In loving memory of Sigrid Johnson (1952—2022)

So many thoughts fill my mind thinking of dear Sigrid, affectionately known to all singers as “Ears Johnson” for she truly had the most amazing way of discerning the sound of each individual voice. For 24 years at VocalEssence she was my colleague, my musical conscience, a joyful supporter for a great realm of music, and a deep, dear friend to me, to my wife Carolyn, and to the thousands of singers,  conductors, students, and listeners she touched. Her generous spirit as a musician and human being embraced us all, making her unforgettable and beloved.

Philip Brunelle
Artistic Director and Founder, VocalEssence


Sigrid Jean Johnson was born on January 8, 1952, to Corliss and Irene Nelson in Bismarck, North Dakota. She died on March 11, 2022.

Sigrid was raised in a home filled with music. Her father was an untrained singer with a beautiful tenor voice. Her mother, a trained pianist who could also play hymns by ear, taught Sigrid and her two brothers basic music theory as children.

Sigrid began formal piano training with Belle Mehus at age four and gave her own solo piano recital at age five. She enjoyed playing concerts and private events in a trio with her brothers on violin and cello. Throughout junior and senior high school, she performed and accompanied in church, high school choir, orchestra, band, the community, and local college operas and musicals. Sigrid served a local church as organist and also played flute and bassoon.

After graduating from Bismarck High School in 1969, she was offered a full scholarship to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where she sang under conductor Paul J. Christiansen. She completed her undergraduate degree in vocal performance at St. Cloud State University and received a master of music in vocal performance from the University of Michigan. She was an adjunct professor of voice at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis and Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

While at Concordia, she met the love of her life, Robert “BJ” Johnson. They had two children, Andrew and Peter. Music was important to Sigrid, but not her only focus. She was devoted to her family; they were at the center of her life.

In 1983, Sigrid accepted a position as artist-in-residence and a member of the voice faculty at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she conducted the Manitou Singers, the 100-voice first-year women’s chorus. She taught at St. Olaf for 32 years until her retirement in 2015.

Sigrid was a highly sought-after guest conductor and clinician. She was invited to all-state music festivals in over 30 states. Known particularly for her outstanding musical ear, she prepared symphonic choruses for Neeme Järvi, Sir Neville Marriner, David Zinman, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Gerard Schwarz, Edo de Waart, and Leonard Slatkin, among others. She served as conductor of the Dale Warland Symphonic Chorus, associate conductor of the Dale Warland Singers, guest conductor of the National Lutheran Choir, and Magnum Chorum, both of Minneapolis. She was also the associate conductor of VocalEssence, Minneapolis, where she worked closely with Founding Artistic Director Philip Brunelle.

Sigrid was a featured guest lecturer at the World Symposiums on Choral Music in Minneapolis in 2002; in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2008; and in Puerto Madryn, Argentina in 2011. She was a featured lecturer and clinician at the 2004 Australian National Choral Association Conference and also a member of the esteemed jury for the Béla Bartók International Choral Competition in Debrecen, Hungary in 2006.

In 2007, she received the F. Melius Christiansen Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota, for providing outstanding contributions and distinguished service to choral music in Minnesota.

For many years, she suffered from palindromic rheumatoid arthritis. She found the strength, the will, the power in the music that enabled her to conduct a choir with such grace and beauty that no one would have known the pain she was enduring. She was a model of vitality, courage, and faith.

Sigrid was a loving nurturer, caring, and selfless. She deeply respected her fellow colleagues, who were wonderful supporters and collaborators and a great center of joy in her life. Unrelenting in pursuit of excellence, she dug deep to bring about the beauty in each musical piece her choirs presented. Because she was a stickler for meticulous intonation and attention to the text, her singers always kept their eyes fixed on her. She was known for taking liberties and never conducted a piece of music exactly the same way twice.

She is remembered for having said, “God gave me two beautiful sons, and every year I’m blessed with 100 daughters” (referring to her particular fondness for the Manitou Singers). To her students, she bequeathed life skills that reach far beyond music: the power of preparation, pride in their work, deference and respect, and the importance of listening to each other. She inspired and imprinted these values on thousands of young singers. But above all else, she fervently believed that people — all people everywhere — mattered.

