Erin Colwitz is the new director of choirs at NMU and musical director of the Marquette Choral Society. She is the fifth to fill this dual role and the first woman. One of Colwitz’s top priorities within the music department is a focus of the university as a whole: recruitment. She has already taken steps to convince more NMU students from all majors to participate in the campus ensembles. She also wants to strengthen connections to the quality high school music programs in the region and host a choral festival that would showcase NMU and its fine performance facility.
“Reynolds Recital Hall is gorgeous,” Colwitz said. “If you can get kids to come here and see the place they would perform as a Northern student, that could be a major selling point. We could have a clinician come in, the choirs could sing for each other and then join forces at the end to perform a big number, possibly with a headliner.”
Colwitz did a great deal of recruiting in her previous job as director of choral activities at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. UAH is primarily an engineering school and had no choir when she arrived. Colwitz had to build the program from scratch.
“Fortunately, that’s not the situation here,” she said. “There’s already a legacy in terms of a solid choral music presence. Now it’s a matter of building numbers. The administration’s been supportive and Rob [Engelhart, chair of the NMU music department] is a gem—very open to ideas.”
A Green Bay native, Colwitz enrolled at the University of Minnesota, originally intending to major in music performance. A bout with pneumonia temporarily paralyzed her vocal chords and tilted her larynx to the point she could “phonate two pitches at once.” Frightened by the pressures of singing solo, she shifted to music education and stuck with that despite recovering from her illness. Colwitz taught in public schools after earning her bachelor’s degree. She also performed professionally with the Grammy-nominated Dale Warland singers. Both experiences strengthened her application for graduate school at the University of Southern California.
Colwitz studied conducting under USC professor William Dehning, renowned for his rehearsal technique. They later married. Early in his career, Dehning had served as the first musical director of the Marquette Choral Society when it was established in 1971. So in an ironic twist, Colwitz is here to continue the legacy started by her now-retired husband. She directed her first NMU concert in October.
“I’m very pleased with how the students performed,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun at NMU. The students are nice, cooperative and funny. I love teaching in general, but musicology is probably my first love. It is so fascinating to weave all of it together: the composer, style, why he wrote it, who he wrote it for, why the piece is important and why we should care. It puts things in perspective for students so it’s not just notes on a piece of paper. It’s fun to watch the light switch go on as they connect the dots.”
The next performance of the University Chorus is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, in Reynolds Recital Hall. The Marquette Choral Society’s annual “Carols of Christmas” performances are Dec. 5-6.