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New York, here they come

Choral director remembers musical mentors and passes it forward

February  22, 2011

The Iroquois West High School Chamber Singers entertain senior citizens at Christmas.

Every day, choral director Kyle Severson ’09 shares the best of his Augustana experience with his students. This is their story.

Less than two years ago, the Iroquois West High School Chamber Singers didn’t exist. This spring, the 14-member choir will travel from Gilman, Ill., to New York City to perform Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Martin’s The Awakening at Lincoln Center. No one could be prouder than Severson, the Chamber Singers’ director. He assembled the group shortly after his arrival at the rural Illinois high school.

Kyle Severson

“I have some really talented vocal students who were not being challenged by the material in our choirs,” said Severson, who directs four other choirs for grades 4-12 in the school district.

He held auditions, and the newly formed group performed one song, Carol of the Bells, at the school’s Christmas 2009 concert. The highly successful debut solidified the students’ commitment.

In April, Severson arranged for his choir to compete in the Music in the Parks Festival in Cincinnati. Their performance caught the attention of nationally known choral director Dr. Rick Weymuth, who was serving as a judge. After the competition, Weymuth talked with Severson about his students, the demographics of the school and ways they could improve their performance.

The Monday after the weekend performance, Severson received an email from Weymuth inviting the Iroquois West High School Chamber Singers to sing at Lincoln Center.

“I was shocked that he was so impressed after hearing us sing one time,” Severson says. “Usually choirs send in recordings made over the past few years, but we don’t have any because this group didn’t exist then. So the Cincinnati performance was our audition.”

Weymuth is the guest conductor for the Lincoln Center performance, as well as the clinician for the residency. Severson’s students will spend 10 hours in rehearsals with other outstanding singers from across the country over the five-day residency. Together, the choirs will perform as the Distinguished Concerts Singers International.

When not in rehearsal, the Iroquois West High School students will be sightseeing and soaking in the history and culture of “the city that never sleeps.”

To illustrate the potential impact of this experience, it’s important to mention that Iroquois West High School has an enrollment of 275, and approximately half of the student body is considered low-income. Students from five rural Illinois towns — Crescent City, Danforth, Gilman, Onarga and Thawville — attend the school. The populations of these communities range from 260 to 1800.

“Of the 14 kids going, only three or four have been in an airplane before,” Severson notes.

Kyle Severson rehearses the Iroquois West High School Chamber Singers.

To make the trip affordable, Severson secured a $12,800 grant from the Dorothy C. and Richard A. Parks Foundation, and the students have raised $8,200 from community donations and various fund-raisers. Severson strongly believes that singing in Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center, one of the country’s most esteemed performance halls, will give his talented singers the confidence to “raise their personal goals higher and look for more opportunities” than they ever would have imagined.

He says this performance will inspire his students because they will know what they can do if they work hard and want something badly enough. It’s the kind of performance confidence Augustana’s Dr. Jon Hurty instilled in Severson during his four years as a member of the Augustana Choir.

“He’s incredible,” Severson says. “He always pushed us to the highest level of excellence that we could possibly achieve. I try to do the same with my high school students.”

As a choral director, Severson also draws on the mentoring provided by Dr. Michael Zemek, assistant professor of choral music education, not only in his classes but also at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, where Zemek conducts the high school Youth Choir.

“I worked with Dr. Zemek with the high school choir, and I saw his passion for working with high school kids and how they responded to him, how he gained their trust to try new things.”

Almost one year since the Cincinnati performance turned into an audition, the Iroquois West High School Chamber Singers will lift their voices in song at the Lincoln Center, thanks to the musicianship and initiative of their director, Kyle Severson, who personally has never performed in New York City, but now has his own choir on stage.