Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Luther College's Weston Noble retires after 57 years
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Weston Noble presides over a choir rehearsal at Luther's Jenson Hall of Music. (Photo Courtesy of Luther College)
With graduation this weekend, Luther College will mark the end of an era. Its celebrated choral conductor, Weston Noble is retiring after 57 years at the helm of the college's Nordic choir. Minnesota Public Radio's Lorna Benson sat down recently with Noble to talk about his conducting career and the divine guidance that he says kept him at Luther all these years.

Decorah, Iowa — Weston Noble grew up in a small Iowa town called Riceville not far from Decorah. And from a very early age his passion for music was evident.

"I was five years old and my mother was trying to get me to take a nap and I wouldn't settle down," says Noble. "And I was lying in bed with her so she leaned over and she said, 'Weston, would you like to take piano lessons?' And there's no way I would settle down. I was so excited."

Noble can't explain why he was so excited. He thinks there was just something inside of him that drew him to music. He had his first piano lesson in 1928 and his affinity for the instrument was confirmed.

"I can remember everything about it," says Noble. "My feet of course wouldn't touch the pedals. What I did with my thumbs and my fingers. I ended up getting a gold star."

From that moment on, he was a dedicated piano student until about seventh grade. Then Noble's practicing got a little less ardent. So his Uncle Aldy, who had no children, offered him an incentive to practice.

"My uncle was a banker, so he said, 'Weston, I'll give you 10 cents-an-hour for every hour that you practice,'" says Noble.

It worked. Noble began practicing more than ever in the hopes of saving enough money for Christmas that year. It was the height of the Great Depression and his practice earnings would be the only money he would have to buy his mother a gift.

"I can remember going into the bank and reaching up to the counter and just pushing my slip under and he would say, 'Weston have you really practiced that long?' I said, 'Oh, Uncle Aldy, I really have,'" says Noble. "And he'd give me a dollar. Oh, absolutely that was that one thing that just kind of pushed me over that hump."

"And I remember going back to my room and saying 'Well that piano is done. There is nothing like waving my hands in front of a group of singers.'"
- Weston Noble

What he didn't realize then is that his days at the piano were numbered. In 1939 he enrolled in the music program at Luther College. That's where his musical path changed forever.

"When I was a junior the director was going to be gone for rehearsal the next day," says Noble. "So he said to me, 'Would you like to take the rehearsal?' Well there was no way I would turn it down, but yet I thought, 'Oh, do I dare do this? Am I skilled even in my beat patterns' and all that sort of thing?" says Noble.

"But you know sometimes you learn to swim when you're just pushed in the water. Well that's what happened. So I didn't even have time to be scared," says Noble. "And I remember going back to my room and saying, 'Well that piano is done. There is nothing like waving my hands in front of a group of singers.'"

Noble conducted at Luther every chance he got. Then in 1943, just a few months before graduation, World War II interrupted his college music studies. Noble was assigned to an army tank unit and sent to Europe.

Three years later, he returned from the war and attempted to carry on with his music studies. He enrolled at Julliard in New York and began making preparations to start classes there in September.

"And so the day I was to get on the train in Cresco, Iowa and go to New York for Julliard, I was upstairs packing," says Noble. "I was going to leave on the noon train. And at about ten o'clock in the morning I found that I just sat on the bed and I said to myself, 'I just can't pack. I can't do it. I can't go.' And so I went down to my mother and I said, 'Mom, I'm not going to New York,'" says Noble.

His mother asked him what he was going to do. Noble told her, "'I'm going to pick up the Des Moines Register and see if there's some high school that doesn't have a music teacher and if I can find one, I'm going to apply.' And that's exactly what I did," says Noble.

He found a tiny high school in LuVerne, Iowa that needed a music teacher for its 93 students. But Noble says luck didn't have much to do with the choice that kept him on a teaching path. He believes divine guidance lead him to LuVerne.

"What I needed then was the teaching experience, wasn't it?," says Noble. "Because the master plan was that I would be coming back to Luther and I had no idea that the master plan had that in mind. So I had to teach first."

Two years later Noble got the phone call that would start the clock ticking on his conducting career at Luther. The college's choir director had just resigned abruptly after his wife, an opera singer, landed a job in New York. Luther told Noble it needed a temporary fill-in just for a year while the college searched for a replacement conductor.

Noble took the temporary job and stayed for 57 years.

He says it's been a dream ride.

"I get teased all the time, 'Well Weston, how are things going this year?' 'Best ever,'" he says. "Five years later, 'Well how are things going?' 'Best ever,'" says Noble.

Under Noble's direction, Luther College has established one of the longest running Messiah traditions in the United States, second only to Bethany College in Kansas. For many years, Noble included any Luther student, musically gifted or not, who wanted to sing Handel's oratorio. At its height, his mass choir numbered as high as a thousand students.

Noble says the Messiah tradition has been one of the highlights of his teaching career because it allowed him to expose even more students to the power of sacred choral music that glorifies God.

"One year I had a football player, captain of the football team and he had come to enough Messiah rehearsals, he thought he would at least dare sing," says Noble.

"And after the second performance he came right on the floor and grabbed me with a great big bear hug and yelled in my ear, I'll never forget it, 'Mr. Noble what happened to me in the Hallelujia chorus? What happened to me? I've never felt like this in my whole life. Not even when I make a touchdown. You've got to tell me. What happened to me?,'" says Noble.

"Well I can't explain to him at that moment what happened, but obviously it just went right into his spirit realm. Changed his life? You bet it did."

Anton Armstrong, the choir director at St. Olaf College in Northfield, has been a friend of Weston Noble's for almost 25 years.

"I think he's been a wonderful pedagogue and that goes beyond being a great conductor," says Armstrong. "We have plenty of so-called great conductors. But usually great conductors are great conductors because they have great musicians in front of them. He's been a great teacher because there are times when he hasn't always had the best talent in front of him. But he's been able to elicit the best from people because he's able to go where many people are never able to go. And then something more beautiful comes out of the human beings he conducts."

Concordia College Choir Director Rene Clausen calls Weston Noble a humble artist who is nonetheless recognized as a national leader among collegiate level choral music directors. Clausen says Noble's retirement is truly the end of an era.

"I mean 57 years at one place, this is not gonna happen again," say Clausen. "He would have been what, 22 or 23 when he went to Luther and that's just not possible anymore. Colleges aren't hiring 22 and 23-year-olds out of undergraduate schools anymore. Just that distinction alone of him being in this one place for an entire career is just a mark of extraordinary accomplishment."

What will retirement bring for Weston Noble?

"Well I just have to know that I'm still a part of that master plan and see what happens," says Noble. "So it's a little scary and yet that's not quite the word. I wonder at times and that's a little different than being scared. 'Well God what have you got up your sleeve now?'"

Noble says he will keep busy. He hopes to guest conduct from time to time and he plans to continue recruiting music students to Luther. Noble will be succeeded by Dr. Craig Arnold, conductor of the New York City Chorale and Chamber Orchestra.

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