time to get to them!”
Perhaps one of the defining moments of Wilson’s recent life, however, was when her mother passed away last October.
“Up until then,” she said, “she shared every concert with me. For years, she used to come up for them, and during the spring concert, she’d pin corsages on my graduating seniors. She’d also critique my concerts for me. One time, when I knew her health was failing, I couldn’t get down to the Cities to see her because I had a concert.
“I called her after the concert because I knew she was waiting to hear how it went, since we always shared that together. She didn’t have much energy that night, but I told her I was hoping someday I could play it for her. The next day at 1 p.m., just as I was coming into class at the middle school, I got a call from my father saying she was gone.”
Wilson said her mother’s passion for music was one of the driving forces that helped shape her own life and career.
“To our Norwegian family, to teach vocal music was considered more important than being a medical doctor,” explained Wilson, “because singing was what healed the soul and the spirit. In their eyes, it’s what brings people together as a community and it’s what you carry with you when you are alone to brighten your day. My mother was so proud of the fact that I became a choral director.”
Wilson’s final Cloquet Senior High Pops Concert was slated for Thursday night this week, and next Monday, May 24, she’ll direct for the very last time at the Cloquet Middle School Spring Concert.
And though Wilson will be the one up front directing on those nights, chances are, the spirit of her mother will be with her also.
“I still miss her,” Wilson confessed, “but I know she’ll be listening.”