For fifth straight contest, MFL MarMac music students earn ‘Outstanding Performances’

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Graphic courtesy of MFL MarMac Community School District

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


One MFL MarMac vocal soloist as well as a bass clef ensemble earned prestigious “Outstanding Performances” at the April 1 Class 2A Solo/Ensemble Contest at Waukon. It marks the fifth straight contest (not including 2020) that the school’s music students received an OP. Only two vocal and two instrumental performances­—one for each of the four centers at the contest—receive the honor.


It was a successful day overall for the music program, as band students received five Division I ratings (out of 13) and vocal students received 18 Division I ratings (out of 19).


“The students of the choir have set expectations of themselves that we’ve had OPs in the past and want to strive for that. Each year, we dedicate time to just solo/ensemble, and we all work tremendously hard,” said senior Jonah Wille, who was recognized for his solo “Ol’ Dan Tucker” and was also part of the “900 Miles” ensemble.


“900 Miles”

The ensemble included 12 bass and tenor singers: Wille, Austin Schlee, Codie Luse, Alexis Ross, Franci Mezera, Eric Grady, Jacob Schellhorn, Carsten Pester, Jarett Hanson, Anthony Bunting, Brodyn Blietz and Kyler Nuehring. They performed “900 Miles,” an old railroad folk song.


While the tenors took over melody, the bass line was able to tell a story through dynamics, which imitated the train.


“As it’s coming toward you and going away from you, we worked with our dynamics. Starting soft and getting louder, and as the train was going away, we’d fade away,” Wille explained. “There’s some really cool harmonies in it with the tenors and basses. There are a couple solo and duet moments too.”


Choral director Jaydeane Berns described “900 Miles” as repetitive, yet rhythmic. The music style isn’t one normally selected for OPs, but it’s what the group loved about the piece.


“It was a pretty fun song to sing,” said Hanson.


Luse, one of the group’s five seniors, agreed. “This was my favorite piece to take to contest. It was extremely fun working with this group. I think we had good communication amongst us. Jonah and I didn’t even have to talk to each other—we knew how to lead the group.”


One of the biggest adjustments at solo/ensemble, particularly for younger students, is that performers don’t have a director to keep time or provide cutoffs. Ensembles rely on their accompanist as well as select leaders—in this case Wille and Luse—to provide that trust and communication.


That was key for Hanson, who was one of five freshmen. 


“I feel better when we communicate and look at each other. We know when to cut off and when to start up singing,” he said.


For the ensemble’s younger members, it’s been a year-long learning process to reach this point. Bunting said breath control is one of the factors he’s picked up from the choir’s upperclassmen. Pester listed dynamics and matching pitches.


Simply performing more has helped Blietz, who tackled a solo at the Pop’s Concert.


“I got a lot more confident,” he said.


Upperclassmen like Wille have noticed the work the underclassmen have put in.


“At this point in the year, it’s not, ‘Oh, you’re a freshmen. You don’t really know what you’re doing anymore.’ We’ve been through the first semester, the show choir season. We all know each other’s styles, and the freshmen are starting to pick up on some different techniques,” Wille said. “As seniors, we’ve seen a lot of growth in the freshmen this year. Even just during that ensemble. Some of us upperclassmen started picking up on techniques too. The entire group was learning.”


That doesn’t mean the ensemble thought “900 Miles” was OP-worthy.


Although the group was one of the better prepared as far as memorization and dynamics, warm-ups included a few hiccups, according to Nuehring. There were also nerves.


“I was kind of nervous when we walked in the room, but once we started singing, I calmed down,” Pester admitted.


Even after the performance, Berns wasn’t sure.


“My gut feeling was they would walk out the door with a Division I. I knew they had performed very well,” she said, “but it wasn’t the group I thought would be the OP.”


With half of the group being underclassmen, Schlee hopes this will be a spring board for future success.


“It’s basically a younger group. It’s not all seniors and juniors,” he said. “And that’s what’s nice about having an OP group now: it’s not their last time singing. It could get more younger groups wanting to come out and sing because they know they have the opportunity to go to state.”


“Now, we have shoes to fill,” added Pester. “Once these guys are gone, we have to step up.”


“Ol’ Dan Tucker”

Wille’s solo performance of another folk song, “Ol’ Dan Tucker,” also snagged an OP. It’s a style he’s gravitated toward throughout high school.


It’s a good fit because of Wille’s natural storytelling ability, according to Berns.


“I knew, with all the different verses and actions, that he’d be able to use his storytelling skills and really engage his audience. He also did an excellent job with intonation and dynamics. His diction is very good,” she shared. “He earned a perfect score on his solo.”


Through interpreting that story, Wille liked that “Ol’ Dan Tucker” left a lot of room for musicality. Not necessarily chorally, he said, but with diction and especially dynamics. 


“There are a lot of different dynamic moments,” he explained. “Then, with the eye contact and the facials, that’s what takes a good performance to a great performance. I think that’s the reason I got an outstanding performance, because of that storytelling.”


Wille said he and accompanist Chris Hadley worked hard to fine-tune the song, particularly two weeks ahead of solo/ensemble. The biggest challenge was slowing “Ol’ Dan Tucker” down to meet the 2:30 time requirement.


“We were really struggling for awhile to find where we could still keep the feel of the song but have it slow enough to meet that time limit. There were times we’d be teetering around that 2:29 mark and were getting kind of nervous. We ended up going 2:35,” Wille said.


The senior acknowledged he’s often prioritized ensembles over his solos, as he doesn’t want to let the groups down. With so many performances—he had six on April 1—it also makes for a demanding practice schedule and a demanding day at contest. Physical preparation is key.


“A lot of people don’t understand how much goes into it. You have to take care of yourself—a lot of water and sleep. By the end of the day, singing all those pieces and ranging from low to high and loud to soft, it takes a lot out of you,” he said. “It’s something you don’t really think about when you’re practicing. Maybe we do two pieces today, two pieces tomorrow and two pieces the next day. For contest, you have to do all of those an hour apart.”


He’s happy the hard work paid off.


“Just like ‘900 Miles,’ I had no thought that was going to get an OP,” Wille reflected. “But to be blessed with that is pretty cool.”


Both OPs will perform at the Outstanding Performance Recital, held May 16 at Iowa State University.

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