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ALUM PROFILE: Nancy Lee (‘82) – Music Ed.

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ALUM PROFILE: Nancy Lee (‘82) – Music Ed.

Nancy Lee (‘82) and her husband Hans Lee (‘83) right after their engagement in the summer of 1981.

Nancy Lee (‘82) and her husband Hans Lee (‘83) right after their engagement in the summer of 1981.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Lee (‘82)

Nancy Lee (‘82) and her husband Hans Lee (‘83) right after their engagement in the summer of 1981.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Lee (‘82)

Photo courtesy of Nancy Lee (‘82)

Nancy Lee (‘82) and her husband Hans Lee (‘83) right after their engagement in the summer of 1981.

Martel DenHartog, Staff Writer

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Nancy Lee (‘82) came to Luther with a goal: “I wanted to be an amazing high school choir director,” Lee said.

Since graduating from Luther, she has done just that. Lee has created successful high school choral programs in Southern Iowa, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and most recently, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her success has been recognized nationally, as she has received the Honorable Mention for Excellence in Theatre Education Awards from the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University in 2016 and 2017.

Lee’s foundation in music education developed at Luther under the influence of Professor Emeritus of Music Weston Noble (‘43), Professor Emeritus of Music David Greedy, and Professor Emeritus of Music Dennis Darling. Music education courses were held in the Annex, now Ockham House, until the ceiling collapsed one day when Lee and her classmates were supposed to have class. It was not until her senior year that the construction for the Jenson-Noble Hall of Music took place. Regardless of location, her classes were full of passionate students who challenged one another and created beautiful music.

Lee’s passion for choral directing was not without scrutiny. In the early 80s, she found that directing music was traditionally a man’s game, and she set out to change that.

“It was at a time, too, when Weston [Noble], bless his dear soul, would say to women, ‘Oh you would be a great elementary teacher.’ And, ‘you’re just so nice,’” Lee said. “As a woman, you were very pegged. This is what you should probably do. And I came here going, ‘no I want to be like an amazing high school choir director.’ That was my goal.”

Lee noted that this is not an issue anymore, —a testament to how much Luther has changed since she was a student.

Grounded by two core principles of teaching, Lee felt prepared to enter the high school choir directing setting. The first of these core principles is instilling passion in her students.

“Once you engage them, that passion transfers to other things,” Lee said.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Lee (‘82)
Nancy Lee (‘82) poses with members of the 1981-82 Nordic Choir.

The second key value Lee advocates for is providing students with opportunities.

“If you don’t give students opportunity, they’ll never know what their true passion is or what their true talents are,” Lee said. “It’s about opportunity and passion for my students, and, after that, it’s just keeping the ball rolling.”

Alex Streitz (‘19) felt Lee’s enthusiasm for her students during his time in choir at Washburn High School in Southwest Minneapolis where Lee currently teaches and directs.

“She made choir an environment where even if you [were] new to it, you [could] still be an active member and add something to the collective goal of making music,” Streitz said.

According to Streitz, Lee’s charisma and kindness aids in the development of an intrinsic desire to improve.

Ian Adams (‘20), another Washburn student who attends Luther and was taught by Lee, talked about the impact of Lee’s passion.

“She always encouraged me to stay after school to practice and try new things,” Adams said. “Working with her has helped me progress as a person.”

When Lee started at Southwest High School in Minneapolis 20 years ago, there was no choral music. Only one of the seven high schools in the city had a choral program.

“In my youthful enthusiasm, I thought [I] was going to change the whole culture of Minneapolis Public Schools,” she said.

Even if choral music in Minneapolis did not completely change, it grew tremendously because of Lee’s commitment. Lee helped grow the choral program at Southwest, and South High School grew their program in response.

While those high schools were going through a period of growth, Washburn High School was not. However, before the 2008-09 school year, Washburn went through a “fresh start,” hiring a whole new staff. It was at this time that Lee moved from Southwest to Washburn and began to re-instill faith in the identity of the school.

Her fervor for the arts was well-received among the community, and once Lee made the switch in schools, people started believing in Washburn.

“The arts are the soul of a school and without that, there is something really missing,” Lee said. “All of a sudden people were saying to me, ‘Well if Nancy Lee would leave Southwest to go to Washburn, it’s a good place to send our kids.’”

Not only has Lee been shaping the high school music scene in Minneapolis, but she also teaches the choral methods course at St. Olaf College to future music educators. This course teaches preservice teachers how to teach to the standards, plan trips, and organize theatre productions. Before her students dig into these components, Lee has them reflect on their philosophies as music educators by having them create a statement describing their own philosophy and values.
“Those are your roots when you sway in the wind,” Lee said.

As Lee sways in the wind, she consistently brings her visions into reality while changing the lives of her students for the better.

“When you do what you do, you don’t really feel much about it,” Lee said. “You just do what you do because you’re called to do it.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “ALUM PROFILE: Nancy Lee (‘82) – Music Ed.”

  1. Tom Lee on November 18th, 2017 3:10 pm

    Proud to have Nancy Lee as my daughter in law! Tom Lee ’59

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