MFL MarMac women’s ensemble receives coveted ‘outstanding performance’

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The MFL MarMac women’s ensemble of Abby Schellhorn (front, left to right), Rose Grau, Elizabeth Grady, Shelby Martin; (back) Abby Zeeh, Anna Stoddard, Riley Whitney and Emma Ammons earned one of just five “outstanding performances” at solo and small ensemble contest on March 30. They will perform “Caverns in the Clouds” at the Outstanding Performance Recital at Iowa State University in May. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

The MFL MarMac women’s ensemble of seniors Shelby Martin, Emma Ammons, Abby Zeeh and Elizabeth Grady, along with sophomores Riley Whitney, Rose Grau and Anna Stoddard and freshman Abby Schellhorn, received a coveted “outstanding performance” for their rendition of the song “Caverns in the Clouds” at solo and small ensemble contest at Cresco on March 30. The honor is rare, given to just one solo or ensemble performance at each of the five vocal or instrumental “centers” at the event that day.

They’ll now have the opportunity to perform in the all-state Outstanding Performance Recital at Iowa State University in May.

Choral director Jaydeane Berns described “Caverns in the Clouds” as a song that creates a picture in the mind.

“There’s the rising sun and it moves into morning,” she said. “Then it talks about painting the sunset in the evening.”

“All the parts come in at different spots in the middle of the song,” noted Ammons, “so you get to hear that and the tempos and the louds and softs. It was just a really cool piece overall.”

The outstanding performance was a bit of redemption for the ensemble, said Grau. Just days before, during a recital at the high school, they had trouble with the song.

Part of the problem was that they hadn’t had a lot of time to sing as a collective group.

“There ended up being 26 entries” from MFL MarMac alone, Berns stated, “so seeing all of them and practicing with them, sometimes it was hard to get everyone together.” 

“But I think we all knew it could be better than it was at the recital,” Whitney said. “And that’s why it was.”

Upset with their showing, the ensemble worked tirelessly the rest of the week—up until minutes before the performance—to prepare. The day of contest, Martin said it finally clicked.

“It’s a live performance, so you don’t know what’s going to happen,” remarked Ammons. “But for the first time, we understood each of the parts and heard them together and heard each other.”

Several factors set the “Caverns in the Clouds” ensemble apart, including their dynamics,  diction and cutoffs. They also had superb balance and blend.

“The judge said we sounded like one individual voice,” Grau commented.

“I feel like the soprano twos really just stuck with each other, and it’s kind of hard to do that with pieces like that, where you sing with the sopranos but you have to sing low like the altos,” Stoddard explained.

“I believe, in this piece, that we all just blended together as one unit and not three separate,” Schellhorn added.

The judge liked the group’s communication, as well. Interestingly, said Ammons, part of that was because they didn’t know the piece well, so they had to look to one another.

“For me, when I was in that piece, it was just us,” she shared. “There weren’t other people in that room. It was just us singing.”

 Martin agreed: “We were performing because we wanted to really nail it that time, and I think there was a connection with everybody there. At least, that’s what I felt.”

The judge who gave the ensemble its “outstanding performance” was, to them, one of the strictest judges of the day.

“He knew exactly what he wanted from every single group, and if you didn’t give it to him, he was going to tell you,” Whitney said.

Luckily, noted Ammons, “Caverns in the Clouds” was one of the later performances, giving group members time to scope out the judge, learning his likes and dislikes. When they entered the room, they knew which areas to emphasize.

By the end of the performance, the girls knew they had done well. For Ammons, it was a feeling.

“There was happiness and gratitude—you could feel it in the air, enveloping around us,” she said.

Stoddard saw it on the faces of the audience members, while Grau looked to the judge.

“I think we all knew it was a good performance when he looked at us and he hadn’t written anything on his paper,” she said.

Whitney said he told them the marker of a good performance is when you’re totally enveloped by it and forget about everything else. 

“He said that’s what we did for him,” she shared.

“He said he forgot he was judging,” added Martin.

As an audience member, Berns said it was a great experience.

“You just listen and have that moment where they pull you in,” she shared. “It doesn’t get any better.”

MFL MarMac music students received two “outstanding performances” last year, one for a vocal ensemble and the other for an instrumental solo. It was the first time the district had received the distinction since 2011. Both Berns and the students said that success drove them to strive for it again.

“It was fun to go and get another ‘OP’ because we got one last year with ‘Requiem,’” stated Grady, who, with Zeeh, Grau and Whitney, was part of last year’s ensemble. “It was something I had personally made a goal for the day. We knew we’d get it with at least one song.”

Martin admitted they didn’t think it would necessarily be this one, however. Other pieces were more well prepared. But that may have been the downfall.

“I think, because they were well-prepared, we weren’t as focused on making everything as absolutely correct,” she said. “We weren’t quite as detail-oriented in some of those songs because we felt more confident, so we didn’t really hone in on some of the things we knew we needed to work on.”

Zeeh agreed that you can’t always rely on the pieces you think are going to do well.

“Sometimes the ones you don’t think are going to do well end up falling together. It’s kind of just luck that everything aligns,” she said. “I think that’s exactly what happened with this piece.”

The experience was especially meaningful for the seniors.

“This is our last year,” said Ammons, glancing at Zeeh, Grady and Martin, “so every single performance we had that day we were giving it all we had.”  

Whitney said the underclassmen will look to step into those seniors’ shoes next year and pull off an “outstanding performance” for the third year in a row.

“That’s our goal,” she expressed, “and we know we have the ability and dedication it takes to get that.” 

If you would like to hear the ensemble’s performance of “Caverns in the Clouds,” they will be one of the featured acts at the Friends of the Arts Dessert Showcase held this Sunday, April 14, from 4 to 6:30 p.m., in the high school auditorium.

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