After attending his last class Feb. 5, South Dakota State University student Shawn Stemsrud checked his phone and saw an email he was expecting. He had applied to the 2021 National American Choral Directors Association Undergraduate Conducting Masterclass, which would be held in March for only four students.
Unsure of what it would read, he expected it to be along the lines of “Good luck with future applications.” Instead, the email opened with “Congratulations conductor on being selected … ”
A junior from Stockholm, the vocal music education major said he felt chills while reading the acceptance email and becoming the first SDSU student to be selected.
“This is will be my introduction to the world of competitive conducting. And to see that accomplishment come on a national level was really striking because I didn't know what to expect,” he said. He thought the application was a chance to “Shoot for the moon. And if I got it, fantastic. And if not, then it was just a great opportunity to grow. While it had always been in the back of my mind, I really never thought that it would go this far.”
To apply, Stemsrud submitted a 12-minute video of him conducting two songs of contrasting style that showcased not only his conducting skills but also what the SDSU Concert Choir was capable of as performers.
Various members of the SDSU Concert Choir were not surprised Stemsrud was chosen.
“This is Shawn's second year in the concert choir, and in that time, he has developed a stunning reputation,” said Anna Cox, a junior communication studies major from Algona, Iowa. “He stands out in the music department as a phenomenal conductor and musician because of his work ethic, but he is also beloved as a student and friend because of his personality. We are all so proud of Shawn, and it's truly an honor to say that we have all gotten to support him in achieving his goals.”
“A good conductor is a good leader and that’s exactly what Shawn is. He is so invested in what he does and truly cares about the people around him. What elevates Shawn to the next level isn’t just his love for music, but his strength of character and his ability to bring the best out of everyone he works with,” said Ben Wahlstrom, a junior music education major from Custer.
Stemsrud is now working on how to show his best when the ACDA, which holds its national conference every other year, sends him music to prepare for the March session.
“They will send me a folder of music that I will have to prepare as a conductor. I’ll prepare it by marking the music to, in a sense, translate that to my singers, and just prepare it to conduct,” Stemsrud said. “I’m preparing for whatever they want. Then I will be in a two- to three-hour virtual session with five international clinicians.
“I'll primarily prepare on my own with help from my mentors, look at the music and maybe use recordings. I usually just look at the music and go through it with my hands,” he continued. “I’ll be studying what the music needs artistically in terms of cues or in terms of dynamics or things like that, and just go through what I imagine the piece sounds like in my head, which is a large part of my preparation.”
He hopes to learn at least a few things to better prepare him to teach collegiate music after graduating in 2022. It’s a career idea that started as a sixth grade student.
“I went to a concert at my high school and that was the first time I’d ever heard a choir. I don’t know what brought me to that concert but from the onset of the choral pieces, it really took me by storm. I was bitten by the bug, I guess,” he said. “The conductor raising their hands and everyone breathing at the same time and then singing. Just to see them do that, those unified gestures and making music, I thought it was really astounding and that’s what I’ve been pursuing since.”
Working with SDSU faculty members such as Laura Diddle, a professor of music and director of choral activities, has prepared Stemsrud for this event.
“I think it's all of the techniques and skills I’ve gained up to this point. It’s a culmination of all the things that I’ve refined with faculty, just kind of using all of those skills and now putting those things to work,” he said. “I know SDSU really isn’t the first name people think of when thinking of places to go for higher music education yet, but I think the dedication and passion of the faculty is unrivaled and it shows daily.”
And he appreciates the SDSU Concert Choir for its help in his application and rehearsals.
“I’m extremely grateful and honored, but I would be remiss if I said that this accomplishment belongs to me alone because I know that it doesn’t. It really belongs also to Dr. Diddle, who’s been my incredible teacher and my mentor, and to the SDSU Concert Choir members who lent me their time and their voices to prepare.”
The American Choral Directors Association is headquartered in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It is a nonprofit organization with the stated purpose of promoting excellence in the field of choral music.