By FRED KRONER
Ellen Bushell can talk knowingly about the advantages of being in the right place at the right time.
As a Mahomet-Seymour freshman, she took advantage of an offer to learn the recorder and now — as a senior — is the only fourth-year member of the Madrigals.
It’s not like there aren’t a plethora of talented performers who are her classmates, but they didn’t have the same opportunity to be a part of Madrigals as freshmen.
Tryouts are held in the spring and eighth-graders weren’t a part of the process in 2015.
That meant freshmen weren’t actively involved in Madrigals in the fall of 2015.
While Bushell will be a one-of-a-kind performer when the two-day performance takes place next month (Dec. 8-9), the future looks different.
“After my freshman year, they opened it up to eighth-graders to try out,” Bushell said.
She got her position by chance.
“It just happened that a recorder member quit because she was moving,” Bushell said.
Bushell was involved in band, playing the clarinet, and band director Michael Stevens suggested she fill the void with Madrigals.
“Mr. Stevens reached out to me,” Bushell said. “He thought it would be easy because the clarinet is similar.
“I was a little leery. I had no idea what it was or what the experience would be like.”
She put aside her hesitations and joined the four-member team of recorders.
“I was the only new member, but I knew a lot of them from Marching Band season,” she said.
“They were super-friendly.”
Bushell discovered that she enjoyed the small group.
“The music is not incredibly hard and we have a lot of fun,” she said.
Four years ago, Bushell was the lone newcomer in the foursome.
This year, she is the only M-S student experienced in playing the recorder.
The other three — whom she helped pick — are first-year members of the group.
She is joined by senior Grace Davis, junior Riley Watson and freshman Leah Nykaza.
“I chose those three because I know they’ll work hard, they’re super-fun and happy people,” Bushell said.
Watson is also a clarinet player. Davis plays the saxophone and Nykaza is a percussionist.
As Bushell heard announcements at school about auditions for one of the other groups that perform during Madrigals — the Madrigal Brass (or Mad Brass) — she showed her senior leadership and contacted Stevens and Sue Keeble (who is in charge of the recorders) to get that group intact.
“I took it upon myself to have a meeting with Mrs. Keeble and Mr. Stevens and asked when we could start putting people on the list (of candidates),” Bushell said. “They asked who I thought would be good.”
She is appreciative that Stevens invited her to play the recorder four years ago.
“I wasn’t in chorus and I assumed I couldn’t be in Madrigals,” Bushell said. “I didn’t have any plans to join.”
She enjoys the change of pace.
“I really like the (14th-century) music,” she said. “It’s different from concert band.
“The recorder doesn’t have a huge range of notes. The music is pretty basic, but it’s fun to play and everything is super-pretty.”
Keeble is in her second year working with the four-member recorder quartet.
“These kids want to be there, so they’re willing and motivated to work independently,” Keeble said. “Although I am there to guide issues with rhythm, balance, and style, each member must learn the notes and fingerings for their instrument and practice at home.
“They’re also just fabulous human beings who are funny and interesting.”
None of the students had a background with recorders before they were chosen.
“(Stevens) selects students that demonstrate outstanding musicianship and leadership,” Keeble said. “Occasionally, a current group member will form the group — but they do so with those expectations in mind.”
The group practices once a week for 45 minutes once the Marching Band season ends.
“The biggest challenge is the very beginning — especially when we have new players,” Keeble said. “There’s a learning curve with new fingering, airspeed, articulation and tuning.
“It usually takes about three rehearsals to start the ‘gel’ process. It’s very rewarding when they finally hit those perfectly in-tune chords.”
The recorders don’t have a pre-determined list of selections.
“We play from a book of about 30 to 40 short selections,” Keeble said. “If the group is really rocking, they can sight read simple arrangements, which makes it more fun because repertoire isn’t repeated.”
One highlight for the recorders is a serving as an accompaniment.
“The Madrigal recorder consort is always charged with accompanying a dance,” Keeble said.
“This year, we joined forces with my friend Rachel Aupperle (who teaches music in Fisher).
“She choreographed a Galliard Dance and I provided an arrangement of a piece that reflects the style of movement.”
Madrigal director Nicole Kuglich believes it will be well-received.
“This athletic dance will feature many of our Madrigal singers, dancing to the sounds of our recorders,” Kuglich said.
Under the Madrigal’s umbrella are subsets of students, with groups ranging from a handful to nearly 20.
Among these performers who are integral to the annual production are members of the choir, and the ‘mad brass’ as well as the recorders.
“Our production will enlist the talents of nearly 75 of our singers and instrumentalists in various roles,” Kuglich said. “That fact in and of itself is challenging.
