The room is a sea of blue shirts — light blue for girls, cobalt for the boys, each with bright white script spelling out ‘Vocalocity’ on the chest. Some are standing, others sitting on worn red vinyl chairs. Three people crowd around an old upright piano, playing random chords on the keys.
Director and East mom Donna West calls everyone to the middle of the room. West announces that the choir now has to put girls on a waiting list, evoking applause and a few cat-calls. Since the beginning of the year, Vocalocity has become so popular that they can’t take everyone who wants to participate. With 36 members, 19 of whom come from East, they are one of the only show choir in Kansas.
It’s the practice after their first performance, so after introducing new members, West begins her critique. Dancing and faces. If they want to do well at Nationals, they’ve got to work hard on these two things. The group is planning a trip to Branson, MO to watch other show choirs at a competition, what West calls a “spying and stealing” mission. But the vocals: West thinks they’re some of the best she’s heard.
West tells the choir she’s been watching videos of choirs at Nationals. “If you listen to some of the winners… we’ve got a shot.”
As a private music teacher, West was displeased with a lot of different performing arts companies because it seemed to her that it was more about who participants knew rather than about their abilities. After a while, she decided to form her own performing arts company. Stage Right Performing Arts was born.
“Everybody has an equal shot,” West said. “It doesn’t matter how well I know you or anything like that….”
Stage Right started last summer as a theater-focused group. Then, with the television show Glee becoming more and more popular, some of West’s kids asked if she would form a show choir. She was all for it, especially because West met her husband in her middle-school show choir. Joining a male director from Bonner Springs, Brian White, they formed Vocalocity. Some of the first members were West’s children, senior Alex West and freshmen Garrison Mathews and Olivia West.
“When we first started out, people didn’t know who we were,” West said. “We took people, who, as long as they weren’t tone-deaf and they could sing pretty well, I thought I To audition for Vocalocity, students sing a piece of their choice in front of the directors. According to West, in most auditions, candidates only get 16 or 32 bars of music to make an impression, but for her choir, they get an entire piece. Afterwards, there is a dance audition. More experienced dancers receive a harder audition for the chance to be soloists. For performances, half of the dances choreographed by students and half are choreographed professionally.
Freshman Karl Walter was in Stage Right’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” when he heard about the new show choir. Having more of an interest in acting, he was skeptical at first, but mom and West urged him to join. He doesn’t regret his decision at all.
“I’d say [my favorite part] is probably the songs we sing,” Walter said. “They’re very interesting and fun. Some of them you know really well, and others are very new and foreign to you, yet fun to sing at the same time.”
West chooses the songs in a variety of ways. She attends listening sessions to hear the songs in their specific arrangement, and she gets input from members. Recent songs have been “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay, “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts, and the theme from Avatar. West also likes songs from the ‘80s and ‘90s, especially Michael Jackson, because she says that he’s so easy to dance to.
“Having four teenagers myself, I’m pretty up on current music,” West said.
Senior Amy Cosgrove loves to dance and sing, so when she heard about Vocalocity from Alex, she was eager to join. During her tryout, she made up a quick dance showing off her talent with kicks, jumps and turns. “Falling Out of Love Can be Fun” from the musical “Miss Liberty” completed her audition.
“I love regular choir so much, but this kind of show choir is totally different,” Cosgrove said. “You can have personality and dance instead of just standing and singing…I’ve always done musical theater… but this is just singing and dancing, so it’s perfect.”
Girls to the left, boys to the right. The four sections sit in their designated areas, waiting to practice their new song, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” “Baritones first!” West calls out, pointing to the far right, and a group of six guys high-five each other.
“At the last performance,” West tells them, “I had so many people come up to me and say, ‘Man, your guys can dance.’”
She turns on the boom-box, and the song begins. The choir sings along with the recorded singer, breaking off into parts. They go through the entire piece together.
West warns that they’re going to try it with the instrumental next: “Now, you all need to sing. I’d rather have you sing something wrong that I can correct.”
The music starts again, this time without the help of the recorded singer. The baritones start off, singing together, but at “gonna make it right,” the high part is too much. The note is way off.
Scattered giggles go around the room. One director winces comically. With a small smile, West restarts the music.
“Let’s try it again.”
Belton, Ruskin, Liberty. Shawnee Mission, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Bonner Springs. Vocalocity members come from all across the Kansas City Area, but that doesn’t make them a splintered group. They all refer to each other as a family.
Forty members came to Cosgrove’s performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” at Christian Youth Theater. They have two whole rows reserved at South’s upcoming musical, Annie. During a South vs. East football game, 36 people from both schools stood up to cheer for a South drum major.
“You look on Facebook, and if somebody says they’re having a really bad day, the next 25 comments will be from their Vocalocity family,” West said. “They’ll say…’What can we do? We’re there for you. Who do we need to beat up?’”
One thing West is particularly proud of is the outside accomplishments of Vocalocity members. One singer is an all-conference varsity football player. The average G.P.A is a 3.9. They also want to share their success with each other. West says it is common to see students helping out other members with their Algebra homework when practice is over. They go to WPA across state-lines. It’s more than just a show choir.
“At first, it was just really exciting, getting to know new people,” Cosgrove said. “You’re kind of shy and not very talkative, but now you get us all together in a room, and it’s hard to get stuff done.”
Cosgrove says West is just a part of the Vocalocity family as anyone in the group. They all hang out together, and she hosts get-togethers for them, while still being a great musical coach. Even though she’s their friend, Walter says she’s not afraid to get the group back on track.
“She keeps us all together, attempts to keep us focused,” Walter said. “She just makes sure that the train keeps moving and that we are hitting our notes right, helping us when we’re not quite getting it, just making sure we have a good finished product.”
After their first performance, West has gotten many requests for local performances. They’ve been asked to sing at schools and churches, though they don’t sing religious pieces. Next May, they have 30 minutes on main-stage at Jiggle Jam, a local family music festival
West is looking to take Vocalocity to competitions. They’ve planned to attend local contests, but their main goal is to attend Nationals next year. This year, 25 members are going to watch, and West thinks they’ll be more than ready when they do compete.
“After watching some of the national winners and listening to their sound, I see what we need to do and I feel we are very competitive, because we’ve got some of the most talented kids in the metro-area involved,” West said.
The lights are dimmed, only one row being used as a make-shift spotlight. All the members stand in one long line, 16 girls and 13 boys holding hands and singing.
West sits in front on a red vinyl chair. Occasionally she snaps, trying to get them to pick up the tempo, or she swings her arms for more volume.
When the song ends, West stands. She’s smiling and there is happy chatter across the room.
“This song is hard,” she says. “Even I had trouble with rhythm. There’s that dangerous section: you guys nailed it. You gave me goose bumps.”