She remembers what her mother told her, “Bloom where you are planted.” And that is just what Carolyn Norquist is doing no matter where she lives or travels. She has planted many seeds that have flourished magnificently. She will be 80 years old this year, but that doesn’t stop Carolyn’s desire to learn more, such as sharpening her basic violin skills, playing the Hardanger fiddle that originated in Norway, and to pursue other interests. It will probably be an easy goal to reach since Carolyn is already an accomplished vocalist, pianist, choir director and music teacher who has performed throughout Minnesota, and as far away as Norway, the country of her heritage. For 30 years, Carolyn was the vocalist in a Twin Cities women’s trio, Musikk fra Norden (Music from the North). Dressed in the Norwegian bunad, the trio began performing Scandinavian music due to the interest of the 150th anniversary of the first Norwegian immigrants who came to the U.S. Trio members were Carolyn, with a beautiful soprano voice, Inger Berg Dahlin on the violin, and Margaret Halverson Heglund on piano. The accomplished musicians performed throughout Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, including Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show on public radio, colleges, churches, community festivals and private parties. During informal portions, the women enjoyed performing a variety of tunes that they referred to as the “Snoose Boulevard” songs, such as Nikolina. “We no longer perform as a trio but remain very good friends and always keep in touch,” said Carolyn. “At one time we had an agent who managed our concert schedule.” The trio made a record of various Scandinavian melodies in 1975 that was later made into a CD. Born in Willmar on Christmas Day, Carolyn Solmonson Norquist was raised in a family who loved music. The youngest of five children, her mother, Josie, who was also a talented painter, taught the children to sing and play a variety of instruments at a young age. “We always sang around the piano at home,” Carolyn reminisced. “Music was like food to us!” She graduated from Willmar High School in 1950 and worked one year for the Great Northern Railroad in Willmar to help earn money to attend Saint Olaf College, where she earned degrees in music education and vocal performance. “Working for the Great Northern as a secretary was such a great help to me, and they allowed me to work there during every Christmas break and the summers while I was in college,” she remembered. “They were a great support system for me, and I still get tears in my eyes while I wait for a train (at a crossing) as it brings back thoughts of the Great Northern.” She started her teaching career in the Orono school district in Long Lake, Minn., and two years later moved to California where she taught three years for the Monterrey School District. The school was close to the Army Language School (ALS) where Carolyn also taught music to the children of teachers from around the world who taught at ALS. “I taught music to children in many languages with the parents helping with the correct pronunciation or dialect,” Carolyn said. “It was very interesting and fun!” In the 1970s, the school’s name was changed to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. While in California she studied voice with an opera singer from Norway. She returned to her home state where she taught in the Twin Cities. It was during this time that she met her husband, Bert, who grew up in Brainerd where his father, Bert Sr., was a dentist for 50 years. “We met on a blind date, and it was the only blind date I ever had!” Carolyn laughed. After their wedding, the couple settled in Little Falls, where Bert was a science teacher. She put her teaching career aside to become a full-time wife and mother to their first son, Ben. However, when Ben was 2 years old, Carolyn received a call from the superintendent of the county schools asking if she would help start a music program for the 50 county schools in Morrison County. “I taught music at 25 schools on the east side of the [Mississippi] river and another teacher taught on the west side,” Carolyn recalled. Many of the schools were one-room school houses where Carolyn had to teach many grades at one time. Bowlus was one of the larger schools she visited which had three classrooms. Driving many miles, the music teacher visited approximately five schools every day in order to complete the 25-school circuit in one week. “I only did this for one year, but I loved it!” Carolyn said with a large smile. “Sometimes I arrived at the school and the children were playing softball during lunch time, so I would join them in the game until class started.” Driving down county and township roads was a challenge in the winter. “One time I drove into a ditch and a 90-year-old farmer pulled me out with his tractor. There were no cell phones then to call for help!” The following two years Carolyn taught for the Little Falls School District. With their family growing with two more sons, Mark and Nels, Carolyn would always put her teaching career into the piano bench in order to be a full-time wife and mother. The family moved back to the Twin Cities, where Carolyn continued to sing and perform but did not teach. The Norquists moved to Brainerd in 1977, where Bert worked in real estate. Carolyn taught part time at the community college and eventually taught full-time for the school district. While raising her family, she also received her master’s degree in choral conducting and music literature from St. Cloud State. “Overall, Bert and I were very traditional teachers,” she explained. “We were strict, and we had mutual respect with the students. The students knew our expectations.” Bert passed away in 1991. After a 23-year teaching career (15 in Brainerd), Carolyn retired in 1999, and that summer she traveled to Norway with alumni from the Saint Olaf choir where they performed for the celebration of churches that were over 1,000 years old. Carolyn estimates that she has made seven trips to Norway and other European countries and has visited Norwegian relatives during every visit. Genealogy is one of her many interests. While in college, Carolyn became friends with Dale Warland, who, in 1972, organized the Dale Warland Singers, a 40-member a cappella choral group based in the Twin Cities. She sang with the award-winning group for about six months and also traveled to Europe on their 1977 tour. Her talents were also shared internationally in 1961 when Carolyn was awarded a scholarship to do graduate work at the University of Oslo Summer School in Norway. In addition to her studies, she was hired to direct the choir of the famed school. The summer school is a six-week program that attracts students from around the world who are studying for their bachelor’s or master is degrees. The Sons of Norway have reaped Carolyn’s talents. Cultural skills are offered to enhance the lives of its members. Carolyn wrote the cultural skills for music focusing on the music and musicians of Norway, which is used throughout the U.S. by the organization. Today, she sings with two retired teachers, who were raised in Brainerd – Lawrence Sivert and Jim Lease, who are jazz guitarists. Jim, a math teacher, thought of a comical name for the trio, O3, a mathematical term with the “O” meaning old, older and oldest, of which Carolyn is the latter. The trio plans to perform on Carolyn’s patio in August for the resident members of Southview Court Homeowners’ Association. They perform a few times a year and have made a CD of gospel music. Carolyn enjoys all types of music except for rap, heavy metal or any similar music. “Bert had to teach me to like country western,” she admitted. With her passion for music and her Norwegian heritage, Carolyn had a Hardanger fiddle made for her by Robert “Bud” Larsen of Brainerd, an accomplished fiddler. Some added touches to personalize the fiddle are an abalone mother of pearl trim that reminds her of her time in California and a lion’s head at the top of the fiddle in honor of Saint Olaf. She took violin lessons in elementary school in Willmar and Bud will be giving her lessons on the Hardanger fiddle. The traditional violin has four strings compared to the Hardanger fiddle that has eight – the usual four plus another four strings below. When the bow glides over the four strings on top, the four strings below will vibrate. Carolyn has two traditional violins, one of which was Bert’s grandmother’s. She hopes to give lessons to her grandchildren, in addition to the piano lessons they have received from Grandma. In addition to re-teaching herself to play the violin, Carolyn also wants to improve her technique in weaving on the loom. She has always wanted to weave and now has three looms, which she hopes each son and their families will have some day. She took her first lessons a few years ago and completed one piece. But she admits she is a beginner and wants to learn more. So whether it’s in music or weaving, Carolyn has a goal. “I need to keep learning! My curiosity never stops!” She has more seeds to plant and they, too, will bloom.
Blooming where she was planted