WINONA — At the end of the third day of fall classes at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, students marched across campus to the rehearsal studio at St. Yon’s Hall with their music folders and cases. implements. About 30 people, from retirees to freshmen, began to warm up and settle in for their second rehearsal of the year for the Saint Mary’s Concert Band on August 31.
It is an ensemble that Janet Heukeshoven, SMU Professor of Music and Music Education, has led since the 1990s and stems from a long tradition of musical performance at the Lasallian Catholic University.
But as Saint Mary’s is phasing out some of its liberal arts programs, the orchestra‘s future is in jeopardy.
In May 2021, Saint Mary’s announced that it would respond to declining enrollment and other financial issues caused by the pandemic by phasing out 11 undergraduate majors, including music and music industry. That spring, a dozen professorships were cut. One of those positions belonged to Heukeshoven’s husband, Eric Heukeshoven, who was a music industry professor. Now Eric is working with the university as an assistant to direct the jazz ensemble, and Janet has taken on the direction of the concert choir in addition to the concert band.
“We stay for our students. That’s the main thing,” she said. “I’m just at this point of, ‘Let me do my job, let me make this as positive an experience as possible for student musicians this past year, and then I just have to close the door. ‘”
Janet Heukeshoven plans to retire at the end of this academic year, and she doesn’t know who will lead these sets after she leaves with her husband.
“I don’t know if there will be a real live band next year or not,” she said. “Nobody knows at this stage. I would like there to be something, but there will be discussions throughout the year, I hope.
Before the pandemic, Heukeshoven said about 50 to 60 people played in a concert band each year, with about 60% to 75% of the group made up of SMU students. As for the rest of the ensemble, community members from Winona, Fountain City, Rochester, and even LaCrosse, Wis., joined the band, reserving their Monday and Wednesday nights for rehearsals.
In 2020 and 2021, Heukeshoven said the university is limiting the set to only Saint Mary students. This year, participation is again open to community members, and so far about 30 people are participating.
“I would love to get some of these other former community players back,” Heukeshoven said.
A handful of community members were at the Wednesday night rehearsal, including Barbara Burchill, of Winona, who plays flute and piccolo.
“I’ve been playing with this band for at least 20, probably 25, maybe even 30 years,” Burchill said.
Burchill said one of his favorite parts about being in the orchestra is the experience of working with students.
“It’s very refreshing to see young people and interact with them,” she says. “They used to call me Mama Barb – for the past few years it was Grandma Barb, but hey.”
Burchill said she had mixed feelings about Saint Mary’s decision to cut some of its liberal arts programs. Although she acknowledges that declining enrollment has had an impact on the university, she stressed that the arts “are so good for people”.
“My dear late husband was the administrator here at Saint Mary’s for many years, and Saint Mary’s has always treated us very well,” she said. “All the arts and the liberal arts and so on – it’s not fluff. They are not frivolous. It’s not a fun thing to do. These are valuable studies.
Sitting a few seats away from Burchill is Nathan Herr, a clarinetist who is working on his Masters in Education. He has been at Saint Mary’s for four years, three of which he spent earning his undergraduate degree in music. It’s his fourth semester in the orchestra, and he also has mixed feelings about his old major no longer being offered at Saint Mary’s.
“It really hurts to see my middle finger go,” Herr said. “And some people haven’t gotten the fairest treatment in this process. But, I mean, we were hiring five full-time music teachers when we only had 10 majors. On the one hand, you have to say, mathematically, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’
But Herr noted that a significant portion of the student body is involved in a concert band, choir, or jazz ensemble.
“It’s clear that music has an impact on this campus, and I know there are a lot of faculty and students who are fighting to keep, at a minimum, the band and the choir and the jazz, these root sets,” Herr said. “Because music has an outlet that you can’t find in any English or history class.”
Both Herr and Burchill mentioned how involving community members in the band shows students how they can continue making music after graduation.
“It’s not just something you do to get an easy A,” Burchill said. “It’s a lifelong quest.”
Although the future is uncertain for the Saint Mary Musical Ensembles, the members of the harmony are preparing for two concerts next year: an afternoon Christmas concert on December 11 and a spring concert with the jazz ensemble on April 16, 2023 which will serve as a retirement party for the Heukeshoven.
Wednesday’s rehearsal focused on learning new music. After sight-reading sections of a bouncy, playful song titled “Flamingo Road”, Heukeshoven asked the ensemble to sing their parts to get a better idea of the notes. Then the musicians took their instruments and walked through the section again.
After sitting out the last two years due to COVID, Burchill said it was wonderful to be back.
“I really feel like I’m contributing to this group,” she said. “And it feels good.”