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Two longtime Mounds View orchestra directors to retire
John Madura and Deb Sittko have over 65 years of combined experience leading orchestra programs in the Mounds View Public School District. Both have been key players in building those programs in both east and west side schools to be tops in the state.
Madura and Sittko have taken Mounds View District high school orchestra students on several trips around the U.S. and abroad to experience different cultures and showcase their students award-winning musical talent.
They may be retiring from Mounds View, but neither is calling it quits with music, on the contrary, they both plan to stay active playing music in the next chapter of their lives.
Madura has been an institution in the Mounds View High School (MVHS) Orchestra program for 44 years.
He started his career as the high school’s orchestra director at just 22-years-old on August 25, 1969, just a few months after earning his degree from the University of Minnesota.
Madura says the school needed both a director for its orchestra and a diving coach. “I fit the bill,” he says.
Not only was he already a talented cello player by 1969, but also an accomplished springboard diver. Over the course of his long career in Mounds View, he has coached 18 state champions (see section below).
“He’s very passionate about what he does and demands excellence,” MVHS Activities Director Robert Madison says. “John’s been a wonderful asset to Mounds View High School and the community for his involvement with the orchestra and diving programs.”
Connie Aiken, orchestra director at Chippewa Middle School, says Madura has shown extreme dedication to the hundreds of students he has taught over the years.
“John’s very committed to his students. He will go out of his way to help make it possible for anyone who wants to study music to do so, even if they don’t have the financial means, he will always do what he can to make sure they are in,” Aiken says.
Aiken student taught under Madura in 1978 and has looked to him for advice over the years.
“He’s been very encouraging,” she says. “I feel like I have my career because of him. He’s an amazing musician and teacher and just an institution in Mounds View.”
Aiken says, while known as being strict, Madura cares deeply for his students, believes in their ability and always pushes them to do better.
“He challenges kids in a way,” she says. “When students are intimidated by learning to play a complicated piece of music, he’ll say: ‘of course you can do this,’ and they do.”
Madura’s hard work with the orchestra program at MVHS has paid off.
For the past 15 years, the Mounds View Orchestra has placed more students in the Minnesota All-State Orchestra than any other school in the state.
“He’s led the program to be the top in the state over his tenure,” MVHS Principal Jeff Erickson says.
Madura has long been looked to as a leader among music teachers. The Minnesota Branch of the American String Teacher’s Association honored him with the Master String Teacher of the Year Award in 2009.
Over the course of Madura’s career he has seen many of his former students go on to become professional musicians and orchestra directors themselves.
“We have had the opportunity to work with some really gifted kids,” Madura says. “We’ve gotten to see a lot of them become working musicians and have had the pleasure of playing with them years after they leave.”
Madura will turn 66 in May shortly before his retirement from Mounds View, but plans to continue playing in music ensembles with his wife Kathryn Christie, a violinist and instructor, and other musicians regularly, while teaching private lessons out of his home studio in White Bear Lake.
Prior to his retirement from MVHS he says he is looking forward to the orchestra’s spring concert on Wednesday, May 15. The concert will be held in the MVHS auditorium from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
“We are going to be performing the entire Symphony Number Two by David Ott,” Madura says.
The piece is special to Madura, because it was written in honor of his brother Robert Madura, the former principal cellist with the Grand Rapids Mich. Symphony. Robert continued to play music while battling Leukemia, which took his life at just 32-years-old in 1989.
Madura is an Austin, Minn. native who grew up in a musical household-- his mother was a viola and violin player and his dad was a viola player. Madura followed in the family musical tradition and began playing the cello as a child. He also was and still is an athletic man.
He dove for the Austin High School dive team for four years in the early 1960s, qualifying for the State meet in three of those years and finishing second in 1964 as a senior.
He then attended the University of Minnesota on a music scholarship and dove for the Golden Gophers from 1965 to 1969.
He has since been inducted into the Austin Athletic Hall of Fame, the University of Minnesota Swim Coaches Hall of Fame and the Mounds View Coaching Hall of Fame.
He has coached 12 state champions on the MVHS dive team and 18 champions overall, with assignments at Spring Lake Park and Irondale’s diving programs. He has also coached 24 All-Americans over the course of his tenor, including his daughter Stacy in 1989. Just three years later he coached his son John, who took third place at the State meet in 1992.
A retirement celebration has been planned in Madura’s honor, which will take place on Wednesday, June 5 at the Shoreview Community Center’s outdoor pavilion from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m.
In the early 1980s, when Sittko started teaching orchestra in the west side Mounds View schools, the program on the east side led by Madura was already well established, but kids from Edgewood Middle School and Irondale High School had to bus in from across town for performances and lessons.
“The west side orchestra program had to be built from the bottom up,” Sittko says.
When Sittko returned as orchestra director at Edgewood Middle School and Irondale High School in 1992 -- after teaching music at a private school for 10 years –- the west side orchestra program was still underdeveloped.
“It took a long time for us to get up to 80 students,” she says.
The original orchestra room at Edgewood was a former custodial storage room that was roughly 30 feet long and 15 feet wide.
Now after several years of hard work building up the program there are three, much larger orchestra rooms at Edgewood and the west side program has over 150 students in orchestras at Edgewood and Irondale.
“To look at the program she’s built and hear the level her students play at is remarkable,” Jeri Espeseth of the west side orchestra boosters says. “She has a tremendous commitment to her students and has taught them a lot about appreciating music and bringing it into their lives.”
By using a feeder system starting with elementary students all the way through middle school and high school-- a strong, award-winning orchestra program was produced over time.
“We had to get strategic about making it fun,” Sittko says.
She says sleep over’s at Edgewood on Friday nights have been popular, where kids in orchestra play music together, swim, play games in the gymnasium and have a pizza party.
But Sittko says ultimately it is the feeling of achievement in the end that attracts kids to music.
“The kids that are attracted to orchestra are also attracted to excellence,” she says. “Striving for excellence has to be the bottom line for kids, otherwise they get bored.”
Her colleagues say that like Madura, Sittko is motivated by excellence and is always striving for it.
“She sets a high standard for herself and her students,” Aiken says. “Deb really loves music and teaching and doesn’t do anything half way. She goes all the way with anything she has committed herself to doing.”
Looking back at her long career, Sittko says one of her favorite moments was seeing her kids in the Edgewood Orchestra perform at Orchestra Hall for the first time.
Another highlight was a few years back when her Irondale Orchestra played in front of large group of Italians.
“The Italians wouldn’t stop clapping,” she says. “It was a great feeling.”
In addition to the long hours she has spent teaching orchestra at Edgewood and Irondale, Sittko, a skilled French horn player, also served as president of the Minnesota String and Orchestra Teachers Association, where she is currently a board member. She was also a board member with the Lyra Baroque Orchestra from 2007 to 2011.
Sittko has post-retirement plans of traveling and teaching in the works. She says she will be staying with a friend for a few months in Rome next year and has been learning Italian in her spare time. If things go well during her trip she says she may rent or purchase an apartment and teach music on a more long-term basis in Italy.
There will be a retirement party for Sittko following a final concert at Bethel University performed by the Edgewood Orchestra in Benson’s Great Hall on Thursday, May 23 at 7:00 p.m.
The open-house retirement party will immediately follow the concert where coffee, cake and punch will be available, along with memorabilia on display. Edgewood and Irondale alumni are invited to bring instruments on stage and play the last couple of “standard” numbers, which will be familiar to anyone who has studied with her over the years.
Joshua Nielsen can be reached at email@example.com or 651-748-7824.