The city of Detroit Lakes is located in west central Minnesota in the heart of the lakes area with 412 lakes within a 25-mile radius. The Detroit Lakes School District #22 – home of the LAKERS – encompasses an area of approximately 312 square miles with a population of 14,827 people. The school district serves approximately 2,900 students, from pre-school through grade 12. High quality education and strong academic success are long standing traditions in the Detroit Lakes School District, and the Detroit Lakes High School Choir program is just one example of that tradition.
The DLHS Vocal Music Program (Kathryn Larson, Director; Paul Heisler, piano; Susan Champa, piano) provides four course offerings: the DLHS Ninth Grade Choir, the DLHS Varsity Choir, the DLHS Concert Choir, and the DLHS Laker Singers. The DLHS Ninth Grade Choir, Varsity Choir, and Concert Choir members participate in four to six required/scheduled concerts a year, one to three in December, one in March, one in April, and one in May. The Laker Singers, an auditioned ensemble, are tasked with a very active singing schedule and have a minimum of seven required concerts a year and often perform in as many as 20-25 additional performances a year. In addition, under Larson’s direction the DLHS Choirs have participated in 27 consecutive MSHSL Large Group (with Superior results) and Solo/Ensemble Contests. Both competitions are considered extremely important events at DLHS. Students take a great deal of pride in participating in solo/ensemble and they invest an intense amount of personal time and energy into the event every year. It has become a strong tradition at the high school that has helped make a “real” difference in the choral program through the years! I find that it is difficult to pick out highlights during a school year when there are so many wonderful moments in time: When you hear a young soloist sing a beautiful, sensitive, musical line for the first time, or you hear a duet tune beautifully for the first time — that is magical!
All DLHS Choirs are yearlong courses (SAB/SATB – Ninth Grade Choir) (SA/SSA – Varsity Choir) (SATB – Concert Choir) (SATB – Laker Singers) designed to create developmental choirs or advanced choirs. Emphasis is placed on developing changing voices, developing strong/advanced vocal technique, and developing healthy/advanced vocal production. Focus is also placed on expanding music reading skills through the use of solfege and developing group performance skills. Precise intonation, beautiful tone production and dynamic, sensitive musical expression are all hallmarks of the DLHS Vocal Music Program.
DLHS Choirs have participated in numerous workshops with some of the finest professional ensembles in Minnesota including The Rose Ensemble and VocalEssence, and have also been very fortunate to work with some outstanding music educators/choral conductors.
What are some of the defining aspects of the Detroit Lakes choral program?
Every spring, choral students from across the city of Detroit Lakes join together to participate in the annual Detroit Lakes Public Schools’ All-City Choir Festival. The annual All-City Choir Festival is a celebration of music in the Detroit Lakes Public Schools. The festival is a two-day event that offers choral students in grades 6 – 12 the opportunity to work with some of our region’s finest (guest) choir conductors. The festival is a program designed to develop musical artistry and inspire excellence in every student while experiencing the impact of choral participation on singers and their community.
The All-City Choir Festival is a wonderful choral arts advocacy opportunity. The festival is a community of singers coming together where high school singers serve as role models and mentors for middle school singers. It is a community of older level choirs that sing advanced music, which in turn inspires a community of younger singers, and where a community of younger singers gives the community at large a glimpse of the future. Some past guest conductors have included Charlette Moe, Michael Culloton, Thomas Porter, Aaron McDermid, Mark Potvin, Lee Nelson, Eugene Rogers, Bret Amundson, Mary Kay Geston, Bruce Phelps, Michael Weber, Wayne Kivell, Rod Rothlisberger, Axel Theimer, Rene’ Clausen, Michael Smith, JoAnn Miller, Paul Nesheim, Charles Ruzicka, Paul Torkelson, Lowell Larson and Christopher Cock.
