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When Sigrid Jean Johnson conducted a choir, she wasn't looking for perfection.

The former St. Olaf College professor and longtime conductor of the Manitou Singers understood that every musician felt a keen attachment to their instrument and their particular style of performing with it.

She demanded her vocalists remain on-key while they sang, but left room for their own little flourishes. Friends and family of Johnson, who died March 11 at age 70 after a two-year battle with cancer, say she was the kind of person who had her students meticulously study the rules of making music so they could in turn break them in just the right ways.

"She had the best set of ears in the business," said Anton Armstrong, a longtime friend of the Johnson and conductor of the St. Olaf Choir.

Johnson's love of music — and her knack for it — was apparent at a young age.

She was born in Bismarck, N.D., on Jan. 8, 1952.

Her brother, Greg Nelson, recalls a summer day three years later when the family was approaching the Memorial Bridge on an afternoon drive. As the five of them trundled along in a Ford Fairlane station wagon, Sigrid called out from the back seat to urge their father to hit the bridge at 25 mph.

"That's a B-flat," Nelson recalls his sister proclaiming.

"What she was trying to tell us was that the hum of the bridge at 25 miles an hour was a B-flat," Nelson said during Johnson's memorial service at St. Olaf.

The family lived about a block away from the bridge. Upon arriving home, her mother Irene approached the piano and played the B flat.

"She was exactly right," Nelson said.

The wunderkind moment was a preview of what was to come.

Johnson began formal piano training when she was 4. She performed her first solo recital at 5. Upon graduating from Bismarck High in 1969, Johnson secured a full-ride scholarship to Concordia College in Moorhead, where she met the love of her life.

Sigrid and Robert "BJ" Johnson married when he graduated from Concordia in 1971. She briefly paused her studies to raise their first child and finished her undergraduate degree in vocal performance at St. Cloud State University.

Over the years, Johnson was an adjunct professor of voice at the University of Minnesota and Gustavus Adolphus College. In 1983, Johnson became the artist-in-residence at St. Olaf and taught at the college for 32 years.

Johnson became known for her attention to detail and blunt instruction. If Johnson felt something was off about the tone of her choir, she didn't hesitate to stick her head between two singers before rearranging the placement of her vocalists.

"She was one of the finest examples of how to do that," Armstrong said.

Yet Johnson also emanated warmth with her students. Jean Parish, who performed with the Manitou Singers, recalls how classmates would regularly depart for voice lessons with Johnson in a sour mood only to return more relaxed.

Instead of singing during those sessions, Johnson would take struggling students out for tea or lunch and let them unload. She had an uncanny ability to make her pupils feel as though they were her equals, an ability Parish considers among Johnson's greatest gifts.

"She never, even as a student, ever made me feel like anything less than a peer," Parish said.

Johnson is survived by her sons, Andrew of St. Paul and Peter of Bloomington; two grandchildren; and brothers, Corliss of Smyrna, Tenn., and Greg of Franklin, Tenn.

Services have been held.