There’s a trombonist in a T-shirt and a trumpet player in a tux. Some wear holiday hats, and all are making music together — while apart.
About 150 friends, family and former students of Duluth East High School choir director Robert Mix joined for a virtual performance to celebrate his 90th birthday Jan. 2.
And it was no small feat.
This past summer, Gia DesLauriers brainstormed safe ways to honor her father during a pandemic. She saw virtual choir performances on social media, and voila!
With help, she contacted several of Mix’s former students.
She sent sheet music, instructions and, as accompaniment, a 1972 recording of Mix’s choir performing “The Hallelujah Chorus” — the song with which he ended every holiday concert.
DesLauriers’ original goal was to get 30 people.
That jumped to 50, then 70, then 100.
Many participants are “not from the selfie generation,” DesLauriers said, so this project called for some troubleshooting and extra support from a distance.
She printed a book with snapshots of participants and created a Facebook page in honor of her father and the project.
She hired an editor to pull the video together, and the final product is 7 minutes and 30 seconds of smiling musicians and heart.
Bob Mix was able to sing on pitch from an early age.
“When he was in kindergarten, the teacher recognized right away what a ham Bob was,” said Lois Mix, noting that as a result, he got to play the lead role of Peter Rabbit in a production.
“I was cotton-tailed,” Bob added.
He sang through middle school and high school in Austin, Minnesota, where he always felt his goal in life was to be a choir director.
Mix is the founder of Duluth East A’Cappella, and he served as their choir director from 1959-1987. He received the F. Melius Christiansen Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Choral Directors Association; he is a Luther College hall of famer; and an annual student award and scholarship at East is bestowed in his name.
Music is our life, he said. “It’s always been the No. 1 thing for me.”
Jerry Upton first saw Mix when his choir performed at Upton’s college. “I was blown away,” he recalled.
The first time they met, Upton was directing Mix in the First Lutheran Church choir. “I was scared to death. I kept thinking, ‘He's judging me,’” he said.
Mix would later encourage Upton to apply at East, and he has been choral director there for 21 years.
In the music community, there isn't anybody who doesn't know who Bob Mix is, and some of the real movers and shakers in town are connected to him, Upton said. "Through his choir program, he created a lot of confidence in the people that he worked with and that carried on.”
Upton wants to maintain the quality of tradition at East and Mix’s legacy of excellence. The students have always strived for it. “That was instilled from the beginning from Bob,” Upton said
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Mix’s gifts for musicianship drew Gregory Kent in early.
“I’m sure there were boys my age that were dreaming about joining the baseball team or the hockey team. I knew my goal was to try to get into the a cappella choir and sing with Mr. Mix,” he said.
While in Mix’s choir, Kent traveled to England, Germany and Yugoslavia. They sang at a church in the Swiss Alps, and decades later, Kent, who now lives in Switzerland, would visit that church with his children.
Mix had extremely high standards musically, and he was able to motivate you to want to exceed, Kent said, adding that Mix had “a flair for the avant-garde” musically, choosing spirituals, classical pieces or wordless songs that incorporated clapping and stomping.
Kent said watching the “The Hallelujah Chorus” video was “very nostalgic, very touching.”
Participating in the video was “life-affirming” and a joy for all involved, said Katharine DeShaw.
“COVID has forced us all into these Zoom moments. In this case, it became an extraordinary experience,” added the 1974 East graduate.
“It was a nice, beautiful gesture to be able to give something back to Bob for something that he gave to us, this gift of music,” said Jeff Engelsgjerd, a former baritone in Mix’s choir.
And, Mix’s response to the video: “Humbled, of course.”
In a moment DesLauriers captured and posted online, Mix held his hand over his mouth as he watched, his grinning wife leaning in.
“I was completely surprised, and I couldn’t believe the number of people that took time to film themselves. … To see people that were still singing that were graduates of the early ’60s, that was really fun,” he said.
The technical work that went into the project made for more surprise, said Lois Mix.
“He has not yet caught up with the electronics of the time. I read all his Facebook messages to him. When we talked about the teachers having to teach with virtual choirs now, it was almost beyond his comprehension, and I think that when we sat down and watched this and what these people had participated in — the final product was almost overwhelming to him,” she said.
The video had more than 4,800 views; Bob Mix has seen it about 10 times.
Asked if he had any choir-director moments watching it, he said, “No. It was just wonderful.”
On a sad note, Bob and Lois Mix unexpectedly lost their son Jonathan Mix last week. It was a shock tempered with the care of a larger community. A “juxtaposition of experiencing such a great loss on the heels of such great joy,” DesLauriers said.
“The project and the feelings of love and support have helped us through this family tragedy,” she added.
The love of music has passed onto Mix’s children and grandchildren, and that holds true for his students and all the lives he inspired.
After graduating from East in 1981, Gregory Kent went on to sing at St. Olaf College, and later at the Oratorio Society of Washington (now the Washington Chorus), the Royal Choral Society and the Basler Gesangverein.
And, Engelsgjerd’s love of choral music has transpired generations. “All my children, they all sing,” he said.