Guest Commentary: Celebrating music

Published 7:04 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Leah Motl

March is National Music in our Schools Month, and the music teachers at Austin Public Schools would like to share the amazing performances, residencies, and musical opportunities that are happening for our students.

With the district’s new building schedules and the addition of a music teacher, we are fortunate to be able to offer more music time to our elementary students. First through third grade saw an increase by 30 minutes per week, giving all elementary grades 90 minutes of music per week. The elementary music classes are the foundation for our fifth through 12th  choral and instrumental programs, and start a life-long appreciation for music. Students experience singing, instruments, musical games, performances, and music theory. Every fall, incoming fifth grade students head to I.J. Holton excited about music and prove year after year that they are ready to join an ensemble: orchestra, band, and/or choir. Adding additional music time to the elementary schedules is proving to be an incredible benefit for our students and will have positive lasting effects on the quality of their education.

Email newsletter signup

The MacPhail Center for Music has partnered with Austin Public Schools since 2018, and has provided many benefits for APS students and community members alike. This spring, MacPhail is sponsoring a guest artist residency for our 1,500 elementary students. For two weeks, students in grades one through four will share their music classes with a dynamic musical duo, Siama Matuzungidi and Dallas Johnson. This residency will allow students to dive into world music through singing and instruments, and will be significantly enriching to their elementary music experience. In addition to the upcoming guest artist residency, the MacPhail Children’s Choir returned in January after a break due to the pandemic. The choir is back singing with 95 students in third and fourth grade.  Teachers and students are very excited that this opportunity is back, and we are looking forward to their upcoming performances.

Additionally, a partnership between MacPhail, APS, and the Austin Symphony Orchestra has brought the Fazioli piano program to life. The Fazioli program encourages piano students and others to play in Knowlton Auditorium for masterclasses, recitals, rehearsals, and other performances. Recently, students taking piano lessons at MacPhail participated in a masterclass with the world-renowned Roberto Plano on the new piano. This instrument is truly at the top of its class, and we are proud to show it off in a variety of MacPhail, APS, and Austin Symphony performances throughout the year. If you haven’t heard it yet, make your way to an upcoming concert —  you will be blown away by its beautiful sound!

Fourth through sixth grade students experienced the return of the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Children’s Concert in October, where children in the Austin area get to watch a live symphony orchestra performance put on just for them. This partnership with Austin Public Schools provides a wonderful opportunity for students to watch and listen to musicians singing and performing instruments that they choose in their fifth-grade music classes. This year’s theme was “Puppets and Princesses” which featured fourth grade teacher and vocalist Morgan Dickman, and the Matchbox Children’s Theatre which featured several students from Austin Public Schools.

I.J. Holton continues to see strong participation in band, orchestra, and choir. The high enrollment has encouraged more diverse programming and music opportunities for both fifth and sixth graders. Some of our recent additions at I.J. Holton include a sixth grade STEAM band, sixth grade chamber orchestra, after school rock band, and new ukulele and DJ classes available for students through our STEAM programming. The I.J. Holton STEAM band and chamber orchestra will be debuting their first combined performance this spring, featuring a traditional symphony orchestra-style piece and a song using electronic music.

The music teachers and students at I.J. Holton and Ellis are also very excited about the musical collaboration between buildings and grade levels. Recently, the I.J. Holton and Ellis chamber orchestras performed a piece together called “First Snow,” featuring district administrators performing a hilarious musical skit with the orchestra. Also, band and orchestra students (grades fifth through eighth) participated in Owatonna’s annual solo and ensemble festival in record numbers, and several students received honorable mentions and Best in Site awards.

Austin High School is also seeing a growing number of students participating in a variety of ensembles, and is building a great relationship with the MacPhail Center for Music. MacPhail has been providing sectionals and lessons for students grades fifth through 12th, and has been an incredible resource for students and music teachers alike. We are excited to continue providing diverse music offerings to grades nine through 12: multiple levels of choirs, orchestras, and bands, a history of rock and roll class, and opportunities for small ensembles and music composition. In February, the Austin High School choir gave a stunning performance in Minneapolis at the Minnesota Music Educators Association annual clinic. Also this winter, students have enjoyed their first pep band season since COVID, and the band looks forward to their upcoming tour of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

AHS also hosted the Southeast Minnesota Band Directors Association grades sixth through eighth and ninth through 10th Honor Bands this last January, and Ellis and I.J. Holton hosted the Southern Minnesota Junior High Honor Bands in March. Between the two events, we were able to share our beautiful rehearsal and performance spaces with over 400 students and their families! Some other upcoming high school performances include the Austinaires Disney shows (April 13-15), and our top auditioned ensembles (concert choir, wind ensemble, and symphony orchestra) will be performing at Mankato East High School on April 28, as a part of the annual Big 9 Music Festival.

Music teachers from multiple buildings were selected to give professional presentations at the annual Minnesota Music Educators (MMEA) Conference in February this year. Kim Zerke (Banfield) and Dr. Soojin Lee (MacPhail) presented on Korean music, Leah Motl (I.J. Holton) presented on design models in music education, and Kalle Akkerman (AHS) and the Austin High School Choir gave a performance at the convention. Additionally, Christoph Dundas (AHS) serves as our region’s MMEA representative, and Cheryl Berglund (MacPhail) is MMEA’s community music chair, both of whom were actively involved in MMEA’s conference. Austin Public Schools has an incredibly talented and dedicated music staff, and we are glad to have music teachers in our schools who commit to a high standard of music education in our community.

Our music teachers are also incredibly excited to share that the Minnesota Orchestra will be coming to Austin in May for a week-long residency (Common Chords). There will be daily public small-group performances (many in local businesses) and a full symphony orchestra concert on May 6 at Knowlton Auditorium. The Minnesota Orchestra will also be giving several performances for our students. Small group and full-orchestra performances will happen throughout the week at many of our schools, and it is an incredible opportunity for our students to experience a world-class symphony orchestra. We encourage everyone in the area to attend their free public performances throughout the week, as well as their main concert on Saturday (you won’t be disappointed!). Information about their residency and performance schedules can be found on the Minnesota Orchestra website and the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s website and Facebook page. Tickets for the Saturday concert can be purchased at Austin Symphony concerts, Coffee House on Main, and HyVee ($10/adult, $5/children).

Students in Austin Public Schools are receiving a great music education, thanks to parents, community members and businesses, MacPhail Center for Music, and our APS teachers, staff, and administrators. We are so fortunate to be a part of a lively arts community and give our students incredible opportunities for making and experiencing music. Education for our students is strongest when it is supported by families, teachers, and community members together. 

Your APS music teachers appreciate and thank everyone for their time and effort in supporting a wonderful music education for our community’s youth. We invite all members of the community to our upcoming spring concerts, which can be found on the APS calendar at: Additionally, if you or someone you know wants to get involved in supporting our music boosters program, please visit or email