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EVERYDAY PEOPLE: Riverside music teacher makes Christmas memories last

This is the week Nancy Thielen waits for all year.

Thielen, who teaches music at Riverside Elementary School in Brainerd, is gearing up for the school-wide annual Christmas program. For Thielen that means coordinating roughly 500 elementary students for an hour and a half’s worth of organized Christmas chaos.

“It takes so much to organize this deal,” Thielen said. “It’s not a one-person thing by any means.”

Thielen has a lot of help from Riverside staff, even her husband Mick serves as her faithful sound man, “He volunteers — under pressure,” she joked. “He’s just awesome.”

Mick also puts together videos of Thielen’s shows. This year’s program is all about the memories of Christmas. Thielen said she remembers her parents and grandparents sharing their Christmas experiences and passing their stories down through the generations. Thielen asked her students to ask their parents about their favorite Christmas memories. She said she hopes that being part of the Christmas music program is something memorable for her students.

“Maybe it’s the mom in me, but I just get such a charge watching them — the memories they’re making,” Thielen said.

Thielen has taught music in the Brainerd area for more than 20 years having spent time teaching at Washington, Whittier, Harrison, Forestview Middle School and the last few years as the full-time music teacher at Riverside Elementary. With schools across the country being forced to make cuts, often first trimming back the arts departments, Thielen is committed to keeping music programs around.

“I personally believe it is one of the most important parts of their education,” she said. “Music is such a gateway to the heart.”

Prior to her career in music education, Thielen worked as an occupational therapist. She said after she and her husband Mick started their family, she began to reconsider what she wanted to spend her life doing. Instead of heading back to occupational therapy she made the decision to continue her education and go into teaching. “It was important to me to develop creativity in my own kids,” she said. Thielen said music has always been an important part of her life. She and her siblings grew up playing instruments at home, in school and at church. “We had an organ and a piano that filled half of our living room,” Thielen laughed.

Thielen credited her own academic success to parents’ commitment to allow their children to study music. “It was such a huge part of our development,” Thielen said. Thielen said the Riverside Christmas program is about more than performing a few Christmas tunes for friends and family — it’s about practical experience for the students. “In our music curriculum we would like to see kids on stage once a year,” Thielen said.

Thielen’s philosophy in training young musicians is to not have a star of the show, but to make sure every kid plays a role. “I try to give as many people a small part as possible,” she said. “It’s small but they feel like they’re movie stars.” Sharing the stage doesn’t stop with the music and neither does Thielen’s talent. She is also the resident seamstress at Riverside Elementary making most of her own props. Over the years Thielen has accumulated piles of handmade props — enough bow ties or headbands or hats for every kid.

“I could just have them stand up there and sing, but it’s more fun for them this way,” she said. “I want little pieces for every kid — every little something that a kid has adds to the memory.” Tuesday nights performances start at 6:30 p.m. at Tornstrum Auditorium with the first and second grade classes. A second performance follows at 7:15 p.m. with the third and fourth graders. Thielen said the one thing she hopes her students walk away from their Christmas programs with is lasting memories. “I hope in 50 years they are saying to each other, ‘Remember those programs we did at Riverside,’” she said. “Then I’ll know I did my job.”

SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at or 855-5879.