Do Not Fear the Unknown: My Road to All-State

Sean Whitson

More stories from Sean Whitson


Photo by Becca Cassel

Brennan McGee, Cash Riker, and Sean Whitson, the three All-State choir musicians all posed in their suits after they finished their auditions. Days later, they learned that they all were accepted to the choir.

“Do not fear the unknown.” Those reassuring words were texted to me from our choir director, Becca Cassel, after the first and only clinic for my audition for the All-State Choir. Hearing that phrase helped reassure me with everything surrounding the audition. Everything about the 2020 All-State process, which was already a grueling, cumbersome, tedious, and frightening task was amplified. Instead of singing with a group, I had to sing alone to an emotionless camera. Instead of going to an All-State camp and experiencing the community and excitement of beginning a new audition, I sat alone in my room watching others learn the difficult pieces online. Instead of knowing the pieces by heart by the beginning of school, I was still glued to the music. Instead of scheduling times to practice with a trio or a quartet, I sang alone for most of the year.

In a year where everyone has been so isolated, it was music that connected me to people. I sang in a large choir called “The Stay at Home Choir,” where we performed the piece “O’ Radiant Dawn” by James Macmillian (Here is a link to the choir I performed in: I recorded two different voice parts for ADM’s virtual choir. Besides work and being quarantined at home, I went to see my voice coach, Dennis Hendrickson, who helped me develop my voice past anything I could have imagined. He continues to make me better. I went to guitar lessons with one of my best friends, Jake Kemble. Music was the one thing besides work that connected me to people, and I was so excited about the All-State process. Last year, participating in the All-State audition and ultimately singing in the choir made me grow as a person and musician, and I met so many amazing people. I was excited for that experience, to sing a perfectly tuned chord that reverberated off the ceiling of the Hilton colosseum. I anxiously signed up for Wartburg’s in-person All-State camp, which is where hundreds of music students get together to learn the new music. Weeks after I signed up, they announced they were moving to a virtual format. I was disappointed but still hopeful. 

Upon beginning the virtual camp, I quickly became frustrated. There were no other tenors sitting by me that I could ask questions to, and no beauty of the voices in the same room as me. I felt alone and frustrated. Another ADM All-State auditioner, Brennan McGee, actually went to an in-person camp, which filled me to the brim with jealousy. Still, I persisted until I had a baseline of the pieces. I drilled them with Dennis Hendrickson, who pushed me to my limit, even giving me operatic arias to learn as well as the All-State pieces. When I went to school, I also received so much help from Becca Cassel. There was so much community, even in a time where I felt isolated. I felt secure in myself because I had an entire small army of people cheering me on.

I can remember one day during lunch during the first week or so of school, Brennan and I went into his car before we started singing in choir. And we sang. Not reserved singing, but real singing. I hadn’t sung choir music with another person in months, and the harmonies were weaving and entwining, creating music. The car we shared was filled to the brim with shimmering melodies and entwining harmonies, creating music. Real, beautiful music. When they ultimately canceled the All-State festival, I was very sad. When I heard the news, I said, “It’s disappointing but expected.” I continued to sing, and last Tuesday, after weeks of fine-tuning and dressing in a suit, my audition tape was completed. I was extremely happy about my audition, but the way it finished was the greatest part of the process.

For a process we started alone, we finished together. All the auditioners decided to stay and watch everyone complete their audition. In a process that we began alone, whether it be through a computer screen, singing with people through a mask, or in school, we all were in the room when the final cut was recorded. I sat to the right of Brennan as Cash Riker filmed his final cut, and when he finished, it hit me. As Brennan and I quietly clapped, a wave of sadness, pride, happiness, and fear washed over me. We all were in our suits, and we all just finished one of the most difficult processes a high school musician could complete well. We all took a picture together, and then we left. For us, the process was over.

As I type this story, I do not know if I was accepted or denied. I am less than 7 hours away from finding out, as results are posted today, October 24, at 8 pm. I am terrified, which is a disease best treated with Mozart’s Requiem Mass, the Simpsons, and lattes. I poured so much passion and love into each cut, and to make the choir again, even if I will never sing in it, would be beyond amazing. I love music, it is what I want to do for the rest of my life. My life is incomplete without a melody in my mind, and making the choir would be more than an honor; it would be life-changing. I would like to thank everyone who invested in me during this process: Becca Cassel, Dennis Hendrickson, Jake Kemble, Brennan, Cash, Dr. Pearson, Dr. Chapman, and my parents. Without your love and support, my audition would not have been as successful as it was, whether I make it or not.

UPDATE: I made the choir. I did it. I succeeded. It was a long night of waiting, and I think that was the slowest work shift at Fareway that I have ever experienced. Time was at a standstill as I was expecting a text that would either make or break my day. Eventually, after a brief conversation with my voice coach, Dennis Hendrickson, he sent me the link where every name that was accepted was posted. I scrolled through all 600 hundred names until I saw mine. My name was on that list. Sean Whitson- Tenor 1, ADM. I am not afraid to admit it, I cried at work. I ran through the aisles and loudly proclaimed my accomplishment. Not only that, but Brennan, Cash, AND I made the choir. We crossed the finish line together.

After making the choir, we were asked to fill out a form. On that form, there was a question: “What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who will do an in-person or virtual audition?” 

Do you want to know what I said?


Do not fear the unknown.