MAHOMET — Christina Nielsen knew from a young age she wanted to be in madrigals because of family tradition, but when she discovered she also had a passion for singing, there was no doubt about her auditioning for the 42nd annual madrigal dinner performances.
"My dad was in madrigals when he was in high school and also my uncle was in madrigals, so at first, when I was a kid, I was like, 'Oh, I can be like my dad!'" Nielsen said. "As I got older, I was like, 'I really like singing.' It kind of just went from there."
The senior wasn't the only one of the 19-member Mahomet-Seymour madrigals with family ties.
Ellen Bushell, a senior who played the recorder in a quartet, was excited to have her brother, Ryan Bushell, in on the fun.
"In past years, it's just been fun to become friends with all of the singers, and so this year, it's a little different because I already know one and he's (Ryan Bushell) already in it and he's a sophomore this year, so it's kind of fun that he's being brought into the program so that's cool for me," she said.
First-year madrigal singer Logan Burdette admitted the group can be difficult to get into because its "really clicky," but over the six months of rehearsal time, the sophomore found he became a part of the family.
"It all joins in really easily and quick and we all get along really super well, so it's great and fun," he said.
His favorite memory?
"We usually meet at someone's house or something and have a dinner together and we run through all of the songs and stuff and usually that's just fun because we're all messing around and we get a lot done, but it's just relaxing," Burdette said.
The not-so-serious moments were a favorite of Nielsen's, too.
"I like all of the moments where we're in the middle of rehearsal and we have like a half an hour or an hour of just super serious stuff and then somebody just says something super funny and the whole group just breaks down laughing," she said. "And then it takes us forever (to stop laughing) and then we go into our next song and we're just kind of giggling and we're like, 'we're still singing,' but we're not really."
Bushell, a senior and the only returning recorder player, enjoyed mentoring fellow quartet members, including Grace Davis, Leah Nykaza and Riley Watson, but by far her funniest moments were those in early rehearsals.
"The first practice there's a lot of squeaking because everyone's blowing super hard and it sounds just like a train whistle," Bushell said while laughing.
"Recorders (are) different because it takes no air at all to play, and we're used to playing our other instruments in band with reeds where you need to have lots of air," she added.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from such an experience for Bushell was patience.
"Right when I get my recorder again, it's really easy to just start playing and this year all of the other members had to learn it from scratch," she said. "So it taught me patience, where I just have to sit and listen to them and keep telling them how it works."
As for Burdette and Nielsen, madrigals taught them a great deal of time management.
"(I'm) learning how to be dedicated to things and focus on stuff, even on the days you don't necessarily like it," Nielsen said, "because no matter what you're doing, there's going to be days where you show up and you're just not in a good mood, and I think madrigals is good because its taught me to be more consistent with how I am.
"I've been able to bring that to everything I do," she added.
Burdette, who is also on the Bulldogs' wrestling squad, had to quickly learn how to manage his time given the addition of his first madrigals gig to an already busy schedule.
"It's hard because they're so opposite spectrums," Burdette said.
"It's a big time commitment," he added, "but it's fun."
In an evening filled with firsts, Nicole Kuglich, Mahomet-Seymour's madrigal director, took her first whirlwind weekend at the helm of the longstanding high school tradition in stride.
"The first word that comes to mind is pride," she said.
"Pride in the level of musicianship that our students were able to accomplish, pride in the fact that our students from the choral department were such a presence from the beginning of setup to tear down. I'm so proud of the effort they put forth to make it special," she added.
"I'm proud of our parents and their support of what we do. I'm just so proud of this tradition, too, because not every school has a tradition in place and it's a thrill to be a part of that."
Part of that tradition is the ability to captivate an audience. As jester Justin Smith stood atop the stage, he sang the first few lyrics of "Noel" as his fellow singers, along with the servers and workers, lined the room of the high school's commons.
"It featured the percussionists on the piece and a different feel from what we've done in the past," Kuglich said. "I like to embrace all styles of music. The style was very different from the madrigal style of performance."
The decision to add in a song straying from traditional madrigal music was one that paid out dividends.
"That was an audience favorite," Kuglich said. "There were parents posting videos of that on social media."
Smith has played the jester for the last three years.
"I've heard audience members say, 'He brings me to tears just listening to him sing,'" Kuglich said.
Audience members also loved the a capella-style "Last Christmas," which included beatboxing.
"Claire Schwarzentraub, I mention her name because not only did she have some solo work (in a Spanish carol titled 'Riu Riu Chiu'), but she put herself out there as a beatboxer," Kuglich said. "She was back and forth with that decision, but we pushed her and she did it and I'm so proud of her for doing it."
Also featured in "Last Christmas" was Neenah Williams, who provided a solo.
"Her voice is just beautiful to me," Kuglich said. "The way she delivers her lines, it's just a joy to the heart. She's outstanding."
Prior to Saturday's dinner performance, grandparents Ron and Cheryl Deckard also couldn't help but brag about the junior.
"We're very proud of her," Cheryl Deckard said.
"It's teaching her about dedication to a craft and following through on assignments and practice, and it's good socialization for being part of a group."
As Sunday's performance closed, Kuglich said she and the singers began to reflect on all of their hard work.
"Hearing them speak about their experiences after we wrapped up ... they're grateful to have something like madrigals," she said. "They feel like it's a family and it's something that's bigger than themselves because of the tradition and it's so well established."
Though another year is in the books, the singers aren't quite finished just yet. They showed off their talents to the youngsters at Lincoln Trail this week, they'll impress Grace Church's congregation on Sunday and a traditional impromptu brunch performance will follow at Champaign's The Original Pancake House. They'll cap off their year with January's Variety Show, as well as solo and ensemble contests in March.
In their time together, Kuglich hopes she instilled memories that last a lifetime.
"When students put that much work into something, it becomes truly special," she said. "They'll never forget it and I hope that they treasure these memories for the rest of their lives."