Choir skills are life skills. That’s why Mikkel Iverson, an accomplished singer and musician who enjoyed success on the road, opted for a career teaching vocal music to Vancouver high school students.
“Kids who have been in choir are team players, problem solvers, independent thinkers. They understand group dynamics,” he said. “The beautiful thing about choral music is, it develops your skills for participating in life.”
Also, Iverson said, he didn’t want to commit himself to a lifetime of leading marching bands at Friday night football games.
Iverson will retire from teaching this month, after a grand total of 41 years in the classroom — 17 of them at Evergreen High School and 13 more at Union High School.
“I loved the kids. There was a good feeling in that room,” he said of his first guest-teaching gigs in Evergreen Public Schools. “I said to my wife, ‘I would be interested in a high school job if the kids were like that.’ ”
Like what? “A lot of pride, a lot of spirit, a lot of talent,” he said. “I do believe there’s something in the water here” that produces strong musicianship among Clark County students.
With students like that, Iverson found staying positive pretty easy, he said.
“My method of leadership is one arm around the shoulder and ‘Let’s do this together,’ ” he said.
Sadly, Iverson and his students won’t be able to enjoy a final bit of togetherness and celebration. While he’s still teaching via video, plans for a career-capping farewell concert stuffed with what his students would call “Mr. I’s faves” have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I miss that opportunity for the kids,” Iverson said. Given across-the-board cancellation of year-end festivities, from concerts to award ceremonies to commencement itself, he said, “They lost out big.”
Fortunately, Iverson and his students have scored some wins too.
“The greatest thing that ever happened to my choir” was getting selected, out of thousands of applicants, to sing at the 2013 American Choral Directors Association convention in Dallas, Iverson said. That was the first time in nearly half a century that a high school choir from Washington was chosen for the event, he said, and they earned a standing ovation from an audience of 3,000 critical music educators.
And, even though he didn’t apply for it, his Union High School Choir was unexpectedly invited to sing Feb. 15 at a Washington Music Educators conference in Yakima, where he also won an Outstanding Music Educator award. That turned out to be his choir-conducting swan song, he said.
“It was one of the best concerts I ever conducted, and it’s amazing that would be the last time,” he said. “I’m so glad I had an opportunity I wasn’t even looking for.”
Iverson grew up in a remarkably musical family. His grandmother was a published composer of choral pieces and his father’s singing voice was in constant demand at church functions, weddings and funerals in their hometown of Shelby, Mont. Iverson’s mother was a private piano teacher who hosted 40 to 50 students per week.
“We had all these kids always showing up at our house, from 3 until 8 o’clock at night,” Iverson said. “And then on weekends.”
Iverson studied piano with his mom, but she was a little too forgiving of his lack of industry, he said. It was his aunt, an equally accomplished but less patient piano instructor, who pushed him harder.
Iverson considered an outdoorsy life as a farmer, but went to Pacific Lutheran University and studied music. Singing was his first love, but when he first heard a big band he was hooked. One day, Pacific Lutheran’s band director followed the sound of someone’s trumpet up three flights of stairs to a chapel — and discovered Iverson practicing there.
“With chops like that, why aren’t you in my band?” the director demanded.
Iverson spent the next few years both playing in the band and singing in the choir.
“I did it all,” he said.
But his heart remained in vocal music, he said. After college he sang solos with the Oregon Symphony and toured with professional groups like the Norman Leyden Singers. He also taught at every level, from elementary to college, until he wound up taking that job at Evergreen High School. Seventeen years later, he accepted an offer from the principal-to-be at Union, a new school in the same district.
“It’s a wonderful district to teach music in. When music directors get hired into this district, they don’t go anywhere,” he said.
Iverson said he’s teaching the children of his earliest students these days.
“Mr. Iverson was the teacher that you knew you could go to,” said Cassidy Dustin, a 2019 Union graduate. “Sometimes I would find myself sitting in the choir room just talking with him after class about random things. He cared about his students and he wanted the best for them.”
But he also expected excellence and drilled his students on basic skills like sight reading.
“That was a huge priority for him,” Dustin said. “We would do exercises on it at the beginning of every class. As a college student and a singer for (Brigham Young University), I’m grateful for that training and knowledge.”
Iverson gave a big shout-out to Lori Collier, “my fabulous piano accompanist and teaching partner for the last 15 years” he said.
He plans to stay in Vancouver where his wife, Sheri, is a counselor for Vancouver Public Schools. They have three grown children in the region, one of them a school choir director in Bothell. In retirement, Iverson said, he hopes to polish up his own singing voice for a return to solo work — and devote himself to fishing.
What’s the secret of a happy, successful high school music room?
“It needs to be a place where the kids leave everything at the door and do something together that transcends their world,” Iverson said. He added that he’s gotten great musical performances out of everyone from engineers to athletes.
“I like diversity amongst my troops,” he said. “My room is a place where they can be exactly who they are, and we’re all going to make music together.”