Moffat County students stretch voices, a cappella style
January 23, 2016
Craig — Sambu Shrestha remembers how he eased into the art of beatboxing. He'd imitate sounds when things got slow — a stray heartbeat, for instance — and before long he could tell he was good at it.
"I would always get really bored with my life, and I would just start making weird sounds," said Sambu, a 14-year-old freshman at Moffat County High School. "And then I figured out it was actually a thing, so I just started playing around and it started sounding cool."
Sambu is enrolled in an a cappella class at the high school this semester — a class where he and 15 other students put vocal skills like these to impressive musical use.
It's a class that was devised by Choir Teacher Grace Pomeleo, in her first year of teaching, and veteran staff members say they can't recall any a cappella class at the high school before.
"Because a cappella music is a huge part of popular culture right now, I thought it would be a good fit," Pomeleo said.
Pomeleo hoped the class would help generate interest in the choral program, and it has. As soon as the class was announced, students flocked in for the chance to take it. Pomeleo said that about 35 students auditioned, a number that was painfully whittled down to 16, based on criteria such as students' ability to harmonize, and also on striking a balance of experienced and novice singers.
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“The hope is that, as this becomes more popular, there could be two a cappella courses and more opportunity for people to be accepted,” Pomeleo said.
Not all of the students in this semester’s class can read music, Pomeleo noted, but she said that's something they'll work on learning as the semester moves along.
As Pomeleo practiced with the students during a recent class, she prodded them to reach deeply to find the right intonations.
"The 'oohs' have to be so dramatic that you feel silly," she told them.
The students didn't need much prompting, launching into harmonies punctuated by drumbeat sounds supplied by Sambu. And when it came time to practice "Daft Punk" from the group Pentatonix, the class let out a cheer.
Watching the students practice was like seeing an evolving organism, as the sound bubbled up from the group and seemed to take on its own life. About a half-an-hour into class, students gathered around a piano that Pomeleo played to help establish beats and sound patterns. At one point she made a magician-motion toward the piano, wiggling her fingers and asking for "good vibes." The phrase caught on, and soon class members were talking about calling their whole musical ensemble the "Good Vibes."
A cappella in vogue
A cappella may not always have been cool among teenagers, but it is now. Pomeleo said movies such as Pitch Perfect and television shows such as The Sing-Off and Glee have helped to thrust a cappella music into the imaginations of teenagers. She also mentioned the group Pentatonix, a rousing favorite among many students in the class.
Pomeleo said that the recent surge of a cappella music in popular culture has helped to drive away an old stigma sometimes attached to high school singing, particularly for boys.
"There's always been that weird stigma that singing is not manly, or that it's not cool to be a guy in choir," Pomeleo said. "But now these a cappella movies and groups are making it seem cool to be in choir. That definitely helps you find some hidden talents that you otherwise wouldn't find."
The sorts of songs the class is working on emerge from all sorts of musical corners. Pomeleo said the class helped frame the musical agenda, and the chosen songs come from groups such as The Beatles, The Turtles and Pentatonix. Pomeleo said they're also practicing the nineteenth century hymn, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," in both Latin and English.
The voice as an instrument
What's powerful about performing all of those pieces a cappella, Pomeleo explained, is just how playful and intricate the students voices become.
"When we are singing with accompaniment, or instruments, we are trying to sound like our natural human sound," she said. "When we're in our a cappella group, we're actually trying to imitate the instrument. So we make a lot of sounds that we would never make in a traditional choir."
That means students also have to listen well, so that they can absorb the subtleties of the sounds they're imitating.
Stephanie Duarte, an 18-year-old senior, came to the class with experience singing in a choir. That sort of performance, she said, took on a more formal tone than the a cappella singing she does in the class. She mentioned a "beat, a rhythm, a pop" in a cappella music.
"In a cappella you have to mimic instruments, and mimic noises," Stephanie said.
Jake Stewart, who also has choir experience, described the way a voice can surprise a person when it's performing a cappella.
"It's really amazing what the voice can do," he said, and then he went on to explain "overtoning," a kind of dual sound made by a single voice.
"Instead of going through one section of your vocal chords, (the sound) will go through two," Jake said.
When students reflected on their attraction to a cappella, they talked about some of the recent film and television influences that Pomeleo mentioned. But they also said they liked performing some older pieces.
"I really like doing older music, like classic music from the '50s or the '90s," Stephanie said. "I like the older stuff. But what I really like about a cappella is when we harmonize, because it sounds so beautiful. That's my favorite part."
An educational boost
Kelly McCormick, principal of the Moffat County High School, noted the way the a cappella class might inject life into a student's overall approach to school.
"Every kid's a little different," he said. "Every kid has a different interest. And anything that gets them hooked into the educational experience — we're for that."
Pomeleo said the students will take their singing out of the classroom later in the semester, performing in the high school's spring choir concert in May. Pomeleo said she also hoped the students would perform in a kind of café-style concert in March. And with some fundraising, she added, she's hoping the class will be able to participate in an a cappella festival in Denver, in April.