Engineering a musical hobby: Love of music has always been with Mike Hanson

Published 11:05 am Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mower County Public Works Director Mike Hanson isn’t just about roads and bridges. He also has a musical background and plays both the saxophone and clarinet in a number of community bands and presentations. -- Eric Johnson/

Mower County Public Works Director Mike Hanson isn’t just about roads and bridges. He also has a musical background and plays both the saxophone and clarinet in a number of community bands and presentations. — Eric Johnson/

Mower County Public Works Director Mike Hanson jokes there was a time he and his fellow musicians thought they were going to be superstars when they were playing in rock bands in the 1970s.

“We never were [superstars],” he said. “We wound up engineers and teachers.”

Though Hanson, 60, opted for what he described as a more practical career in engineering, his life-long love of music hasn’t been any less worthwhile.

Email newsletter signup

Hanson, an Albert Lea native and resident, has been the Mower County engineer for 16 years. But when he’s not on the job, one of his favorite hobbies is playing the clarinet and saxophone, which he does for various organizations in Austin and Albert Lea.

“I love music,” Hanson said. “It’s tons of fun. I would urge anybody that has the ability to pursue it, to not give it up.”

‘I thought it was cool’

Hanson started playing clarinet when he was a second-grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School, a parochial school in Albert Lea that’s no longer operating, though he didn’t start by playing at school.

Hanson’s older brother, Tony, started playing alto saxophone, and Hanson said he didn’t keep his jealousy a secret from his parents.

“I thought it was cool, and I didn’t get anything,” he said. “I threw a fit until they got me a clarinet.”

Hanson started taking private lessons because there wasn’t a band for someone that young. Hanson remembers his parents having records by clarinetists like Benny Goodman and Pete Fountain.

“It was pretty exciting to listen to that and see how good they were,” he said.

Hanson remembers his parents being really supportive by attending his concerts and encouraging him, even when he probably didn’t sound very good when starting out.

Hanson continued playing during his time at Albert Lea High School, and even picked up the alto saxophone after Tony quit playing in high school. However, Hanson has no formal training or education after graduating from ALHS in 1971.

“I thought maybe I might like to be a musician, but the reality is that engineering was a more practical field to get into,” Hanson said.

A rewarding hobby

Though Hanson’s formal music training stopped with high school, he has continued learning by playing almost all his life.

Hanson didn’t play for his college band, but he’d later join a number of rock bands in the 1970s, playing mostly the saxophone. The groups performed a blend of rock and jazz fusion — the Rolling Stones, Chicago, Jerry Garcia, The Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more.

“That never got really serious, it was more of a hobby,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

After he was married in 1980, Hanson started playing with The Muziks, a five to six piece band that played played parties, weddings, Hormel Foods parties, dances and other events.The Muziks played mainly contemporary and standard pieces — popular music people would recognize. With the group, Hanson played with the Muzik family — Danny, Jan and Conrad — and singers like Brian Bawek, Dan Bissen and Michael Veldman.

“We had a lot of fun,” he said.

In 2000, Hanson retired from The Muziks, in part because he ran into an ice storm traveling to a gig and had enough of the traveling.

“I pretty much quit playing,” he said.

In retrospect, Hanson regrets stopping, but he couldn’t stay away very long. About seven years ago, Hanson started playing again. He was a bit rusty, noting it took a long time to get back to where he was. Now, Hanson thinks he’s better than he was when he stopped playing.

After he started playing again, Hanson expanded his collection to four clarinets and four saxophones.

Today Hanson plays with The Spirit Express, a band that plays at a contemporary service at First Lutheran Church in Albert Lea; the Southeastern Minnesota Chamber Orchestra based out of Albert Lea; and he also occasionally plays bass clarinet with the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Hanson also plays programs with the Albert Lea Community Theatre and for Albert Lea High School plays and events. This weekend, he’s playing tenor saxophone for the ALHS play “Footloose.”

Hanson’s wife, Jane, also plays violin in the Austin Symphony and with the Southeastern Minnesota Chamber Orchestra. She also plays the piano.

Hanson said he likes a wide variety of music, from classical pieces to Metallica to Prince, though he admitted Prince sounded a bit strange to him at first. However, Hanson admitted he’s not a fan of grunge.

“If I can understand it, I tend to like it,” he said.

Contemporary jazz is probably one of his favorite types of music.

“I like jazz the best, but it’s also the most difficult, the most challenging,” Hanson said. “And I don’t have all the time in the world to be sitting playing 100 percent of the time.”

Perhaps after he retires, Hanson said he may devote more time to playing jazz and other types of music.

“It’s very, very rewarding,” he said.

‘It centers me’

Despite his love for music, Hanson didn’t regret his decision to become an engineer instead of a musician, saying his career has been very rewarding.

Hanson said music has helped in him his career as an engineer, as musical pieces all have a similar structure.

“A lot of the work we do in engineering is similarly structured,” Hanson said.

Musicians and engineers, Hanson noted, are also both meticulous about details. And for Hanson, music has served as a stress reliever.

“It tends to take your mind off everyday life when you’re doing it,” Hanson said. “It centers me.”

Since music has been such a rewarding hobby for Hanson, he encouraged others to pick it up, too, or continue playing.

“Don’t stop,” he said. “I kind of regret that I stopped.”

Now, Hanson has no plans of setting down his saxophones and clarinets, even after he eventually retires from the county.

“I think it’s important that people realize that you can do a lot of things, that music is a really cool thing to be able to do, and I look forward to being able to do it as long as I can,” Hanson said.

Along with his passion for music, Hanson has been riding motorcycles for about 10 years, joking that it was probably spurred by a mid-life crisis.

He’s ridden several different motorcycles since he started riding, at first Yamaha’s and now a Victory Polaris. He travels out west on a trip every year, and he’s been to Glacier National Park, Wyoming and Colorado.

Clarinet to saxophone

Mike Hanson started as just a clarinet player, but now he owns four clarinets and four saxophones — a bass clarinet bass, two soprano clarinets, a sopranino clarinet, two soprano saxophones, a tenor saxophone and an alto saxophone.

Hanson said starting on clarinet gave him the basics for playing saxophone, though the two instruments have different embouchures — the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument. However, Hanson said it’s easier to go from clarinet to sax.

Hanson is playing tenor sax in “Footloose” at Albert Lea High School.

“It’s a powerful, powerful instrument,” Hanson said.

When asked which of clarinets and saxophones is his favorites, Hanson said one of his favorites is the soprano clarinet, but he stopped himself.

“They’re all fun,” he said.