OTTUMWA — Ottumwa High School vocal director Dennis Vasconez had to take a second look at the list when the Iowa All-State Choir selections were announced. The eight selections from OHS are a record for the program.
“I just kept seeing name after name,” Vasconez said of receiving the emailed announcement while home watching a movie with his wife. “We were beside ourselves. We lost count and had to go back through and see how many we had.
“This is the most we’ve had in the last 20-plus years,” he added. “The most I’ve had [selected] was three, and I’ve been here 18 years.”
Even more impressive for the program was that the number auditioning, 14, is slightly less than what he sees in most years due to the COVID-19. That put OHS’ 2020 selection rate at more than 50 percent.
But 2020 has also brought changes to the All-State process. Vasconez said normally, students attend a regional, in-person audition and perform with a group of two to four students with no instructor leading them. The students learn five to seven songs without knowing which cuts of the music will be used for the audition until the day of.
“This year, they made it a solo audition with a video submission,” Vasconez said. “It was a little different.”
“This year was especially hard with the solo tryouts,” said Cole Denner, a junior tenor selected for the chorus.
“It feels good. I feel like I earned it. I worked really hard,” said senior tenor Dawson Brown, who was selected for the second time.
Vasconez said the students have been working on the audition music since early August. Normally, he said, they attend camps to rehearse the music but those were called off this year. Some students did virtual camps instead.
“I was so proud,” Vasconez said of his students. “Even the ones who didn’t make it worked really hard, and they all became better musicians. Every year we work so hard. It was really great to see that success. I’m proud of how hard they worked, how excited they were to make it and what it meant to them.”
Mya Lemonds, a sophomore soprano, was of a similar mind. “It’s a huge honor, just how much effort you put in to make it is just incredible.”
“It’s an honor to be a part of All-State. I’ve looked up to it for a long time,” Denner said.
“This has been something I’ve worked very hard for, and it was very validating to make it,” said junior alto Lorna Bauer.
Kaya Baca, a junior alto, said she was surprised at her selection. “I was very surprised I made it because when I auditioned, my threat hurt very badly,” she said. “I’m really glad I made it because I’m glad to be a part of a group of wonderful singers.”
Because of the change in the audition process, students weren’t able to see the list go up in person as in a normal year. But Vasconez made sure he got the news to one student in person, his son, Ethan Vasconez, a senior tenor. He was at a bonfire with friends when the vocal director got the news. He said he got in the car and drove to the bonfire to deliver the news in person.
Ethan said he’s auditioned every year but was never selected until this year. “It was my first time making it,” he said, saying he was excited by his selection.
However, COVID-19 didn’t just change the audition process — and there for the selection announcement. It’s also affected the traditional concert, held the Saturday before Thanksgiving in Ames and replayed during the week on IPTV.
“I really wish there was going to be a concert. It’s such a cool thing to be a part of the 600-member choir of the best singers in the state,” Dennis Vasconez said. “They were going to try doing social distancing and all that, but about a month ago they decided to cancel it.”
No alternative plans have been announced. “I don’t even know what they would do, but we keep waiting to see if they will do something virtual,” he said. In the meantime, the students will receive their medals, bumper sticker and personalized T-shirt for being selected.
“A lot of these kids knew there probably wasn’t going to be a concert and stuck with it. I commend them for that,” Vasconez said.
“I think it’s really cool being selected,” said senior baritone Jonathan Francisco Pascual. “It’s a very selective group. I just think it’s a great opportunity to be part of something very few people are able to do during high school.”
“I’m so glad we’ve still been able to do things. It’s a great avenue for them to have.” Vasconez said of the program as a whole. “Everyone worries about how [the pandemic] affects athletics, but it affects the arts, too.”