Born and raised by Roseau County farmers, Norma and the late Lief Hagen, Darcy Reese went to school and met her husband Phillip Reese in Greenbush.
“This is my home,” Reese said.
It’s where, as a farm child, she learned how to work and not give up until the job is complete. It’s where, specifically out at Bethlehem Church in rural Greenbush, she began singing for Sunday School as a small girl, singing solos. She then started singing around the area with her friend Tammy (Langaas) Wahl, from fairs to talent shows.
“Singing has always been a part of my life,” Reese said, “and my mom and dad were anxious to push me in music.”
She brought what she learned about hard work and perseverence on the farm and her passion for music into the her choir classroom at Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls. It led to an environment where students do more than just sing, but also address various issues— including of the racial, gender, and ethnic variety— through different mediums, such as music, dance, art, and poetry.
Prairie Public Broadcasting (through PBS) caught wind of Reese and her choir’s efforts and watched it at work at a concert event. It then highlighted it all in an hour-long, award-winning documentary titled, “More Than Just the Music”, one that hit the World Channel numerous times last week.
Reese briefly discussed her music background, her choir— from its expectations to the events and opportunities it has participated in— and the documentary itself.
As for that music background, after building her passion for music at home in Greenbush, she attended Bemidji State for the performance end of music, but instead developed a different passion around music.
“I fell in love with the teaching part of it, and that was that,” Reese said. “Then I went (and) graduated from college in 1987 and have not quit singing since.”
Now, Reese will begin her thirty-fifth year of teaching choir at Lincoln High School, including the last ten years as the district’s choir director for middle school students as well. Teaching five different choirs from sixth to twelfth grade, she estimated that, in recent years, she has taught more than 260 students per year. These five choir classes include: sixth grade choir, seventh grade choir, eighth grade choir, ninth and tenth grade choir, and eleventh and twelfth grade concert choir— the last one the only one that requires auditions. She also teaches an extracurricular vocal jazz choir that numbers around 35 students.
She also used to direct musicals every other year, but that changed when everything began to grow with her choir in terms of its schedule, including touring.
Asked about the expectations of her choir, she first pointed out how her class is something that students need to engage in. It’s an elective class that her students chose to attend.
“Everything that they do in that class is a reflection on them. And if they’re not in there for the right reasons, they don’t stay… They’re not able to stay in that class,” Reese said. “They know that we work and we work very hard and it’s more than just singing a song or two.”
Reese said that she teaches much about humanities through music, including social injustices, diversity, and issues in the world today.
“I have a lot of second generation kids. They’ve had their moms and their dads (in my choir) or I’ve had their aunts and their uncles or whatever,” Reese said. “They know that there’s an end product that they can really engage in, throughout the school year and be extremely proud of at the end. And I think that’s the biggest reason why kids stay with it is because they’ve realized that it’s something bigger than themselves.”
Her students also know that they have to put in many hours outside school time, and if they put the work in, they will be rewarded.
“It’s not a sport, where they have to win or lose. (If) you work hard, you’re going to win. (If) you work hard, you’re going to be rewarded with something that is amazing,” Reese said. “And it might be an experience on stage. It might be standing ovations. It might be traveling.”
Her concert choir has two major shows (each two night events) in Thief River Falls every year, including in December where it performs traditional choral music and in May, its “big project” where it has a specific mission or purpose for its music.
Produced by Barbara Gravel, the documentary highlights the choir’s music with a mission concerts, from its beginning 20 years ago to its evolution over that time. It features the choir’s diversity and inclusiveness and the work it invests into these May concerts.
“It shows them talking about issues, injustices,” Reese said. “It shows them talking and working with the artists throughout the years.”
The topics these students address include Black Lives Matter, Native American, anti-semitism, gender and women’s rights issues.
After watching the documentary— one that aired between July 28 and August 1 on the World Channel— Reese hopes people see the love of these young people, the need to accept and celebrate people’s differences, and the power of music.
“We need to educate each other about the differences that we all have, and thank God that we all do have differences,” Reese said. “Otherwise, it would be an extremely boring world. But to understand that if these young people can do this, we all can do it and learn from the young ones. Learn from the young ones because they’re so eager to change our world.”