They say you want a reVOLution. I’m not quite sure I was ready for mine. At least not in the ways that I realized. This will be a reflection of my two years with reVOLution – the all-female a cappella ensemble at the University of Tennessee.
I have to say that I’ve been in choirs ever since I can remember. I think the one thing that has been fairly consistent over my almost 26 years on this earth next to my love for music is my participation in choral ensembles. When I came to UT, that didn’t change one bit. In fact, I was immersed even deeper into choral music by trade. Contemporary a cappella, on the other hand, was something that was fairly new to me. “New” as in I had only been introduced to it in college. My freshman year at Maryville College I heard “Off Kilter” for the first time and thought “*GASP* I want to do that………” And so my love for all things contemporary a cappella grew! So you’re not bored with me by the end of this post, I am going to shorten my undergraduate experience with Off Kilter.
It was cool.
After I graduated, I stayed around Maryville College and got to work with Off Kilter helping with rehearsals and sectionals and realized, hey, I can do this…I should do this…I’m going to do this. And I applied for my master’s in choral conducting.
When I auditioned at UT, Dr Batey told me to come and listen to one of the choir concerts. So…in the spring, after I had been accepted and knew that UT was where I was going in the fall, I went to one of the spring concerts. I listened to the choirs and thought “I could get used to this.” And then it was VOLume and reVOLution’s turn to perform.
reVOLution went first.
CAUTION: I am going to speak very openly here. I do not wish to hurt anyone’s feelings, nor do I wish to offend anyone. at all. ever.
I was really upset when I heard them. Why? Because Dr Batey told me that I would be working with that group and I didn’t really think they sounded all that…good…NOW…to their credit, they were a newly formed, student-run group and I was impressed that they were on a choral concert! And, I was really spoiled because the girls section of Off Kilter the year I was working with, was probably one of the best sections there ever had been! So…all of those things combined, my heart sank a little. Then VOLume performed and kicked butt. As always. So my first impression of reVOLution was not that great. All of that being said, however, I was still SUPER STOKED to get to work with an all-female a cappella group throughout my graduate career.
Year One – First Semester of Graduate School:
My first semester was a learning semester. Meagan, the founding director, was still in charge and I was there to watch and learn. Learn about audition procedures, learn about rehearsals, learn about how to schedule concerts, basically she helped me walk the rope that first semester. I taught one or two pieces to the girls but for the most part, she was the leader. We had a couple of concerts and performed on the choral concerts like they always did and it was a blast!
Year Two – Second Semester of Graduate School:
When she left I thought there was no way I would be able to handle the group the way she could. She has excellent piano skills, she is a great leader, and every single girl in that group absolutely adored her. And now, here I come…the NEWBIE…going to take over after one semester of watching. Most to all of the girls in the group had been there since the group had formed. Who was I to take over and “direct”…? We had lost a couple of voices due to scheduling conflicts and I had to reaudition for a couple of parts. We ended up with three new voices and I had to make a quick decision because I wasn’t aware that we would lose singers until the week of our first rehearsal. I picked the girls I thought would blend best with the existing girls in the group. And they didn’t know that I was a “newbie” but I knew that I was a newbie. And the other girls knew I was a newbie…and the first rehearsal was coming up…right around the corner. So, as terrified as I was, I walked into that first rehearsal as prepared as I could be and left that first rehearsal feeling surprisingly relieved. I knew after that rehearsal that the girls weren’t going to tar and feather me for not being Meagan. Tar and feathering was my main concern besides being pelted with stones. From that rehearsal on, I did my best, picked repertoire, asked for arrangements from a great friend, William Brimer, and basically did what I thought needed to be done. I took a different approach than Meagan did. Mainly because I’m not as ‘cool’ as Meagan is. Plus, contemporary a cappella had become my strong suit over the few years prior and I felt right at home in rehearsals. I think the first semester was great because I was able to settle into a routine with the girls and get to know them as a friend/singer rather than immediately establishing myself as “the leader.” By the end of the semester, people began telling reVOLution how great they sounded and how they’ve improved ten-fold since the year before and how much they’ve grown. I’m not sure I realized how much we had grown because to me, it was hard work, and hard work was paying off. Every girl in reVOLution put 110% of themselves into (almost) every rehearsal. And I knew that if they were there 110%, I needed to be there 210%. I spent at least an hour and a half outside each rehearsal looking over the music and another hour playing parts before each rehearsal since my piano skills were not stellar. By the end of the year, I was more than pleased with the progress they had made and was very proud of the skills I had acquired as well!
