Music. A simple word. Yet, it encompasses every aspect of Dr. Dennis Knutson’s life.
“The flute was my therapy. I could be studying hard for a medical exam but can always go back and enjoy wonderful music as a flutist,” Knutson explains.
8-year-old Knutson heard the piccolo for the first time in his memory. The immense power that emulated from such a small instrument captivated him. No baritone sax, no euphonium, not even a tuba could even compete. Listening to the shrill notes, Knutson realized that he wanted to learn the flute.
Knutson’s father, an amature jazz piano player, encouraged Knutson to take up the trombone. The seasoned musician wanted his family to form a jazz combo, flutes weren’t traditionally used during that time for jazz.
Per his father’s wish, Knutson began taking trombone lessons at age 9 but was able to convince his father after a year to let him try the flute. Little did his father know that once the young music student laid his hands on the silver keys, there was no going back.
By 6th grade, Knutson played in his high school concert band in his hometown of Westby, Wisconsin. The school had a notoriously dedicated music program that allowed 8th-grader Knutson to play first chair in the high school concert band.
After 8th grade, Knutson and his family packed up their instruments to move to Seattle, Washington, where Knutson played second chair in his new high school band. It was during this time that Knutson became acquainted with Frank Horsfall, former principal flute of the Seattle Symphony.
“My dad used to drive 25 miles to get me to [Horsfall’s] studio. It really brought me to the point where I loved the flute because he was a professional and very well-known in the flute world. He did insist that I get a professional instrument which I couldn’t afford, so I worked two summers as a dishwasher in my aunt and uncle’s restaurant,” Knutson remembered.
His first flute was a student model that had closed holes keys. Using the money from his summer jobs, Knutson bought a Powell open-holed handmade sterling-silver flute. The week before Knutson was to play first chair in the Rafael Mendez Honor Band, he received his new open-holed flute but soon realized he didn’t know how to play with the new keys.
“I did not know I had to be able to cover the holes on my open hole. I couldn’t play a note,” recalled Knutson. “And I was bound and determined since I had won first chair for this honor band. So, I went to the local pharmacy and I asked a man if he had little tiny corks that I can put inside the holes. He did, but I had to use a razor blade to cut them so they were even with the key. I was able to play the concert, and gradually I would take those out and learned how to keep my fingers over the holes.”
After high school, Knutson attended Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington for his B.A. degree in chemistry. He was also the principal flute in the university band and orchestra.
As Knutson’s college career accelerandoed so did his passion for music. While he arduously studied in medical school at the University of Washington, Knutson set out to find a place where he could play his instrument. The Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra had a second chair position open for auditions, which was quickly filled by Knutson.
“I had school five and a half days a week and all my friends, all my classmates thought I was absolutely crazy playing flute in an orchestra while I’m trying to get through medical school,” Knutson explained.
He had orchestra rehearsals on Friday night and often had tests on Saturday mornings. Planning ahead for his exams was essential during this period of his life.
Fresh out of medical school, Knutson moved to St. Paul with his wife and son for a medical internship. Until the internship, Knutson had always found a reason to tune his open-holed Powell instrument, even during his laborious studies. Knutson worked 100 hour weeks as an intern, leaving minimal time for his growing family, let alone a musical commitment.
Fellow flutist Pamela Barnard met Knutson when they both were playing for the Sioux Falls Municipal Band 30 years ago. “I’ve always been impressed with Dennis’s flute playing. He’s been a very busy, revered physician who made time to practice flute despite his busy family life,” Barnard disclosed.
Following his internship, Knutson was drafted as a medical doctor in the U.S. Air Force when the Vietnam War hit the front pages of the newspaper. Knutson and his young family relocated to a base near Kansas City, Missouri, where they had a second son on base.
Knutson eagerly picked up his flute again after a year of collecting dust during his internship to play during services at his local church. He also continued to play his instrument in the Raytown Orchestra while he served in the Air Force.
After he was discharged from the military, the Knutson family spent a year in Rochester, Minnesota where Dr. Knutson was a consultant for the Rochester Mayo Clinic. They then settled down in Sioux Falls in 1975.
Because of his affiliation with the Lutheran Church, Knutson became familiar with Augustana College. Knutson became principal flute in the Augustana Community Band (now referred to as the Blue and Gold Band) and Orchestra. His sons both graduated from Augustana and have grandchildren who have and are currently attending.
Knutson expanded his musical prowess to encompass the clarinet for a year. He has also been playing the piano since he was four years old.
The Knutson family Christmas has a tradition that brings together all the musicians in the family to play Christmas carols. It all began when Knutson’s oldest son Eric took up the trumpet 45 years ago.
The instrument variety has since expanded. Knutson and two of his granddaughters take charge of the higher octaves with their flutes, while his oldest son plays the trumpet and the younger son takes up his saxaphone. Younger members of the Knutson clan take up the rhythm with an assortment of drums and tambourines. The aroma of traditional Scandanavian cookies wafts through the air, filling the noses of the informal performers as they tap their toes to classics such as “Jingle Bells” before finishing with “Silent Night.”
Not all of the Knutson family plays an instrument. Knutson referred to his late wife as “a professional listener.” Mary Ann Knutson was not musical; however, she was Knutson’s biggest supporter over the years. Mrs. Knutson attended every performance and encouraged his music career through the course of their 51 years of marriage.
When Mrs. Knutson passed away in early February of 2016, Knutson used music as a way to honor her memory. The Sunday before her funeral, Knutson decided to attend the weekly Augustana Orchestra rehearsal.
“She was a great supporter and fan of my performing and she always came to the concerts so this will be in her memory and it will help me get through tough times. Playing music was the thing that I could do,” Knutson said, somberly.
The first concert he played at the Washington Pavillion after his wife’s death was difficult for Knutson. Mrs. Knutson had a seat reserved in row F to attend all of her husband’s concerts. Knutson recalled looking out in the audience and seeing her seat empty for the first time. He remembered tearing up while he was playing the music, which made it more difficult to play, but he pushed through the notes, trying to lose himself in the measures.
Throughout their marriage, Mrs. Knutson loved listening to Knutson play the flute and supported him unconditionally. In turn, Knutson attended quilting conventions to support her passion for quilting. Knutson continues to honor her memory by continuing the work they had started at Augustana University.
The Knutson Masters Series in Hamre Hall on campus is a series of 50-minute presentations where young, passionate music students perform music-related presentations about various topics. The couple also raised funds for music scholarships for Augustana students.
Pre-med Augustana student Sarah Knutson plays the flute with her grandfather. Knutson has played a large role in Sarah’s passion for music, and, after some prompting, she joined her grandfather in the Augustana Flute Choir during the spring semester.
Sarah commented, “He loves being a part of the music community, especially the Augustana community. He’s always loved the different bands he’s been able to be a part of and I’m glad I get to join flute choir and share that experience with him.”
In his music career, Knutson had the opportunity to conduct a few ensembles, including the Our Saviors Church Flute Choir for five years in the ’80s. He also conducted the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra for one song for an American Cancer Society benefit at the Washington Pavilion.
Director of the Performing and Visual Arts Brad Heegel said, “It’s impossible not to be drawn to Dennis as a friend and colleague. He’s passionate about all he does and he’s an encourager of others as well. Dennis is a consistent and generous benefactor to the Music Department at AU and I will always be grateful to call him a friend.”
The Sioux Falls community has been changed for the better by Knutson’s commitment to music. As he continues his involvement in the Augustana flute choir, he demonstrates his astounding talent and passion for the flute. Knutson’s impact will be heard for generations to come.