UW-Eau Claire alumni success stories

Music to their ears

UW-Eau Claire alumnae reunite to lead State Honors Music Project

Connie Root '76, Linda Petersen '80 and Karen Johnson '78

UW-Eau Claire music education graduates (l-r) Connie Root, Linda Petersen and Karen Johnson were together on campus in February during auditions for the WSMA High School State Honors Music Project. (UW-Eau Claire photo by Rick Mickelson)

April 2004

By UW-Eau Claire News Bureau

School music programs in Wisconsin will find no stronger advocates than UW-Eau Claire alumnae Linda Petersen ’80, Karen (Sands) Johnson ’78 and Connie (Harding) Root ’76.

During the late 1970s, the three music education graduates played together in the UW-Eau Claire Symphony Band under the leadership of Dr. Donald George. They share fond memories of their years at the university, and they speak highly of its music education program and how it prepared them for their careers.

But Petersen, director of programs for the Wisconsin School Music Association, Johnson, Denmark High School band director, and Root, Hudson Middle School band director, have much more in common than their UW-Eau Claire degrees. All three are devoted to providing music education to Wisconsin’s youth, and they’ve crossed paths again in their leadership positions with the WSMA’s State Honors Music Project.

Leading a nationally respected program

As an employee with the WSMA, Petersen coordinates all aspects of the High School State Honors Music Project, part of a program that offers talented Wisconsin youth the opportunity to rehearse and perform with nationally known conductors in a professional setting. Johnson and Root are serving in multiyear volunteer positions as state chairs of the WSMA’s State High School and Middle Level State Honors Projects, respectively. (A fourth UW-Eau Claire music education graduate, Jeff Roy ’79, currently is chair-elect of the high school project and will assume Johnson’s position when her term ends.)

“Both (Connie and Karen) are doing phenomenal work,” Petersen said of her colleagues. “The Honors Project would not be possible without the dedication of our volunteer staff.”

Conductors from across the nation who have participated in Wisconsin’s State Honors Music Project have given the program high marks. One conductor, Dr. Glenn Block, director of orchestras and opera at Illinois State University, called the Honors Music Project “the top program of its kind in the nation,” Petersen said.

Each year more than 2,000 high school students and 1,300 middle school students apply to audition for a spot in one of the honors groups. In their respective roles with the project, Petersen, Johnson and Root help oversee auditions at six different locations on two dates in February for high school students and at six locations on two dates in April for middle school students. They also coordinate details for the 3½-day summer camp attended by the high school honors students, the one-day camp for the middle school participants and the concert performances by all the honors groups in Madison during the Wisconsin State Music Conference in October.

In the midst of all the work, the three UW-Eau Claire grads do manage to find time for reminiscing and laughter about their time together at the university.

“We usually share many memories, a lot of laughs and stories about our college days when we are in the same room,” Petersen said.

Dedicated music educators

The extent of their dedication as music educators becomes clear when one considers that for Petersen, Johnson and Root, their work with the Honors Music Project is just one aspect of their careers.

Petersen has been the WSMA's director of programs since 1994. Besides her duties with the State Honors Music Project, she manages the association's music festival list of more than 5,000 titles, state marching band championships and student composition project, among other responsibilities. After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, she taught middle school and high school instrumental and vocal music in Eau Claire. She then was the concert band editor for the Neil A. Kjos Music Co. in San Diego and an editor, author and clinician for Hal Leonard Corp. in Milwaukee. She recently co-authored "Play and Teach Percussion," a percussion course for college music majors and current music teachers published by GIA Publications, Chicago.

“The best part of my job is meeting these talented students who don’t know each other in June and see lifetime friendships and phenomenal musical growth develop,” Petersen said. “The look in their eyes as they leave the concert stage in October is enormously rewarding.”

Johnson began her career in the Denmark school district in 1978, just after her graduation from UW-Eau Claire. In her current position as Denmark High School’s band director, she conducts the symphonic and concert bands. Her responsibilities also include but are not limited to the school’s marching band, pep band, jazz ensembles and summer band program.

“The best part of my work is the interaction with my students,” Johnson said. “We work as a team exploring new music, learning the music and creating a final product. I feel I have the best job in the world, sharing and making music with students who want to play their instruments.”

Root began teaching instrumental music in 1977 for the Catholic elementary schools in Chippewa Falls. In 1983 she began teaching at Hudson Middle School, where she now teaches the sixth- and seventh-grade concert bands and the seventh-grade jazz ensemble. She also is pursuing a master’s degree in arts education at UW-River Falls, maintains a private trumpet studio and performs regularly in ensembles in western Wisconsin.

“Teaching middle school children is rewarding, exhausting and invigorating,” Root said. “I especially enjoy working at the beginning level of instrumental education. Your reward is in observing how quickly they learn and improve.”

Arts education advocates

As some Wisconsin school music programs face the threat of budget cuts due to the state’s fiscal crisis, Johnson, Petersen and Root are united in their response: Music education in Wisconsin’s schools is not optional.

While evidence has shown the importance of music to students’ success and well-being, music still is often considered an extracurricular, nonacademic area in the schools, Johnson said.

“It is imperative that music programs continue in our schools for the sake of every child, our society and our culture,” she said.

Involvement in music programs also gives students a positive peer group to relate to, Petersen said.

“We cannot eliminate safe and healthy activities for our children,” she said. “Everyone believes their program is the most important, but we cannot go backward” in the area of music education.

Root said she feels fortunate to teach in a school system that values highly the “total education of its children” and stressed it is important to be an advocate in districts where education in the arts is threatened.

“The arts are just one component to teaching the whole child,” Root said. “Creativity, expression, teamwork, problem solving, self-discipline and self-motivation are just some of the fundamentals enhanced by student involvement in the arts.”

Words of wisdom

Johnson, Root and Petersen all have words of encouragement for today’s UW-Eau Claire music education students.

Through her course work, involvements with various ensembles and performance opportunities at UW-Eau Claire, as well as through her experiences assisting with music festivals on campus, Johnson said she developed a well-rounded background that helped prepare her for a career as a music educator.

“Be involved and be a sponge at UW-Eau Claire,” Johnson said when asked what advice she would give to today’s music education students. “You need to be involved in many activities, ensembles, performance opportunities and teaching opportunities to give yourself a variety of experiences to draw upon in the future.”

Root noted that being a music teacher is mentally, physically and emotionally challenging, with many music activities taking place outside of the school day. She advised today’s university students to consult with advisers about what will be expected of them as music educators.

“University students seeking a degree in music education should find a mentor for information, guidance and encouragement,” she said.

Petersen encouraged students with a passion for music to share it with others as music educators.

“It’s the most rewarding gift you’ll ever give anyone,” she said. “Music teachers have enormous influence on the lives of their students.”

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