A new tune: Choral directors set to continue a Mahomet-Seymour proud tradition

A standing-room-only pops concert last May to bid farewell to beloved choral instructor Jill Rinkel was quite the introduction for Mahomet-Seymour Junior High's newest choral instructor, Brian Lonergan.

"It was packed the whole way up," Lonergan said. "That was pretty special."

A mere month stands between Lonergan and a jam-packed crowd of his own for the upcoming November choral concert.

"I think that first concert is going to be a little bit of a shock for me, but it's just awesome to have that kind of rally around the kids," he said.

The Mount Prospect native just so happens to be returning to the very school district where his wife, Kaitlin Lonergan, a 2007 graduate, attended.

"It's still kind of weird that I'm teaching at the school that my wife went to," he joked. "She was in madrigals, and her and her sisters' pictures are up on the walls in the room that I'm teaching in. It's a little odd, but it's pretty cool."

The former Eisenhower High School and Thomas Jefferson Middle School instructor is just part of a series of changes in a tradition-rich Mahomet-Seymour choral program.

Nicole Kuglich made the jump from being the junior high choral instructor to taking the reins at the high school's program. The transition is something Kuglich feels she was in "training" for given the vast history of Mahomet-Seymour's choral program.

"There's this expectation in a good way of this is what we do," Kuglich said. "It's this strong tradition that is so imbedded in our community and supported by parents who are really passionate and knowledgeable about music."

"It's just a joy to be surrounded by that," she added.

Kuglich takes the helm after serving six years under Rinkel's wing.

"When you look historically at the directors who have come through Mahomet-Seymour, you've got Janet Watkins, our legendary director who founded our madrigals; Leslie Manfredo was the assistant junior high director and then Jill (Rinkel) came up and then Jill took over, and then I came up and now I'm taking over and now Brian (Lonergan) is at the junior high level," Kuglich said.

The Ohio Northern University grad spent 14 years at Madison High School in Madison, Ohio, prior to moving to Mahomet after meeting husband, Dan Kuglich, during a professional development trip to Japan with the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, a trip geared toward sharing the cultural insights of Japanese education.

"It was nice when I moved here I was able to get to know this new place and not feel the sort of high-level pressure that a high school program usually has," Kuglich said.

But as she teaches her first set of more than 130 students, some of whom she had as sixth-graders, Kuglich is appreciative of the time she spent teaching alongside Rinkel.

"You can see all over our room the history of our program," Kuglich said as she pointed to the pictures of previous students who made all-state chorus along the wall.

For Kuglich, the photographs "honor the process" as another group of students prepare for district auditions set for Oct. 8.

"It prepares them in a way that makes them individually responsible for their abilities when it comes to performing music," she said.

But with the new leadership comes the opportunity for change.

"I'm excited to really dive in and keep that going but also put my own fingerprints on things and leave my mark, hopefully for the rest of my career," Lonergan said.

Lonergan has been working on songs such as "Elijah Rock," arranged by Roger Emerson, and "The Water is Wide," arranged by Rollo Dilworth, with more than 200 junior high choral students.

The junior high choral instructor receives a total of 80 minutes per week with his students, which is a big difference from his other teaching experiences, where he would sometimes see his students for up to one hour each school day.

Despite the time crunch, Lonergan continues to see his students succeed.

"I bring things I've performed before and yet the eighth-graders can sing the songs in three rehearsals, and that is kind of mind-blowing to me," he said. "They're just on another level because of the music education and the tradition that they've been getting since they were in kindergarten and consistently through Lincoln Trail and now at the junior high."

Lonergan sees the district-wide efforts only continuing to benefit and strengthen the choral program.

"Madrigals doesn't happen if these kids don't have what they have here," he said. "And it's not just me, it's also the band program and the program that they come to at Lincoln Trail and Middletown. If they don't have that foundation, then they can't get to the level that they need to get to."

In addition to strengthening the program with physical improvements, such as new chairs and risers for the choir room, along with fresh formal attire, Kuglich is only hoping to further the school's continued excellence all while bringing in a few traditions of her own.

One of those new traditions includes singing the song "Bethlehem," a quintet Kuglich sang with her closest friends during her senior recital. Each year she incorporated it into Madison High School's closing show choir holiday number, where alumni would join the singers in the final song.

"That tradition is still going," she said. "I've missed its presence in my life over the holiday season, so of course, I put that one in our holiday program," she added. "It's really cool that they understand the connection that I have with it because then they see how important music can become and how it represents something to you and having that just be a constant in your life."

Kuglich also plans to bring back student trips to allow students to experience professional productions. Students will have an opportunity to travel to Chicago in collaboration with the drama club to see a Broadway show come February.

"It's creating these amazing memories together," she said. "It's giving them the opportunity to develop into that person they are destined to be."

Both Kuglich and Lonergan said they will respect tradition and implement changes when necessary to better the music programs and, more importantly, continue impacting students' lives.

"My educational philosophy is that I want to enrich these kids' lives; I want to make them better people through the use of music," Lonergan said. "It's not necessarily just about the songs or anything like that, it's more so are you being a good person?"

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