Teens sing their hearts out at Acappellooza

Debbie Cleveland leads the Acappellooza women’s chorus in rehearsal for their performance at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Sebi Santiago-Rivas expected to get a lot of practice singing when he signed up to come to Acappellooza Summer, but he got much more.

The recent high school graduate learned that he has a passion for barbershop music and met a strong network of talented singers.

“I’m meeting future stars,” said Santiago-Rivas, who attended Acappellooza from Philadelphia. Acappellooza is the week-long camp for a cappella singers hosted by the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

In 2014, the camp attracted 80 students from grades 9-12 to the UMSL campus. Jim Henry, associate professor of music and UMSL’s music department chair and head of choral studies, developed the camp to provide opportunities for devoted singers to get experience that they might not get at home.

Participants spent the week living on campus at UMSL and many hours per day training and rehearsing for a Friday evening concert at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. Members of the barbershop groups Ambassadors of Harmony and Double Date also aided in mentoring students.

Programs like Acappellooza are crucial for developing young musicians at a time when schools are cutting music budgets, Henry said. The students of Acappellooza display a high devotion to music.

“Here we are, surrounded by kids who are passionate about music, motivated by the arts, and who are living examples of the innumerable benefits of arts education. Yet more and more politicians and school districts are neglecting them,” Henry said. “They’re here working from 9 to 5. It takes a certain kind of kid to do that.”

Jim Henry, far left, leads the Acappellooza men’s chorus in a rehearsal for a performance at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photo by August Jennewein)

A cappella requires singers to perform without the aid of musical instruments. Because of this, a cappella singers have to tune their voices to each other. The result is music created by the blending of the specific voices.

“There’s nothing quite like blending your voice in perfect harmony with other voices. The feeling goes right to your bone marrow. It really can change your life,” Henry said.

A cappella music is a long-standing tradition but one whose popularity seems to be revived periodically, said Debbie Cleveland, a performer and choral director from Tampa, Fla. Lately, shows like “Glee” and movies like “Pitch Perfect” have driven students to the musical form.

“A cappella groups have been on college campuses for a long time, but each generation discovers it for themselves,” said Cleveland, who directed the women’s chorus at Acappellooza.

Students participating in the camp exhibited that excitement.

Jake McKie became interested in a cappella music through his father, who is a member of the Ambassadors of Harmony. He’s attracted to the style because of the collaboration with fellow singers.

“A cappella is not a solo thing,” said McKie, a student at Westminster Christian Academy and University City, Mo., resident. “I love the community it creates and the people you get to be around. I love this environment and these people.”

Jocelyn Sanders, a student at Francis Howell Central High School from St. Peters, Mo., was also attracted by the communal aspect of the music.

“I like how it doesn’t rely on music,” Sanders said. “Everything relies on everyone working together.”

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