Meet Mary Jane Alm: An IPR and Minnesota Legend

You know you’re a big deal when a restaurant names a dish after you.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jane Alm

Of course, IPR instructor Mary Jane Alm had plenty of reasons to consider herself “arrived” even before Jackson’s Hole, a favorite spot for IPR folks, introduced its “Mary Jane’s Salad.” In her illustrious career, she’s been voted Best Female Vocalist and Artist of the Year by the Minnesota Music Awards as well as being inducted into the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2013.

“Mary Jane brings the voice of an angel to every song she sings,” says colleague Bob Jenkins. “She’s a professional musician—she knows how music works and what it does.”

“She teaches music theory in a way I can understand,” says student Mat Sawyer. “Not all teachers can do that.”

In addition to music theory, Mat also took Mary Jane’s Vocal Techniques class even though he knew the final exam was an on-stage performance. “I was terrified to sing on stage,” he said. “But she showed us singing techniques before we go on that helped.”

Mary Jane has made her living through music her entire life, a feat few people today can claim. She began singing in college mostly as a hobby, she says, and one thing led to another—“the universe just pushed me in that direction.” She’s done a bit of everything, from punk to jazz, but primarily her career has revolved around her combination of country, folk, blues and rock. She’s played gigs all over the world and currently plays with her band, The Mary Jane Alm Band, around the Midwest. Her two albums, Prisoner of the Heart, and Me and the Wild Blue, were released in 1985 and 2011.

Photo by Cameron Thomsen

Singing comes naturally to her, she says, but she credits her success more to her ability to read music than anything else.

“I would get jobs because I could read music ahead of maybe better singers,” she says. “I got a lot of jingle work and industrial work that way. And because I can hear harmonies, it’s helpful for my songwriting, too.”

Her ability to read music also led to her career at IPR: She was hired by IPR 11 years ago to “fix” its music theory class because, at the time, it had the highest failure rate of all the school’s classes. Almost none of the students could read music.

“I was kind of doing [IPR co-founder Tom Tucker] a favor,” she said. “But in the end, it was him doing me a huge favor because I fell in love with teaching.”

She went from teaching one class a week to full time just like that. And she still loves every minute of it. After more than a decade teaching, Mary Jane still brings her passion and caring nature to class every day. “I love seeing the light bulb go on in students’ eyes,” she says. “I love their energy.”

Most of her students, Mary Jane says, want to be in the music business because they can’t see themselves doing anything else, a position she had been in at that age, too. What she loves about IPR is that it teaches students how to make a living in an industry they love. Students may come here wanting to be rock stars, but they leave with their eyes opened to other possibilities, like post-production or sound for video games.

“My advice to students is to open your mind to all different possibilities,” she says. “Don’t just have tunnel vision.”

CLASSES: Mary Jane teaches Music Fundamentals I and II and Vocal Techniques I and II

3 ARTISTS ON HER IPOD: Sara Bareilles, Bonnie Raitt and Miranda Lambert

WHEN SHE’S NOT BEING MUSICAL: She’s being a mom. Of course, that often includes music, too.

WHAT SHE LIKES ABOUT IPR: “The programs are so valuable to students. And I feel like we’re really a family. So many of us have been here for so long, seeing IPR through a number of changes.”

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