The gifts of a changing community
Alison Kulseth in St. James, MN

Alison Kulseth (in center) with her family in 2023

Alison Kulseth has been teaching vocal music in St. James, MN since 1999, and has built a strong program in that time. Her choirs demonstrate beautiful singing and confidence, and her students love singing for her. We had a chance to talk briefly before classes began on a Monday this spring and Alison’s passion and care for her community came through so clearly.

Alison: I was born in St. James and went to school here. I attended Augustana University for college, and after graduating I stayed in Sioux Falls and taught for a year in 1998. I didn’t plan on coming back to St. James to live, but then I met a guy.  He was also from St. James and we decided to move back. I was gone from St. James for a total of five years before returning. I began by teaching part time middle school but it was only .69 time, which wasn’t great because you end up working a lot of extra time. I taught some piano lessons at home, too. In 2011 I got the high school job and have been teaching here ever since.

St. James has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Right now our community is 52% Latino. A lot of small, rural communities are dying because their kids graduate, leave, and don’t come back. And while that’s true for a lot of schools, in St. James we have been able to maintain because we have had a lot of Latino families move in. We have a Smithfield meat processing plant and those jobs draw a lot of families to us. The shift in the community population started when I was in high school. We had a few Latino kids then, but under 5%. Then it slowly increased. When my oldest kids were in high school it was about half and half, and now we’re over that point. We have a lot of newcomers. Honestly, they’ve been great families and great kids that I really love. We have a lot of families who are very supportive of music.

St. James Choir in 2010

It can be tricky, though. We have a large group of newcomers who are coming mostly from Guatemala. It’s harder for newcomers to be able to come into music classes because a lot of their schedule is taken up with English language learning classes. A lot of my Latino students have been in the U.S. for a long time, and were even born and raised in St. James, and a lot come from Texas, too. We have kids who are undocumented. But they’re just like everybody else, and you want the best for them. They’ve been a blessing to this community.

There are challenges to small town life, too. I get frustrated when parents encourage their kids’ lives to be centered on sports. People forget that you can do both sports and the arts and other activities in a small town. You really can – I grew up doing both, my own children have done both, and a lot of families have. But it seems like there’s more kids now that are pushed to just do sports. And that’s unfortunate because the kids can miss out on so much.

EC: What do you teach now?

I teach 6th through 12th grade. I have a sixth-grade general music class for students who aren’t in band. I see them once every 4 days, which ends up being about 5 times a month in sixth grade. Band and choir each have a skinny period, and it’s just 27 minutes. In Junior High it’s still 27 minutes but it’s every day.

In Covid we lost a lot of kids in both band and choir, which was pretty common in a lot of schools.  Because of that I adjusted my high school groups and made the concert choir grades 9 – 12 for tenors and basses, and grades 10 –12 for sopranos and altos. Most of my tenors and basses do well. Having the older singers as their mentors has really worked well because I can’t emulate what their voice should sound like. One of my strong tenors or basses can demonstrate well, though.

I also have a Varsity Choir, which is a 9th grade group of sopranos and altos. I really enjoy them. They’re smaller than the other group which makes them become independent. They really learn to become artists and I get to watch the freshman grow so much.

My ensembles used to be auditioned, but, again, that has changed since Covid. Honestly, though, I like that I have the agency to have them leave the group if their attitude isn’t good. In some ways I’d like to get back to the audition, but I recognize that auditions scare a lot of kids.  I guess I’ll have to think about it honestly. I like working with a kid that wants to learn to sing much more than one whose attitude is bad. If they want to be here and they want to learn then we can accomplish a lot.

I have some small groups, too. I have a show choir and they are a great group of dedicated kids. We meet twice a week at 7:10a.m. for 35 minutes. Starting next year they’ll become a pop a cappella group. I’m making that change because not all students want to do the dancing part of show choir, and I understand that. I think it’ll be better if we simplify and just do the pop part. We have to realize that kids gain a lot by singing pop music. Even if it’s not necessarily concert music they still will gain so much. It’s a foot in the door and gets them interested.

I have a madrigals group, too, and they sing all kinds of music. We meet twice a week for 25 minutes. It’s not much, but it’s in the mornings so they can still be in other activities, too. It’s been helpful in maintaining numbers to give them opportunities to be in small groups.

Honor Choir March 2024 (Alison is third from the left in the back row)

EC: What do you like about the St. James community?

I like the diversity. We’re not perfect, but I think we’ve dealt with diversification long enough so that we embrace it more than we used to. We still have work to do, but I think kids feel welcome to try things. That’s been a blessing and that’s why I’ve stayed.

St. James Choir trip to Chicago, March 2018

EC: How has teaching at home influenced your effectiveness as an educator?

Teaching in this community and environment has pushed me to do a lot of Spanish language songs with my kids. We do at least a few over the course of the year. When I first started teaching middle school and high school, I realized that my students do much better if I let them help choose the literature we sing because then they are invested. I set some parameters. For example, I’ll give them six to eight pieces then tell them we must choose three. Of those three, one needs to be slow, one fast, and one in a different language. For the longest time I would offer pieces in Spanish, and they would never pick them. We had so many Spanish speakers, and yet they wouldn’t choose them. I started asking why not? I think it depended on each family’s point of view. Some families who have been in the United States for a long time really support the idea of having their students be bilingual and singing in Spanish. It’s a great gift. But I think some of the newcomers feel strongly that they want their children speaking English. It’s really different for each family.

After a while I just said, “We are going to sing a Spanish song, so which song shall we sing?” I also make sure that I don’t just limit it to Spanish. We do other languages as well, but I’m really intentional about collecting songs with Spanish text.

EC: Do you have any advice for teachers who find themselves teaching at their alma mater?

You have to help your colleagues get out of the “Oh, that’s just my former student” mindset. That was hard for me initially. I also have to make sure to push myself to not just accept things because it has always been done that way. I know how things have been done. And sometimes you have to try new things.

I’ve also learned that everybody in the community can be an asset to you. The gifts of the people around you can be really surprising. There’s people that you don’t know and talent that you haven’t tapped in your community. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and also know what things are steadfast and really important to the community.

Elisabeth Cherland

Dr. Elisabeth Cherland is a fourth-generation choral conductor as well as professor, singer, song leader, violinist, and Lutheran church musician. As Director of Choral Activities at Minnesota State University, Mankato, she teaches courses in choral methods, conducting, private voice, and conducts the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. She lives with her partner Kent and their two children in St. Peter. She loves storytelling and story-hearing, doughnuts, bubble tea, running (when the temperature is perfect and the course is flat), and sunshine when it’s available.