SHELDON, Iowa | Sara Siebrecht moved to Sheldon from Johnston, Iowa, before her sophomore year, trading suburban Des Moines for a mid-sized school in O'Brien County.
She sat on the sidelines her first year at Sheldon High School as the vocal jazz unit won a state championship. She didn't know much about the activity; Johnston High didn't offer it.
"The only reason I didn't audition as a sophomore is because I'd never seen it before," Siebrecht said. "I didn't know a whole lot about jazz; it seemed crazy with all the improvisation and hard rhythms."
As a junior, Siebrecht had a basic knowledge of jazz choir, which came from watching her new friends perform. She auditioned, landed a spot on the 2016 unit coached by Brett Gregory, a rookie teacher. Sheldon High School repeated as Class 2A state champion in an activity based on music and song. Unlike show choir, there is no choreography in vocal jazz.
Gregory's second vocal jazz unit, dubbed "Vocal Fusion," aims for a three-peat Tuesday as the Iowa Vocal Jazz State Championships unfold at the Staplin Performing Arts Center in West Des Moines. Locally, the group from West Sioux High School, the dominant force in Class 1A, guns for yet another title, which would be West Sioux's sixth in seven years.
Other Northwest Iowa vocal jazz squads vying for state titles include: Akron-Westfield, Central Lyon, MVAO and South O'Brien in Class 1A; Alta-Aurelia, Emmetsburg, Okoboji and Sibley-Ocheyedan in Class 2A; and Spirit Lake in Class 3A.
Sheldon's jazz singers will perform three songs in a 10- to 12-minute time frame. They'll be backed by a pianist, percussionist and a keyboard player, the last of which is a not a student. "You can have one non-student in the group," said Gregory. "Our keyboard player, Ken Van Huizen, is a former school choir director and the father of one of our singers."
Siebrecht will take a solo turn in "Love Wins," the finale for her Sheldon unit. It's funny how an activity that kind of intimidated her as a sophomore is one she's starring in as a senior.
She joined fellow soloist Madeline Gude, a junior, on Friday and Saturday evening putting the final touches on their performance in a musical showcase at Sheldon High School, an event students have largely organized on their own for years.
"Singing the type of music we get to sing with other people makes me feel alive," said Gude, whose older sister, Rosa Gude, now a student at Simpson College, helped stake Sheldon to the first of its vocal jazz state crowns. "I know that kind of sounds cheesy, but getting to listen to beautiful jazz music is a cool thing to feel, to sing it and for the audience to hear it."
Gude solos through half of "Moon River," the first song the 11-member singing group covers.
Vocal jazz units audition for the state contest by sending in CDs or videos. Most squads participate in a limited number of contests before Tuesday's culmination. The season runs at roughly the same time as show choir and many students double-up on these activities.
Gregory, a Southeast Polk graduate, shares something in common with Siebrecht, his senior soloist: He didn't have high school vocal jazz, either.
It is now one of several successful programs at Sheldon High School, a school known for its landmark summer theater program, among others.
"Winning it (the title) last year was so amazing," said Gude. "It's incredible to be part of something that has been so successful at our school. We're seeing how long we can carry on the tradition."