Singing for toleranceby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
This is spring concert season at high schools around the region. Students don choir robes, climb on the risers and often sing a program filled with choral standards. One rural Minnesota choir director is shaking up tradition, and challenging students and the community.
Thief River Falls, Minn. — Darcy Reese believes music should be more than just entertainment. The Thief River Falls high school choir director is using music to challenge perceptions about race and culture in a mostly white community.
She's combined music, dance and poetry from African American, Jewish and American Indian cultures to create "Woven Voices, Woven Threads."
This program is about much more than blending the 180 voices in the choir. Starting last fall, Reese brought a Holocaust survivor, an African American history and gospel music expert and an American Indian historian to the classroom. Students spent a week talking about each culture and learning not only history, but personal experiences.
"I believe these kids can't sing the music from the heart if they don't understand the people who wrote it," says Reese.
Gospel expert Dr. Horace Boyer and composer Steve Barnett arranged music specifically for this show, and they will be among several guest artists performing with the choir.
Traditional African, Jewish and Ojibway dance is also part of the performance. Reese says a project like this takes extra effort from everyone. Although many of the professional musicians and choreographers reduced their fees, the show still cost $56,000 to produce. Reese says the money was raised through donations or grants.
Learning unfamiliar and complex music also means extra work for students, who practice during school, but also evenings and weekends.
Reese guides the choir with an infectious energy, as though trying to will perfection from the choir. She cajoles, corrects and praises.
Reese says she feels strongly about immersing her students in unfamiliar cultures to teach them tolerance. She says she's not out to change the world, just her students.
"I believe that as kids, these guys have a chance to change things. And if we can get it instilled in these kids that they can change, when they have children it will help to lessen that turmoil that's always out there between the cultures," says Reese.
"I think the bottom line is not to judge people and races and religions and cultures, but to learn about them and embrace what they have," Reese says. "You might not understand it all, but embrace what they have and become a better person because of it. And then hopefully, slowly, in small increments, make it a better community, a better state, a better country."
Some of the students say they see the world differently after working with artists who are African American, Jewish and American Indian.
Michael Benedict says says putting a face to racism makes it personal.
"There's some people in our school that tell the occasional black joke, or Jewish jokes or whatever, and you just have to tell them, 'Knock it off,'" says Benedict. "That's the way I've changed. I used to go along with the jokes, but now I guess I look at it differently."
Benedict says it's a challenge to learn songs in different languages and master different musical styles. He's had a hard time with the high-pitched Ojibway singing style.
Junior Sarah Vigness says there's a thrill in working hard and mastering difficult music. There's also a desire among the students to share what they've learned.
"It brings all of us together. And then maybe we can go out and bring it to other people that haven't been involved in this whole program that we've done. So maybe we can just start something that can change, starting in our community," says Vigness.
"Woven Voices, Woven Threads" will be performed May 21 and 22 at Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls.
The choir will travel to Fairfax, Va. June 14 to perform for a Hurricane Katrina relief concert. They'll also perform at the Jefferson Memorial in the nations capitol on June 15.