by Matt Parish
Director Lester Miller led Ankeny (Iowa) High’s show choir to a stunning performance at its swan song at FAME Nationals this year. Now he’s headed across town to help build a new program from the ground up with the first class of Ankeny Centennial High School.
The chance to start from scratch is the sort of opportunity that many educators go entire careers without having. A new position often means a crash course in a new school’s traditions, expectations, skills, and bureaucratic baggage. It can take years to either rebuild a struggling program or learn to fill the shoes of a past beloved instructor. However, an entirely different set of challenges are present when a new school is being opened.
Choral director Lester Miller will find out what it’s like to set up shop in a brand new school this fall at Ankeny Centennial High School in Ankeny, Iowa, which recently added the second school to its district to help ease demand in this growing suburb of Des Moines.
Even starting a program anew, expectations will be high. In 2008, the Nebraska native Miller joined that program at Ankeny High School while it was already enjoying a successful run under director Brandon Dean. Miller’s own career with the choir program and its flagship show choir – Visual Adrenaline – culminated in an emotional final season last year, when the choir visited the FAME finals in Chicago for the first time ever. They surprised everyone, including Miller, by taking home the prestigious third place trophy (placing just below perennial champions Los Alamitos and John Burroughs). Now he’s leaving Visual Adrenaline to a new generation of educators and students.
As the district splits along north and south lines and Miller heads to Centennial to begin a fresh new program, Choral Director took time to talk with the young director about the challenges of living up to expectations of loyal parents, the keys to getting students to buy into forward-thinking changes, and the tenacity of a school system eager to go out on top.
Choral Director: You’ve just had what might be called the most successful show choir season ever at Ankeny High School. Why the switch to the new school?
Lester Miller: One of the difficult decisions that was put to me was which school I’d want to go to. After a lot of deliberation and thought, the idea of starting new with no traditions or expectations and the creativity that could be brought into a new program was really exciting to me. I couldn’t think about the kids because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to decide which way to go – there are great kids on both sides of town.
CD: Do you know how the program will be broken down into separate groups at the new school?
LM: We’ll have our three show choirs like we’ve had in the past. One of the things we did to keep the expectations high were to make it so our ninth graders will now be part of the show choir. Our school is a 10-11-12 building, then we have an 8-9 building as a feeder. For a long time, we’ve had a ninth grade-only show choir. To help alleviate the growing pains, we’ve taken the ninth graders and put them into the high school program. So we’re able to have three show choirs and three curricular choirs at Ankeny Centennial to try to move things forward as quickly as possible.
CD: Do you expect to pick up any new members?
LM: With adding the ninth graders into the system, we have a whole new pool to draw from. With the success we’ve had over the last few years, our retention rates are very high. So as they move from sixth to seventh, and eighth to ninth, we’re not losing kids. That’s really been helpful to the overall numbers.
CD: The rearranging of the school district – on its hundredth year, no less – must have served as a rallying cry for the students.
LM: After deciding that I really wanted to do some new and different things, I announced to everybody that I was going to go to the North Side. Then this whole year has been about trying to finish off the one high school system in the best possible way we could. And it wasn’t just the choral program – it was school-wide. Our football program went undefeated and won the state championship in this last year. All the sports teams had really great years, all the activities had great years, and of course the show choir did really well. So it was just a fitting way to end the whole one high school system.
CD: Did you employ any other motivational tricks this past year?
LM: What we tried to do this year was get them to understand that, with this show in particular, what everyone says you’re supposed to be isn’t necessarily right. You can be who you are and, after some initial confrontation and problems, staying true to who you are is the best option. I have each student write down on paper about his or her own personal story and how it relates to the show. Then I seal it up in an envelope and hold onto it for later. When I give it back to them, I ask them if they’re now doing what they said they were doing back then, just to hold them accountable to themselves.
CD: How did you finally make the decision to take the choir to FAME finals?
LM: This past year everyone wanted to end with a big bang. We were trying to get focused at one rehearsal and everyone kept bringing up Chicago and I just stopped them and said, “We won’t go to Chicago unless we win Orlando.” I thought there wasn’t any point in going to Chicago if you don’t win it. That was just my opinion. The kids really took it to heart, even though I honestly made it as an off-handed comment. I was just trying to get them motivated and focused. So we went down to Orlando and ended up giving a really good performance and winning. Sure enough, as soon as we got back on the bus, I started getting questions about going to Chicago. I thought, “Oh great, this really came back to bite me!
CD: Did you expect the level of performance they achieved?
LM: After taking the break for our spring musical, we hadn’t rehearsed for a month. The two weeks before the finals, we got back together for rehearsals. At the first few of those rehearsals, I was nervous about us just putting the show on without looking foolish because we’d forgotten so much. But after those first couple, we started to crescendo and got our breath underneath us again.
I’m superstitious – if something works once, I have to keep doing it. So at the last rehearsal before we left, we repeated what we’d done before Orlando – we brought our band right into the choir room, stuck them right in front of our dancing area and made a whole lot of noise. We generated a whole lot of energy. Then we loaded everything up and went. I think just having a good time and a high energy rehearsal really made the difference. I wasn’t necessarily expecting them to do as well as they did, but I was expecting them to do their best and finish really well compared to the shows they’d put on in the past.
CD: Are you planning on doing the FAME events often or will you continue to approach them in moderation?
