Mike Christianson: The Michigan Tech Band Experience—Wonderful Ruckus to Symphonic Thrills

The Huskies Pep Band. We love this scramble band for its energy, colorful hats and dress, and joviality!

Mike Christianson shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, 10/24 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 30 minutes or so, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Dr. Mike Christianson, leading bands, enriching lives.

What are you doing for supper this Monday night 10/24 at 6 ET? Grab a bite with Mike Christianson, Associate Professor, Visual and Performing Arts and Director of Bands at Michigan Tech. Joining in will be two members of the Huskies Pep Band, Matt Bettwy (mechanical engineering) and Laura Bufanda (theatre and entertainment technology), both who will be graduating with their bachelor’s degrees in December.

He’s Got The Music In Him

Mike Christianson learned all about bands at a young age, accompanying his band leader/director father to concerts in their hometown of Fargo. He saw all the greats like Count Basie and Buddy Rich. Christianson heard the music and absorbed the performances. He listened to them talk about the music and the different players in the band. And music was always in abundance at home and at Christianson family gatherings. Mike’s great-great grandfather and grandfather were band leaders too. His grandmothers also played music. And the music bug continued in his children. It’s fair to say in the Christianson household music is ever present.

In Pursuit of a Dream

This love and appreciation of music drove his dream. Christianson pursued that dream, moving to New York City to play professionally. You’d find him in different orchestra pits on and off-Broadway, playing in studios and clubs with a variety of musicians, Carnegie Hall, and even hitting the road for two years with Ray Charles. Christianson’s professional career led to a Grammy nomination with John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. The group was nominated for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album,” at the 61st Annual Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards, for its recording “All Can Work.”(recounted in Tech News back in 2019)

Eventually Christianson was asked to lead a band when a professor went on sabbatical. Directing the band brought joy. He was hooked. When he asked how he can do more of that, he was told to get his PhD. Enrollment at Rutgers University across the Hudson in New Jersey followed, as did another twelve years as a founder and band director for a local community band. 

The stage was set to begin a new career teaching music at Michigan Tech; trading in the iconic skyline of New York with the Empire State Building for that of Houghton-Hancock featuring the Lift Bridge and Quincy Mine. And we could not be more excited to have him here. Music at Tech has been a unique experience for Christianson. It has been all about the joy.

“If we were a music conservatory, we would likely be yelling at students all of the time, putting pressure on them to get better and not miss out on opportunities. Here students can just focus on the joy in music,” he says.

Mike Christianson earned his Bachelor’s of Music at Minnesota State University Moorhead, then his Masters of Music at the Manhattan School of Music, and his Doctor’s of Music at Rutgers University.

Because of that Christianson knew coming to Tech that teaching music would be a different experience for him. Michigan Tech Professor Emeritus Mike Irish, a great mentor of Christianson’s, told him “You’ll be surprised why you like this job.”

Originally, the new-kid-on-the-block did not know what his mentor meant.  Now Christianson thinks “Huh! I get it. I pick-up something new all the time. I estimate every year or two I learn a new way to approach the job. And every year I find a new reason why I like this job.”

“I see it in this Pep Band. That joy that comes from playing music and having fun with it.”

Mike Christianson

“Mike has been a musical mentor of mine ever since I joined Michigan Tech’s music program in 2019,” says Laura Bufanda, who earned her BS in Theatre and Entertainment Technology in 2022. They met briefly at the summer community concert in 2014, back when Bufanda’s brother, Randy, was attending Michigan Tech.

“Mike has been a great influence in my desire to learn how to perform other areas of music, including Jazz,” she adds. “As a euphonium player, it is somewhat expected that I only participate in performing classical music. However, I enjoyed the vast amount of different styles and genres of music Mike has exposed us to in the Superior Wind Symphony so much—that I chose to join MTU’s jazz program, as well!”

“I met Mike before I even started at Michigan Tech, during Michigan Tech Preview day in spring 2018 when I auditioned for the Visual and Performing Arts Talent Award scholarship,” says Matt Bettwe. “Mike was my first contact with the music department, and he was also one of the first faculty members I got to know during my first semester at MTU. I joined Superior Wind Symphony and the Huskies Pep Band,” he adds.

“With the academic rigors of my degree (almost all STEM courses) my time in Mike’s ensembles has been a huge part of my life at Michigan Tech. It’s the time of the work week when I can be less analytical, and focus on something different that I really enjoy.”

