The last thing most students want to do on a Monday morning is come to school an hour early, but the smiles and laughter radiating from the Jordan High School choir room paint a different picture for the members of Harmonix, the school’s female a capella group.
“One of my favorite parts of being here is seeing everyone committed to the group and wanting to learn the music and do our best,” sophomore Abby Oehlerking said at an early morning practice. “It’s really fun to see.”
That hard work and drive to improve themselves took the 14 members of Harmonix a long way this year — all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the regional semifinals of the International Championship of High School A Capella, where they placed fourth.
It was the first time Harmonix advanced to the semifinals. The group was established two years ago by high school choir teacher Katie McKnight, who originally caught the a capella bug when she was in high school.
“Contemporary a capella is a very big passion of mine,” McKnight said. “I started and was in a contemporary a capella group in college and I loved it. I started writing arrangements for them and competed with that group.”
When Mcknight landed her first teaching job after college she started an a capella group for her students and wrote the arrangements. McKnight said a capella was a draw for her students at Appleton East High School in Wisconsin, no doubt because of the popularity of a capella at the time.
“When I started teaching ‘Glee’ was really popular,” McKnight said. “’Pitch Perfect’ came out maybe two years after. It was gaining a lot of publicity in the media. A lot of kids wanted to do it.”
When McKnight moved to Minnesota and started teaching at JHS, she established a co-curricular a capella program with three groups: a mixed ensemble, a female group and a male group. Every year, McKnight holds auditions for each spot in the groups. The audition process at times can seem meticulous, she said, due to how fundamental vocal ability is to an a capella ensemble.
“It’s important for me as a director to know their range — how low and how high they can sing, the tone quality of their voice, what voice type they would be,” McKnight said. “I test their ear to see if they can match pitch, hold down a harmony ... there are no instruments to help you, you have to be able to internalize everything.”
Plenty of students have turned out for the auditions each year. McKnight believes the opportunity to sing pop music is what makes a capella so attractive to high school students.
“Pop music is easily relatable to kids because it’s usually about a mood, an emotion, an experience that most people can quickly relate to — love songs, breakup songs, party songs. They hear it on the radio and they’re already familiar with it,” McKnight said. “When they get to do it in school, their culture gets to be shared. That’s what I think is the first thing that draws them in.”
Some Harmonix members said pop music is more difficult to sing than people think.
“It’s a whole different technique,” senior Kassidy Parks said. “Pop music I feel is way more harder than classical choral music. If you don’t have the proper voice for the solo then it doesn’t sound right; there are a lot of technical things.”
Others find a sense of artistic freedom in singing pop.
“It’s fun learning pop music because there are so many different choices you can make,” senior Grace Cromie said. “You can go different directions with each note. In that note you can make certain choices that make it different and I think that is really cool.”
When it comes to competition, the students have lot of creative input in designing their performance set. Each year, the students brainstorm pop songs to sing, then decide on a set and pitch them to McKnight to arrange.
“We’re all into different kinds of music,” senior Katie Hall said. “What’s nice is we are all fairly open to listening to different kinds of music and choosing different styles.”
“It helps us branch away from what we would normally listen to,” Parks said.
In the fall, the girls determine which songs they’d like to perform in their 12-minute competition set. This year they chose to craft the set around a distinct theme.
“It followed the story line of going through a breakup and how to move on from a broken relationship,” McKnight said.
After the group settles on a list of songs, McKnight translates the music into a capella arrangements, often by making a multi-track recording of her singing all the parts to each song. Right before winter break, the students are given their arrangements to practice in their free time.
“We get our 39-page set of music before Christmas break, and by the end of break we’re expected to know it for the most part,” Hall said. “You get about a week-and-a-half to learn this chunk of music. When we come back it’s like Christmas morning all over again, it’s like opening up a gift and everybody can sing the harmony nicely.”
Over the next two months, the members of Harmonix work around the clock to improve and fine-tune their performance set.
“We rehearse during competition season 11 hours a week,” Oehlerking said. “A lot of us are in sports and in musical stuff and doing so many other things at the same time, so it’s so cool how everyone is still here, wanting to improve, wanting to learn and wanting to get better as a whole. It’s really special to see everyone work so hard toward one goal.”
‘Fierce and powerful’
At a certain point, choreography is developed by the students and implemented into the act. This year, seniors Katie Hall and Claire Stocker choreographed Harmonix’s performance set and won the award for outstanding choreography at regional semifinals.
“Their choreography and stage presence I think it what set them apart,” McKnight said. “My girls get on stage and they are confident and fierce and powerful, they’re not afraid to move their body and be assertive. I think that catches people off-guard sometimes and they expect it to be cute and things that are safe.”
And when it’s time to perform, many students, particularly a lot of first-year singers, surprise themselves.
“I get to see the confidence it gives girls,” junior Rei Garlick said. “There are a lot of girls that walk in and aren’t very confident or don’t have a lot of self-esteem, but we all build each other up a lot.”
“When I started freshman year, I was so nervous on stage — I’d shake, I was terrified of anything,” junior Lizzie Horton said. “I think this group has really made me more confident as a person.”
After sending in their ICHSA audition video, Harmonix was accepted as one of 10 teams to perform in the Midwest regional quarterfinals at Southwest Christian High School in Chaska.
Last year, the girls earned fourth place at quarterfinals. They hoped to improve this year, but competition was fierce and they had no idea how well they were going to do. Some of them wrote off the possibility of taking first place, so when the top contender was awarded second place, they were worried and confused.
“They called the second place group, which we all thought was going to take first,” sophomore Abby Vizenor said. “I was like, ‘Who is going to take first?’ We were all looking around, kind of scared ... then they called us and we all screamed and I almost got tackled. It was a great time.”
Harmonix advanced to the regional semifinals in Milwaukee. Every member of the group remembers that moment vividly.
“I had never cried out of happiness before,” Parks said.
“That was honestly the highlight of my life so far,” Oehlerking said. “It was such a great experience. Everyone’s faces were so happy, it was really nice to see a reward for how hard we’ve worked.”
“It was such an overwhelming sense of pride,” junior Victoria Ray said. “I think we were so proud of ourselves and of each other at how far we’ve got as a group.”
Serious and silly
One month later, Harmonix placed fourth at the regional semifinals, the winner of which advanced to national finals in New York. After performing at Milwaukee’s historic Pabst Theater, seniors returned to Jordan, proud of how the group improved over their high school tenure. Underclassmen returned with hopes of advancing even farther next year.
The members of Harmonix attribute their success this season to a number of different factors, but being able to balance hard work with fun was a common theme.
“I think we have an ability to be serious and silly at the same time,” Onamusi said. “If you came to an a capella rehearsal you would wonder how we got first place ... sometimes we need it, because we’ll be getting stressed out. I feel like we have that ability to do both and that makes us special.”
But above all else, the girls value the bonds they’ve formed with each other that have strengthened their performance.
“This year everybody talks to everybody and we all like each other and accept that everyone has their differences,” senior Halle Shimek said. “We all trust each other and it’s a comfortable space.”
“There are so many people in this group that I would have never have talked to before a capella, but now that I’m in it, they are some of my closest friends now,” Oehlerking said.
After traveling throughout the Midwest to compete, Harmonix brings its award-winning performance back to Jordan at the end of the school year, when it performs at the high school a capella concert at 7 p.m. on May 29.