Some thoughts about Weston Noble

I’m not a Luther College graduate, so I never studied officially under Weston Noble who died yesterday at 94 years of age.

He influenced my life in a number of ways.

My first introduction to Weston was as a college student.  My college choir, the Northwestern College Choir, under the direction of Dr. Dennis Port, sang at a regional ACDA conference. I had been struggling with my choice of Northwestern, as I had passed on going to the Conservatory of Music at Lawrence University to go to Northwestern because of finances.  Two things happened at that conference…Lawrence also sang, meaning that my college had achieved the same level of recognition as that other school (you have to audition to be accepted to perform)…and after we sang, Weston came over and gave Dr. Port a huge hug and talked to him for a while.  Other professors from my school made it clear that the interaction we had witnessed was a very special moment.  All of this led to my acceptance of being at my college rather than somewhere else.  This impacted my own happiness and my impacted my openness to learn in new ways.

Over the years as a high school choir director, I had opportunities to see Weston work at the annual Dorian Music Festival and other venues.  Shortly after he retired, one of my former high school students ended up working with him for a year at Carthage College in Wisconsin (she was thrilled). 

I saw Weston direct expressively–and obtain results–from the smallest movement of his index finger.  Some of his warm-ups are still a part of my routine. I wish I could work in an environment where students could be called upon to demonstrate things for each other.  He scared the living tar out of students when he did that–but he always called on people that could handle it.  He was incredibly smart.  He was incredibly kind.  He loved what he did.  He wasn’t full of himself or his program. He lived his faith, and while the world is a lesser place without him, he is with his Lord and Savior at this moment.

When I studied for my Ph.D., I took a course called “The Art of Choral Conducting” at the University of Minnesota, led by Kathy Saltzman Romney.  One afternoon, she had Dr. Craig Kirchhoff (band director) come in to work with us.  He selected a hymn (Amazing Grace) and the class asked me to direct first–confident 32 year old that I was.  I directed it as I normally would–and afterward I stood there for 45 minutes (not joking) as he berated me (and the class) for conducting the hymn to a pattern.  It was a humiliating experience–and no one else would go up to conduct after me.  Maybe Dr. Kirchhoff had a bad day–and he certainly wouldn’t remember me.  Maybe I was just another victim in a long line of conducting analysis.  Simply put, significant damage was done to me (and others in the class) from that experience.

On our last day of the course, the Minnesota Chorale was on hand to work with each of the conductors, and eventually I had to conduct a section of a Faurè’s Requiem.  Our guest clinician was Weston Noble, and after the Kirchhoff experience, I was terrified.  But I pretended to be okay, and I got up and conducted.  The choir sang.  Eventually the movement ended.  Weston turned to me, and said, “Do it again.”  So I did.  Weston said, “Do it again.”  So I did.  Weston said, “Do it again.”  Finally, I spoke up, “Is there something wrong?  Is there something I am supposed to focus on or fix?”  Weston looked at me, then at Kathy, then the Chorale, and said, “No.  It is just that your left hand expression is so lovely and so wonderful that I simply want to keep watching it.”

Wow.  The experience, as my colleague Joel Gotz commented, was cathartic.  It completely rebuilt my confidence after the very destructive experience earlier in the week. I do not think that Kathy put Weston up to that.  I still have the video from the experience somewhere.

I cannot discuss this in depth, but later in my life, some individuals (who had studied under Weston) made an effort to derail my career–and my faith, family, and that experience with Weston all helped me to make it through.  I will be forever grateful that Weston was our guest clinician that day, although I am sure he wouldn’t remember me.

Tim Sawyer referred to Weston Noble as the Yoda of the choral world…that was a perfect summary of his role for so many.  A true master and teacher of the craft. And incredibly kind and wonderful man without an ego (incredibly rare in today’s world of conductors ).  And the funny thing is that he was hired without a doctorate, and in today’s world would not even be considered for a job (even at Luther) without it.

To all those mourning Weston Noble, I am with you.  I promise you he is reaping the rewards of his  life this moment.


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