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Outgoing choir director reflects on time at St. Olaf

Mark Stover ’01 has served 3 years as St. Olaf’s Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus conductor. He recently accepted the Associate Directors of Choirs position at the University of Michigan along with a tenure-track role as an assistant professor. The Manitou Messenger conducted an interview with Stover about his time on the Hill and hopes for the future. His answers are transcribed below.

Q:When did you decide that you wanted to be a choir director? What was your journey getting to this point? 

Stover: While I was a student here, I was a religion major and very involved in the music and theatre departments … I, of course, enjoyed my religion major but I always knew I just had an insatiable passion for music … Well, you know life happens and I was actually living out in the San Francisco Bay Area working at a Presbyterian Church out there and, as often happens when one works in a church, needs a raise. And there was a need for the church choir … So all of a sudden, I got approached like, ‘Would you be able to help us with our choir?’… And I said, ‘Sure! Why not?’ I went to the first rehearsal and I call it the miracle of the downbeat because I remember it as if it was yesterday, ya know? My hands come down, that sound comes out of those beautiful human beings and it was just like wow. It just changed me. And like that *snaps* that was it … It just felt like a miracle. And I knew that in that moment – especially as I look back – that was kind of like my Paul on the road. Suddenly I was blinded by the transformation. I just was, I knew I had discovered a sense of vocation in that experience. 

Q: What is your fondest memory as one of the choral directors here at St. Olaf?

Stover: I think for me, it’s those moments in rehearsal. I’m a process guy. As much as I love concerts or Vespers or Christmas Fest or various things that I do, for me, the journey is the formative piece. Those are the most indelible memories. It’s the laughter in our rehearsal; it’s the moment where something locks and you know that every hair on everybody’s neck is sticking up because it is just stunning. Those are the things that are the real magic moments. When those waves of emotion and power happen that are totally organic and honest. I love that. 

Q: What are you looking forward to in your next job as Associate Directors of Choirs at the University of Michigan? 

Stover: I am looking forward to creating a new community in a new place with new people I have never met. I love the chance to build relationships and music can be that catalyzing factor of how we get to grow together … I’m almost 40 years old and I have been nurtured and developed in such a meaningful way here in Minnesota – especially at St. Olaf – and to kind of jump into a vastly different pond – maybe ocean, you could say – is going to be a way for me to learn and grow that I think I am really ready for. And I’m excited about that. 

Q: What are your thoughts on your successor, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu?

Stover: I adore him. I literally still remember just dreaming out loud with my wife, Julie, about: ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible if Tesfa could come and carry the mantle from here?’ And lo and behold it’s what came to pass and I admire him tremendously as a person, as a musician, as someone who is going to care so well for our students and be an inspiration. This has been a life changing opportunity for me and I believe it will be for him as well, and for his family. So I love that I get to hand the baton to someone that I hold in such high regard. 

Q: You mentioned that Dr. Anton Armstrong was your mentor and teacher during your time getting your masters from Luther Seminary. Is there anything you’d like to say about Dr. Armstrong?

Stover: I just thank him for pouring his whole self into me and trusting me. He’s trusted me from day one long before I had this job. That is such a gift when someone believes in you and is willing to give you the world. Everything he can, he’s tried to open up to me. So that’s mentorship and trust and truly that’s powerful. He’s just such an incredible person as a leader and as a man of deep faith and a remarkable, transcendent musicianship, excellent. And he’s just invited me into that. That’s the best of what a mentor can be. It’s not a controlled experiment. It’s an open invitation. That’s Anton. 

Q: Do you have some words of wisdom to impart on your students?

Stover: When given a choice in life and in the journey of life, always make the choice for people … the best stuff in life and the things we carry with us to our dying days are the people we live it with. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Take the leap. Do the unexpected. See where it goes and enjoy those opportunities to push yourself beyond where you thought you could possibly be. 

Q: Anything else you would like to add? 

Stover: I have always said I want to be unapologetically me. Because that’s who God made me to be. That’s the way I’m wired up so I want to be like that no matter where I go. I don’t change, I just want to be me and give them my heart and my passion for music and my love of people – all of these things. So that’s kind of where this journey is going … I say to my students, we live life with our arms and our hands open to receive – never to clench and never to hoard – but receive. And you just don’t know the unexpected things that will be placed in your hands. So I have to practice what I preach and this is one of those moments.

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