Kristofer Johnson

Mr. Johnson speaking to students during a choir rehearsal.

"When it comes to building relationships, I don’t know what tool is more powerful than communal singing.”

Even while conversing, Director of Choirs and Instructor of Music Kristofer Johnson gestures and inflects as though he is conducting. His joy in his job is just that irrepressible. Given that he works each year with hundreds of student and community singers, such ebullience is an asset.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Johnson was steeped in music, taking up piano, string bass and singing as a child before becoming entranced with choral music in high school. Although other subjects appealed to him, music, he says, “was always ascendant.” In his senior year, Johnson was accepted into the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he studied singing with an eye to eventually conducting and teaching. He would later complete a master’s in choral conducting at the University of Illinois, which led to a career crossroads.

“I found myself deciding between starting a Ph.D. program or getting into professional choral conducting and singing work,” Johnson says. When he saw an ad for a conducting job at the Canterbury School in Connecticut, the fates seemed to be intervening, and a trajectory was set. From Canterbury, Johnson and his wife Janine, a pediatric occupational therapist, set off for Nashville, where he taught for two years at Vanderbilt University before heading back to the Northeast. He then taught at Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire, for nine years before accepting a position as the director of choirs position at Exeter in 2013.

Johnson is now teaching what he describes as the best high school choir he’s ever worked with. When asked why, he ponders for just a few seconds before responding: “I think it has to do with how exceptional their minds are and with their having a tremendous degree of self-reliance, of agency. The kids here work at such a high level, and they really love each other.”

Case in point is their taste in music. “Some of my students have been begging me for years to sing Bach,” Johnson says. “This term, I finally relented, and [we performed] a Bach motet at our spring concert.” His students’ yearning to connect with one another around sophisticated music and to experiment with musical forms complements his own approach to conducting and teaching: “I love to get into projects really deeply, to explore one composer’s music over a given term or year. Whether it’s historic or contemporary music, it’s interesting, intellectually and emotionally, to get wrapped up in a particular style.”

When it comes to building relationships, I don’t know what tool is more powerful than communal singing.”

This past spring, Johnson’s composer of choice was Brahms, whose work he performed with both the Concert Choir, Exeter’s auditioned student chorus of 45 voices, and with the Concord Chorale, an auditioned civic chorus of 90 people, which he has led for many years.

With a demanding schedule, one could see Johnson feeling stretched a bit thin. Ironically, rehearsals are what ground him. “Rehearsing is my favorite part of my job,” he says. “I tell my students, ‘We are starting with the stuff on the page, and the only thing that will change during the rehearsal is ourselves; we ourselves are changed through the act of rehearsing.’ And we get into this state of flow that is so powerful and extraordinary.”

Johnson enjoys exposing his singers to music that is culturally and historically varied, everything from African American spirituals to Italian madrigals to Tuvan throat singing. Ultimately, he wants the Exonians with whom he works, including a choir he recently started for Exeter teachers and staff and their spouses, to feel a sense of community. “I really do think music is all about people first — people, then music, then everything else. When it comes to building relationships, I don’t know what tool is more powerful than communal singing.”

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