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Raising voices: NDSU's Miller teaches generations to sing

For 30 years, Jo Ann Miller has been lifting voices at North Dakota State University. NDSU / Special to The Forum1 / 2
Jo Ann Miller conducts a choir concert at North Dakota State University. NDSU / Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — At the homecoming game Saturday, Sept. 22, fans will stand and cheer on the North Dakota State University Bison. Before kickoff, however, the Fargodome crowd will stand and cheer for another winning team — the NDSU Concert Choir Reunion singing the national anthem.

The anthem is part of every homecoming for NDSU choir alum, but this year instead of about 30 former members showing up, around 100 singers are returning. The big draw isn't just for homecoming or the Bison football team, but for choir conductor Jo Ann Miller.

Just as head football coach Chris Klieman stepped in to keep the dynasty rolling, Miller has built the choir to new heights in her 30 years of directing. She's led choirs on tours around the country and established a performance of Handel's "Messiah" as a concert staple of the holiday season for area music lovers.

"She's very, very talented as a director," says Brian Crommett, co-chair of this year's reunion committee. "She has an impressive way in drawing out the best in her choirs. She's respectful. You want to be your best for her as a performer. Everyone who has sung with her respects the time they've had with her."

Crommett studied and sang with her through most of the 1990s and now returns not only for the homecoming reunion, but to see Miller's other concerts when possible.

"The concerts Jo Ann puts on are high-quality and one of the better music groups in the F-M area, for sure," he says.

'Choir grandkids'

Some returning for the reunion attended NDSU before Miller was at the head of the classrooms, but she garners reverence even among her peers.

"She leads by example, a caring and genuine individual who gives and earns respect," says former student Sara Lichtblau, who graduated in 1998.

"I know she would be the first to say it's more a choir reunion than it is about her 30th year, but that's ultimately why I think people are coming back," she adds.

Miller wasn't just a guiding voice in the music room — she also encouraged Lichtblau to become a music teacher herself. Lichtblau now teaches choir at Fargo South High School.

"She's a mentor to me and to countless others. To this day, I still hear her voice when I'm teaching my own students. She's kind of on my shoulder. I can hear her say how things should sound. She continues to guide, support and influence me," Lichtblau says.

"In her musicianship, there was always excellence," she adds. "We would work until it was good enough. She wouldn't give false praise. She made us work hard. We never wanted to disappoint her. I still feel that way when I bring my (students) to her. There's so much respect for what she does."

So much respect that parents like Crommett and his wife Erin, a page design manager at The Forum, have seen their children go on to study with Miller.

"That was a rewarding experience," Crommett says, adding that Miller calls former students' children "her choir grandkids."

"I'm happy to have been part of this university for so long," says Miller, who graduated in 1974. "I remember these kids as babies. I was at their parents' wedding."

With 30 years under her belt, she's the longest-tenured choir director in school history.

"I'm so blessed to have so many fine musicians sing with me over the years," Miller says. "I'm really thrilled that this is turning out to be a big reunion with a lot of people coming back. It's great."

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