For Hill Harmonics, patient practice pays off

The a cappella scene at St. Olaf continues to get a little more crowded each year. This fall the Limestones, Agnes and Krossmen a cappella groups were joined by a new ensemble. Hill Harmonics A Cappella, a recently established mixed-gender ensemble, is walking in the limelight this week after a fabulous first performance.

In the fall of 2012, Jessica Lawdan ’15 and Natalia Romero ’15 transformed the show-choir formerly known as StoStoppers into a mixed-gender a cappella group. About 20 students joined, and the group began practicing once a week. The large group size made it difficult to find times for everyone to practice together, and members spent most of the practices learning their parts rather than practicing cohesion and balance. While Hill Harmonics did successfully carry out a Christmas caroling fundraiser to purchase food for the food shelf, they did not have a concert to showcase their work.

“Last year, everything was new to us,” Lawdan said. “We didn’t really know how to arrange the music, how to run rehearsals most effectively or even how to book a venue. This year it is all coming together.”

Lawdan said that this year she wanted to bring the a cappella group to the next level, and she made many changes in hopes of increasing the group’s legitimacy.

“We had 20 singers last year, and this year we have ten,” she said. “At the end of the year we told the members that if they were willing to commit to another year they could be in the group without auditioning, and four of us decided to stick with it.”

Students auditioned for the other six spots. Not only were they required to showcase their vocal abilities, but they also needed to show that they could be a contributing member of a team.

“One thing we were really looking for was a great attitude,” Benjamin Beito ’15 said. “We wanted to have a strong group dynamic, so we were looking for people who could be confident in their own parts but also willing to work on blending with others.”

After a round of callbacks and some tough decisions, the veteran members of Hill Harmonics chose their teammates and began practicing for their concert. They decided to meet two times a week, and they required all members to be at all practices. While they wanted the group to maintain a free and fun atmosphere, they also wanted to ensure the group’s success through hard work and dedication.

“It was kind of a gamble,” Beito said. “We wanted our group to be successful, and we didn’t want to just be wasting more time if things didn’t work out.”

It seems that their hard work is paying off. At each rehearsal the members come with their music prepared and focus on blending their parts rather than learning them. Many of the pieces are arranged by Lawdan, but all members of the group are welcome to suggest pieces and work on their own arrangements. The members of Hill Harmonics have come a long way since their first rehearsal in late September, but they still face many challenges.

“Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to blend as a group,” Lawdan said. “We are at this really difficult number of ten, where we have enough voices that we have the opportunity to have a lot of variation, but not enough voices that we can blend over our issues.”

Not only did the members have to learn how to sing together, but they also had to quickly become friends with each other. Because the group is so new, most of the members did not know each other before they began practicing together. Trust is a crucial element in successful a cappella performances.

“At first we struggled to feel like a unified group,” Julia Weston ’16 said. “A lot of us had trouble connecting with people from our sections. We have been learning ways to grow together as one dynamic voice.”

Now that the members of Hill Harmonics are singing in accord with one another, they are focusing on shaping the group’s identity. Because Hill Harmonics is so new, St. Olaf students do not know exactly what to expect from the ensemble, giving the current members the freedom to mold the group into what they want it to be.

“Because we are new, we don’t have an established reputation. We can do anything,” Gabriel Coleman ’17 said.

Other members of the group agree. As the only established mixed-gender a cappella group on campus, Hill Harmonics is traveling through new territory. They are able to use the variety of richness and tonal colors to establish their own unique style.

“We get to create our own traditions right now,” Amanda Disney ’16 said. “The other a cappella groups on campus already have traditions they have to follow, but we can make Hill Harmonics anything we want it to be, and that is really exciting.”

Each member of the ensemble brings a unique perspective to the group. The variety of class years, majors and musical knowledge adds richness to the group dynamic. For some, Hill Harmonics is their main opportunity for musical involvement at St. Olaf, while for others it is an expansion of their musical experience. But all consider it to be an extremely important and valuable activity in their busy schedules.

“I like being in Hill Harmonics because it was a great way to stay involved in music,” Greta Jennissen ’16 said. “We have representatives from almost all of the choirs and a variety of other musical ensembles in our group, but we also have people who aren’t involved in other music groups.”

This past Sunday, Hill Harmonics A Cappella blew the crowd away with their first concert of the year, which took place in the Lion’s Pause. Their song selection thrilled the audience, their balance was outstanding and their group unity was unmistakable. Watch out St. Olaf, there is another fabulous a cappella group on the Hill, and they are only just beginning to discover their capabilities.

Photo courtesy of Hill Harmonics a cappella