Longtime Albert Lea vocal teacher slated to retire at the end of the school year

Published 2:02 pm Monday, March 6, 2023

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See this and other stories in the March/April issue of Albert Lea Magazine.


The end of an era is coming up at Albert Lea High School, as Diane Heaney is retiring at the close of the school year.

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Heaney has taught ninth- through 12th-grade vocals for 30 years.

Music is something that’s always been in her family. Her mother taught English, while her grandmother taught at a country school during a time when teachers couldn’t be married to work at a country school.

Her mother was also a drama person and worked as a speech coach while Heaney grew up in Kiester,

“It was a very supportive community with music,” she said.

Growing up, she had a piano teacher, Audrey Wolfe, who she credited for her start.

“She gave piano lessons to everybody, and she had a way of encouraging you and making you work hard that just stuck with me,” she said.

By the time she was in eighth grade, the church she attended informed her they were going to pay for organ lessons for her and she would become the church organist.

“It was a new challenge for me and I loved it,” she said. “It was great.”

She enjoyed it so much she initially planned to study the instrument.

“When I went to college I was going to be an organ and drama major, which is kind of a weird combination,” she said.

That school, Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa, offered her what she described as a “nice” scholarship, despite the fact she had never heard of the school. In fact, she had originally planned to go to St. Olaf College. But they didn’t offer her financial support, so she accepted an offer from Morningside.

“They found out that I was in the state speech contest, and they gave me drama money,” she said.

But midway through her freshman year, someone made the comment that she would be a great teacher and should consider a career in that.

“I was going to be a band director,” she said. “… I wasn’t a good singer — I just wasn’t. Organ and theater, that kind of works better with vocal music, so I kind of changed over to that.”

She said the school provided practical classroom experience.

“I got to play the organ a lot, I got to be in drama stuff,” she said. “I sang in the choir, I played in the jazz band. It was just a great place, and I had great colleagues there.”

After graduation, she taught two years in the Boyden-Hull school district in Iowa.

“The first question they asked me in my interview was, “How do you get along with dutchmen?” she said. “I said I don’t even know anybody.”

Heaney started in Albert Lea in the fall of 1993. Prior to arriving, she worked in Montevideo for two years, as well as the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

“I had a graduate assistantship there, so I taught elementary education majors their music methods classes,” she said.

She also led a children’s choir there.

“It was kind of out of my comfort zone because it was elementary general music, and that’s not really my thing,” she said. “But I really learned a lot by doing that. I learned a lot about the psychological damage that music teachers can do to people who aren’t necessarily musical.”

Following an experience with an undergraduate who had a southern drawl, she decided to draw a line across the country and decided she couldn’t teach southern children. She then sent out applications and was hired in Menomonie, Wisconsin, near Eau Claire.

“That was a great four years, just loved being there,” she said.

She moved back to the area when she and her now-husband decided to return here.

“I applied for the Albert Lea job when it came open, hoping it would work out,” she said. “And it did, and so we moved back here and moved into my family farm, the Heaney family farm by Keister.”

They lived there for over 20 years before moving to Albert Lea in 2013.

She was originally hired on a part-time contract as the vocal music program was struggling before she took over. But she was determined to do her job so well the district would hire her full time — something they did.

For a portion of her life, she considered going into college teaching, but ultimately nixed the idea with family and children.

“I thought about college teaching, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’d be cool, but the coolest thing for me is to know these kids for four or five years. Not many teachers get to do that.

“I see them grow up, I see them mature, I see them change, I see them become real people, and I’ve built a lot of relationships that way.”

Being a teacher also meant more than working with students, and she said it was important to care about them, propping them up and encouraging them. She also tries to be honest with them.

“They need people like me to push them — it’s not all roses all the time, it’s the real world,” she said.

By her own estimation, Heaney has taught well over 1,200 students in her 30 years.

While she couldn’t name any particular piece of work as her favorite, she said every project brought her good memories working with different people.

One memory that stuck out was the school’s performance at the Choral Arts Finale, a program where recordings were submitted and groups chosen to perform at Orchestra Hall.

“Those are pretty big deals,” she said.

She also remembers the trips she and her students took every other year before the pandemic.

“We went to England and Wales, Scotland two times,” she said.

