Get Your A Cappella On

Billy Fisher, Gavin Sekel, Eric Kennedy and Oniel Salik

Billy Fisher, Gavin Sekel, Eric Kennedy and Oniel Salik

Sun Valley is fortunate to have a wealth of students in the arts – especially with vocal talent.  And it’s Music Director Suzanne Calise’s role to tease out the best they have to offer for The Music Man.

As a vocal teacher for nearly twenty years, Suzanne has taught her share of young people.   She’s also worked with various directors to help produce musicals in both Penn Delco and Garnet Valley School Districts.  And working music with 90+ students over several weeks is an undertaking.

“I would say my biggest challenge is time,” notes Suzanne.  “I’m faced with the same vocal challenges whether I am working with 1 or 20 singers.  Teaching them solid core vocal technique will fix many issues.”

It helps that Penn Delco has built a solid choral program to develop young voices.  And Suzanne appreciates working with Liz Hazlett again:  “(In the middle school). . .Liz works tirelessly to make sure every student comes out of her classroom with both good singing technique and musicianship.  She is able to see what the kids are able to do as she casts them for the show. That is a gift. A gift that a great director must possess.”

This particular musical offers it’s own challenges, particularly with the famed barbershop quartet, a featured thread through out the entire show.

“What makes the quartet music so difficult are the very close harmonies” explains Suzanne.  “And the music contains harmonies most young singers today are not accustomed to singing or listening to.”

The famed quartet of The Music Man, The Buffalo Bills (like the football team!), were the 1950 International Quartet Champions.  They were not only featured in the Broadway production of the show but also memorialized in the 1962 movie release.

Oniel Salik, Eric Kennedy, and Gavin Sekel

Oniel Salik, Eric Kennedy, and Gavin Sekel

The young singers tasked to bring this quartet to life are Juniors Gavin Sekel, Eric Kennedy, and Oniel Salik– joined by seventh grade performer Billy Fisher.

“I thought I’d get a small part this year since I’m only a seventh grader,” explains Billy. “I was shocked when I was put in the barbershop quartet with three juniors.  I really appreciate them and Mrs. Hazlett for believing in me.”

But even the high school musicians acknowledge the challenge:  “The songs the full cast sings can be challenging,” observes Gavin, “but our songs are ridiculous!  They are really, really hard.”

Oneil agrees: “It’s as complicated music as music can be since there is no music – except our voices.”

In simple speak, there are four parts to harmonize and each of those parts has its own role.  Suzanne explains:  “The most difficult part of both teaching or learning a cappella music is the moment the music is taken away. The singer must learn how to hear their musical melody and harmony in their mind. They must also learn to blend with the rest of the quartet without being thrown off.”

Gavin admits learning the music is really a process:  “It’s getting the notes down first, then getting used to each other.”

That’s where they appreciate the contribution of Suzanne’s guidance. “Technique is a big thing,” notes Eric, “Suzanne is really helpful with that.”

However challenging, Eric is excited about their prospects for the show:   “We’re slowly getting the hang of being a quartet, collaborating together.”

And Suzanne is impressed with their effort as a team:  “I am so impressed with their commitment to learn the music.  They never give up.  When one member of the quartet is having a problem, they work together to help that person learn their part correctly.”

Oneil agrees:  “ We can all sing our parts separately but it’s about pushing and pulling the tempo and adding your own flair to it.   It’s interesting.  It’s a whole different style of music.”

A style of a cappella, barbershop vocal harmony was first associated with African American southern quartets in the late 19th century and remained popular for about twenty years.  African American quartets were commonplace in cities like St. Louis, MO or Jacksonville, FL where men would socialize and harmonize while waiting in the barbershops.  African American historian James Weldon writes, “every barbershop seemed to have its own quartet.”

Eventually white minstrel singers picked up the style with songs such as “Sweet Adeline”.   Years later Meridith Willson would write the vocal harmonies for The Music Man’s  “Lida Rose”, a lovely quartet song inspired by his aunt and mom.

While the difficulty of the music is top of mind for these high school performers, they certainly also recognize the historic significance of reproducing an American classic with classic music forms.

“We’re used to older musicals now,” observes Oneil,  “but this music is pretty cool.”

And the gentlemen quartet is ready to not only sound great, but look good while doing it.  When asked about their costumes Gavin notes with a smile:  “Suits, hats, stuff like that.”