As we stood on stage in front of a dark auditorium full of strangers, my heart started pounding to let me know we were about to begin. I listened for the piano as it rolled our first chord. My brain quickly jumped ahead to my next couple of notes to remind myself of where I was going as I slowly raised my microphone to my lips. I looked off the front of the stage to see our director with her hands in the air as she gave us our tempo. With a swift flick of the wrist, we were off. Lake Effect, the vocal jazz group on the UMD campus that I sing in, was invited to visit Eau Claire, Wis. on Friday, March 30 to headline the vocal jazz portion of the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. This festival has been held for the past 42 years at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
The three-day festival is made up of a contest for high school jazz bands and vocal jazz ensembles with collegiate ensembles scattered throughout the day sessions. There are two headliner concerts that showcase jazz groups along with featured jazz artists throughout the weekend. We were asked to put on a concert Friday afternoon where we had an opportunity to showcase a handful of our songs, and then participate in the first headliner concert where we performed a song to open up the show.
Friday morning consisted of getting to the UWEC campus at 10 a.m. For normal people, that would be no problem, but for a group of college students who are skipping their Friday classes to sing with their friends, it’s a bit early. We beautified ourselves and hopped in our cars to Davies Center to warm up.
10:15 a.m. - We were escorted to our designated warm-up room, and once we got there we grouped up in a circle to run through our seven charts that we had prepared for the two concerts. Three of the songs we had done at our winter concert, so they were pretty solid. The remaining four were songs that we will be singing at our spring show and they needed a bit of polishing before we felt they were concert-ready.
When our voices were ready and we had sung through our songs a couple of times, we hopped across the street to Schofield Auditorium, where we watched our director clinic with a high school vocal jazz group from Galesville, Wis. It was interesting to watch her direct and critique someone other than us. Watching those kids on the stage made me wish that my high school had a vocal jazz program.
Vocal jazz is something that is pretty rare around the midwest. There are a few high schools that have esteemed programs, but it is typically more common to find jazz bands at both colleges and high schools. That’s where we come in. We were asked to come to Eau Claire in order to show people what a vocal jazz program is and how we sing. I’m sure there were people watching us throughout the day who had no idea that jazz could be sung the way that we sing it, which is just one of the many reasons why I’m glad we were there.
The high school group left the stage and allowed us to have about 45 minutes to get our gear set up and make sure that our microphones were connected correctly. Singing into individual microphones is completely different than singing off-system, so we had to adjust our voices and listen to each other much differently from 10 minutes ago. More often than not, voices have to become a lot lighter when singing into a microphone, because it amplifies the sound so much. When singing lightly into a microphone, it almost sounds normal, so we all had to adjust a bit.
2:00 p.m. - By this time were all getting pretty antsy and wanted to get on the stage to sing. There was a fairly large crowd sitting in the seats to watch us, and we wanted to show them what vocal jazz was able to encompass. We had a wide variety of songs up our sleeves — from traditional jazz standards, to pop tunes that everyone recognized.
The crowd favorite was, as we expected, our Aladdin medley. This song took five tunes from the popular Disney movie and put them in a jazz setting. There are crunchy chords, syncopated rhythms and a walking bassline layered with melodies that people recognize and appreciate. We always have a lot of fun with that song because we can incorporate voices and animations that add a new dimension of entertainment.
As we were singing this medley, a group of people gathered in the doorway and even from the stage I could see smiles spread across their faces. Drawing people in with our music like that reminded me of why I enjoy singing so much — especially with this group of people. Seeing people start to understand that jazz music isn’t just saxophones and trumpets (although that is a huge part of it) is always such a rewarding feeling.
5:00 p.m. - We moved all of our gear to the Memorial High School auditorium for our second concert of the day. This stage gave us a lot less room to spread out on because multiple instruments and microphones already set up for the jazz band combos that also performed in the concert. We scrunched together in the front of the stage for our mic check and ran through our song that we would be performing — a jazzy rendition of “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire. Personally, this is one of my favorite songs in our set because I have known this song for a long time and to be able to sing it in a completely different style is so much fun for me.
5:45 p.m. - After our sound check, we met up in the school’s orchestra room, which had been transformed into our evening dining area. Volunteers from the city were working to get everything set up for dinner. They weren’t quite ready for us, so we decided to serenade the volunteers with a song that we sang in our earlier concert. It was an a capella chart that was a medley of different folk songs called “Country Dances.” They loved it and told us how much they enjoyed our impromptu performance as we went down the line to get our chicken and biscuits.
7:20 p.m. - We had about ten minutes before we hit the stage, so we all spent that time preparing however we felt comfortable. For a bunch of us, myself included, it involved dancing in the middle of the hallway to get the jitters out of our system before we walked on the stage.
There was a slight snafu as we were waiting to go on; the emcee for the evening skipped over us and announced the hometown Eau Claire jazz band instead. Everyone in the audience got really excited to see their beloved band perform and then got the rug pulled out from beneath them, so to speak. We were all a little nervous how they would react to us after that small hiccup.
7:30 p.m. - Show time. As we stood on stage in front of a dark auditorium full of strangers, my heart started pounding to let me know we were about to begin. I listened for the piano as it rolled our first chord. My brain quickly jumped ahead to my next couple of notes to remind myself of where I was going as I slowly raised my microphone to my lips. I looked off the front of the stage to see our director with her hands in the air, as she gave us our tempo. With a swift flick of the wrist, we were off.
The song went off without a hitch on our end. It was the best we had ever sung it and the audience responded really well to us. There were a few small things that were not our responsibility, like microphones not being turned up when they needed to be. But all in all, it went incredibly well. It was such an honor to be brought in so that people could hear jazz in a whole new light. It’s what we do on a regular basis, but some people had never known that you can take a pop song, like “September,” and turn it into a jazzy number.
Exhausted, sore and kind of cranky, we got back in our cars and headed back up north to Duluth. We had to wake up early the next morning to do even more singing for a rehearsal for our upcoming Cabaret show. A singer's work is never done.