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ISSUE 118 VOL 1 PUBLISHED 9/17/2004

Beloved band director passes away

By Sara Perelli-Minetti
Contributing Writer

Friday, September 17, 2004

If there is any line for which Miles "Mity" H. Johnson, director of the St. Olaf Band from 1957-1994, is famous, "It all starts with the music" is certainly it.

Through his outstanding musicianship, leadership and charisma, Johnson built the St. Olaf Band from the modest program he inherited into the nationally renowned group it is today. He was the first director to truly maximize the potential of the band and to take it to new musical heights. On Aug. 26, this legend passed away after a six-year struggle with Alzheimers disease, leaving behind a great musical legacy.

Playing in the St. Olaf Band under Johnson was an experience like no other, according to Dr. Timothy Mahr, current conductor of the St. Olaf Band. Mahr was a member of the band from 1975-78 and recalls those years under Johnson as key parts of his musical development.

Not only did Johnson demand the best from his students, but he also created a unique sense of warmth and family within the band. "You knew he cared," Mahr said. "And you were willing to do anything to win a smile."

Students in Johnson's bands strived to meet his expectations. He consistently challenged the band, and always attempted to expand its musical horizons. Mahr explained that Johnson created great opportunities for students to express themselves musically. A master programmer, he often included music to which students felt they could relate to, including several "protest pieces" in the 1970s.

Johnson was always looking for new and interesting music; anything to bring his band to a place it had never been before. An incredible, though humble, musician himself, Johnson "could take the raw energy of a ninety-piece band and get it to speak musically," Mahr said. Mahr describes the band under Johnson as a "prismatic display of the full potential of combined winds and percussion" with the power to awe and inspire those who were fortunate enough to hear it in concert.

Johnson was famous for the second halves of his programs. The bands 1987 national performance at Northwestern University for the College Band Directors National Association was one of the most memorable performances. In the latter half of the program, the band members surrounded the audience and played from memory, led by student conductors. They also sang, according to Mahr, "gloriously, not to show off, but rather to serve the music as best they could."

Throughout that entire performance, Johnson was backstage, "probably drinking a cup of coffee." Johnson's complete trust in his musicians was evident to all.

Johnson was not only a great director, but he also inspired camaraderie and musical interest among his fellow music contemporaries. Always proactive in terms of the musical education of his colleagues, Johnson was at the central to the founding of the Minnesota Band Directors Association in the late 1980s, an organization that has flourished and become a vital part of Minnesota band directors lives.

Johnson founded the Minnesota Symphonic Winds, as well as the Minnesota Symposium on Instrumental Conducting. He was named one of "Ten Outstanding Music Educators" in 1973, along with "Music Educator of the Year" by the Minnesota Music Education Association in 1987.

Although his accomplishments outside the St. Olaf Band were numerous and great, Johnson will forever be remembered as both a powerful presence and a caring conductor who always drew great love and expressive music from his players.

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