This month’s Acappellooza Summer marks 5 years of harmony and fun

Acappellooza Summer rehearsal

The UMSL music camp has quadrupled in size since its 2013 beginnings under the direction of Associate Professor of Music Jim Henry (at left). (Photos by August Jennewein)

Back in 2013, Kayla Schieffer’s first experience of the University of Missouri–St. Louis unexpectedly changed her life.

Along with 39 other teens that summer, she’d signed up to take part in a new music camp devoted to something she loved: singing. But those initial four days on campus have since morphed into four years.

“I’d never considered attending UMSL or seriously pursuing my passion for singing and performing,” says Schieffer, now a senior music major at the university. “Then I attended Acappellooza Summer and met Debbie Cleveland and Dr. Jim Henry.”

The camp’s choral directors – and the sheer intensity and inspiration embedded into the camp itself – have had a lasting impact not just on Schieffer but on hundreds of budding vocalists over the past five years. Nearly 180 participants are registered for the 2017 iteration set for July 11 to 14.

Ambassadors of Harmony with Jim Henry

This year’s culminating concert – set for 7 p.m. July 14 – is expected to draw a full house to the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. The evening will showcase the Acappellooza Summer choruses as well as the Ambassadors of Harmony (pictured), ClassRing and other special guests.

“It’s pretty gratifying to watch it grow,” says Henry, director of choral studies at UMSL. “We seem to have hit on something that music students and teachers really want in their lives.”

Acappellooza Summer began as a natural outgrowth of the Acappellooza festivals that UMSL holds annually each fall. Those daylong events – one for men’s chorus and one for women’s chorus – draw a combined 1,200 young singers every year.

“The festivals have gotten so popular that every time we open registration, it’s full within an hour or two,” Henry says.

The summer-camp version builds on that success, offering an extended immersion in the art of a cappella music. Participants stay on campus in Oak Hall for three nights and, along with rigorous vocal instruction, enjoy group activities and all sorts of fun.

They come from all over Missouri and all parts of the country for the experience.

“We’ve had students from as far away as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida,” Henry says. “I think we’ve got roughly 10 different states represented at this year’s camp.”

While there is a cost associated with the week, Henry estimates that about 70 of the 2017 participants will benefit from scholarships made possible by the Ambassadors of Harmony Foundation. The internationally acclaimed a cappella group – directed by Henry – held a gala night in February resulting in $28,000.

The culminating concerts have also been a source of support. The 2016 performance, which drew an audience of 1,600 to the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, brought in $4,000 in donations toward the effort.

This year’s concert is set for 7 p.m. July 14 and is, as ever, free and open to the public. For campers, the chance to perform in such a top-notch venue is a key highlight – something Schieffer will always remember.

Acappellooza energy

Debbie Cleveland, the women’s chorus director, adds her own energy to Acappellooza Summer.

“We had to learn several songs and choreography in a few short days and then perform on the last day for all our friends and family,” says the St. Peters, Missouri, native. “It was an amazing experience for everyone to come together to share what we’d learned. Students come from all over, with different backgrounds, and then you step on stage and come together as one.”

A labor of love for Henry, whose own musical interests blossomed in high school like so many of those he works with today, Acappellooza Summer also provides youth with a real sense of just how much UMSL has to offer as a university. And some of them, like Schieffer, later return to Triton territory as college students.

“Probably around half of our University Singers each year say they came to at least one of the Acappellooza festivals in high school,” Henry notes.

He adds that part of the mission of both UMSL and the Ambassadors of Harmony is to empower the next generation through community outreach. And that’s something that seems more important than ever.

“We feel like we really need to do something that helps enhance music in the lives of people, because many of the schools are having a hard time,” says Henry, pointing to budget cuts in education and widely varying levels of investment and opportunity when it comes to the arts.

A two-time international quartet champion bass who has been singing four-part harmony since he was a child, Henry says he continues to relish everything involved with putting on Acappellooza. It’s a ton of work – for everyone – but it’s also incredibly fruitful and fun.

“I love getting to see how many young people have a passion for this sort of thing,” he says. “You’re sharing music with people, and you have four days to prepare an entire concert. These students – they really bond, and it’s really meaningful.”

The UMSL Experience

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