Music students nab rare ‘outstanding performance’ honors

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MFL MarMac sophomore Max Koeller’s euphonium solo, “Andante et Allegro,” was selected as an “outstanding performance” at the Solo and Small Ensemble Festival at Waukon on April 7. The honor will allow him to perform at All-State, in Ames, on May 9. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Earning an outstanding performance for “Requiem” was the ensemble of (front, left to right) Abby Zeeh, Rose Grau, Lizzie Herzmann, Anjela Waterman, Elizabeth Grady, Riley Whitney; (back) Ben Miene, Chris Wright, Micah Decker, Max Koeller and Sam Koeller. Not pictured is Keagan Smerud. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times


MFL MarMac high school music students joined those from other area schools at Waukon on April 7, to participate in Solo and Small Ensemble Festival. The contest included six “centers,” three for vocal performances and another three for instrumental performances. At the end of the day, one solo or ensemble performance from each center was selected as the “outstanding performance,” and invited to perform at All-State, in Ames, on May 9. 


No MFL MarMac student had received this special honor since 2011. That is, until this year. Sophomore Max Koeller was selected for his euphonium solo, while the 12-person “Requiem” ensemble was chosen in one of the vocal centers, giving MFL MarMac two of the six outstanding performances of the day.


Max Koeller

Koeller has participated in band since fifth grade, when he first selected the trombone as his instrument of choice. He recalled trying different mouthpieces—trumpet, flute, saxophone, trombone—to see what kind of sound he could make on each.


“I couldn’t make a noise on one, but when I went to the trombone, it made this loud, blatty sound,” he shared, “so that was the one I went with.”


Koeller later gravitated to the euphonium, which he said makes the same sound as a trombone, but utilizes keys instead of a slide.


“I like being able to slur more easily,” he explained, “so I picked it up, and I liked it.”


Until last year, Koeller, who’s also an accomplished vocalist, hadn’t really considered performing an instrumental solo.


“I started playing in band before I did choir because that’s what was offered first,” he said. “Then I joined choir and realized I loved singing so much. I normally gravitated toward singing solos just because those were what was easy to learn, easy to handle. I didn’t have to take an instrument home to practice.”


This year, he did one of each, receiving “one” ratings for them both. It was the euphonium solo that stood out, however.


The piece Koeller performed was entitled “Andante et Allegro,” by J. Guy Ropartz.


“It starts off very soft and melodic,” Koeller described, “then it gets very fast and light and kind of moves back and forth between those.”


He had originally selected a different version, but found it too challenging, so opted for a new one that still allowed him to start slow, then go faster. Koeller said this new version of “Andante et Allegro,” which he performed at solo and ensemble, was just difficult enough that he could do it.


“This song is a piece that all brass players know. It’s one that you want to have in your repertoire,” noted Karen Suddendorf, who was Koeller’s accompanist and also shares instrumental music teaching duties with Michelle Hontz. “You’ve got to know your business or you’re going to get shot down. He really worked at it and knew what notes were to be played.”


Although nervous, Koeller said his solo and ensemble experience rated as one of the best performances of “Andante et Allegro” he’s ever had. The judge agreed, giving Koeller one of only four perfect scores he’d ever awarded.


“I was so excited and happy,” Koeller said. “Normally they don’t reveal the score until later, but he just told me immediately that he gave me a perfect score, which was pretty cool.”


The judge especially praised Koeller’s technique and intonation, as well as his difference in dynamics. 


“It was great,” Hontz said of Koeller’s performance. “I would have expected it at a college level.”


Koeller said the judge did provide several notes of things he can work on before performing at Ames, so he’ll continue to further perfect the piece in the coming weeks.


Hontz said she’s excited for Koeller, as well as the report it will bring to the entire band.


“It’s great for the community to see, for our kids to see, that it’s a possibility and that you get opportunities like that,” she said.



MFL MarMac’s other outstanding performance came from the 12-person ensemble of freshmen Rose Grau, Riley Whitney and Ben Miene; sophomores Max Koeller and Keagan Smerud; juniors Lizzie Herzmann, Abby Zeeh, Elizabeth Grady and Sam Koeller; and seniors Micah Decker, Anjela Waterman and Chris Wright, who performed the song “Requiem.”