Flaming Trumpets (!) at Michigan Tech’s Parade of Nations

The Band Program at Michigan Tech

Michigan Tech offers multiple opportunities for students to engage in music, including five jazz ensembles, a symphony orchestra, two choirs, and three bands. Not bad for a technological university without a school of music. But the three band experiences (Visual and Performing Arts Campus Concert Band, Huskies Pep Band, and Superior Wind Symphony) would not be the same without the leadership of Mike Christianson.

The Superior Wind Symphony (SWS) is the premier wind ensemble at Michigan Tech. This auditioned ensemble of winds and percussion performs the music of composers spanning five centuries, living and not, from all genders, ethnicities and genres. SWS concerts offer symphonic thrills, innovative programming, fruitful collaborations, and exciting premieres. These concerts feature music from the standard repertoire and often utilize innovative formats that include visual art, the spoken word, and dance. Plus, the ensemble takes to the road to play concerts throughout the Great Lakes region. SWS invites renowned guest conductors and performing artists to work with them, like Frank Battisti, Bill Berz, and Scott Robinson.

The Campus Concert Band was founded to enable the marching drill ROTC band continue to play in the spring semester. The band plays a variety of traditional and contemporary concert band literature as well as popular works. It also performs around the community at a variety of venues. The ROTC band is no longer, but the Campus Concert Band continues to play on.

Matt Bettwy conducts the Huskies Pep Band during a hockey game at Michigan Tech.

But perhaps the most famous of the three bands is the Huskies Pep Band. They are known by many names: The Pride of Pastyland, the Cream of the Keweenaw, the Second-best Feeling in the World, the loudest, most spirited pep band in the nation. We love this scramble band for its energy, colorful hats and dress, and joviality. From its humble beginnings in 1928 as the Michigan Tech ROTC Band under the baton of E.E. Melville, the Michigan Tech Huskies Pep Band has grown to become one of the most recognized bands in all of college hockey. We bet there were no bassists and guitarists in that original incarnation like there are now! The Huskies Pep Band is open to any Michigan Tech student that likes it louder, faster, and higher! No audition required.

Prof. Christianson, how did you first get into music? What sparked your interest?

Band directing is a Christianson family tradition. I am the fifth consecutive generation in my family to become a band director. My grandmother was a pianist and my father a band director. So I was exposed to music at a very young age. Even though I grew up in Fargo, ND, we had all these amazing bands come to play there: Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton are just a few. My father took me along to see them, and I dreamed of going on the road with one of those bands.

To become a professional musician, I knew I had to go to music school, which took me to Minnesota State University Moorhead. 

New York was next, where it took a little while to get established, but I landed a job playing with Ray Charles’ band. And then built a varied, interesting, and successful career as a musician.

When was this photo taken of Mike Christianson? We hope to find out during Husky Bites!

Hometown and Family?

Fargo, North Dakota is my hometown. My wife is Cyndi. Our daughter, Michelle, represents the sixth consecutive generation in my family to become a band director, and our son, Aaron, when at Michigan Tech, was a student director of Pep Band.

Is there a band you think of when you think of the Pep Band?

I saw all the great big bands with my dad as a kid. But years before I took the Tech job, I asked my father which band he enjoyed seeing the most. It was Spike Jones and the City Slickers. Not only were they terrific musicians, but they were a really goofy comedic band. They wore these crazy outfits and props. They played well and had so much fun doing it. My dad saw all these jazz greats, but still enjoyed Spike Jones the most. That stuck with me. And I see it in this Pep Band. That joy that comes from playing music and having fun with it.

The Huskies Pep Band is open to any Michigan Tech student. No audition required! Note: we’re pretty sure “ASS” (in this case) is short for “alto sax”.

How did you become a band director?

I worked at New Jersey City University and volunteered to be the band director while a professor went on sabbatical. I really enjoyed the experience and decided to start a town band in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, where my family lived. It was a great learning experience. I put up flyers and posted online to recruit members. At our first meeting we had five flute players show up out of eight musicians, so a little imbalance. But they kept coming, and bringing their friends. Eventually we grew into a delightful band of friends, neighbors, and music professionals. Many musicians stepped in and wanted to be a part of it. I met some fantastic musicians along the way and learned a variety of music styles. I was with that community band for twelve years.

How did you get into teaching music?

