Southern Students Learn Valuable Musical Lessons from New York Voices

By DAVID BIGGY | Jan 17, 2018
Photo by: David Biggy New York Voices member Darmon Meader leads and instructs the Southern Regional High School select choir and chorus groups through a song during the students’ visit to Ocean County College on Jan. 12.

On one side of the theater inside the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, Darmon Meader, Peter Eldridge and Lauren Kinhan watched and listened intently to the teenage performers. On the other side, Kim Nazarian bopped to the mellow, jazzy sound of “The World Keeps You Waiting.”

Each member of the New York Voices wore a smile on his or her face, obviously delighted by the rendition of their tune being delivered by some 80 Southern Regional High School students. When the last note was sung, they applauded and praised the young men and women standing in front of the stage.

“They did great,” Meader said later, backstage, as he and the professional music group geared up for their scheduled performance at Ocean County College later that evening on Jan. 12. “It seems Southern is another New Jersey school flourishing with its music program, and it’s wonderful to see these kids enjoying music and the teachers working so hard to lead them.”

But the Southern select and concert choirs weren’t on the Toms River campus merely to entertain for a few moments. They were there to learn from some of the best in the jazz business, and each member of the internationally known group offered something a little different.

“Some of the things we’re going to talk about might be some stylistic things, and some may be a bit subjective,” Meader explained as the master class started shortly after 2 p.m. “And some things are actually just interesting dynamics that are different when you have four people singing it versus this many. Some things are just different, which is kind of cool.”

From keeping with the rhythm of the high hat on the drums to tightening up certain words in the lyrics to delivering their vowels in a smoother way, the New York Voices members each had tidbits of advice to enhance the Southern students’ performance. Once the initial critiquing was finished, Meader led the group through a part of the song before the rest of the professionals added a few more critiques and then all joined in to sing along with the students.

“To have so many of you singing collectively and so together ... the cutoffs are so together, and it’s just beautiful,” Nazarian praised. “You guys are doing such a great job.”

With a half-hour gone by, it was time to break the student group down to the 20 vocal jazz ensemble members who were slated to perform with the New York Voices that evening. And after an initial rendition of “I Could Write a Book,” the pros offered more positive criticisms. Meader, a saxophonist in addition to a vocalist, also helped instruct Southern’s instrumental jazz ensemble, scheduled to perform in the evening show as well.

“We’re going to be singing a lot of their songs at our upcoming concert, so them telling us all that they did is going to make our whole program so much better,” said Carly Sica. “Ms. (Carolyn) Placa is a great director, and she’s taught us some awesome techniques. But they were able to tell us about other techniques based on their experiences, and it’s so cool to hear that feedback. To be here with them is such an amazing experience and it’s something we’ll take with us for a long time.”

Jazz ensemble vocalist Alex Pallen said even the slightest little change – coming from the critique by the professionals – can make their music “sound so much better.”

“It’s their music, so they knew a lot more about the piece we did, so their feedback just enhanced how we learned and how we’re going to perform it,” he said. “It really made a big difference hearing it from professionals. Compared to the way we sang it the first time, it was so much better the second time.”

Placa and instrumental instructor Jennifer Hodgson jumped on the opportunity for their students to be part of an instruction period and performance with the New York Voices because they knew it would benefit their students for years.

“These are people who make their living creating and performing music, but they’re real-life people,” said Placa, a big fan of the group who has been to a bunch of its shows. “They’re not egotistical. They’re willing to teach, and even make mistakes and laugh about it. This experience has a lot of good life lessons for most of our students, the biggest one being that we can be good at something, but we can be even better when we get to share it.”

Meader said he and his colleagues are all about educating students, knowing that some of them may choose musical paths for their careers.

“We’re strong believers that all the things that go into developing a skill set are important, whether you’re trying to become a finely tuned ballet dancer or a finely tuned athlete,” he said. “We all teach at various universities, so it kind of comes naturally to us to keep doing that. We were fortunate to experience teachers who helped us see the light, so to speak. So we really like to be able to do the same for another generation.”

“They’re Grammy Award-winning artists, so this whole experience is really cool,” Pallen said. “We’re only in high school and we’ve been given this opportunity, so it’s really special.”

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