Every other year, the DLHS Choirs produce the biennial Madrigal Dinner, complete with a five-course meal, a skit, beggars, jugglers, traveling minstrels, dancers, brass, a jester, a king and queen, royal court lords and ladies, tumblers, servers and…singers! It is truly a “magical,” madrigal time of year and although it is a bit busy – everyone wears a costume, everyone – it creates some incredible memories for all involved!
An incredibly fortunate beneficiary of the strong singing school choral program is the “extra-curricular” fall musical program. I have served as a private voice teacher in the district for over 25 years and am a firm believer in healthy vocal production. It is my goal to remain steadfast when it comes to stage singing, and I am in an excellent position to influence the singers because I am the director, vocal/chorus director, and producer for the annual fall musicals in Detroit Lakes. I am very proud of the musical performances that our school district has become known for in our neck of the woods over the years!
What are some of your fondest memories from your career at Detroit Lakes?
There are so many highlights from my career that it is hard to define a specific pinnacle moment. I have traveled on so many wonderful tours with my students and each one is so very special! However, our choir tour to NYC the spring after the 9/11 Tragedy will forever be deeply held in my memory. Our performances that spring were incredibly meaningful and I will never forget being in New York City with my students. We saw pictures of missing people in restaurant windows, ash debris in tree branches, banners from all over the world, and we talked to firemen and policemen about their experiences. I stood on that plywood platform at Ground Zero with my students, looking out at the devastation. I can’t help but think that we were there for a reason. While standing on that platform looking at that massive hole trying to comprehend why anyone would do something so horrific, my daughter (who was on tour) was approached by a woman who grasped her hands and looked at her with tears streaming down her face. She asked my daughter to pray with her because her husband was out there in space – in that hole some place. Later that same day we performed in a lovely church on the Upper East Side. After our performance the Director of Music for the church approached me with tears in his eyes and thanked me for our performance, for that very morning the church had held a memorial service for a member of their congregation, a 9/11 victim that they had only just recently been able to identify. Maybe in some small way we were there to help a few people heal just a little bit. I think, however, it helped us heal more.
What is one experience you are most thankful for?
One of my greatest thrills was directing on stage at Orchestra Hall, first as the “fill-in” for the Women’s All-State Choir Director (Winter-2010) where I had a number of her own students singing in the All-State Women’s Choir, and then again at the Choral Arts Finale (Spring 2015). It has been wonderful to watch the successes of the Detroit Lakes students over the years. I have had students consistently selected for membership in the MMEA All-State Choirs, and ACDA National, Regional, and State Honor Choirs. It was an honor to be the ‘fill-in’ for the MMEA All-State Women’s Choir. That was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time since our guest conductor was caught in a snowstorm on the East Coast. As a result, our MMEA Choral VP at the time, Diane Heaney, asked me if I would step up. I was the team leader for the women’s choir that year, so I think Diane thought I was the most obvious fit. It truly was a thrill to have the privilege of working with the 2010 MMEA All-State Women’s Choir and Chris Starr. I would do it again in a heartbeat!
What are the most important experiences to your students?
Defining just one singular mountaintop performance in one’s career is incredibly difficult. My students had several different moments that came to mind. One of my altos who had experienced singing in the 2015 ACDA National Honor Choir in Salt Lake City with four other DLHS choir members immediately mentioned that experience! Then she quickly mentioned singing at the 10th Annual Minnesota Choral Arts Finale at Orchestra Hall in the spring of 2015 and our ACDA of MN Conference performance last fall, 2015. Other students echoed her response! Some students mentioned All-City Choir and working with our recent guest conductor, Charlette Moe, while others mentioned our Madrigal Dinner in December as their favorite performances. Some talked about All-State as a mountaintop experience, and several Laker Singers pointed out how cool it was to be asked to sing backup on an incredibly awesome local musician’s new recording. Many others talked about their stage experiences in musicals as their highlight! Our musical cast members are truly thrilled to have received Outstanding Overall Production, Outstanding Overall Performance, Outstanding Ensemble Performance, Outstanding Acting Performance by an Ensemble and Outstanding Movement/Dance Performance by an Ensemble Honors for our 2015 production of our fall musical, Aida from the Hennepin Theatre Trust Spotlight Education program.
