December 1, 2022

Madrigal Dinner – An Ames High Tradition

say they have lasted over 30 years, such as the Madrigal Dinner. Madrigal Dinner is in its 34th year at Ames High School. The night is an experience of a cappella music and skits, all enjoyed over a meal. Madrigal is directed by AHS choir director Joe Strong and assistant director Sonia Johnson.

If you have never experienced a Madrigal, it is a 21st Century re-creation of Renaissance feasts held in grand halls throughout England during the days leading up to Christmas. For a person living in England during the 16th Century, you were lucky if you had the honor of being one of the favored guests. They would be put through a feast of endless food, stunning pageantry, humorous theatrical productions, and entertaining music. While the humor in the 16th Century was considered bawdy, the 21st Century dinners keep the entertainment factor, though not as risqué. Nevertheless, it is every bit as dazzling. Attendees have a hard time believing this production was put on by high school students. 

“There’s the brass, the strings, the performers, the servers,” says Strong. “It’s a whole event where we need every part our students play to make Madrigal a success.”

The royal court is complete with a Lord, Lady, King, and Queen and includes a court jester, a brass ensemble, and strings. Attendees will also experience wandering minstrels, various actors, and other characters. These characters combine their early English dialogue with comedy and songs that immerse the audience in Renaissance England. Warmth, laughter, and joy round out the ambiance of the event. With just 22 singers selected to participate, Madrigal is one of AHS’s most prestigious performance groups. 

“Madrigal is a whole different level of musicianship, and students really have to know their stuff,” said Johnson. 

Choosing music is a challenge, according to both Strong and Johnson. Madrigal is a smaller group than any choir, which opens up new possibilities for pieces that might be more difficult to perform in a larger chorus. However, with more challenging music selections also comes the creation of competent vocalists able to lead themselves, all while holding each other to a high standard of excellence. 

With music selections in place, rehearsals begin in late September or early October. As the date looms, singers will rehearse every day school is in session. 

“This is a big time commitment not just on the students but also the parent,” said Johnson, “especially if parents need to drive their student to rehearsals.” 

Yet, when you ask students, none seem to mind the time commitment, even the early 7:10 am rehearsals.  

“We enjoy being here and being with each other,” said Erin Barnes, a senior at AHS who is the Queen for this year’s Madrigal. “We are here super early in the morning, but we are having fun together and are bonded through music.”

“In big group choir classes, people are there for a multitude of reasons,” says Noah Camp, a Madrigal singer and junior at AHS, “but we all auditioned, so we want to be here.”

Putting on a show of this magnitude means leaning on those students involved in Madrigal previously. They often take new singers under their wing and push them to excel in their singing. Senior Samuel Vis, who played the role of King for the second year in 2022, says he always looks forward to working with the younger singers.

“As a senior, it’s so fun to watch the underclassmen grow as singers and performers so that they can keep the amazing Madrigal tradition alive in the years to come,” he adds.

More than the long rehearsals, their growth as musicians, and seeing the hard work pay off in a spectacular performance, Strong, Johnson, and students state that connectedness keeps current students and alums returning. Group photos of past Madrigal performers are placed in a display case outside the new AHS choir room to honor this deep tradition. Students in Madrigal connect more deeply over a shared love of music and gain a network of peers that can positively impact their perceptions of school. Strong and Johnson said they often see this bond continue after the performance and the singers graduate. 

“Older students know the payoff by creating connections with all of the students involved,” said Johnson. “By knowing each other, they create relationships. Having those connected relationships then shows in the performance.”

“We see connections not just with former students the current singers may have sung with but also across generations,” said Strong. “When you see it happen, you realize this isn’t just a cool thing, but people have been creating these connections for a really long time.”

Strong and Johnson like to introduce music with complex arrangements and in multiple languages. Groups often sing in Latin but have also sung in German, Italian, and Spanish. This further deepens the audience’s enjoyment by hearing traditional favorites and new songs they may not have heard before. The depth of music students are expected to learn in Madrigal further engages students and provides a sense that the adults in the school are invested in their learning. Sophomore Addison Jurgens adds that Madrigal has helped her see how significant this involvement could be to her future. 

“Not only does Madrigal open a new genre of music and being around people who are all committed to learning,” said Jurgens, “it shows you what a life of pursuing music could really turn out to be and how much you might enjoy it.”

“You definitely see how emotionally invested the students are and how deeply they are connected when they sing Silent Night on that final evening,” said Johnson. “The reaction is truly one of wow, we have just done this amazing thing, and now it is over. Especially for the seniors.” 

Strong and Johnson are looking to deepen the thread of tradition in the future by recognizing Madrigal alums at dinners or inviting former singers to join the group for a song. After 34 years, they said they often bump into people around Ames who have been involved in Madrigal and love to share their memories. 

Contributing to the distinct, magical atmosphere at the Madrigal dinners are student servers from the AHS music department and nearly 50 parent and community volunteers working behind the scenes. The volunteers handle everything from planning the event to generating publicity and from decorating to helping serve the dinner. Even the wassail is perfected by a parent volunteer. However, when it comes to the actual event, according to Strong, 99% of the show is run by the students in the room. 

“When I first came to Ames, it was a really big switch to give up that responsibility of leading the group as their teacher,” he adds. “For as big of an event as this is, for us to not be in the room when it happens is very unnerving, at least for the first show.”

Strong knows that, as a teacher, he is responsible for building students’ singing skills and supporting them through challenges. He must trust them to carry out their given task. At the conclusion of the first Madrigal performance in 2021 as the new director, the only word that could come to Strong was wow. 

With this 34-year tradition comes a sense of awe at its conclusion each year. The feeling of connection is palpable as you see students holding hands and hear quiet, sad sniffles as they sing a final Silent Night. Guests slowly file out of the room, almost as if they don’t want the performance to be over. Alumni chat over memories of their own time either as a Madrigal performer or as AHS alumni in general. Parents reminisce as glasses, decorations, and costumes are packed away for another year. And Strong and Johnson smile knowing they get to do it all again next year. 

1989Rob ParishMargaret Lloyd
1990Monty FaidleyMargaret Lloyd
1991Andrew StevensonHolly Anderson
1992Ben FordJana Hertz
1993Brian ParishJessica Hugdahl
1994John BatySara Stevenson
1995Chris TuttleEmily Silet
1996Chris TuttleBecky Hunter
1997Mark AndersonChristy Rippey
1998Luke HealyEmily Duffelmeyer
1999Aki NakagawaAnne Shelley
2000Chris ParishJulie Reger
2001Derek MartinBrea Peterson
2002Ted BrimeyerLaura Beeman
2003Ben WardBritta Larson
2004Luke LowryJennifer Register
2005James PringleRachel Schmidt
2006Chris SimonsonJennifer Compton
2007Marc HeitzmanAnne Todey
2008Ian HerrmanMegan Paxton
2009David ShirbrounBekah Miller
2010Dylan Larson-KonarRachel Paxton
2011Jackson GriffithBreeanna Glenn
2012Amos HartMariah Griffith
2013Carl MeeseMegan Dieslin
2014Jacob LinchAndie Newell
2015Robbie KroeschellThea Brenner
2016Andrew BryantAria Lippolis
2017Christian FranklIsabel Polashek
2018Christian FranklLydia Linch
2019Will DanielsVera Barkosky
2020Adam WolfCassidy Peterson
2021Sam VisOlivia Reed
2022Sam VisErin Barnes