Hastings Middle School proved it has some talented students. On Nov. 18 and 19, 10 choir students participated in the Minnesota State Honor Choirs at Gustavus Adolphus College.
There are three state honor choirs - one for grades four through six, one for seventh- and eighth-grade boys and one for seventh- and eighth-grade girls. Students have to audition, and while each school can submit up to 10 auditions per choir, no more than four for each group are selected.
Auditions are recorded and sent to the listening committee, which fills the choirs with the students who gave the best auditions.
Hastings nearly maxed out the spots it could fill, sending four students to the 4-5-6 choir, four to the seventh- and eighth-grade boys choir and two to the seventh- and eighth-grade girls choir. The students are Sammi Benson, fifth grade; Lizzy Kranz, sixth grade; John Rupp, sixth grade; William Patton, sixth grade; Victor Lindgren, seventh grade; Nick McGrath, eighth grade; Alex Poncelet, eighth grade; Ian Sundberg, seventh grade; Debbie Blissenback, eighth grade; and Claire Kilfoyl, eighth grade.
It's one of the biggest groups the middle school has ever sent, said choir director Cheryl Borgen. Two of the students, Sundberg and Kilfoyl, are repeat honor choir members - a claim not many can make, Borgen said.
The auditions are the easy part. Once the students are accepted into the choirs, the real work begins. It's enough work to keep some schools from auditioning students at all.
"Not every school in the state opts to do it," Borgen said. "It's actually a lot of work."
The students are sent six pieces of music and told to perfect and memorize them on their own. They spend a lot of time practicing in lessons, Borgen said, and listening to how the music is supposed to sound.
The effort obviously isn't enough to keep HMS choir directors from selecting students to audition.
"It's a really unique experience," Borgen said.
She added that it's good for the students to work with other directors - some of whom are college choral directors - and to spend a full day with like-minded students.
On the day of the event, the students spend the majority of the day in practice, both in full group rehearsals and smaller sectionals. The day is ended with a concert.
A stand-out performance
While it's notable that the school was able to send so many to the honor choirs, what's even more notable that out of all the talent present in the honor choirs, one of Hastings' students earned a solo part.
"It's really an extraordinary honor," Borgen said.
Poncelet surprised his family and his choir directors when he left his spot in the choir during the concert and took a new position at the front of the stage for one of the songs.
"None of us knew (he had a solo)," Borgen said.
The day of the event, singers auditioned for the solo parts, but Poncelet didn't tell anyone he had won one. So when his mother Lisa Poncelet in the audience saw him start walking down from his position on the risers, her first thought was "Oh my gosh, he's sick," she said.
Alex Poncelet never expected to be a part of the honor choir in the first place. He said he auditioned because he was curious if he would make it, and some of his friends were also auditioning. But when none of the eight or so boys from his choir class made it, he figured he wouldn't either. Obviously, he was wrong.
Once he got to Gustavus, the honor choir director asked anyone who wanted to try out for the solo to come up and sing a section of it. Poncelet decided to give it a shot.
"I sang the song last year in choir at school and so I knew the song very well," he said, "and I had a good understanding of it and knew I wouldn't forget the words."
On stage, his familiarity paid off. He had sung solos in school choir last year, but this was different.
"It was terrifying," he said.
How did he overcome his nerves?
"I mostly just tried to ignore all the people there and tried to focus on what I was singing," he said.
Nerves or not, his performance was a strong one. Besides being thankful it was over, as Poncelet walked back from the microphone he was thinking that was the best he'd ever sung the part so far, he said. His school director and family were pleased too.
"I was crying because he did such a great job," Lisa Poncelet said. "I was very proud of him.
"I'm very thankful Alex had the opportunity to be a part of that," she added.
Her thanks extend to her son's middle school choir directors for taking the lead in getting students to audition, giving them the chance to perform in a place like Gustavus in front of thousands of people.
"What a cool experience for those kids to take with them for the rest of their lives," she said.