Year Two: Third Semester of Graduate School
I had a fairly busy summer and didn’t have much of a chance to pick repertoire for reVOLution until a couple of weeks before school started. reVOLution doesn’t audition until the Fall and since we re-audition everyone, I wasn’t sure of the voices I would have. Which made the arranging and choosing of pieces pretty difficult. I had a couple of pieces picked out that I was pretty sure any mixture of voices could do. The auditions came and I had about three times the amount of girls audition than we had the year before. I was absolutely blown away. And by the time auditions were over, I was exhausted. Mentally, physically, and aurally. I couldn’t even listen to music on the way home because my head was so full of girls voices singing everything from Justin Bieber to Katherine McPhee. And that’s when it hit me — I have to break a lot of hearts and disappoint a lot of souls. I could tell that ever since one of the girls who auditioned REALLY wanted to be in reVOLution and they were excited and nervous. And I was excited for them! Until I realized I would be breaking hearts. It took me about a week, but I finally narrowed it down to a group of 11 ladies. 11 ladies who signed a year-long contract so we didn’t have to go through the trouble of reauditioning and re-teaching/re-assigning of parts. It was a larger group of girls than the previous year and I wanted to narrow it down to 8 but I knew that there was no way that I could. So I sent out the congratulations e-mails, I sent out the “unfortunately..” e-mails, and the week afterwards, we started rehearsing.
At the first rehearsal, I knew that I had an outstanding group. They blended immediately. Almost without any instruction what-so-ever. There were no egos to work around, there was no ‘bad-blood’ in the group, everybody in the group was friendly to everybody else. And I left that rehearsal with tears in my eyes. Tears of excitement! I could not WAIT until people heard them for the first time. I worked their butts off. I pushed them to the limit of what I thought they could do, I challenged them to learn more pieces, to memorize quicker, and to be more musical. I challenged them to push the envelope of what they were “comfortable” doing. For some girls, that was singing alto 2 when they usually sang alto 1. For others, it was encouraging them to try their hand at beat-boxing. For some, it was to put them on a part by themselves to see if they could hold their own. And I sat back like a little mother hen and watched them all grow before my very eyes! They grew as musicians, they grew as women, they grew as friends, and they grew — most importantly — as reVOLution. After our first performance, Dr Batey instructed me to send in a tape to Varsity Vocals. Unfortunately, she told me about it a day after the deadline but she told me to go ahead and send them an e-mail to see if we could submit a late audition form. Luckily, I had been video-taping the rehearsals so that the girls could listen to what we had worked on the previous day so I already had a bunch of film to pick from for our audition video. Varsity Vocals e-mailed me back and said that they would accept a late audition tape, so on a whim, I sent it in! A couple of weeks later, I told the girls that I had sent in a tape to one of the biggest collegiate a cappella competitions in the country and hadn’t heard anything so we must not have made it. But the good thing is that we put ourselves out there and we are making a name for ourselves. The last concert came and went and reVOLution went their separate ways over Christmas break. Still no word from Varsity Vocals about the competition…must not have made it in.
Year Two: Fourth Semester of Graduate School
Spring semester started off with a bang. We had a retreat so we could record some of the fall repertoire and we started working on some new pieces. Within the first two weeks of spring semester, we got an e-mail from Varsity Vocals. Saying that we had made it to quarter finals.
A group that was formed two years ago. That has never competed before. That has never even THOUGHT about competing in the future. We made it into quarter finals? There’s got to be a mistake somewhere…they meant to e-mail someone else…groups have been competing in ICCA for years and years and years…and we made it?
We’ve got a lot of work to do.
