Most of the students had been in this spot before.
The singers in Franklin Community High School’s mixed choir, Signature Sound, had advanced again to the state championships and were one of 16 choirs wanting to be named the best.
Their director, Michael Hummel, had led them here the past four years — every year since he came to Franklin. Every year, they left the stage knowing they had done their best but without the title.
This time, in their fifth appearance, they were not to be denied.
Signature Sound, with its 103 freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, is the grand champion of the Indiana State School Music Association choir contest, a competition among high schools of all sizes and choirs that in many cases only accept juniors or seniors.
“The payoff for these kids, you always want there to be that,” Hummel said. “You work hard, you dedicate yourself and good things will happen. It’s just really great when you can take that, and kids see it, and it happens. That’s real education.
“The music is just the vehicle to teach them way bigger things about life and themselves and what they can do and achieve and accomplish.”
This is the first state championship in choir for Franklin Community High School. On Friday night, the Franklin women’s choir, Bella Voce, finished second in its state contest.
The moments leading up to the announcement of Franklin’s win were particularly torturous for the students and Hummel. Representatives of all 16 teams were called to the stage, and the eight lowest-placing teams are announced as finalists in no particular order. Franklin escaped that round. The choir from Whiteland Community High School did, too.
The judges’ picks are then announced starting with the eighth place finisher. As each team is announced, students are holding their breath, hoping to not be named. Whiteland Community High School finished seventh.
Finally, two schools remained — Franklin Central and Franklin Community. The two students representing Franklin Community on stage — seniors Ellie VanderVeen and Caleb Wertz — were squeezing each other, becoming more and more anxious.
“Please, let it break through and let it be these kids,” Hummel said to himself.
Hearing Franklin Central announced as the second place finish sealed the much-sought victory.
“It just erupted in bedlam,” Hummel said.
The rest of the choir ran on stage.
The memories will last — the sweet taste of the milk brought on stage for the state champions (the contest is sponsored by the American Dairy Association of Indiana), and the photos of the choir charging the stage, Wertz said.
The honor was extra sweet for Hummel, who had previously taken the choir at Heritage Christian to the state finals seven years in a row but never won.
Hummel knew this time might be different. The choir included 66 seniors and is the best choir Franklin has produced, he said. Many of the seniors are going on to study music education or will be participating in choir in college, he said.
On Saturday, Signature Sound performed three songs in a delivery that goes beyond hitting the right notes and timing. The choir prides itself on its stage presence and visual presentation, including moving, clapping, stomping and hand movements. A judge commended the choir on its efforts to communicate the song and tell its story with vocals, expression and performance posture, Hummel said.
“I think we’re one of the best with what we do on that,” Hummel said. “I think that sets us apart.”
VanderVeen said the students left the stage after performing and were happy, knowing they had done their best and worked hard.
They had worked on multiple pieces of music throughout the year, then focused on the selections for the competition and honed in on precise details.
“The minutiae of what makes it from good to great,” Wertz called it.
On Saturday, the students focused on relaxing and realizing that they’ve already done the hard work. Now they just needed to deliver, he said.
Hummel is grateful for the support of the parents, the school district leaders and the entire community. A police escort brought the choir back to Franklin on Saturday night.
He’s proud of the musical accomplishments, but more proud of what impact the choir program is having on the lives of students and the lessons they are carrying with them to other activities and future decisions.
Sure, the teens have gifted voices. But this award represents their hard work, Hummel said. They meet as a class, but also practice after school and have a student leadership structure in place to foster mentorship, he said.
Students have to audition for the choir, but it is an inclusive group that taps into the competitive nature of athletes and interests of students involved in a variety of other activities.
“Athletes love it,” Hummel said, noting the choir includes students who are competitive bench pressers, football players and wrestlers. “Kids who love competition can get into it too. And kids who like the beauty of music and time with friends have a place too.”
He’s worked to grow the choir program overall, and the number of students involved has doubled in five years. Next year, nearly one in four high school students will be in a choir classroom, making it the largest organization at the high school and a slice of the best of the high school, Hummel said.
“We don’t lower our expectation based upon the students we get. We feel like everyone has a voice and its just our job to bring the beauty that’s within them out.”
He brought in 11 college professors to expose the students to the best, most talented choral minds in the Midwest, and conducted a workshop via Skype with one of the composers of a song they performed. They put on a Disney musical and visited the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“We did everything we could to help these kids learn about their music, not just learn to sing,” Hummel said.
Andrea Bennett, the accompanist for the choir who has had two children participate, gives some credit to graduates who helped build the choir and set the example and expectation for continual improvement.
“We wouldn’t be there without them,” she said.
“Our true No. 1 goal is to walk off stage feeling like you did the best you could, because that is all you can control,” Bennett said.