Lee Erickson has a national reputation, but has never strayed far from his roots. The director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Erickson was born, raised, studied and continues to work in Milwaukee. And it was a local parish that first instilled in him a passion for music that has defined the course of his life.
In high school, Erickson took piano and organ lessons and began playing organ at St. Mary’s Church in South Milwaukee. During his college years he was the organist and choir director at St. Rose of Lima Church in Milwaukee. He also found he had a talent for singing, and was inspired by his chorus director at South Milwaukee High School to pursue vocal performance and teaching in college. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts provided the perfect place to do just that.
“I knew the theory program was fabulous, and once I got here it was even more outstanding. It gave me a good background that I’ve used my entire life,” he says.
Erickson found the coursework immediately challenging, and a professor was straightforward with him and his fellow students as to just how much work the degree required: “He said, ‘I’m not easy. I’m disciplined and strict. Expect to meet standards to survive; I expect perfection.’ It was a great deal of truth, despite the fear it caused,” Erickson recalls. “Keeping up with regular classes, homework and practice, attending concerts outside of classes – it’s very demanding. Studying music is a busy existence.”
But Erickson still found time for fun. During his senior year, a group of voice students wanted to do something outside of their classical training, so they formed a barbershop quartet. “We sang silly stuff; we had some silly name. We would sing in the hallways and the stairwells, all around,” Erickson says.
After graduating with a vocal education major, he started student teaching in Kenosha. In 1978, Erickson was appointed as the associate director of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. He assumed the position of director in 1994, following founder Margaret Hawkins’ death. Through all of it, Erickson has continued to serve as the music director at St. Anthony’s parish in Milwaukee. “It’s always been a part of what I’ve done,” says Erickson of church music. So has making a lasting impression on Milwaukee’s music scene.