By Nick Knopik, contributing writer and former assistant director of leadership and service

Six days. Five states. Eight performances. And for the fifty students on the Doane Choir tour, innumerable memories.

“We were singing at a church in Oklahoma City, and I was crying,” said Jason McIntosh, a senior psychology major from Maywood, Nebraska. “I don’t know if it was the song or the feeling so welcomed by this community, but I know a lot of other people felt the same way.”

McIntosh has participated in three choir tours that have introduced him to cities many thousands of times larger than his hometown.

Students rehearse around a pianoFor Julia Ramirez, a senior music education and vocal performance double major, a hallmark of the tour is the lifelong friendships she’s made during late-night conversations in her hotel room. 

“It was kind of like having a sleepover with my best friends,” Ramirez said, remembering looking around the hotel room and realizing how much she admired everyone there with her.

The choir tour also puts Doane on the radar for prospective students during stops at Nebraska high schools. Like Ramirez, who saw Doane’s choir while a student at Bellevue West. After the performance, she realized she could see herself as a Doane student one day.

“I was so excited to go to a school where people were so good at performing,” Ramirez said. 

She also noticed the way Dr. Kurt Runestad, professor of music at Doane, directed the choir. As an aspiring music teacher herself, she knew that going to Doane meant an opportunity to learn from a highly respected and successful music educator. 

Runestad’s Influence

Kurt Runestad directs the choir on stage

Runestad began directing the Doane Choir in 2004, and has twice received the “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” award from Doane’s Student Congress. He helps students understand that the choir tour is about more than performing a few concerts around the country, McIntosh said. 

“He told us that this music that we’re performing and singing is moving people to tears,” McIntosh said. “It has given them a reason to get back into music or to try again with the failed relationship with a friend.”

Students often quote Runestad when discussing their choir experience. 

“I'm stealing Dr. R’s phrasing for this one,” said Zekiel Krejci-Hyde, a senior mathematics and data analytics major. “[In choir], you get to forget about your other responsibilities and focus on making beautiful music with a diverse group of people.”

“His catchphrase to us is ‘your best is always enough,’” Ramirez said. Tears welled in her eyes as she described how Dr. Runestad leads the choir with love and positivity. “He is such a great person, and he does beautiful things for us.”

Traditions on Tour

Runestad designed the tour to build connections between the choir students and the communities they visit. Take for example the choir tour traditions, like a senior making a speech before each performance or the entire choir singing a song called “Bravo” to whoever cooks their dinner.

Audiences witness the connections between students during performances, too. Instead of holding music, students in Doane Choir hold each other’s hands while they sing.

Choir students stand on the risers in between singingAnd then there are the homestays, arranged by Runestad in place of hotel stays in smaller communities. During homestays, residents open their doors to the Doane students, feeding them dinner, giving them a place to sleep and driving them back to the bus the next morning.

Homestays impact students long past the time they pack their bags, like an experience Krejci-Hyde had on the 2023 tour. An unexpected snowstorm forced the choir to spend an extra day in Bridgeport, Nebraska. It could have derailed the tour. Instead, Krejci-Hyde’s homestay “mom” dug out all of the winter weather gear in her home and piled him and five other Doane choir students into her car. She gave them all a tour of Bridgeport and then took them sledding. 

“When we went to leave, she insisted on giving Drew Pennington [’23] the 12-string guitar they had since he had been admiring it,” Krejci-Hyde said.

McIntosh also has a homestay memory that stuck with him. He and fellow Doane choir student, senior Logan Capek, stayed with a retired couple in a rural Kansas town.

“I remember sitting down in the living room and talking to them for almost four hours,” McIntosh said. 

In the morning, when the couple dropped them off at the bus, the elderly man handed McIntosh his business card. He told McIntosh if he ever got stuck within one hundred miles of his address to give him a call and he would pick him up.

After seeing their concert and speaking with the two students who stayed in his home, the elderly man sent Runestad an email. In it, he thanked Runestad and the Doane Choir. “He said that he felt like there was still hope in the world,” McIntosh said.

Each tour ends with a concert back on Doane’s campus. But the effect of the tour — the hope, the relationships, the community — continues after the final note has been sung.

“Music can influence people in so many different ways,” McIntosh said. “I think that’s why people who sing, sing.”