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Anton Armstrong '78 receives $200,000 'great teaching' award

By David Gonnerman '90
January 31, 2006

Baylor University has named Anton Armstrong, conductor of the famed St. Olaf Choir, the recipient of the 2006 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching -- the single largest award given in the United States to an individual for great teaching. Armstrong, the Harry R. and Thora H. Tosdal Professor of Music at St. Olaf College and a 1978 alumnus, will receive $200,000; an additional $25,000 will be awarded to the St. Olaf Music Department.

(See national coverage of Armstrong's award at the Star Tribune and Inside Higher Ed.)

Armstrong '78 has conducted the St. Olaf Choir since 1990.
"The committee reviewed 86 completed nominations that represented 68 colleges and universities and 46 disciplines," says Cherry Award selection committee chair Heidi Hornik, professor of art history. "Although the three finalists were all extremely strong, the committee selected Dr. Armstrong by a large majority." Armstrong will teach in residence at Baylor during the 2007 spring semester and first summer session.

"It is with sincere humbleness and immense gratitude that I accept this award," says Armstrong. "I feel overwhelmed by the honor, for this award does not simply affirm my vocation to serve others through my teaching -- it also recognizes all the wonderful family, teachers, mentors, students and singers that have touched my life and nurtured this calling in me through the years," he says.

"What we are doing in arts education -- especially in music -- is not just educating the mind but the whole person," Armstrong says. "This is integral to what I teach and transcends what I do. It is not just about studying but about doing." He says he feels blessed to have served in two stimulating academic communities, St. Olaf College and Calvin College, where his intellectual and artistic work could be pursued within a community of faith.

"I ask my students the question of how does learning in the classroom shape them as human beings," Armstrong continues. "I tell them that in 20 years they may be doing something very different. I try to say in my teaching that yes -- you want to master this material, but how will it make a difference in how you live and how you carry out your life?" he says. "The music that I make with these young people is a dynamic means of grace."

Armstrong holds a bachelor's of music degree in vocal performance at St. Olaf College, a master's degree in choral music from the University of Illinois and a doctorate in choral conducting from Michigan State University.

After serving on the faculty at Calvin College, Armstrong returned to St. Olaf in 1990. As conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, he has toured throughout the United States and to Denmark, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and Central Europe. Together with the St. Olaf Orchestra, the choir also was heard live on a national broadcast of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio program. Most recently, the choir was seen and heard on the 2005 PBS Christmas special, "A St. Olaf Christmas in Norway," that aired nationwide in December. The choir has recorded 11 CDs during Armstrong's tenure as conductor.

In recent years he has guest conducted such noted ensembles as the Utah Symphony and Symphony Chorus, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He has collaborated in concert with Bobby McFerrin and Garrison Keillor and is active as a guest conductor and lecturer throughout North America, Europe, Scandinavia, Korea, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean.

Armstrong is widely recognized for his work with youth and children's choral music. He began his tenure as conductor of the Oregon Bach Festival Youth Choral Academy in 1998. In 2001 he served as co-conductor of the World Youth Choir sponsored by the International Federation of Choral Music. He served for more than 20 years on the summer faculty of the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., and was conductor of the St. Cecilia Youth Chorale, a 75-voice treble chorus based in Grand Rapids, Mich., from 1981 to 1990.

Robert Foster Cherry graduated from Baylor in 1929 and entered Baylor Law School in 1932, passing the state bar exam the following year. Before his death, he endowed the Cherry Chair for Distinguished Teaching and the Cherry Award for Great Teachers.

The award program underwent significant changes with the 2004 award, including the elimination of the secondary award, the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teachers. The program now awards a single prize, The Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. It is awarded every other year and features a prize of $200,000 for the winner as well as $25,000 for the winner's home department. During the off years, three finalists for the award will speak at Baylor and will receive $15,000 each, plus $10,000 to go to their home departments.

In addition to Armstrong, the other Cherry finalists were William Cook, Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at State University of New York at Geneseo, and Dr. Robert Brown, Institute Professor in the department of physics at Case Western Reserve.

With Julie Carlson at Baylor University.

Read a recent interview with Armstrong.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or