Besides singing, she has served as auditorium coordinator, directed fall musicals, kept the Tigers Roar program after it appeared the district was ready to terminate it, led the Albert Lea High School Caroliers and led show choir (which she started), choral and “all the extracurricular music stuff that happens” at the school. She also served on the facilities committee and has been on the Teacher of the Year committee. Heaney herself won the award in 2007.

She is also involved in Albert Lea Civic Music after attending concerts as a child.

“When I moved back into town, they needed someone within the school district to manage the stage,” she said.

And she has worked with Albert Lea Community Theatre, where besides being in shows such as “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “My Way,” she also co-directed “Mary Poppins” after the original director became sick.

“It was different because I’m used to being all by myself, and I had an actual team to work with,” Heaney said. “That was kind of cool.”

Former student Evie Cunningham, a 1998 graduate, was involved in choir, show choir, chorale, caroliers and musicals.

“She was a very tough teacher, really had high expectations for her students, held you to a very high standard and pushed for greatness, which made us better in everything we did,” she said.

And for her, that pushiness was a sign of care.

Cunningham said her experience with Heaney taught her not to be so dramatic with life.

While she didn’t pursue a career in the performing arts, she also acknowledged her daughter Ava wouldn’t be the same without Heaney’s guidance.

“[Heaney] pushed her to embrace her natural talents and gifts and then pushed her to become even better at it, taught her the right way to do things,” she said. “Gave her a lot of confidence.”

She also thanked Heaney for putting so much of her life, time and energy into youth who at times may not have given anything back.

Emma Barclay didn’t work with Heaney until her sophomore year, but once she did she wanted to be part of anything and everything Heaney had available, including musicals, caroliers and show choir.

“As a teacher she really pushes people to expand what they think they’re capable of and go the extra mile,” she said.

Beyond being a teacher, Barclay admitted Heaney inspired her as a person.

“She is a big reason why I think I am as confident as I am today,” she said. “Just through music she definitely inspired me.”

Barclay also thanked Heaney for everything she did for her.

“I know that [Heaney’s] very capable of doing more than just teaching high school, and I think [her] choosing to teach high school shows how much [she] cared about music and how much [she] cared about people at the individual level,” she said.

Former student Stuart Ness was a student at the high school from 1999 to 2002, and was involved in choir and show choir when he first arrived. He also participated in the chorale and caroliers.

“It was always fun,” Ness said, referring to his experiences working with Heaney.

For him, what made her a great teacher was a combination of her care for students and passion for the subject.

He also thanked Heaney for putting up with students, and said her work inspired many. He wished her the best of luck in retirement.

Claire Duncan, Heaney’s daughter, was a student of Heaney’s from 2009 to 2012, and was in choir all four years, participated in band, orchestra, choir and other ensembles such as chorale, show choir and caroliers. She also performed in the musicals.

“She’s definitely a fierce lady,” she said. “She’s very much down to business. We only have 50 minutes per class so we are getting right to it and jumping in. Not a lot of room for messing around.”

She also admitted she saw Heaney’s passion come through in class.

“Something she really does well is invest in the students in addition to the content,” she said. “That doesn’t always mean that you’re going to hear what you want to hear, but you’re going to hear what you need to hear, especially in the years of high school when it’s really important to start developing.”

Duncan’s most memorable moment with Heaney was when she sang at coronation during the last performance of high school.

“That was our special moment between mom and I,” she said.

She told her mom to look back and be proud.

“She’s been at this for such a long time, and teaching is so much more than just a job so it’s hard to leave,” she said. “She totally deserves it because she’s put so much time and love into it.”

To her students, Heaney thanked them for singing and learning.

“I hope you keep continuing to use your voice and to work hard,” she said.

She also wanted students to encourage any children they will have to sing.

And she hoped that something she taught her students would stick with them after graduation to make their lives better.

To her colleagues, past and present, she said it was a pleasure.

“The administration has been supportive, and the community has been very supportive,” she said. “You don’t get that everywhere. There’s something to be said for having a main street, and have people stop you at Hy-Vee and tell you how much they appreciate what you do. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

And that support made her want to stay and continue to work hard.

Currently, Heaney didn’t have any immediate plans for retirement.

“I’m such a planner,” she said. “I have to plan all the time and three months out have to be on top of it. I have to know what’s coming up. And I’m just looking forward to not having a plan and not setting the alarm every day.”

But she also knows she wants to travel, especially with her husband. She also plans to practice the organ more and wants to sing in a choir without being in charge.

“I can’t believe it’s been 30 years,” she said. “It all kind of blends together.”