As he lifted his arms to cue the choir at its final concert of the year, Woodstock High School senior Alex Riak smiled at his classmates. Full of pride and a hint of nerves, he began conducting his peers, leading them in a song he had written and composed.
“Whisper,” one of several of Riak’s choral compositions, was first conducted and performed at the May 6 concert – the last for the 2014 graduate. At the conclusion of his song, Riak received a standing ovation from the audience, a moment he said he will always remember.
“It was such a great feeling – the standing ovation,” Riak said. “But it kind of feels strange, like, ‘Oh, this is my piece.’ It’s really different from when we’re learning a song [choral director Paul] Rausch had picked out for us. … I had to call a lot of the shots for what was supposed to be going on in the song, so I wasn’t really used to that. I’m used to learning the song. I’m not used to telling people what to do. But it was a good feeling.”
Riak has arranged a few pieces of music for the WHS men’s a capella group, Standing Room Only, but began composing his own during his junior year. The piece that won him first place in a statewide vocal ensemble competition was “Dreams,” a song he had composed, recorded and submitted for the Illinois Music Education Association’s 2014 composition contest.
With the help of friends, Riak recorded the song to submit to the contest. Riak, his brother, Alden Riak; mother, Elizabeth Novak; and friends Sarah Schadt, Rebecca Floyd and WHS senior Sam Peiffer provided the vocals. Sherri Dees accompanied on piano.
As the winner of the competition, Riak had the opportunity to attend the IMEA all-state conference in January with classmates Sarah Baier, attending the Future Music Educators seminar; Erica Finke and Evan Berg, participating in the All-State Choir; and Natalie Zoia, participating in the All-State Honors Orchestra. Prior to attending, however, Riak took some conducting lessons from Rausch, because Riak had been asked to direct at the conference.
“I knew what it was supposed to look like, but I wasn’t very good at it,” Riak said. “Mr. Rausch sat with me the two weeks before I went down to All-State and taught me to conduct well, make sure the choir knew what I was doing and how to tell choirs what I wanted them to do. … While I was conducting and performing, I actually learned that I like conducting a lot because I don’t get nervous since I’m not looking at the audience.”
The WHS Madrigals performed “Dreams” at the all-state concert, conducted by Riak and accompanied by Rausch.
“It’s really special, I think, when the kids who are composing also have an opportunity to direct,” Rausch said. “Conducting, from the audience’s point of view, looks relatively easy – I mean, seriously. What are you doing just waving your hands? But there is so much more behind conducting. The way you hold your hand and the way you gesture can actually alter the way a choir sings. It’s pretty amazing. He was working on that, and he did very well.”
Rausch said WHS has not had many students compete in the statewide composition contest, but said they are slowly gaining interest. Last year, senior John Morefield competed in the large instrumental ensemble and placed third, and Riak kept the trend going with his participation.
Riak will attend Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, in the fall. He said he plans to major in either music composition or music education and hopes to go after his own dream of making a name for himself in choral music composition.