What began decades ago as an effort to give those living in the western suburbs a venue to perform classical music together has mushroomed into one of the largest civic music organizations in the country. ¶ The man who started the Music Association of Minnetonka once had dreamed of a career in baseball or medicine.

"It certainly was nothing that I set out to do," said Roger Satrang Hoel of his role as a longtime choir director and mentor to ordinary folks who long to sing. When he started college, "Music was the last thing on my mind."

But in 1974, he founded the Music Association of Minnetonka, which today has more than 250 performing members and nine choral and orchestral groups.

Now 71, with snow-white hair and twinkling blue eyes, Hoel still conducts youth and adult choir ensembles and has no plans to stop. In fact, he's looking to expand.

This year, enrollment in some of the association's youth choirs is down, particularly in the Concert Choir for middle-school age girls. The group has only nine singers instead of the usual 25.

Music association leaders attribute the drop to families cutting back on spending because of the struggling economy. Youth choir costs run about $600 annually in membership dues and activity fees.

So the association's recruiting members.

Later this month, the music association will hold open rehearsals to attract new singers for the Concert Choir, and also for the Chamber Choir made up of high school girls from across the western suburbs. The Chamber Choir has competed internationally, traveling to Brazil, British Columbia, and Vienna in recent years. It's also a favorite of Hoel's.

Hoel knows well the profound influence a musical experience can have on an individual. He says his own life might have been far different had he not met a certain conductor.

The son of an opera singer and a psychologist, Hoel dreamed as a boy of becoming a pro baseball player. He attended St. Olaf College, where he was a pre-med student, he said. He went on to study at the University of Minnesota and was hoping to become a psychiatrist, he said, when fate intervened.

Egged on by his friends, Hoel auditioned for a spot as a trumpet player in the university's wind ensemble.

He won the spot, and in the process met Dr. Frank Bencriscutto.

Under the legendary conductor's tutelage, Hoel learned the heart and soul of music. "I ended up in music because of him," he said. He used to kid his mentor: "If I hadn't met you, I would have made a halfway decent living."

For a time, Hoel played trumpet with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, said David Nordli, a member of the noted Dale Warland Singers who met Hoel 40 years ago when they both worked at a St. Louis Park music store teaching music lessons.

Hoel and his wife eventually settled in the Minnetonka area.

It was then that he approached city officials in Minnetonka about starting a community orchestra. He had been contemplating what happens to people who love music and performing but aren't able to continue their passion after college.

"I thought there really should be a community orchestra, a community band, a community choir on every street corner," he said.

With the city's blessings, he and his wife placed ads for Minnetonka's community orchestra in the newspaper. And more than 200 people responded right away, Hoel recalled.

"I wanted people to have the opportunity to play great music," he said. "To be near greatness, it changes you forever."

Count Anna Boyer among the hundreds of lives forever changed by her choir years under Hoel's guidance.

"He taught us profound, lifelong lessons in our most formative years," said Boyer, a graduate of Minnetonka High who sang with the Chamber Choir from 2000 to 2004.

She's now 24 and heading off to graduate school this fall to pursue a master's degree in the art of bookmaking. Hoel taught her to value beauty and to strive for beauty and friendship, she said.

Being in the choir, she said, was about so much more than just learning how to sing.

"It's a sublime, unifying experience to be making music of that high quality and sharing it with an audience," she said. "I, to this day, have not experienced anything else so profound. I still think about that today and try to find ways to have it in my life."

Sitting in his office one day last week, Hoel reflected on the many people, young and old alike, he has known through the association. His walls are covered with the photos of choir groups he's led over the years.

"This girl couldn't believe she could be loved for herself," he said, pausing in front of one picture. "We worked with her on that."

He pointed at another photo. "She got a perfect SAT score. She's at Yale now."

He stays in contact with many of his former singers, keeping up with their lives like a proud grandparent.

Working as a choir conductor for the Music Association of Minnetonka has been sweet, he said, smiling.

"I can't imagine doing anything else that would make me happier or make me feel luckier."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488