“Managing such a large number of students is a lot of work. One of the obvious challenges for the students is to learn all of the music, which is challenging choral repertoire.”
The Madrigals will have two performances next month on Dec. 8 (2 p.m. and 6 p.m.) and one on Dec. 9 (2 p.m.)
Tickets for the Madrigal dinners are available online at www.msmusicboosters.org, or by contacting Kuglich at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets will be on sale until Nov. 30, or until they are sold out, whichever comes first.
This is Year 36 for the Madrigals at Mahomet-Seymour High School.
Senior Claire Schwarzentraub, one of the 19 members of the choir, will be more ready for the Madrigals performance to start than she will be for it to conclude.
“This year’s dinners will be different for me because I can no longer say ‘there’s always next year,’ “ Schwarzentraub said. ”I can’t take any moment for granted and I’m really going to have to savor every moment because Madrigals has been the most enjoyable activity that I’ve been a part of, and I never want it to end.”
As the singers prepare for the two days of performances, there has been no slacking off.
“I’ve been in Madrigals for two years and I have learned so much about work ethic,” Schwarzentraub said. “It’s so important to come to each practice prepared because we are on a tight schedule to have everything prepared for the dinners in December. Everyone relies on each other to do their part, so it’s important to pull your own weight in a group like this.”
Schwarzentraub is a fan of the music mix that makes up the Madrigals.
“I personally love the 14th-century music because the harmonies are so perfect and happy,” she said. “I also enjoy the upbeat Madrigal style songs as well that are so different from our traditional choir music.
“I’m also grateful for how Kuglich incorporates modern songs into the shows. There’s a perfect blend of all types of music in the shows, so no songs are too similar to another. It really keeps the audience and the performers on their toes.”
Both Schwarzentraub and another senior, Charlotte Jordan, have the same favorite song.
“My favorite to sing is ‘Candlelight Carol’ because it’s such an intimate song and it definitely will bring some moms to tears,” Schwarzentraub said. “The way it portrays the classic Christmas story truly humbles me and it reminds me about the true meaning of Christmas.”
Jordan likes ‘Candlelight Carol’ “because the words and harmonies are beautiful and it really embodies the spirit of Christmas,” she said.
Schwarzentraub said the Madrigals setup adds to the challenge for the students.
“Madrigals is difficult because of how much there is to memorize,” she said. “The songs we are performing are hard, and we aren’t allowed to stand next to people of our same part, so it’s important to really know the music.”
The total experience, Schwarzentraub said, is one she treasures.
“Singing with some of my closest friends is the best part of Madrigals,” she said. “Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to be surrounded by such talented and kind people.
“I love the times when I’m living in the moment and truly absorbing the music that we are all making together. I joined the group simply because I have a passion for singing and I wanted to be a part of a group that has the same passion as me.”
She is also appreciative of the director’s effort.
“I am so thankful for Mrs. Kuglich,” Schwarzentraub said. “She is the perfect role model for me and she has done an amazing job leading us throughout her first year as director.
“She isn’t afraid to try new things and I love that about her. There is no one else I’d rather have as my director for my senior year.”
The choir is perhaps the most visible part of the production, making 10 outside performances, including one on live television on Nov. 29.
“These singers are some of the best and brightest that we have here at our high school,” Kuglich said. “They rehearse together so often that this group becomes a family by the end of the holiday season.
“They’re our vocal ambassadors, as they are out in the community and highly visible throughout the holiday season. Each year, the group is challenged to live up to the high level of expectation established by 36 years of tradition.
“Our M-S madrigals were originally chartered in 1983 by Janet Watkins, and we take great pride in maintaining that tradition, while at the same time building upon our past accomplishments.”
The choir has 23 songs on this year’s Madrigal program.
“Eleven songs are what we call ‘traditional songs’ — songs that appear each year on the program,” Kuglich said. “The rest are either brand new songs for us, or songs from our Madrigal files, which essentially means songs that have appeared on the program in the past, but not each and every year.”
There is a combination of veterans and fresh faces mixed in the choir.
The group includes nine seniors and seven first-year members (two of whom are seniors).
Jester Justin Smith is one of three who sings bass. He is joined by another senior, Clayton Bartlett, and sophomore Logan Burdette.
The four tenors are senior Christopher Bartlett and three sophomores, Ryan Bushell, Wyatt Taber and Kyle Widener.
Wench Katie Witruk — in her first year as a senior — is one of six altos.
The others are freshman Delaney King, senior Christina Nielsen, Schwarzentraub, senior Annie Taber and sophomore Alexis Young.
