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The Music Man: Fettig says, 'I think there needs to be arts to feed our spirit'

Bemidji High School Music Director Chris Fettig directs the school's choir in preparation for Monday's concert. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Hundreds of trophies line the shelves and walls of the Bemidji High School choir room, reflecting decades of notable performances by choir students.

But the awards are not what impress Chris Fettig, the school's music director, the most.

"These are my most important trophies," he said, looking at the 20 graduating class picture collages that line the back wall of the room, dating back to the early 1990s.

"They are the students who sang here for all four years," he added.

Five collages are missing from the wall because the tradition did not start until a few years after Fettig came to BHS. That was 25 years ago.

Dedicated to music

Fettig stood on the auditorium stage Friday morning in front of the 60-plus members of the school's A Cappella Choir.

Striking a tuning fork against his stand, he took a moment to listen before humming a note. Raising his hands, the students quieted down and the soft-spoken man invited them to sing.

Fridays can sometimes be tough for students who are expected to stay focused after a busy week. But few people spend more time in school than the 48-year-old music director.

Fettig begins his Mondays at 6 a.m. so he can be at school by 7:30 a.m. While he does not have a class to teach before school, he is there to assist students who may need his help.

When the bell rings in the morning, Fettig directs the A Cappella Choir. After a brief prep session, he works with the ninth-grade varsity choir. For the last 90 minutes of the day he directs the Bel Canto girl's choir.

After school, Fettig conducts the band of Vocalmotive, the school's varsity show choir. He then directs the show choir singers until 5:30 p.m., before working with the Bemidji Boychoir until 6:15 p.m.

Wrapping up his 12-hour-day, Fettig directs the high school Madrigal Choir before heading home in time to watch a football game on television.

Senior Kiley Hazelton said she doesn't know how Fettig is so patient after working so many hours.

"We get tired, but it makes you think he is directing it and it has to be tiring," she said.

His days are long, but Fettig seems as motivated as ever to continue working with three curricular, three extra-curricular and two community choirs.

Fettig cofounded the Bemidji Boychoir, now in its ninth season. He also started a Lumberjack Men's Chorus for high school male singers.

"I've always had a passion for making it an acceptable and comfortable thing for boys to sing," he said. "They get these messages in our society that it's not OK. I'm constantly fighting that."

Some days Fettig said he feels like he has another 20 years in him. Other days he wishes he was looking at five years. But over time he said he has learned an important lesson:

"You really have to take time every once in a while to look at the kids and realize what they need and what this program is giving to them," he said. "Music adds depth to students' lives."

Lessons learned

There is something Fettig appreciates more than hearing an audience applaud at a concert - having high school alumni come back to visit him.

"It's great to hear all the clapping, but it's nothing compared to a student who comes back to tell you it lifted them and helped them in some way. I enjoy the relationships I've developed with the kids and their families."

In all his years as a high school teacher, Fettig said constantly students amaze him.

"You can set the bar really high and they'll do it," he said. "If they see another person do it, they can do it. We have incredibly talented kids."

When he was younger, Fettig said he was more eager to prove something, so if he had to "drag students to the finish line," he would. But after he had a family of his own, he saw a change in himself.

"I've been on the journey, but I feel like I expect them now to participate more," he said. "I'm willing to steer the ship, but I need them to paddle. I need them to step up. At my age, I don't have the same amount of time."

Fettig's teaching style is unforgettable to many students. He tells students music is about cooperation and not competition, and about being expressive, not aggressive.

Some students, like Hazelton, say Fettig rarely lets things slide.

"You can tell he wants to be positive and tell us how good we are, but sometimes he has to be hard on us," Hazelton added. "I think that's really helpful."

Senior Wil Hart said he is impressed his teacher has been working as a choir teacher for 25 years.

"He has a way of doing things that is just very effective," Hart said. "He is very eccentric. He is good at identifying when certain students have potential."

Senior Katie Kovacovich said she has appreciated how easy it is to talk to Fettig.

"He has such a hilarious sense of humor and it catches you off guard," she said. "He knows what sound he wants and figures out how he is going to achieve it. He's always very sure of himself and never has a moment of doubt."

Senior Kyle Fodness echoed the other students' remarks by saying Fettig "is a testament to how (the A Cappella Choir) is consistently one of the best choirs in the state."

The success BHS choirs have received over the years, Fettig said, stems from having a supportive school district and community, not because he has been the music director. He doesn't take this for granted.

"There are budget problems that come up, so I'm trying to keep that support because this is what counts," he said.

Today's students have more pressure to achieve higher academic standards, Fettig said, but he thinks the arts should always be an option for students.

"I think there needs to be arts to feed our spirit," he said. "It's not just our mind and body, but our soul. I tell the kids we need to be of many dimensions."

He looks forward to many more years of teaching and watching his children, who are students at Lincoln Elementary School, participate in school activities.