By Marci Narum | Photography: Photos by Jacy

How do you know when it’s love? Some say, “You just know.”

Karen Traeholt knew she found love in music when she was a young girl, inspired by her piano teacher and band director. She subsequently devoted her life to music education and promoting choral music. Karen has witnessed thousands of young people falling in love—with singing.

Shawn Oban, 45, was in second grade at Bismarck’s Riverside elementary school when he became interested in music. He says his music teacher, Mrs. Traeholt, as he still calls her, helped him discover how much he could love singing—for the rest of his life.

“Once I got to junior high at Wachter, she was also my choir director there. I remember her talking to me one-on-one for show choir. And I don’t know if I would have done that had she not asked,” says Shawn. ”I think back to those moments as a kid. She was encouraging me. Once I got to high school I was all-in for everything.”

Like every love story, Karen’s comes with heartbreak. Her teaching career in Bismarck Public Schools began in 1979. She taught band and choir, and she loved it. She loved her students and they loved her. But the job had been taking a serious toll on her vocal chords. Karen’s doctor gave her two options: keep her job, or keep her voice. Karen left the classroom in 1992.

How do you know when it’s love? When you can’t live without it; when you refuse to let your love story end. Karen’s passion for inspiring students to a lifelong love of singing had already sparked a new flame, long before she quit teaching. She and a friend had been writing a bridge—musically speaking.

“Angie Koppang and I were teaching middle school full-time. She was at Simle, I was at Wachter,” Karen explains. “We went to national conferences for the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA). In San Antonio, we saw a children’s choir perform and thought Bismarck should have one of those. Every conference we’d go to, they would feature a children’s choir.”

“Karen and I had started a junior high honor choir in North Dakota,” says Angie. “We had learned from that experience and we made a good team. Karen is the most detail-oriented person I know. She had the list of everything that needed to be done. I’m a visionary, and remembered that when I was a kid, there was a very active community boys’ choir in Bismarck. So we started having conversations, watching children’s choirs, and wondering if Bismarck could support it. We did a lot of planning in the car back and forth to ACDA conferences,” Angie laughs.

Those road trip planning meetings were helping lay the groundwork for the Central Dakota Children’s Choir, Karen’s project for the 1998 Bismarck-Mandan Chamber Leadership Program.

“A lot of people asked if I wanted to conduct a children’s choir and I said, ‘No, I don’t,’” Karen laughs. “I knew that somebody had to do the logistics and it needed to not be the creative person. So I did the project and one of the comments from the Chamber when I presented it was, ‘don’t talk about this, just do it.’”

Central Dakota Children’s Choir (CDCC) was established in the summer of 1998 with one choir and one director, Teri Fay. She is still directing and has been the CDCC artistic director since 2001.

“We envisioned a choir of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and that would just be it,” Teri shares. “But the charter kids who were with us from those grades didn’t want to leave at the end of sixth grade. They wanted to keep singing.”

The children were falling in love with singing.

CDCC started growing and continued to grow. It expanded to five choirs with three additional directors. The choirs have performed for countless local, regional, and international events. This year marks the 20th anniversary of CDCC. Karen says consistency has sustained the organization.

“It’s the continuity of the program, especially having those key conductors, good quality educators, that truly understand the child, believe in the child, and educate the child,” she says.

“Some of the children are in smaller schools and they might not find someone like them, who has this profound love of singing,” says Teri. “So they network into a community of kids their age. Many of these kids graduate high school and their best friends are kids they met in CDCC. It’s contagious.”

And the experience is character-building.

“I remember one student who was the last to get into the choir; she was marginal that year,” says Karen. “But she went on and was in opera performance. She didn’t believe in herself and was really insecure in that audition but by the time she graduated from high school, it was effortless. She still comes to concerts. She brings her kids.

“Plus it’s not competitive,” Karen adds. “It’s not a sport; not schools against each other. They are supporting each other. They are the best singers in their schools.”

Karen retired in June 2015 and CDCC maintained its stability, hiring two longtime staff members. Tammy Rector became the executive director and Amy Miller continued on as director of operations.

“I get to know the moms and dads more because they come into the office,” Amy shares. “I hear them tell the stories about their kids and how they love the choir so much.”

“One mother told me,” Tammy adds, “‘from our standpoint, we see a huge change in [our son]. Every time we see him come out of rehearsal he is excited. We are just so impressed and we can’t thank you enough for what [choir] has done for him.’”

The refrain is music to Karen’s ears. It’s exactly what she wanted—for kids to discover a love for singing. She frequently runs into former students, CDCC members, and parents. Her friends will attest to the showers of love, praise, and gratitude Karen receives. Her eyes filling with tears, Karen recalls a comment from one parent.

“They sent an email after their third or fourth grader had been in a concert and said, ‘I thought we signed up for a children’s choir. I had no idea what the whole experience would be like.’”

She smiles. It’s a feeling Karen knows well and the reason she became a music educator.

“All of my [music] experiences gave me something to be passionate about; a way to express myself in a real quality way. And that was the goal with CDCC. I wanted to provide those experiences that I had. I’m still in touch with my high school band director. He and his wife came to my last concert for CDCC. His wife was my piano teacher.”

Shawn Oban is the school principal at Bismarck’s Roosevelt and Highland Acres elementary schools. He also serves as the fine arts coordinator for Bismarck Public Schools. Shawn says Mrs. Traeholt is his inspiration; the reason he loves music. When he’s not working at his schools, Shawn is a solo musician and performs with the band, Rift.

“If there was one person in the whole world that I would say is responsible for me singing to this day, it would be Karen. When I reflect back on life and think about the moments that made such a huge impact, had she not had those conversations with me, I don’t think I’d be where I’m at. I owe her.”

It’s an endless love for music. Sometimes you just know.

Central Dakota Children’s Choir in 20 years:

  • More than 2,000 singers
  • Second grade through senior high
  • Students from south-central ND
  • 25-30 performances each year

Choir auditions: May 2 & 3
Click here to learn more about CDCC or search CDCC on Facebook.

And, to see more photos of Karen, click here to see a gallery by Photos by Jacy.