At a show choir practice on Feb. 27, Hastings High School's head choral and show choir director Luke Warren addressed the varsity group Riverside Company. He discussed any negative noise at the upcoming Totino-Grace Show Choir Spectacular competition that weekend.
"You want to fight back? Go on the stage," Warren said to the roughly 45 assembled students. "You're going to let your singing and dancing do the talking."
Warren's comment was emblematic of the teaching and coaching style he employs for his choirs - he asks students to control what they can.
Riverside won grand champions of the March 2 competition, awarded the best vocals award and the group's male soloist, Sam Kelly, was named the best in Hastings' division. The victory marked another high point in the program's season and in Warren's second year taking over the program from his father.
So far this season, the group has won grand champion at four of the five competitions it's competed in, and placed third in the other.
"We try to focus on process and not so much the results, but I think the results sort of speak with where the kids are at with the process," Warren said. "This is a pretty top-notch year for Riverside. They've done really well in the past, (but) this has been a really really special year."
Riverside's remaining competition is Show Choir Nationals in Nashville, Tenn., where the students will compete against schools from across the country. Competing on a national stage comes with steeper competition, but Warren said that they are still focused on what he describes as a process-based approach.
Continuing a program from father to son
Riverside's performance show spans across about 15 songs in 18 minutes and focuses on the theme of freedom. Warren composes and arranges the piece himself, and admitted that the number of songs isn't like most programs.
"Everyone does kind of a little different thing with their show choirs" he said. "I like to mess with it and throw the format away a little bit."
Warren's ability to compose and arrange a piece on his own is a stark difference from his father Lin Warren, who formerly headed the program for 33 years. Lin said that he had others compose and arrange for him.
Luke took over the program from Lin in 2017, and Lin said that it's been a smooth transition.
"It's everything that I hoped it would be," Lin said. "I think he's done a really good job of preparing his kids for what may or may not happen and the only thing they have control over is their own performance."
Across Lin's long tenure heading the show choir, he helped build it up into a strong, long-running program that consistently placed well. Luke said that his father's traditions throughout the program have helped him early on in his tenure.
"When a program is as established as (ours) is in the community, and it's built on excellence ... that (becomes) expected," Luke said. "I think the kids get here and know what's expected of them and I think they feed into that culture, which is how we sustain what we do."
Focused on the process
Luke Warren described show choir competitions and other competitive arts as a "different ball game." It's completely focused on the judging - something out of Warren's and the student's control.
So Warren tries to emphasize what they can control - practices and performances. That idea has influenced his teaching across the fours hours a week the show choirs practice.
"There's a lot of subjectivity to this, there's things you can't control," he said. "It's not like basketball where every basket counts for two or three points."
Other directors have the same goals, but Warren's approach is different, said Jen Fox, an assistant director with Hastings. She said the students have also taken on that mindset.
"He expects excellence and that comes in the form of whatever the students can present to us," Fox said.
Senior show choir member Sawyer Schmitt, said that despite the team's strong season, they've managed to focus beyond the results.
"It's less of a worry of 'we need to get first,' but we need to put our best show on ... this year has been less about winning and more about putting our show together."
With the national competition on March 22, the students are performing at the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville. The competition is steep, and Warren said it's difficult to project how the team will do.
He said that the group is just focused on getting to perform their program a couple more times.
"I love these kids and the work that they do. If we make finals, that's awesome."