Retiring At Fourteen

by Linda Rudquist

Michael Rudquist
Choirboy

Thousands of well-dressed men and women filled the room with thunderous applause as The Land of Lakes Choirboys maneuvered their way to their places on the risers that were placed upon a richly colored mosaic tile floor. As the pianist and conductor quieted the audience with a German welcome, which was only partially understood by the performers, the boys stood like soldiers in their dark blue wool uniforms. The sounds of the piano introduction quieted the room once again, as the first soprano vocals filled every corner of the cathedral with a haunting sound, which echoed for more than a minute. A small, sandy haired eleven-year-old, with confident green eyes, followed every move of the conductor while carefully exhaling the bell-like tones in Latin that merged with thirty-three other voices to complete their unique performance of "Dixit Dominus." Applause stormed across the room as the choir became the first non-German group to ever open the International Bach Festival in Ratingen, Germany. This was Michael Rudquist's first performance abroad, and it was an experience that embodied much of his career as a choirboy.

Michael was seven when his music teacher recognized his aptitude for music and initiated his singing career. She granted him a solo in the second grade concert and a recommendation to audition for the Metropolitan Boys Choir. As he stood alone in front of the microphone at the concert, Michael sang as if he were in the shower. He had no fear. Later, when asked "are you nervous about the audition?" he responded, "Why would I be? I know how to sing."

Three years later, a move to Elk River proved to be the springboard into a new choir and a new world of opportunities. Again, a teacher recommended an audition with the local choir, which took place in November of 1998. He was then invited to join the Land of Lakes Tour Choir. This was a wonderful opportunity and doubly meaningful for a boy born with a cleft lip and palate, who had been told, he may never be able to speak normally. However, this honor came at a cost. Not only was he expected to give up more than four and a half hours each week and a place he had earned as a pitcher on his baseball team, he was required to cut off his symbol of individuality, a braided tail which had never been cut. But, Michael was determined not to miss his chance. He came home from school the next day and said, "Mom, I want to do this; cut it off." The sacrifices he made symbolized his commitment to his musical career and afforded his entry to a whole new world of travel and exciting opportunities.

Michael enjoys reminiscing about his travels as a choirboy including his first flight ever, to perform on the tour, which opened with the Bach Festival. According to Michael, he quit missing home, "about the time he got on the plane with his friends." But, the flight to Germany had been long and was not as pleasant as he had hoped. They served a meal that included a stick of cheese that Michael describes as having "a freeze-dried parmesan type texture, like space food." Michael spent the rest of the flight attempting to suppress the resulting nausea. Even so, he enjoyed the flight and was very excited to begin his visit in another country. Germany was just the first of many exhilarating journeys. He has since visited ancient castles, museums, town halls, and an armory that was filled with swords, shields, guns, and armor in rows of displays that reminded him of a multi-floored library. He has seen the palace, painted all in white, which houses the Vienna Choir Boys, Hitler's Eagle's Nest, the Swiss Alps, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, and volcanoes in Hawaii. A trip through the Eastern United States included stops in Ohio, Tennessee, Washington D.C., and Florida. These visits provided Michael with an opportunity to interact with audiences from many cultures and backgrounds.

Michael truly enjoys performing, traveling, and the audiences that come to see the choir. "We make people cry at our concerts sometimes." But, Michael explains that it is due to the emotional aspect of music. They have had so many standing ovations that it is part of the performance for the boys. Michael recalls a concert in Germany where everyone began clapping in unison after the boys had left the stage for the third time. According to Francis, this is the highest form of appreciation for a performance in Germany, and earned that audience a fourth encore. Michael's favorite audience, however, was at the Turakina Maori Girls' School in New Zealand. Michael, being one of the older boys at the time of the performance, was especially popular and enjoyed a kiss or two from these adoring fans.