LM: I got into the habit of doing FAME events every other year because on off years, I try to take students to Europe in a non-required trip. Doing both of those trips in the same year becomes a little nightmarish. I’ll keep that every other year plan for the foreseeable future. “Experimenting” sounds like a bad word, but we can see what our kids are able to do and visually try different things out in those years. If they don’t work, we’ll get rid of them. I don’t want to risk the success of the group just to see if something might work. We’ll push the envelope just to see what happens. I’m learning more and more about the logistics of the school and what our students are able to do in the realm of show choir within one year.
LM: My starting point was when I joined a swing choir back in high school, growing up in Nebraska. We didn’t really have show choir at my high school – just this small group of 16-20 kids. So I sang and danced but not to the energetic level that we ask our kids to do. I felt comfortable with the singing and performing aspect of things, but with the overall choreography, I wasn’t even remotely in the same league.
I taught a K-12 job for three years before I decided I wanted to get more schooling. So I went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I got my master’s degree and am in the process of getting my doctorate. While I was there, I was really lucky to be able to work with Peter Eklund, who is the director of choral activities there and had a lot of success up in Iowa in the late ‘90s. I directed the college show choir, called Big Red Singers, where I made a lot of contacts in the show choir and choral world, including Ankeny’s choreographer, April James, and director, Brandon Dean.
When I graduated from UN-L, it turned out Brandon Dean was hoping to get back to school for his doctorate, so he resigned here from Ankeny. I applied, got the position. It helped that I already knew April and that Brandon and I were fairly similar in our tastes.
CD: You approached Ankeny High School from a similar position of most teachers – walking into a fully functional and fairly successful program and having to play catch-up.
LM: They’d been pretty successful for two or three priors to my arrival. I think they’d gone undefeated for two years before I got here. At my first competition we got third. So everyone was freaking out! We spent the whole year trying to make it not about winning – I wanted the kids to buy into that idea that the experience is worth more than the trophy, that the trophy stays at the school and you’ll never see it again. It took a couple of competitions for them to understand where I was coming from and realize that they were still really good, even if they weren’t getting the top finishes they were used to.
CD: Were there any other culture changes you were responsible for?
LM: I’m a high energy director, but I’m also laid back about letting kids be kids. They feel free to be themselves, for the most part. It’s a delicate balance of working together while they have time to grow as an individual, not just as a musician or performer.
Another change is that, as I arrived, they removed Show Choir from the day’s curriculum and it became a night rehearsal schedule. Having the expectation of remembering things from week to week rather than rehearsing every other day in school was another thing to get used to. We’d rehearse one night a week through October. Marching band would have a night rehearsal which we took over once their season was done. We have kids involved in so many different activities and we encourage that and support it, but we have to get our work done, too. So we’re always trying to balance where our priorities are at any given moment.
CD: So in those last five years, were there specific things that happened that changed your approach?
LM: At one nighttime rehearsal, trying to figure out the balance between how long to work on vocals and how long to work on choreography, how to put the two together, when to put the two together, how much time do you let them get used to it before you start getting really picky – there was a lot learned those first two or three years just about rehearsal technique and practice.
CD: What about getting everyone ready ahead of the school year?
LM: We have a choreography camp the weekend before school starts. That’s when April comes in and teaches the show’s choreography. We hope they remember some of it – we’ll break it down into smaller bits and a slower pace later in the year, because she starts by throwing all of it at us really quickly. Then, the weekend before we head out for our first competition, we do a winter camp to fine tune everything and work on the logistics of getting on and off stage and timing and all that kind of stuff.
CD: Is everyone in Show Choir involved in the rest of the program as well?
LM: Yes – Iowa mandates that all participants in Show Choir are also in a curricular choir and that all of our band members are also members of the band program, with the exception of the keyboardist.
CD: In moving to a new school and designing a new program from scratch, what kinds of big changes have you been able to pursue?
LM: I’m trying to think three to five years down the road and building up to where I want to be at that moment. Because of the financial issues that come into play when starting from scratch, it’s hard to just come right in and say, “Alright, here’s what we’re going to do immediately.”
We’re going to try to not look like what we’ve looked like in the past, but there will be elements of what we’ve done that will obviously be there. It’s going to be building and also taking baby steps for the parents and students who are used to seeing a certain way of doing things. Moving them down a different path is going to be fun.
CD: So you’ve got a sort of drastically different vision that you’d like to get to?
LM: We don’t have names for the groups yet, but I’d like to move the varsity program toward the types of performances where nobody really knows what to expect. Not what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it, the twists and turns that we’ll be doing within the show, or anything. With Visual Adrenaline, there was an expectation of what the show would be because that’s how it’s been for so long. It’s been a challenge to find ways to push the envelope.
The funny thing is that the kids and the parents involved at the time are gung-ho and happy to go with new ideas. It’s the past parents, the adjudicators, and people who have seen them for years that end up having issues with little changes. And that’s one of the great things about Ankeny, really – past parents and administrators are all so proud of what we do. I see parents from my first year teaching here that are still coming to our shows. It can be a double-edged sword because they’re so passionate about what we do that when we change something, they can recoil a little bit. But I wouldn’t change this experience for anything. With the new group, I’ve already told everyone to be prepared to be different – the students and the parents. It’s going to be a different ride, so let’s go.