There are also six sopranos: senior Kara DiFilippo, junior Nicolina DiGirolamo, senior Charlotte Jordan, junior Jillian Jordan, sophomore Jessica Smith and junior Neenah Williams.
When auditions were held in the spring, 50 students expressed interest and 37 advanced into the final round.
For the second year in a row, the number of boys (seven) and girls (12) in the choir remains the same.
“The Madrigals begin rehearsing in June, and rehearse at least one or two times per week every week,” Kuglich said. “Mounting a Madrigal dinner in the style in which we are accustomed takes a huge amount of time and effort.
“We have a total of four directors who are working with our students in different capacities.”
Assisting Kuglich are Brian Lonergan, assistant Madrigal director; Philip Meyer, Madrigal brass director, and Keeble, the Madrigal recorder director.
For Charlotte Jordan, this year’s Madrigal performance will be “bittersweet,” she said.
“Madrigals has been a big part of my life for the past two years, so I’m very excited for the performances, but also sad that it’ll be over.
“Throughout my years of Madrigals, I have gained so many friendships that I’m so grateful for.”
Charlotte Jordan has learned the importance of preparation.
“One of the challenges that comes with being in such a high level group is that we memorize over 25 songs and sing them a cappella,” she said, so we have to make sure we know our notes, words, pitches, etc.
“The most enjoyable part of Madrigals is being able to do what I love with some of the most talented musicians.”
By contrast, the seven-member ‘mad brass’ group doesn’t have a set playlist. They are much less scripted.
“We often have to be flexible and fill in time by sight reading some Christmas Carols if the dinner service is running slow, or there is another need for more music from the Madrigal Brass group,” Meyer said.
Three of the pieces that are guaranteed to be heard are “The Boar’s Head,” “Wassail,” and “O Great and Mighty Wonder,” in which they accompany the Madrigal singers.
“Our primary set includes “On December Five and Twenty,” which is an arrangement of several Christmas Carols,” Meyer said, “Another one of our larger-scale pieces is called “Die Bankelsangerlieder” which is a Baroque Sonata.
“We play many more pieces than these, where we fill in downtime with short Christmas Carols.”
His group rehearses one hour per week, a seemingly minimal commitment, but one that can be difficult to arrange.
“This year, the students have been extremely focused, and they have been doing a great job with being prepared to play in rehearsals,” Meyer said, “so from a performance aspect, we are right on schedule.
“The challenge with this group is that they are talented in many ways, so their rehearsal time is often split between other ensembles, musicals, plays, or other obligations.”
The Madrigal Brass (mad brass) features seven students: seniors Julia Robbins (trumpet) and Stephanie Winkless (trumpet); juniors Clayton Burkhalter (tuba); Andrea Penrose (trumpet); Mara Pletcher (French Horn) and Elizabeth Stremming (trumpet) along with sophomore Ella Tietz (trombone).
Winkless is a fourth-year member. Penrose and Pletcher are third-year members. The newcomers are Burkhalter and Tietz.
“This year’s group has a great mix of veteran students and new students,” Meyer said. “One of the veterans, Stephanie Winkless, has been in the group since her freshman year.
“Our two newest members, Clayton Burkhalter and Ella Tietz, are both ILMEA District performers, so while they may be new to the group, their talent and musical maturity is an outstanding addition to the group.”
Tietz likes the size of the ‘mad brass.’
“It’s different from concert band because it’s a smaller group,” she said. “I enjoy this group.”
The process to join the ‘mad brass’ has changed.
“For the first few years that the Mad Brass have been under my direction, the students were selected,” Meyer said, “and usually there were only one or two new students needed each year to replace a graduating senior.
“Since I started, interest in participating in the group has grown substantially, so we are transitioning to holding auditions for all spots each year.”
Three of the trumpeters also play ‘Harold Trumpets,’ which are a valveless trumpet that is used in the performances to signal the beginning of each performance set.
Madrigal Performances 2018
Tuesday, Nov. 20
Senior Citizen Thanksgiving Dinner at MSHS
Sunday, Nov. 25
Mahomet United Methodist Church – 8:30 a.m. Service
New Beginnings Lutheran Church – 10 a.m. Service
Thursday, Nov. 29
CI Living Performance
Broadcast live from 4-5 p.m. on WCIA
Friday, Nov. 30
MSJH Performance during the school day
Village Christmas Caroling from 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 2
Lutheran Church of Mahomet – 9 a.m. Service
Mahomet Christian Church – 10 a.m. Service
Saturday, Dec. 8
Dessert Performance: 2 p.m.
Dinner Performance: 6 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 9
Dinner Performance: 2 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 12
Lincoln Trail Performance during the school day
Sunday, Dec. 16
Grace Church – 9:30 a.m. Service