BYU student weaves family history into music education

Oscar Safsten stands in the BYU Music Building. Safsten is a music education major from Washington. (Sydni Merrill)

Music education major Oscar Safsten is intertwining his Swedish heritage with his BYU education.

Safsten is half Swedish and named after his great-grandfather who moved to the U.S. in 1923.

In August 2023, Safsten completed a mini study abroad in Sweden where he studied choral music and conducting. He described it as a life-changing experience, because he also used his time there to meet distant relatives and see where his great-grandfather grew up.

Safsten said the story of how his great-grandfather ended up in Washington state is a family favorite.

Oscar Safsten’s great-grandfather, also named Oscar Safsten, poses for a photo sometime between the years 1923-1930. The photo was taken after he immigrated to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Safsten)
Oscar Safsten’s great-grandfather (left) and his grandfather (right) chop down trees in a forest in Washington. The photo was taken sometime between 1955-1965. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Safsten)

Safsten’s great-grandfather traveled by boat from Sweden to the East Coast of the U.S. He hopped on a train heading west but then saw wolves running alongside it and decided to get as far away from the wolves as possible. He didn’t get off until he crossed the continent and alighted in Washington.

Listen as Oscar Safsten tells the story of how his his great-grandfather ended up in Washington. Safsten explained Swedish immigrants gravitated to the Pacific Northwest because the climate was familiar.

Safsten said he has always loved his Swedish heritage. He grew up eating authentic dishes from family recipes, hearing stories and growing up in Washington, which he said has a similar climate as Sweden.

“I love that that’s where I’m from; it’s the same as Sweden. It’s really cool,” Safsten said.

Safsten first visited Sweden as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where he learned to speak Swedish.

Oscar Safsten stands with his mission leaders President and Sister Davis in Stockholm, Sweden in 2020. The photo was taken Safsten’s first day in Sweden. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Safsten)

Safsten’s grandfather served his mission in Sweden in the 1950s, and Safsten knew there would be more opportunities to connect to his family roots by learning the language. What he didn’t count on was seeing the baptismal font his grandfather helped build more than 60 years prior.

“The stake got mad at them, but the bishop and the missionaries just dug a hole in the ground,” Safsten said. “The font is no longer active because of the ward changes.”

Shortly after returning home from his mission, Safsten traveled with the BYU Men’s Chorus to perform in Stockholm as part of a European tour. Safsten returned for his study abroad where he immersed himself in Swedish choral music in August 2023.

“The music department gave me funds to do a music study abroad, so I managed to find one in Sweden,” Safsten said.

While in Sweden, Oscar traveled to meet Ulf Säfsten, his great-grandfather’s nephew, which is his cousin twice removed.

“Immediately I felt that it would be so much fun to meet the great-grandson of an uncle,” Ulf Säfsten said.

Oscar Safsten sings “O Store Gud,” or “How Great Though Art” in English, in a church in Umeå, Sweden. This is the same church where Safsten’s great-grandfather was baptized. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Safsten)
Oscar Safsten, Ingegard Lindgren, and Ulf Säfsten stand next to a river in Umeå, Sweden. Ingegard Lindgren is Ulf Säfsten’s wife. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Safsten)
Oscar Safsten stands next to his great uncle’s grave. His great-uncle Ludvig Säfsten and his wife are both buried in this cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Safsten)

Ulf Säfsten took Oscar to places where his great-grandfather grew up.

“One nice moment was the visit to Brännland,” Ulf Säfsten said. “In a log barn there is a signature of Oscar’s great-grandfather from 1923, the same year that Oscar Safsten (sr.) emigrated to America. Now, the young Oscar also got to write his signature in the same place, but 100 years later, it felt powerful.”

Oscar said signing and dating his name next to his great-grandfather’s was a highlight of the trip.

“It was a little uncanny to see my name. I’m the only person in the world with the name Oscar Safsten. We sign our names nearly the same way,” Oscar said.

Ulf Säfsten and Oscar spent several days together. Oscar met more family for the first time.

“Now we are friends, more than just on Facebook,” Ulf Säfsten said. “Then it’s fun to compare Oscar with my children and grandchildren and find some similarities in genetic predisposition … and listening to Oscar and my granddaughter Klara and the conversations between them and the cultural differences but also some similarities.”

During his time in Sweden, Oscar said he learned a lot about the importance of family in addition to music.

Oscar participated in the University of Malmö choir conducting course. For a week, Oscar immersed himself in Swedish choral music and technique. He and his fellow students conducted the Lund University Choir.

Oscar Safsten sits in choral conducting class during his study abroad in August 2023. Safsten’s instructor, David Lundblad, sat in front of the group teaching. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Safsten)

“Every day we did conducting exercises, which were actually very similar to the MUS 235 BYU classes. But it also taught me some new Swedish centric techniques which are interesting because Swedish choral culture is pretty significant all over the world,” Oscar said.

Oscar said a pinnacle moment of his study abroad was when he conducted the Lund University choir singing “Northern Lights” by Ola Gjeilo in Saint Peter’s Church in Malmö, Sweden. A video of this experience is available here.

His prior conducting was limited to ward and stake choirs, and he said this was the first time he’d conducted a choir of this caliber and it’s something he hopes to do again.

“I was pretty nervous, my knees shaking … But I was swaying with the music and feeling the music inside me, and it was like riding a wave,” Oscar said.

Listen as Oscar Safsten describes his experience conducting “Northern Lights” by Ola Gjeilo in a gothic cathedral in Sweden. Safsten said although he was very nervous, the experience was incredible.

Oscar has also found a familial connection tied to music much closer to home. Oscar discovered a second cousin, Marie Hansen, at BYU who also studies music and is a graduate student in the choral conducting program.

“Oscar and I actually realized we were cousins through a mutual connection to Sweden. It was exciting to discover our shared love for music,” Hansen said.

Hansen said she and Oscar have crossed paths a lot at BYU since they met. They both have a strong love of music. Sometimes they participate in the same musical activities.

“Oscar is a wonderful musician. He seeks opportunities to develop his talents everywhere he goes and uses his musical abilities to bless the lives of others,” Hansen said.

Oscar currently teaches the Scandinavian choir class at BYU. Throughout the semester the class sings music in Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and Finnish.

Oscar still has several semesters before graduation and hopes to become a high school choir teacher. However, in his near future, Oscar is already planning another trip to Sweden this summer, and this time he’s bringing his sister with him.

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