From the day that I told the girls that we had made it into the competition they knew that it was going to take a lot of extra work to even do a good job at quarter finals. I did as much research as I could to prepare them the best that I could possibly prepare them. I was so lucky to have someone who had competed before contact me and come visit with reVOLution during one of our rehearsals to give us a heads up of what to expect. But the thing that I was most impressed with over the course of the whole six weeks…was the dedication that each and every one of the girls put into the group. You have to remember that this is not a class for a grade. They don’t even get credit for being in the group. It’s something they do on the side for fun. And they would come to four rehearsals a week for choreography and extra rehearsals for musical issues. I’d never expect such a talented group of girls to put so much effort into something for fun. And I realized shortly after, that I was putting in a heck of a lot of effort into something that I wasn’t getting a grade for either. Because I love it. I love a cappella music, I love teaching, but most importantly, I love the group of girls that I was working so hard for. I couldn’t imagine a better way to be spending my time. (Besides planning a wedding..which I was also doing during all of this.) The six weeks went by FAST…and I was really excited for what we would learn when we went down to quarter-finals. The day of quarter finals, we all carpooled down to Athens, GA to compete. We were ready, excited, and really nervous. Sound check went well and we were all ready for our performance time! We performed. It went well. We had a BLAST and it eventually came time to announce the winners. I told the girls not to cry if we didn’t make it. And not to cry if we do make it. Because we were already the newbies. We didn’t also want to be the sissies. They announced all of the special awards first and we didn’t get any of those. And then it came time to announce the top three groups. The group in third place….was the all-female group from our host school. What’s going on in our minds right then? “There’s NO WAY we beat our host school’s own group…” The group in second place…also an all-female group. “Oh my gosh..we’re the only other all-female group here…..did…we….just….get SECOND?” After that I don’t remember much of what happened because the only thing going through my mind was “My wedding date is the 23rd. The competition is the 23rd. My wedding is in Knoxville. The competition is in Nashville. I can make this work…” We competed February 9th. Our next competition date was March 23rd and I knew that we needed to up the ante for this next round of competition. So we started putting a new set together. With wedding stuff, recitals, concerts, sickness, etc, we ended up two weeks before the performance (four rehearsals away) without a set. We put a set together two weeks before the performance. Perfected it as best we could, and took it to semi-finals in Nashville on March 23rd.
March 23rd. Sound check went horribly. We were almost late to our performance time. But we made it, performed, and waited. Unfortunately, we did not make it to finals in New York. And we decided that it was for the better. Because we couldn’t imagine trying to put together a competitive set for finals. But we were proud because we had never competed before. And we made it past the first round. We made it past groups that have competed in this competition for 20 years. And we had fun doing it!
After semi-finals were over, the pressure was “off” and we just had to prepare for our last few concerts. I knew that I wanted to do mostly new songs at our Spring concert so I pushed the girls to learn almost five new pieces in about a month. Which, since we only rehearse twice a week, is fairly quickly. They did it. They learned their parts, they perfected their musicality, they blended like nobody’s ever heard. And if they hate me…they have yet to show it!
All in all, my experience with reVOLution has been life-changing. My graduate school experience may not be the same as a typical MM Choral Conducting student’s but I could not have asked for a better way to spend the past two years. I have gotten to work and grow in a field that I absolutely love and adore. With a group of girls that I have more respect for than I ever could have imagined. And I’ve pushed myself to be a leader in a tough setting (an all-girl ensemble only slightly younger than myself…helllooooo? Can we please say challenge accepted?!)
I can’t imagine not working with them next year. My relationship with each and every one of them has grown and matured as I’ve watched them grow and mature. That sounds strange to say because I am only a few years older than them. But I really have watched each and every one of them expand into incredibly talented and dedicated musicians.
Words can’t express my gratitude for each and every one of their hearts and souls that they gave me on a musical and personal level. I think this is one of the reasons I can’t imagine being away from music. Music has such an innate ability to connect people on a deeper level. Singing with someone. Harmonizing with someone. Watching an arrangement come together before your very eyes.
My reVOLution is too great for words. There are almost 3,000 words in this blog post and I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I learned and how I’ve changed because of reVOLution.
I’m not ready for this part of graduate school to be over…I’m going to pack them up and take them to Iowa with me.
(Thank you, ladies…for everything! peace, love, and reVOL!)
Until next time, fellow BFs!