Saxophonist Len Yaeger used to be crippled by anxiety on stage.
It didn’t help when he first met Ruben Haugen, a famed Twin Cities woodwind player and teacher, at a gig. Haugen was forceful and demanding about getting the material right. “I was quite afraid of him,” Yaeger recalled.
That changed several years later, when Yaeger took private lessons from Haugen. “He gave me a confidence to play that I never had in my life before,” Yaeger said.
Haugen, who had studied under one of the world’s foremost saxophonists and passed his knowledge down to hundreds of area musicians, died July 15 at age 94.
In his eight decades as a professional musician, including 63 years as a university-level teacher, Haugen, of Burnsville, left a sonic mark on the Midwestern music scene.
Haugen was born into a musical family in 1922 in Thorne, N.D. His father was a violinist who traveled the Midwest vaudeville circuit. Haugen taught himself clarinet by ear, and at 10 he joined his father on tour.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines and Japan. When he wasn’t in combat, he was playing clarinet. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at MacPhail College of Music and was hired by the college to head the woodwind department upon his graduation in 1951.
He also picked up an interest in the saxophone, especially a classical strain that was developing in France. In 1960, he was one of only three Americans accepted to study classical saxophone with Marcel Mule at the Paris Conservatory. Mule, a pioneer in the field, was second in stature only to Adolphe Sax, inventor of the instrument.
In addition to fluency in classical saxophone, Haugen also learned a method of teaching that he brought back to Minnesota. Mule was known for his generosity and encouragement. Haugen emulated that, said Eugene Rousseau, a professional saxophonist and longtime friend.
“I think in all [Haugen’s] teaching, he was so effective because he was very kind,” Rousseau said.
Haugen taught at MacPhail, the University of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas and St. Olaf College, as well as in private lessons and at band camps.
“He seemed to have an uncanny knack of figuring out the best way to get into a student’s hardened mind, so they could take what he was trying to show them and use it to the best of their ability,” said Warren Weise, a professional saxophonist who first took lessons with Haugen 55 years ago.
Vicci Johnson auditioned for Haugen at MacPhail in 1963. She was accepted but couldn’t afford to pay. When she told Haugen, he got her a job teaching private lessons. That income carried her through three degrees. She taught music in St. Paul Public Schools for 42 years. “I owe my career and success to Ruben Haugen,” she said.
Haugen cultivated young musicians at home, too.
“It was expected in the household to learn an instrument,” said Haugen’s son Robert. He had a unique opportunity to understand his father’s impact on students when he studied under him at St. Olaf as a clarinet major.
“It gave me a deeper appreciation for what he had to teach, what he knew and what he was trying to convey,” said Robert, who started his own music teaching business six years ago.
Haugen retired from teaching in 2013.
Robert said his father “walked fast everywhere and he really seemed to have more energy than anybody else. That may have been the secret to why he kept going so long.”
Haugen is survived by his wife, Marie; children Sharon, Robert and Julie; stepchildren Mark, Scott and Todd; and five grandchildren. Services have been held.