His cultural and interpersonal experiences go beyond the audiences. Michael has also spent time enjoying the hospitality of host homes in the countries he has visited. One family that especially touched his heart was an elderly couple who had been farming all their lives and had been forced into retirement. They now live just on the edge of a farming area "to keep farming near them." Michael's speech slows and his head drops slightly as he talks about how they can see what they love, yet they are not able to continue to carry out the tasks that impassion them. Michael will soon experience much the same thing, but more about that later.

It is nearly four years since that first trip abroad, and the interview began at one of Michael's monthly voice lessons with Francis Stockwell. Francis has a very impressive background that includes work and study at many well known universities in Europe. Among his most prestigious opportunities was a position with the Vienna Boys Choir. Michael says of Francis, "He has taught me to think I can do more, and not to be satisfied with less." While driving to his lesson, it was easy to see that Michael is no longer the small eleven-year-old boy who performed in Ratingen. He is now five foot seven, and growing daily. His hair has darkened, and his need to tease his sisters has grown. This is all part of the process of becoming a young man and what will force his retirement at the end of this season. With a bit of concern, Michael piped in, "I don't want to be late for my lesson. Please hurry."

We soon arrived at Francis' home, and Michael immediately began stretching his facial, neck, back, and leg muscles as Francis prepared a cup of tea. The kitchen table was waiting for the next chauffeur with newspapers and magazines. The two disappeared, and soon the piano began to resonate from behind a wall as a voice worked to harmonize with it, somewhat like a duckling attempting to mimic his mama's movements through the water as he learns to swim. Francis corrected the pronunciation of the German lyrics as Michael learned the new piece. This was made more difficult by an anatomically required move to the alto section, as Michael's voice has begun to change. He was cautious with the sound, so as not to disappoint Francis. However, this is not what Francis wanted. "I need more sound from you, Michael," he declared. "Blow my ears out!" and slowly Michael did. By the end of the lesson Michael won the prize he had worked for, "You've given me a good sound now, finally! You have a nice alto voice. Nice timbre." As Michael climbed into the car he said, "I've heard that word timbre before." The statement came through a small, but meaningful smile. Such praise from Francis is rare and Michael reveled in it as we made our way back to Michael's house.

About 5:30 p.m. we arrived at Michael's, and started to talk about his choir career. He is beginning his fifth season with the choir, and will travel to Norway and Sweden next summer. Michael is the last of the boys in the choir who opened the Bach Festival in 1999, which makes this a difficult year for him. He is lonely without his friends. Michael has taken on a leadership role and is now helping to prepare the new boys for their turn in the spotlight. As he reflected upon what the choir has taught him, he touched on topics such as other cultures, teamwork, respect for adults, and how to receive applause gracefully. Michael has added his voice to three compact disks recorded by the choir, been a part of the first modern-day performance of the complete set of movements to Galuppi's "Dixit Dominus", been a part of several television appearances, provided input for newspaper articles, and represented his country as one of "Minnesota's Singing Boys." Michael was humble as he spoke of his career and talked graciously about all that he had been given.

It is with the memories of these gifts that Michael now prepares to leave the choir. He will soon enjoy sleeping in on Saturday mornings, spending more time with his family, and one of his other favorite past times, playing video games. It must be difficult to retire at fourteen with no option to continue to be part of something that has cemented so many memories. Michael has not yet decided upon his next career. However, he is academically gifted, performing at the highest levels in math and science. This along with his attitude, and many opportunities, particularly those given to him as a part of choir, will ensure that once he determines his next career path, he will achieve great things.

Retiring at fourteen is not typical, but neither is Michael, who has declared, "I will take every chance I have to travel and to learn. I won't give up an opportunity just because it isn't close to home." This and many other revelations came from a seven year singing career that has filled half his lifetime, and will be a part of all that is left of it.

(Reprinted from "Choirboy Chronicles", Fall 2002 edition, the newsletter of the Land of Lakes Choirboys of Minnesota.)

Copyright 2002 Linda Rudquist
Used with permission

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