What is your favorite part of leading the choir program at Detroit Lakes?
Perhaps the greatest benefit to students lies in the lasting friendships that have been created, the bonds that have been cemented, the communities of support that have formed, the admiration that the choral arts students have amongst themselves, and the respect they show for one another. I see it over and over again in music making organizations and I marvel – how can this be? How is it that this kid who is so completely different from that kid…how is it that they find common ground? How do they come to that point of actually liking one other enough…to actually moving to that point of wanting to hang out with one other? Music does this! Music makes this possible! Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so…I don’t think this happens in just any class! And it isn’t just any music…it’s singing together…music is the connection – music makes it possible for us to be vulnerable and trust…and once that trust has been established, anything is possible. Kids become friends – lifelong friends, I’ve watched it happen over and over again and it is really beautiful! I don’t think it happens often enough in our world! I just found out that my Laker Singer guys have one night a week dedicated to Laker Singer Poker Night. All grades are involved 10-12. (Fortunately they are not wagering high stakes!) I never would have predicted it at the beginning of the year! My seniors weren’t happy last spring after auditions. According to them, I was putting too many sophomores in the group for this school year. Now they are no longer seniors or sophomores, but just Laker Singer guys.
Who were some important mentors in your life?
I have had so many incredible mentors throughout my life and my career, but the first and most influential were my wonderful parents. My musical foundation started in the home I grew up in with my fiddle-playing mother and my banjo-playing, singing, yodeling father. Their love of music could not be resisted! For as long as I can remember I spent countless hours of my life singing and making wonderful music with my mom and dad – a precious gift that largely defines who I am today. I would be remiss if I did not mention three other extremely significant mentors that I met on my musical journey, my elementary music teacher, Richard Sivertson, my high school choir director, Harold Skilbred, and my high school English teacher, Lee Paulson. I will never forget the impact these wonderful gentlemen had on my life. The love that Mr. Sivertson had for singing was contagious! He traveled from room to room with a cart and always smiled and sang so beautifully. He taught me to love music at a very young age—and that I will never forget! Thank you so much Mr. Sivertson! My forever gentle, loving, kind and talented high school choir director – Mr. Harold Skilbred –was truly one of a kind! Mr. Lee Paulson – my high school English teacher and drama director – he nurtured my passion for the arts!
What unique things have Detroit Lakes singers gone on to do after graduation?
I just recently returned from a trip to LA where I saw the premiere of Boldly Go, a musical parody based upon Star Trek. The musical was presented at The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, and was written by two former students who are brothers and just happen to be passionate about music! Neither brother is majoring in music (one is currently a graduate student in Caltech’s theoretical physics program and the other brother is a senior at the U of M and will soon graduate with a major in Theater Arts and a minor in studies in Cinema and Media Culture.) To say that the musical was a major success at Caltech is an understatement. It was surreal to watch the success of my two former students who I have formed very strong friendships with over the years because of our shared love of music. I have the same reaction when I watch a concert conducted by one of my former students, or when I see a production one of my former students has directed and produced. There is something so incredibly amazing about seeing tiny bits of you passed on…into the next generation of music makers and music lovers. It is for this reason and so many more that I love this incredible art form!
Ballade to the Moon
Daniel Elder – SATB and Piano, Gia Publications Inc. G-8071
arr. Ethan Sperry – SATB, S-252
Only in Sleep
Ēriks Ešenvalds – SATB, Musica Baltica MB 1265
Morten Lauridsen – SATB and Piano, HL 00118915
With a Lily in Your Hand
Eric Whitacre – SATB, SBMP 431
David Brunner – SSA and Piano, Boosey & Hawkes 48023074