MILFORD, Iowa | Toni Hoffmann drives six hours across Iowa for a job interview months ago. She sings the whole time on her way to the Iowa Great Lakes, a place she's never visited.
She loses her voice 30 miles from Milford, where administrators and students seek her out to fill the band director's position vacated with the retirement of Greg Forney.
Forney and wife, Julie Forney, are jazz legends here, builders of a band program that, in jazz circles alone, has been tops in Iowa four times, second place in Iowa on another six occasions.
The Forneys represent two of eight Okoboji educators who were offered -- and accepted -- early-retirement packages from the school district last spring.
And the newbie interviewing to become the new high school band director at Okoboji High can't find her voice, literally.
"I showed up and asked Mr. Downing (high school principal Brian Downing) for some water for my throat," Hoffmann says.
She must have said enough -- and said the right things -- in those interview sessions. For on Thursday, Hoffmann, a University of Northern Iowa graduate, works to wrap up her first semester. She starts the day at 7:15 a.m. the way she starts most days this time of year, by taking the jazz band through its paces on an otherwise quiet campus.
"That was so cool," she says, seconds after the band saunters through "Skylark," a ballad that serves as a centerpiece in a four-piece competition set. "I'm really kind of emotional right now. You have come so far in the last week to week-and-a-half."
Okoboji's jazz band participated Friday in a festival at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. Another jazz festival follows at Iowa Lakes Community College in nearby Estherville on Wednesday. Events in Sioux City and Le Mars are forthcoming, as may, or may not, an April berth in the Iowa Jazz Championships in Des Moines, where Okoboji's jazz band has finished the past 21 seasons.
These are uncharted charts, so to speak, for Hoffmann, who participated in jazz band for four years at Pleasant Valley High School, but never played in a competitive jazz festival.
"Pleasant Valley has the largest band program in Iowa," Hoffmann said, citing figures that show the Spartans boast of more than 300 in marching band, to go with three jazz band units and four concert bands.
That said, Pleasant Valley didn't compete in music events.
"Pleasant Valley was non-competitive," she says. "The goal there was uncensored musicianship."
That is a trait the Forneys obviously instilled in Okoboji, Hoffmann discloses. The students here, and their instructors, have known and interpreted music incredibly well for three-plus decades. Hoffmann's challenge is to build upon that legacy while, in a sense, making it her own. It's why she and her students make their way through the dark to beat nearly everyone else to the school this crisp January morning.
"Any band can play notes and rhythms. That's 10 percent of being a jazz musician," she says.
The 90 percent balance of that question arises in dynamics, articulation, interpretation and overall musicianship.
After Hannah Roberts, a junior at Okoboji, drives "Skylark" in a solo that weaves through the entire piece. The rest of the band fills in the gaps and let Roberts, who works without sheet music, show her stuff.
"I know it sounds cheesy, but I really was about to cry," Hoffmann says once the rehearsal concludes. "It was beautiful. I thought back to where we were a few weeks ago."
Guitarist Matthew Grisham, a senior, has seen Okoboji's jazz band tie loose ends together at late dates before. He recalls going from fourth place in a Northwest Iowa District competition to state runner-up, in just a matter of weeks.
"We'll get there," he promises.
"They have climbed a hill in the past two weeks," Hoffmann says. "I'm completely amazed."
Amazed is a term Hoffmann could use to describe her reaction to the position and the location when she filled out her application.
"I cancelled another interview to come do this interview," she remembers. "When I saw this job posted, I did some research and familiarized myself with this program and the area (Iowa Great Lakes).
"Anyone in Iowa, especially a young person, would find this area appealing," she says.
The former UNI Jazz I trumpeter finds the Forneys to be extremely helpful, as well as the student-musicians here, several of whom she meets in that interview. Hoffmann still laughs about one of the student-driven questions.
"They worded it professionally, but I'll never forget what they said," she recalls. "They said, 'Hey, you're never going to be at home. Is that OK with you?'"
At 7:30 on a dark Thursday morning, she stands in the dark, pacing as students fill a corner of this campus with a ballad and a Cuban chart before wrapping up the workout with a fast tune called, "Critical Mass," their favorite.
The new teacher nods, taps and claps, and, in many ways, shows she's very much at home.