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Rural music teacher, offers Moldenhauer lectures at Whitworth

Music is a tool to express emotions no other art can express.  I play a soft solo on cello and ask kindergarteners how it makes them feel,” he said.  “Music is essential to life.  It’s much more than background noise.”

He also sees it as part of life in a small community.

Along with teaching music in this small Northeast Washington school district, he is also a national and regional lecturer, and a contemporary-classical church music composer.

Donivan Johnson
Donivan Johnson

Teaching classes for children or giving national or regional lectures to adults, Donivan evokes curiosity by asking provoking questions about music.

He hopes music he plays in worship provides a commentary to move people to further faith exploration and that music he introduces in school classes will generate a life-long love for and curiosity about music.

For the seventh time, Donivan will give the annual Hans Moldenhauer Memorial Lecture at 7:30 p.m., Monday, April 7 at the Music Recital Hall at Whitworth University.

Since 2000, he has spoken at the Whitworth lecture on music and composers of the 20th century, and their place in society and music education.

Donivan, who has been teaching music in Metaline Falls and Ione since 1991, also lectures for the Society of Composers national and regional conferences.  Most lecturers are college and university professors.

For two years, he has given lectures as part of Elderhostels in Newport and he is a guest lecturer for Eastern Washington University and Whitworth University classes.

This year, the Moldenhauer lecture topic is “I Have Overcome the World: The Tragic Art of Hugo Distler,” who lived from 1908 to 1942 in Germany.  Distler’s church, a cappella and organ music influenced German church music for more than the 10 years he composed music to sacred texts, said Donivan, who earned a master’s degree in composition at California State University in Northridge in 1973.

Donivan will discuss Distler’s work and play examples of it. 

For 17 years, Donivan has been the only K-12 music instructor for the Selkirk School District.  He also taught K-12 music in California, Alaska and Idaho. 

In Metaline Falls where he lives with his wife, the Rev. Tara Leininger, pastor of Metaline Falls Congregational United Church of Christ, he has also found an outlet for composing church and sacred music, as well as music to use in each grade level at the schools.

From his early experience listening to church choirs and organ music in the Norwegian Lutheran Church, which was one of the churches that united to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, he decided he wanted to add to that repertoire.

“Some days in the summer when I’m not near a piano, I compose in my head or on paper.  I may try it out whistling.  We live in a quiet area conducive to meditation and stillness,” Donivan said.

“When I compose, it’s an act of faith.  Sounds come.  It grows into something worthwhile for people to experience in worship or at a concert.  Music is not a diary to keep private but is to be shared in community,” Donivan said.  “When people sing a hymn in worship, regardless of how out-of-tune or raucous it may be, they are lifting their souls to God.”

His style of composition ranges from simple to complex, with many in a contemporary classical style, in contrast to contemporary Christian pop music.  Most are short and dissonant,” he said.

“Dissonance evolves but does not hit all at once, so the ear can assimilate it,” he described.  “The dissonance is made by hitting ‘wrong’ notes that are, in fact, the right notes.”

They include an 11-minute choral cantata that was sung in 1999 by a 120-member German choir in Basel, Switzerland. 

Donivan said instrumental music has a role in worship to augment the meaning of words in ways only instruments can do. 

“Music is the commentary part of the service, intended to move people,” said Donivan, who has been at home in a variety of churches—Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and United Church of Christ.

In Idaho, he attended Presbyterian and Catholic churches where he was music director. From 1997 to 1998, he was organist at the American Lutheran Church in Newport, until the 60-mile drive became too much in the winter. There, he composed one prelude or offertory each week.

He sometimes fills in as organist or pianist at Metaline Falls Congregational UCC.  In the fall, he directed a choral work accompanied by hand chimes at Central Baptist in Spokane.  He also gives concerts outside worship.

School is a major outlet for writing and arranging folk songs, which he considers important for a rural school district where funds to buy music are limited.

“Little children are curious and want to know.  Junior high and senior high students have inquisitive minds and want to learn how to play, compose and improvise music,” he said.

As one teacher with many students in a small school, he provides opportunities in the same class for students to sing, play band instruments, learn guitar and peer tutor each other.

There are 325 students in K-12. Donivan teaches music in the morning at the elementary school.  He teaches two music classes for grades 9 to 12, and 7 to 12 band, choir and guitar.  He also teaches senior English.

“By teaching guitar,” he noted, “we encourage some guitar players to stay in school.

 “We present 12 to 15 performances by small groups and large groups, including December concerts at Hawthorne Retirement Community in North Spokane and Northtown Mall.

“We do a Christmas concert, ending with ‘Silent Night,’ which was written by a Lutheran pastor, and is part of our wide music heritage,” Donivan said.  “We also sing songs of Hebrew and other heritages, too.

 “When children leave at graduation, I hope they understand what they listen to,” he said.  “I introduce them to the origins of different forms of music.  I want to provide a repertoire of songs that students can take with them through their life.”

Ione and Metaline Falls, he said, have high regard and high expectations for their school music program.  Before 1991, many music teachers came and went.  Donivan has stayed, earning the distinction for his school in 2001 of being one of the 100 best communities for music education.

As a small community’s population dwindles, its music program often does, too.  TV and athletics fill students’ time, he said, but community support makes a difference. 

Donivan grew up in a family that gathered Saturday nights around the piano.  Now TV shows and MP3 players replace family singing when many learned “O Susanna” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“In our culture, both parents work and there are many distractions that keep families from gathering around a piano and singing,” he said.

So school and church remain outlets for learning and singing the songs that integrate music in people’s lives.

For information, call 446-3505.

 

Copyright © 2008 - The Fig Tree - By Mary Stamp