Duff Warkentin is as enthusiastic about The Rolling Stones as he is about Brahms.
He’s spent 42 years conducting choirs and can discuss the great classical composers at length, but he lights up as he talks about catching the Stones when they came to Regina in 2006.
By that point Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie definitely didn’t need the money, and while the Queen City has its charms, a visit probably wasn’t on any of their bucket lists.
But for Warkentin, the moment the British rockers came out after their final encore to salute the crowd captured the same joy he feels when he’s conducting.
“And they come out and their arms are around each other like four gangly teenagers, grinning and, in effect, saying: ‘S***, this is fun!’ That speaks volumes — doesn’t matter the genre.“
Warkentin has tried to model that same joyful attitude ever since he first cut his teeth in music. It started with singing songs in the round with the rest of his family during road trips from their home in Saskatoon. There was also plenty of opportunity to sing in church.
By the time he reached high school, his family had moved to Rosthern, where he joined the choir at Rosthern Junior College (RJC). He was hooked from the moment he sang the very first harmony with the group.
Along with the opportunities to sing, high school was also where Warkentin got to take his first shots at conducting, filling in whenever the instructor was late or unable to make it.
“In a nutshell, the job of a conductor is to wave your arms around until the music stops and then turn around and bow. Anyone can do it,” he laughs. The reality is far different: during the performance, the conductor is responsible for setting and maintaining the choir’s tempo, cueing singers or instruments to join in and controlling the volume.
But the bulk of the work happens during preparations and rehearsals leading up to the show. Along with making sure everything sounds right during practices, Warkentin has to learn the score for whatever piece is being performed. He encourages singers not to have their noses buried in sheet music when it’s time to perform for an audience, and he holds himself to the same standard.
Duff Warkentin conducts a rehearsal of his Rosthern, Sask.-based choir on Sept. 30, 2019. (Submitted photo by Todd Hanson)
Todd Hanson /
He learned more of the nuances of the conductor’s role in Winnipeg, where he went to study church music at a Mennonite college after high school, including classes specifically on conducting. Studying under Dr. George Wiebe helped him learn to balance the technical and soulful sides of music.
“He was not technically the best conductor, but he taught me so much about the essence of choral music, what’s really important,” Warkentin says.
He still makes it a point to check in on Wiebe, who is now in his 90s.
“I go out of my way to say ‘Thank you,’ time and time again.”
After completing his program, Warkentin took some time to travel, then went on to get a degree in music from the University of Waterloo.
From there it was back to Winnipeg, where he worked for a year. During a visit to Rosthern, he ended up sitting down for a chat with the principal of Rosthern Junior College. He didn’t realize he was being interviewed for the school’s soon-to-be vacant musical director job.
The role was Warkentin’s first full-on conducting job, taking responsibility for three choirs as well as giving voice training lessons. After three years, his wife at the time wanted to return to Winnipeg to complete her education. Warkentin left his position at RJC and took a job at a junior high school. He still enjoyed the musical parts of his work, but found himself worn down with a more difficult classroom to manage, he says.
“Junior high was a different kettle of fish. I hated it.”
Warkentin left the job after a year and spent the next two years working non-teaching jobs.
But the return to Winnipeg also gave him a chance to work with world-renowned conductor Robert Shaw, who came to the city specifically because he wanted to perform with a Mennonite choir.
Shaw was a more technical, methodical conductor than Wiebe, but also “a philosopher, a theologian and a wordsmith,” Warkentin says.
During one rehearsal, he recalls Shaw calling for a halt, briefly causing some of the singers to worry they’d messed up. But Shaw was simply overcome with the performance.
“He said, ‘You people sing with such love.’ And that’s the essence: we love what we do. We love what we sing.”
Eventually, working odd jobs wasn’t cutting it anymore and Warkentin found himself in Winnipeg with a choice to make: pursue an education degree or try to make a career out of choral music. He chose music and relocated form Winnipeg to Regina to get a Master’s degree in choral conducting.
When he completed his studies, he was offered the chance to return to Rosthern Junior College. This time, he stayed for five years.
Conductor Duff Warkentin speaks to accompanist Sharryl Riekmand during a rehearsal of the Station Singers of Rosthern choir in Rosthern, Sask. on Sept. 30, 2019.
Todd Hanson /
Eric Paetkau, now the music director for the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO), was one of Warkentin’s students.
He recalls his former teacher’s ability to get a room of sometimes rambunctious teenagers to buy in without having to come across as a taskmaster.
“He just had this way to relate to us, so it was a pleasure.”
Paetkau and Warkentin have now collaborated for several years on the SSO’s production of Handel’s Messiah, with Warkentin working with the Saskatoon Symphony Chorus.
“I just love what Duff does. I love that he respects the music but more than that, he’s full-in with a smile — and that, to me, is a lot different than full-in with stress.”
After five years at RJC, Warkentin finally decided teaching wasn’t for him.
That led to a period of freelancing, first in a term position conducting at the University of Saskatchewan, then serving as an artist-in-residence promoting choral music and working with musicians in the Battlefords area and then doing the same in Rosthern. All the while, he was taking day jobs, including stints at an auction company and doing farm work. Eventually it just wasn’t enough, prompting him to take a job in the parts department at Case New Holland in Saskatoon, where he still works when he’s not running rehearsals or committing a score to memory.
Although he came up just shy of turning his love for choral music into a full-time gig, he doesn’t regret the choice to chase his passion, he says.
“It’s a wonderful life, it’s a tough living.”
Joan Stephens, Warkentin’s wife of 10 years, has no doubt her husband made the right call.
“It’s who he is. His music and his love for music is his passion and his calling,” she says. “I think it’s his way of expressing love and offering himself to his community.”
She’s always enjoyed seeing the way Warkentin works with his fellow artists, she adds.
“Individuals have told me that they love him because he’s so inspiring and he does make such a good connection with the group.”
Warkentin still finds plenty of time for music between conducting two choirs and taking in as many live performances as he can. These days, he’s also finding more and more satisfaction working with people who may not be trained vocalists, or the most towering natural talents, with the belief that anyone with a voice can sing.
“We need to take care of our spiritual lives. And to me, being involved in music can only be good for my — and our — spiritual lives.”