Remember that interim band director position? Well I loved being a band director so much, I asked “How can I get a job doing this?” That’s when they told me to get a doctorate. So I enrolled at Rutgers to get my DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts). And I ended up here because they offered me a job!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

If I’m not playing music, I’m probably writing it. I am not a composer. But one of my favorite teachers of all-time, Ludmila Ulehla, taught our composition class. She served as the chair of the Department of Composition at the Manhattan School of Music from 1972 to 1989.

Ludmila laid it out as follows: “Write a piece of music for your best friends. Otherwise, no matter what you write, it will never compare to Beethoven or Bach. And it will always be played last. And how good is it going to sound, anyway, when played by skilled musicians who have spent hours practicing and refining the Greats, but not so much time with your music? So, identify four favorite musicians who happen to be your friends. They are the ones most likely to practice and play your piece, and you win. They’ll do their best. They won’t be critical. And they will love you for it.”

Laura Bufanda’s career goal is to work in advertising as art director. She’s well on her way!

Laura, how did you first get into music? What sparked your interest?

I began playing the Euphonium in 4th grade (about 17 years ago) after both of my older brothers had gotten involved- I was always inspired to join Band because of their interest in it–and with a strong interest of my own, through elementary dance and music classes.

What is it like playing in the Huskies Pep Band?

For me it’s been a great experience for getting out and getting involved. As someone who isn’t super into sports, I still found games fun to attend with the Pep Band (my favorites are volleyball and hockey).

The most memorable experience happened during my first year, the “Flooter/A.S.S. Thanksgiving,” basically a “friendsgiving” shared by the Flute and Alto Sax sections of the Pep Band. This one event introduced me to many of the people I would be living with, and the house I would be living in for the majority of my time at MTU—some arm-wavers and some instrumentalists—all of my housemates were heavily involved in Pep Band throughout their years. It was something we all had in common. I’ve always been a big fan of band camp, too. That almost goes without saying. I’m what some may call a “band nerd”, but all growing up and to this day I have always loved band camp rehearsals and getting to meet all of the new members.

What are you hoping to do after graduation?

I am pursuing the world of art direction and advertising design. Growing up, I was always very interested in art of all mediums. After graduating from high school I chose to continue my path in digital media by completing a photography certificate program. Over time, I have grown more interested in the other areas of digital design. I’ve gained experience in graphic design to help me toward my goal of becoming an art director.

Hometown, family?

I grew up in Burlington, Connecticut with my Mom, Dad, and two older brothers (three are Michigan Tech alumni). I have been a permanent resident of Michigan since I graduated from high school in 2015.

Any hobbies? Pets? What do you like to do in your spare time?

Outside of Michigan Tech, I enjoy photography, graphic design, horseback riding, camping/adventuring, and exploring Detroit. I have 2 dogs: Mylee, a maltese/shih-tzu; and Hana, a maltese.

Says Matt: “The Copper Country Color Tour 2021 (I’m in the gray), a fall road bike ride put on by the MTU cycling club.”

Matt, how did you first get into music and engineering? What sparked your interest?

I started playing trumpet in fifth grade, found I loved it, and followed the hobby ever since. It was my favorite school activity for many years and I briefly considered a career in music, but late in high school I settled on engineering after taking physics class in high school and loving that, too. My interest in both subjects was roughly equal. The better financial and career prospects of engineering is what tipped the scale for me.

Hometown, family?

I’m from Sussex, Wisconsin, a town about 30 minutes west of Milwaukee. I grew up with my parents and one brother, who attends Columbia College in Chicago studying music business.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Outside of music and school/work, my biggest hobby is cycling. I race road bikes quite seriously during the summer months. I taught the beginner road cycling PE class at Michigan Tech in fall 2021. I mountain bike more casually during the spring and fall. It certainly helps that some of the best mountain biking trails in the Midwest are right here in the Keweenaw. I also occasionally like to hike, camp and explore the outdoors.


View (and hear) some recent concerts:

Superior Wind Symphony Reparations is a collection of 19 pieces of music by Black composers performed in 2021.

Superior Wind Symphony performs Centurius in February 2022

The Huskies Pep Band play their classic opener, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the theme song from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Huskies Pep Band still brought joy during lockdown. Who can forget the Virtual Fight Song video!

Read more

All That Jazz: Christianson a Member of Grammy Nominated Ensemble

Making Music