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MOUNT ZION – Mount Zion High School senior Maddie Sphar has been a member of show choirs for six years. She has helped win a handful of trophies for the groups throughout her time on stage.

This year has been an even more rewarding one. “I didn't have any expectations of how good we were going to be this year,” she said. “But all of our hard work and dedication has paid off.”

All three Mount Zion show choirs – Swingsations, Les Femmes and the Junior High School – have won multiple awards since the show choir competition season began in January. The prizes have included grand champion awards for all three groups in back-to-back contests.

Although the groups are familiar with their competitions, they are not used to accepting so many awards. Much of the credit is given to the school's new director, Connie Mulligan, and assistant director, Heather Pistorius.

“I don't know how I differ than those who have been here before,” Mulligan said.

The director may be unassuming about her role in the shaping of the show choirs, but the parents and her students see it.

Shannon Lanier has seen a change in her daughter, even before the competitions. “As a parent, I noticed an increase amount of confidence,” she said. “It didn't come from the wins. It got a boost, but it was there before.”

She saw character building and reprogramming of work ethic in the group. “When you have a director who is as experienced as Connie is, she knows how to get out of kids what she wants,” Lanier said. “She'll drive them.”

The school year started out with the new directors, but this is not their first year in the show choir environment.

Mulligan was a director for 10 years beginning in 1991, working with Pistorius while she was a member of the Swingsations. Mulligan has since traveled throughout the area as a swing choir director. Before returning to Mount Zion, she directed the Sullivan show choir.

Her experience has proven to be successful for her students as well.

As a freshman, Nick Clark wasn't used to the work style he has been taught this year. “It felt really good to beat a group that was really high up on the rankings,” he said. “It is good that she came when she did.”

Clark found junior high easier. Now his practices require dancing and singing every day.

Mulligan refers to show choir as the sport of the arts. “It's like trying to sing your best while doing high-impact aerobics,” she said. “It's a lot of training and building stamina.”

The directors saw the students had the endurance to withstand what was expected. “We knew we had a great show and great kids,” Pistorius said. “They see what we are giving to them; they only want to give back.”

The commitment is shared by the directors as well as the students. Mulligan stresses the importance of team building and respect for one another.

The band that accompanies the show choirs are just as important as the singing and dancing on stage. The combo has won individual categories at the competitions as well. “Their excellence and integration into the singing and dancing makes a difference in how we score,” Mulligan said.

The directors insist on have high expectations for their choirs. They have pushed the students beyond what they think is possible. As a parent, Lanier can see how the techniques will help her child in the future. “You don't have to jump over the edge, you just have to go up to the edge and see,” she said. “If we do it together, who knows what we are capable of.”

The directors use this approach in helping the show choirs succeed in the competitions as well as their future.

“We are just as invested as the kids are,” Mulligan said.

The groups understand the reason behind the amount of training. “Obviously winning is one goal,” Sphar said. “But also when we do go to the competitions, she encourages you to make friends, to meet other people, to watch other groups to see how we can better ourselves.”

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"Together Decatur" Columnist and Food and Drink Reporter

“Together Decatur” columnist and food and drink reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.