Written following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, “Requiem” “talks about all the heartbreak that comes with it, but it also shows hope for a better tomorrow,” explained Micah Decker. “You can build from that and keep going. So we kind of took that personally, and we really expressed that.”


Choral director Jaydeane Berns said “Requiem” has become a favorite among her students over the years. Several in this year’s group had even sung it at previous solo and ensemble contests.


“They connect to the text,” she said of what brings students back to it. “They connect to the feeling of hope the song portrays.”


“It’s just a very pretty song,” Decker added. “The way you perform it, other people just want to be a part of that.”


Since some members of the ensemble had previously sung “Requiem” without receiving outstanding performance commendations, Decker said there wasn’t necessarily an expectation that it would do so well this time around.


Going into contest, Berns said she pushes her students not to strive for outstanding performance, but to perform the best they possibly can.


“I’m somewhat a believer in extrinsic goals aren’t going to get you to the finish line. You need to have intrinsic goals—how well can you do this, how well can you perform this, how well can you perfect it,” she said. “Then, if by chance we’re an outstanding performance of the day, that’s amazing.” 


The students admitted there were other songs they preferred. They gave an emotional performance of one of those songs, “Stained Glass,” immediately before “Requiem.”


“Everybody was crying,” recalled Lizzie Herzmann, “and Ms. B’s like, ‘Drink water. You’re voice is going to crack.’” 


“Our voices were all scratched up and our noses were stuffed up,” noted Chris Wright. “It was like, are we going to perform our best with all these emotions? We did.”


The students attributed part of their success to that carry-over of raw emotion. They were, as Decker called it, “in the moment.”


“We were all crying while we were singing,” said Anjela Waterman. For the first time, she admitted, she really paid attention to the meaning of the song.


The students weren’t the only ones who were emotionally affected. 


“Not only was the group emotional, but there were several people sitting in the room that also became very emotional and were very moved by their performance,” Berns said. 


“You could see that [emotion] on all our faces, and the audience could feel it,” Herzmann shared. “When you take a piece and you make the audience feel it, that’s what the judges really notice.”


In addition to the emotion, the students brought to “Requiem,” their other strong suits included their phrasing and how well they work together, both in voice and mannerisms.


“We’re just very in-sync when we perform. We all move together, even physically. We will sway with the music when it builds, and when it comes back down, we all move together as one group,” Decker explained. “The chemistry between all of us—we can see just a slight quiver in someone and we know they’re going to cut off. By the sound of their voice, you just know what they’re going to do next.”


The students said that ability comes with experience. They’ve been singing with one another for years.


“We’ve been working together so long, singing so many times, that we developed blend, which is when three people on a part sing together so it sounds like one voice. It just sounds like a big quartet instead of 12 people,” said Max Koeller. “And that kind of developed because we’ve sung so long together. That was a big factor in being able to shape the phrases well and make it do so well.”


The students have really come to know one another’s voices, said Herzmann.


“Micah’s voice is so much louder than mine, so he knows, when he’s singing with me, I need to sing out more and he needs to be a little quieter,” she remarked. “That helps us with balance.”


Berns said credit also goes to accompanists Barb Ruff and Karen Suddendorf, who work tirelessly with all the solo and ensemble students in preparation for contest. 


“They spend many hours rehearsing with us, perfecting things, working together,” she said. “Whether it’s a soloist or ensemble performing, they need to work at that relationship as far as accompanist/performer and just be able to work off each other and be able to communicate with each other through the music, and maybe through the eyes connection.”


 As a senior, Wright said receiving outstanding performance means a lot. 


“To get something like an outstanding performance at solo and ensemble is just amazing,” he stated. “It’s good for, not just me, but for our entire class, because it gives us a lot of exposure and experience in this. Hopefully it leads us to bigger things.”


Berns said the seniors, which were her first group of seventh graders when she began teaching at MFL MarMac, have displayed a lot of leadership and musicality.


“They’ve set a great example for some of the younger kids, and that’s another great reason why I’m happy we’re going out to Ames with that ‘OP.’ Number one, to reward them, but to also inspire those younger kids as to what happens when you really work,” she said.

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