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Former CMU Director of Choral Activities reflects on rich and vibrant career

Monte Atkinson, Professor emeritus and former Director of Choral Activities at CMU

CMU Music professor Monte Atkinson reflects on a long and rewarding career that began in 1985 and continued until 2018. He believes creating music, teaching and working in the community wasn’t just a job, but also a huge part of a rewarding career.

“It was a great privilege to be involved in the growth of choral music over the past 34 years in western Colorado,” said Atkinson.

Atkinson's reflections are the result of receiving notification from the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) that he would receive the ACDA Legacy Award to honor his contributions to music and the arts in Colorado.

Atkinson arrived on western Colorado’s music scene when he first moved to Grand Junction in 1985 after being hired as the Choral Director at then Mesa College. He began managing a program consisting of a modest show choir that included ten students, some whom were pursuing musical theatre — the only vocal music degree offered at that time.

“It’s fun to recollect where we were then as an institution and to compare that to the vast programming we offer today,” said Atkinson. “It's kind of surreal to think about.”

atkinson-200x300.jpgProfessor Atkinson and his family moved to the West Slope from Knowville, TN where he had served as Associate Choral Director at the University of Tennessee. 

“Harold Decker, one of the original founders of ACDA was my doctoral degree professor at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign,” he said. “I had the privilege of being his last teaching assistant before he retired, and he advised me to take the Mesa College job because growing a new and small program would be enjoyable and rewarding — which it certainly has been.”

Atkinson’s first step in establishing the program was to direct a letter to all 3000 student who were enrolled at Mesa College at the time. He invited them all to join choir while he ordered a new set of risers for the choir to stand on during performances.

That fall 40 students lined up to audition and Atkinson turned away none of them.

He explained that in the first year he auditioned the best eight singers and formed the Mesa Chamber Singers. The group included two sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two bass singers. “The group became a treasured ensemble and the choral tradition was off and running," he said.

In 1987 the choir was invited to perform in Mexico City with two other college choirs and Atkinson’s students toured for a week in Mexico City performing with the Mexico National Symphony in the national Palace of Fine Arts.

He fondly recalls a performance that “changed me forever” as the students and Atkinson visited an orphanage where the children sang and danced, and the choir in turn sang for them. Students and orphans embraced and Atkinson, though tears, recorded a memory that would change his perspective on what would be important for the remainder of his career and life.

On arrival in Grand Junction Atkinson committed fully to helping the ACDA grow and formed the Mesa Student ACDA chapter that averaged more than 15 members and still exists today. Within just a few years Atkinson envisioned a Collegiate Colorado ACDA festival and within a year the idea was brought to fruition. The event rotated around various Colorado communities and occurred the second Friday of each November, a tradition that still continues today. 

During Atkinson's tenure at CMU, and during his leadership tenure as state ACDA president, he served as the Music Department Chair all the while adding two children to his growing family of eight.

Atkinson officially retired from his position at CMU in the spring of 2018 but continued to direct the Western Colorado Chorale. He recently announced the bitter sweet news that the 2019-20 choral season will be his last with the chorale. As his service comes to an end he remains proud that a 40-50 voice auditioned ensemble continues bringing, “great music to the region.”

“We partner each year with the Grand Junction Symphony in our own Masterworks concert, and they hire us each year to perform with them."

From a 10-day concert tour across England and Wales and a chamber choir concert tour to Montreal and New England to an American History Chamber Choir tour in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, Atkinson’s choir has certainly left its mark on American music as he has left his mark at Colorado Mesa University.

“I could not have envisioned a more rewarding and joyful career,” said Atkinson. “None of these milestones would have come to pass without the endless support of my wife Gail and my children. I learned over my career that choral music lifts the soul, lifts the heart and binds us together. Thank heavens for music, and great choral music and all who strive to create and share it,” he said.


Written by David Ludlam