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Concordia music performance major studies electric bass

Every one of the 300-plus students graduating from Concordia College in May earned a degree that required study, hard work, and an academic specialization.

Tor Kartenson ’24 also accomplished all of that, but he was the only one to select his unusual area of expertise: He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in instrumental music, cum laude, and majored in performance on the electric bass guitar.

As far as the music department knows, Tor is the only person to have ever done so at Concordia, said Dr. Nat Dickey, chair of the music department and professor of low brass (trombone, euphonium, and tuba).

“I really loved everything associated with the instrument. I just fell in love with it, in the full sense,” Tor said. “… I get really philosophical about playing the bass.”


Music majors have a number of choices to make and can study general music, music and business entrepreneurship, music composition, music education, or music performance. Those who decide on performance can opt for vocal or instrumental performance, and the latter requires musicians to select a specific instrument for their studies.

Options range from the piano to a variety of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments, particularly those commonly found in orchestras or concert bands. Choosing just one instrument for specialization can be tough, as musicians at that skill level often know multiple instruments fairly well and are proficient with even more.

“They say ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none.’ I never wanted to listen to them,” Tor said. “I wanted to do all of them.”

And for him, “all of them” was a pretty extensive list, as he could play not just the tuba and violin, but also the euphonium, trombone, trumpet, piano, mandolin, guitar, gamelan, mountain dulcimer, percussion — and the electric bass.

Even before he arrived at Concordia, though, Tor had to choose, as he had earned scholarships with both the violin and the tuba. At that point, he chose the violin as his primary instrument, and the tuba became his secondary as he headed to college — the same school his mother, Kathi Hoylo ’87, had graduated from.

His interest in the bass guitar started in seventh grade. His uncle, Bruce, who played the bass guitar with the popular regional band Mike and the Monsters, passed away, and Tor’s family had gotten his instruments. One of them, a 1978 Music Man StingRay that Tor’s father, Brian Kartenson, had purchased and given to Bruce, was lying on the floor of the family living room, and Tor picked it up.

“I felt really connected to it,” he said, recalling that playing it made him feel closer to his uncle. Even so, during his years at Moorhead High School, Kartenson mainly focused on playing the violin and on his classical training.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, shutting down much of the world, and prompting many people to reevaluate their lives in a number of ways.

Tor, for his part, felt burned out.

New horizons

“I just wasn’t enjoying it,” he said. “But I have always enjoyed playing bass. It’s a young instrument. It’s crazy; we’re still trying to figure out all the possibilities and things to do with it.”

The electric bass was invented in the 1930s but wasn’t mass-produced until the 1950s, hundreds of years after the piano or the violin.

Playing the bass felt like being at the forefront of something, with the possibility of discovery, innovation, and potential.

It also presented a bit of a puzzle for Concordia’s music department.

Students focusing on a stringed instrument, such as a violin or cello, would take classes in String Literature and String Pedagogy. Woodwinds and brass students had their own specialized courses, and percussionists had theirs.

“We had to look into that,” Dickey said.

A call to the accrediting body revealed that a whole new curriculum wasn’t needed, just finding analogous elements in existing classes and ensuring the same work was done with the bass guitar.

“I just enjoy playing it more,” Tor said, pointing out that the family aspect of it made a difference but wasn’t the only factor in his choice. “Cool, collected, consistent, a firm groundwork, security — that’s the general aesthetic of the bass.”

While individuals vary, the bass community as a whole tends toward those characteristics, he said, and they’ve been “chill and kind.”

According to Tor’s teacher, Doug Neill, instructor of euphonium, tuba, and bass guitar at Concordia, Tor fits in with that group, which will help him in the music industry.

“He’s very competent, soft-spoken, and very personable — a ridiculously easy student to work with,” Neill said, praising his musical judgment, thoughtfulness, and musical aesthetic.

Bass players are generally in high demand, giving them comparatively excellent employability among other musicians, Neill explained, and they’re often the ones who make a band truly work, creating a united sound.

“They have the rhythm of a drummer and the harmonic knowledge of a vocalist/guitar player,” he said. “And if they’re a good bassist, they’re always thinking of the whole. … You need to be devoted to being precise in a way that other instruments don’t necessarily have to. Nobody is more responsible for the form of the song than the bass player.”


“My dream would be to perform and be a studio musician full time,” Tor said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen right away.”

Currently, he’s a member of Walking Phoenix, a four-piece band with traditional rock band instrumentation — vocals, two guitars, bass, and drums — and a bluesy alternative rock feel. The group played at Concordia’s annual Cornstock music festival in 2024, serving as the professional opener for headliner Bea Miller after student openers Raining in Paradise. At the 2024 Red River Valley Fair, Walking Phoenix took the stage, opening for Sublime.

He’s also been learning audio engineering, working on people’s music with them, freelancing, and composing for the bass — an instrument not often featured in solo performances or even creating the melody in an ensemble piece.

“Nobody ever thinks of the bass as a melodic instrument,” Tor noted.

His senior recital featured music by some of the great bass composers, including Jaco Pastorius, and he took a turn playing the upright bass for pieces by Charles Mingus and Robert Hurst.

“Jaco Pastorius was the Jimi Hendrix of the bass,” Neill said, noting Tor had played “’Portrait of Tracy,’ the most-copied, performed, height-of-the-form, technique piece — the top of that technique. It has become standard repertoire of the electric bass.”

Tor also played a composition of his own, written with Daniel Schuster — “Þarablöð,” or, translated from Icelandic, “kelp leaves,” a flowing bass solo with a percussion accompaniment that is as relentlessly catchy as it is gently hopeful.

“I always wanted to create my own music,” said Tor, who started doing so when he began piano lessons at age 5, and got more serious about it during high school. “I plan to keep doing it. I’ve found I really enjoy it a lot more than I thought I would.”

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