Home Sweet Home Interview with Alison Kulseth
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Kulseth, the Choir Director at St. James High School in St. James Minnesota, for the Fall issue of the Star of the North. We had a wonderful discussion about the joys and challenges of teaching at one’s alma mater. Throughout our conversation Alison’s love for her students and her willingness to find new ways to provide them with a meaningful music education shone through.
What were some of the unexpected challenges you encountered moving back to your hometown and then how have those challenges changed over the years?
I think the biggest challenge is trying to change something that has been in place for a long time…sometimes that’s a tough process. The line “it’s always been this way” is tough, especially when you were a part of those traditions growing up.
Did it feel like you were tied to the tradition more deeply, so it was more emotional to make those changes?
Yes, and I think that’s been good and bad. Because I don’t want to see these programs fall apart or fail. However, sometimes things need to be changed, and that’s hard.
And then, the flip side to that question, what are some of the biggest joys of being back in St. James?
It has been fun to work with some of my teachers and be able to work with them and collaborate with them. It’s been fun to have former choir directors come into the classroom and have them assess your group, have them work with your group, or accompany. One of my former directors did my sound for the longest time, which was really, really nice. It’s also strange, especially initially, to change roles from being their student to being their colleague. That’s a bit of a jump, but you just go through and do that.
Since the pandemic began, I have thought about the students who have lost the opportunity to go through the many rites of passage associated with high school. Do you feel that, since you grew up in the St. James community, you are more empathetic with your students?
Yes, I think so. Although, I never planned to come back to a small town. St. James is about five thousand people, and when you’re in high school I just wanted to get out. I graduated from Augustana in Sioux Falls and I taught in Sioux Falls for a year. My plan was never to come back to St. James. But I met my husband, who is also from St. James, and here we are!
How did it come to be that the job at your alma mater opened just as you and your husband wanted to move back home?
It was actually pretty amazing. After college I taught for a year in Sioux Falls. Then my husband and I got engaged and shortly after this job in St. James opened. It was part time, which wasn’t ideal, but it ended up being just the right thing at the right time.
So how long has it been, if you don’t mind me asking, since you began teaching in St. James?
I am starting my twenty second year.
That is amazing! Can you describe how the program has changed over your twenty-one years?
Our student and family population has changed a lot. About fifty one percent of my students are Latino. When I was in high school, I only had a few Latino classmates. However, many of our Latino families have been here for a long time. Musically, my program has changed a lot over the years. Our Latino population has a strong background in music. Some students aren’t necessarily music readers, but they have the ear, and they have skills to play the piano, guitar, and sing.
Has the change in your demographics changed your pedagogy and repertoire choices as well?
Yes, for sure. It’s changed repertoire choices and the way that we teach it as well. I can’t assume that everybody reads music, so I have to do some teaching of that. I have to pick songs that I think they’re going to be able to relate to and dig into. I pick songs in Spanish every year, as well as other languages too. But I pick pop songs too because I know that they like them, can relate to them, and probably can learn them better by ear…I just have to pick a variety. But I don’t shy away from the Western classical genre. I find if I choose my more classical repertoire carefully, my students really enjoy them.
Has this experience changed your perception of what music literacy is?
It absolutely has! For example, in the past I would only have chosen students to accompany the choir on guitar, drums, or piano who were taking formal lessons – because I could talk to their teacher and see how they are progressing on their piece. And I could even ask their teachers if it were a possibility for them to take on this task. But that’s not always the case now with students who don’t study privately. I have very capable students. I can say, “here is a copy of this and a YouTube video of it,” and a lot of them will learn it more by ear. They still want the sheet music in front of them, but they’ll probably learn it in a different way. And it was so nice, at ACDA Summer Dialogue, to hear Philip Schultz validating the fact that learning orally is OK, too. And not just at the elementary levels, but even in high school.
And like you said, you’re still teaching many different skills.
You have to know where your students are so you can know how to move them forward. My students aren’t necessarily your traditional Western classical musicians, but they’re still quality singers.
It sounds like you’re talking about expanding the definition of choir and allowing room for more types of singers and more genres of repertoire. Can you describe in a bit more detail what it means to broaden the scope, or expand the definition, of what it is to sing in a choir?
The number one thing that I can do for my kids is to give them a love and a joy and acceptance in my classroom…give them that love and joy of music. I need to pick those pieces that can draw them in. And then, once I have their trust and I feel like, OK, they’re into this, then I can pick repertoire to challenge them, or to make them sing with different technique, or in a different style. But the most important thing I can give them is a love and a joy for singing and for music. That will stay with them for the rest of their life. And, even above that, I try to make them feel included and feel like they belong. That’s probably the most important thing – that they feel like they belong.
And so, this year, especially after the pandemic, I’m focusing on building community. I’m intentionally picking music that is easier and more accessible for my students so that they can go in there and get that love for singing and music again.
Obviously we can’t always choose where we end up teaching, but would you recommend to others, if they have the chance, to go back and teach where they grew up?
You know, I would if you are invested in the program. We need people in our community that want to be here. We kind of know, having been in the program, its strengths and its weaknesses and where it needs to improve. I think that is helpful when you have been on the inside and you know what needs to happen. But also, it can be tough when other people question you when you try to make a change. Or it’s easy as the teacher to say “it’s always been this way.” Well, that doesn’t mean that it’s best for now, because a lot of our students have changed.
Did you have any fears or anxieties about returning home to teach in your hometown? And then, how would you coach or mentor another teacher who was thinking about returning to their hometown to teach?
There are some fears because you know that everybody knows you and you feel like you have to live up to expectations about your performance or about your students. It’s not that our community members are putting that upon us. We are putting those unrealistic expectations for ourselves. If I were to tell someone else who was going back to teach in their hometown, I would just say that everybody wants you to succeed, and they want your program to succeed. So, do what you need to do, make changes if you need to make changes, or continue a strong legacy in the ways that you see fit.