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The City Journals

West Jordan Symphony takes on a rising star as its new conductor

May 17, 2017 04:44PM ● By Natalie Conforto

The West Jordan Symphony performed Christmas music for their final concert with their previous conductor, Larry White, in December 2015. (Jon Bowden)

By Natalie Conforto | [email protected] 

“I was expecting someone older.”

“I hope he knows what he’s doing.”

Jeannine Hawkins and Cassie Lorensen, members of the West Jordan Symphony, remember their thoughts when 24-year-old Shane Mickelsen arrived as the symphony’s new conductor just over a year ago. Clean-shaven and eager, Mickelsen appeared to the symphony members to be awfully young for the job. After all, their beloved conductor of 12 years, Larry White, sported hair to match his name by the time he stepped down in December of 2015. Would this newcomer possess the skills and experience necessary to command a full orchestra?

Mickelsen’s resume confirms his experience. Growing up, he played clarinet in bands and orchestras, and was chosen as the drum major for his high school’s marching band. When he was just 18, he conducted an orchestra for an opera that he wrote in college. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance and a Master of Music degree in music composition from Utah State University. Later, he served as artistic director and then associate conductor of the Utah Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Luckily for local music lovers, Mickelsen has proven his competence, both as a musician and as an approachable leader. After only one year, symphony members are singing his praises.

“Shane is really good. He’s fun, and he makes jokes, and he helps us learn theory as we play,” said Lorensen, who has studied the viola for 25 years, playing with the West Jordan Symphony for the past five. Lorensen said she appreciates Mickelsen’s teaching techniques that reach the varying skill levels of symphony members.

He uses a lot of imagery and descriptive analogies to describe the sound he wants the group to achieve. While many of the instrumentalists are music teachers themselves, high school students and new players also comprise the local group. No audition is required.

“Shane brings out the best in us,” said Hawkins, who was a music education major and marching band trumpet player at the University of Utah. Hawkins notes Mickelsen’s versatility as a musician, adding that he also teaches voice lessons to her sons, who started as novices and have now earned “Superior” ratings in vocal competitions, thanks to Mickelson’s expert coaching.

“He is so talented,” Hawkins said. “He’s very knowledgeable, and he wants to share that with us. He wants us to love playing as much as he loves putting it together.” She mentioned that as a newer member of the symphony, she considered leaving when White retired.

Then Mickelsen sent out an email to ask the symphony what they wanted to play. Hawkins recalls, “I took that opportunity to mention Gershwin and the big band stuff, because brass isn’t usually featured in an orchestra. But he listened to me, and that’s what made me stay.”

“He incorporates what we say,” Hawkins said, citing that Gershwin’s music will be the theme of the group’s spring performance May 5 at the Viridian Event Center. They will also play big band swing music, and the Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite.


Mickelsen’s composing talents have come in handy for the Symphony. The group regularly warms up to a tuning chorale that he wrote for them to practice listening, balance and tuning skills. They have also performed his arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” which Lorensen said they all love to play. “Amazing Grace” is featured on Mickelsen’s new album, “Classical Hymns,” which was produced by Paul Cardall and released this March, hitting No. 8 on the iTunes classical chart. The Piano Guys and Jenny Oaks Baker perform some of Mickelsen’s arrangements on the album.

When asked about his composing, Mickelsen deflected the spotlight to the instrumentalists who bring his work to life.

“Everything relies on the performer,” he said. “In one example, you may have written an excellent novel, but no one will know unless there is someone capable of interpreting the writing that reads it. Needless to say, performers do not get enough credit; without them, a composer is nothing more than a wishful thinker.” 

There are 48 members now registered in the West Jordan Symphony, but Mickelsen said that many more would be welcome.

“The biggest challenge facing the symphony is that we need more string players,” he said. “We do well for what we have, but we could use so many more first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses. We are also looking for one bassoon player, some oboe parts, trombone, tuba, and percussion players. Increasing our numbers would greatly increase what we are able to accomplish.” 

Although this is a volunteer organization, Lorensen and Hawkins continue to play with the orchestra for a more rewarding payoff. Even Mickelsen, who puts in nine hours per week, is paid only in applause. He enjoys working with the West Jordan Symphony for “its sense of community and belonging. Everyone treats each other like family—it’s a great place to call home once a week,” Mickelsen said.

While Lorensen describes the fun and welcoming atmosphere from the conductor and other members, Hawkins finds the collective resonance exhilarating.

“You’re a small piece of a whole thing, so you’re concentrating on your own part,” Hawkins said. “But those moments when we just come together, it’s such a beautiful sound. I think we all feel it—it’s sort of magical.”

For Hawkins, her time commitment with the West Jordan Symphony is more of a treat than a sacrifice. All members attend the two-hour weekly Saturday morning rehearsal and practice on their own as often as they deem necessary. Hawkins practices three times per week on her own. As a mom, she is often running her kids to their various activities and cheering them on.

But when it comes to the symphony, she said she loves “that it’s mine. It’s something I do for me, that my kids can come and watch me do.”

To get involved, email [email protected], or visit its website at