Sigrid loved going to their little cabin (“Lille Hutte”) on Lake Darling in Alexandria, Minnesota. She loved taking rides around the lake in their pontoon with Bob at the wheel. She loved coffee and often had a cup in her hand and others nearby. She was a fabulous host for gatherings at their home. She knew how to set a beautiful table. She always had a smile and a hug. People loved her. She will be deeply missed, but her legacy of loving relationships and beautiful music will last forever.

Sigrid is preceded in death by her parents; sister, Mary Corene; niece, Holly Nelson; and her beloved husband, Robert Clifford Johnson.

She is survived by her two sons, Andrew (Sarah), St. Paul, MN and Peter (Samy), Bloomington, MN; two grandsons, Soren and Halvor; brothers, Corliss (Donna), Smyrna, TN and Greg (Pam), Franklin, TN; nieces, Sarah (Damian), Franklin, TN and Serena (Adam), Brooklyn, NY; nephew, Ben (Emily), St. Paul, MN; four grand-nieces, Georgia, Blythe, Tessa, and Maya; and grand-nephews, Henry and Ellis.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Sigrid and Robert “BJ” Johnson Endowed Fund, the Manitou Singers, the Steven M. Amundson Fund for Orchestra (all c/o St. Olaf College, 1520 St. Olaf Ave., Northfield, MN, 55057, Att’n: Development Office) or to VocalEssence (1900 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55403).

A memorial service will be held at 3:00PM, Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Boe Chapel at St. Olaf College. If you are not able to attend in person, the service will be streamed.

Sigrid Johnson Conducts

Listen to a recording of Sigrid Johnson conducting The Day is Done by Stephen Paulus sung by the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers at the VocalEssence 50th Anniversary Concert on October 7, 2018.

Listen Here

Singer Tribute

Over the course of the past month or so, Philip Brunelle served as postman for Sigrid. He collected cards and messages and then brought them with him on his visits to Sigrid in Northfield. Many tributes were sent to Sigrid during the past month. The following is a tribute from Anna Meek, one of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers:

Dearest Sigrid,

When I auditioned for VocalEssence that first time, I knew of Philip Brunelle of course, and I recognized him when I entered the Chapel. But within seconds I knew the person to impress was you. 

I immediately knew you embodied authority, and knowledge—kindness too, but a no-nonsense emphasis on excellence. Even the way you carried yourself when you rose from your chair after I sand and you said to me simply, “Okay. Now.”

And then you went to the piano and went to work. (The way you always have.) Right then and there, I got a mini-voice lesson. How many people can say they come out of an audition as a better singer? I knew to trust you, and to listen carefully; I knew that you took me seriously as a musician. Even for those 10 minutes in the audition, you were invested in me as a singer, and I wanted to become a better musician for you. Sigrid, I became a better musician. For you, because of you, inspired by you.

I will also never forget the concert you conducted in Stillwater. It was maybe 14 years ago, the first concert I’d sung with you as the sole conductor. Electric, passionate, precise, encouraging!  You had the Ensemble Singers as one instrument, wanting and wanting to give you everything you asked for. You know that moment when, as a singer, you just feel connected to everyone around you?—everyone breaths together, you can feel everyone’s anticipation for the next note, and everyone leans into a phrase together? I know you know that feeling. (I’ve never known what to call it, so I just always call it The Click.) All concert long, THE CLICK. When it was all over, we were all stunned and ecstatic. I remember thinking how lucky your regular singers at St. Olaf were. I think I charged at you and hugged you and you must have thought I was nuts. Ha!

And this is where I get ALL VERKLEMPT because I’m a crier, and this is how you’ve shaped and inspired and strengthened me the most: It’s as a woman who teaches. As one who regularly stands in front of people in a position of authority, I know how difficult it is to look (and feel) authoritative when still, for women, there are so few role models. You have to be warm, but not motherly; authoritative but not dictatorial; inspiring but not moddle-coddling; demanding but not cruel.  (And all the while, the students are looking at your outfit and deciding if it’s the right color for you.  ) I am a better English professor (and a more confident woman) just because I watched you, and listened, and saw how you tuned or seated a section, or pulled a good sound out of the tenors, or pointed out two subtle ways to sing a phrase. You knew what you heard, what you wanted as a sound, and what you wanted us to hear. I think of the way you hold yourself, and speak with seriousness and ferocity, and electrify whomever you are teaching.

I try to bring that to my own students. I carry you in my teaching, and in my singing. And I know there are literally hundreds of women can say that as well, and we all are stronger and more musical, fiercer (and funnier) because we carry you forward. Thank you, Sigrid. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Much love, always,