BRINGING MUSIC OUT OF STUDENT MUSICIANS IS THE PRIVILEGE OF SOUTHEASTERN MINNESOTA YOUTH ORCHESTRAS’ (SEMYO) CONDUCTORS SARAH GIFFORD AND SUSAN OFTEDAHL. Gifford takes the baton for the philharmonic orchestra while Oftedahl conducts the chamber strings.
Rochester native and Mayo Clinic employee Sarah Gifford started out playing piano. She came to enjoy playing accompaniments with other musicians, rather than doing solo pieces. “My journey with the clarinet was a little more thorny,” she says. While not her first choice of instrument, she stuck with playing and found she enjoyed it. “I love music and playing with a group,” she explains. She also plays clarinet in local ensembles and teaches private lessons.
Susan Oftedahl’s music journey began with her father, a former music college professor. It was his job at Minnesota State University in Mankato that moved her family to Minnesota. He took Oftedahl and her brothers to see a variety of student and professional musical performances. She plays cello in the Rochester Symphony with a cello that was a gift from her father and was made by David Folland, a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars) in Northfield. “The enriched sounds deepen my enjoyment of playing,” she says.
Gifford’s experience at Luther College helped her understand the spirit of being part of an ensemble. “I was in band, orchestra and jazz orchestra,” she recalls. Each group had different roles for the clarinet. “I learned a lot about musical collaboration that way.”
At Luther, Gifford met a clarinet teacher and mentor who encouraged her graduate studies at Oklahoma University and introduced her to the opportunities of a professional orchestra. Her graduate school clarinet teacher became another mentor. Clarinet students attended discussions about various topics regarding music education. “I continue to be inspired by their work,” says Gifford, “even though we all live in different parts of the country.”
In college, Oftedahl pursued both vocal and string musical studies. While strings won out in her junior year, Oftedahl did not give up on vocal music. “I sing in the most wonderful choir,” she says. Oftedahl participated in conducting a course in the Twin Cities while working in Northfield as an orchestra teacher. Her professors were the conductors of the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She conducted in both of those professional orchestras as a finale. “I had learned to love conducting in college,” she says, “but this took me to a different level in skill and inspiration.”
Oftedahl went on to be the conductor for the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS). She traveled around the world with both GTCYS and the Eden Prairie String Academy. Fondly, she adds, “One distinct memory was watching the GTCYS Symphony performing side-by-side with the Hong Kong Youth Symphony. No communication but for the notes on the pages.”
Gifford’s former piano teacher forwarded the SEMYO conductor job posting to her. “Oddly enough, I hadn’t done SEMYO as a kid,” she says. She now feels she has the best of both worlds. She has a daytime, lower stress job and a place to pursue her musical interests. The student musicians’ interest and motivation in music really sets the experience apart. “One student thanked me for each SEMYO rehearsal with such enthusiasm,” she shares, “I could have fallen off my podium with joy and disbelief!”
“It has always been my honor and privilege to conduct young musicians,” says Oftedahl. A fellow member of the Rochester Symphony, flutist and SEMYO Executive Director Elizabeth Gomoll, told Oftedahl about the opportunity. Oftedahl brings her experience in working with first-time musicians and tries to make their experiences rewarding. “I hope to lead them into lifelong musical pursuits.”
You can find both women conducting at SEMYO’s Fall (November 11), Winter (March 3) and Mother’s Day (May 12) concerts. SEMYO also hosts a concerto competition at the end of January. For more information and a calendar of events, visit semyo.org.
Anna Matetic is a freelance writer who enjoys Rochester’s growing music scene.