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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Dec. 7, 2007

In search of the state's best

by Dave Gieseke, LAS Public Relations


Music professor Jim Rodde travels the state to audition the best prep vocalists for Iowa State's annual Honor Choir Festival. Photo by Dave Gieseke.

A nervous high school student walks into the band room. He introduces himself and then Jim Rodde goes into his routine.

First, he welcomes the student and takes an audition form from him. He invites the student and his accompanist to perform a prepared solo of their choosing.

After the student is finished, Rodde (ROAD-ee) takes him through sight-reading and tonal memory exercises, and notes the beauty of his voice, his poise and his ear for music.

Then it's thank you, and the five-minute audition is over. It's on to the next, somewhat anxious student waiting in the hallway.

It's a routine that Rodde goes through at 13 different sites throughout the state as he seeks out Iowa's best high school vocalists (grades 10-12) to perform during Iowa State's annual Honor Choir Festival. Festival dates this year are Feb. 10-11, 2008.

All told, Rodde auditioned nearly 400 hopefuls during a five-day period in late October and early November. His journeys took him to high schools in every corner of the state while he put about a thousand miles on his car.

But Rodde can't think of a better way to audition students for such a festival.

"This is the way I've discovered that we can get the very best kids to participate in the ISU Honor Choir," he said. "My goal is to get the state's best vocalists to come to our campus, to hear our choirs and, hopefully, to have a fulfilling experience working with me in a choral setting."

An idea born

Rodde has been conducting these off-campus auditions since he first came to campus eight years ago as the music department's Louise Moen Chair and director of choral activities. But this isn't the first time he has done this type of recruitment.

Prior to coming to Iowa State, Rodde held a similar position at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. He auditioned students throughout the state for that school's honor choir festival, which he initiated in 1985. That personal touch paid off big time.

"The kids were talking not about the all-state choir but rather the UND festival as their pinnacle achievement," he said.

That's because, in part, no one else was conducting personal auditions. Instead, other vocal festivals were asking for audition tapes or simply directors' choices. The students knew that the best would be selected, so many of the best auditioned for him.

And if the numbers are any indication, that seems to be true for the ISU Honor Choir Festival. In his first year on campus, Rodde auditioned just 175 students for the festival -- again at sites throughout the state.

That number has grown somewhat steadily each year to nearly 400 students from more than 40 Iowa high schools this year who wish to be part of the choir.

"The students tell me it's good to see that someone cares enough about them and their talents to come to their school and audition them," Rodde said. "I believe they leave the audition feeling good about themselves and about singing at Iowa State."

But it was a comment from a mother of an auditioning student that hit home for Rodde.

"She told me that by traveling and auditioning each student individually, it showed how much I cared about the festival. And if I cared that much about the success of the festival, think how much I must care about the choral program at ISU."

On the road

On Monday, Oct. 29, Rodde started his journey across the state. He began by auditioning Des Moines-area high school students at Valley Southwoods High in West Des Moines before hitting the road for Fort Dodge, Storm Lake, Denison, Council Bluffs, Waverly, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Grinnell and Indianola. This was in addition to a Saturday afternoon audition he held on campus for central Iowa vocalists.

It's a schedule that takes from eight in the morning to 10 at night.

"It's a grueling schedule for about four days," he said. "I generally eat while I drive and rarely have a break, although I do count on at least someone not showing up.

"It is tiring, but I get to see colleagues and meet some outstanding student vocalists. I know it has value. I know the process has a real positive impact on recruitment."

During an audition, Rodde puts the vocalists into three different categories -- accept, reject or deserves further consideration. Students in the last group, should they not be accepted, get personal letters from Rodde after the audition. He congratulates them on their achievements and encourages them to audition next year -- or, for seniors, to sing if attending Iowa State.

By the time the auditions are over, Rodde has selected just over 100 students for the ISU Honor Choir.

"That's the only drawback to this process," Rodde said. "Close to 300 singers will get a response back from me that 'rejects' them. I pick musicians who are able to learn music quickly. To be successful with a two-day festival like this, I have to select not only beautiful voices, but individuals who display exceptional musicianship skills.

"When it all comes together in February, the honor choir members arrive excited and eager to excel. Even our ISU choir members get enthused about it, as a good number of them are former honor choir members."

The process gives Rodde a lot of satisfaction.

"There are moments while I'm driving from Iowa City to Grinnell that I wonder 'why am I doing this?' But I quickly answer myself. It's the students. The experience we have together during those two days in February is always very fulfilling."


ISU Honor Choir

  • Feb. 11, 7 p.m.
  • Tye Recital Hall, Music Hall
  • Free admission


"The students tell me it's good to see that someone cares enough about them and their talents to come to their school and audition them. I believe they leave the audition feeling good about themselves and about singing at Iowa State."

Jim Rodde