by Lorie Lewis Ham
There are few sounds more beautiful than voices blended in perfect harmony performing a cappella, and it is not something you hear very often anymore. This is exactly what Reedley resident Michael Angel thought when he put the group, The Vocal Experience, together in late 2009. “I had not heard of an a cappella group in the area or even in the valley for that matter. I think we’re a pretty unique group.”
Michael was born and raised in Reedley, as are most of the group’s members. He got his start singing while attending Reedley High School, performing in Concert Choir and Madrigals led by Randy Lepp. He also performed in numerous musicals while at RHS and later at the Reedley Opera House. He is currently attending UC Fresno State University with the goal of obtaining his teaching credential and going into music education. “Hopefully being able to conduct a choir of my own.”
One day last year, Michael got the idea of forming a group with many of the friends he’d been singing with through the years and felt performing a cappella would be unique. A cappella means voices only, no instrumentation. The Vocal Experience currently has seven members; Sopranos Lindsey Jones and Staci Hulsey, Alto Gianna Strambi, Tenors Michael Angel and Erik Valencia, with Jeff Lusk and Mathew Bolden singing Bass. Their ages range from 19 to 30 and they all possess a wide variety of musical experience. With that many members, Michael felt they could sing more elaborate music.
Member Jeff Lusk got his start in music and performing just after finishing sixth grade through a summer workshop called K.C. Showcase directed by Mark Norwood, then Theatre Arts Coordinator for Kings Canyon Unified School District. “This sparked my interest in live stage performance. After that summer, I enrolled in junior high school and ended up in choir almost by accident. I met Randy Lepp at General Grant Middle School and he introduced me to the purely vocal aspect of music. Both men had a great impact on my desire to perform.”
Throughout high school, Jeff continued to be very involved with music and theatre as a part of Concert Choir and Madrigals and performing in nearly every show RHS put on. He also played string bass under Tom Fritz’s direction in the RHS orchestra. After high school, he took a five-year break from performing until returning to the stage at the Reedley Opera House in the summer of 2008 where he began performing again with Michael. “I have always thoroughly enjoyed singing so, when Michael came to me last fall and asked me if I wanted to sing bass in an a cappella group that he was starting, my answer was an enthusiastic yes.” A recent graduate of Reedley College, Jeff is transferring to Fresno Pacific University in the fall with the goal of obtaining a degree in accounting.
Once the group came together, Michael began looking for music. He decided at the outset that he didn’t want them to be classified as a typical a cappella group, singing doo-wop all the time, so was very careful when choosing music. “I try to have a wide variety of songs ranging from doo-wop to contemporary. The younger generation today doesn’t really know what an a cappella group is so I feel it’s necessary to show them through our music that this can be cool and that great music can be made without the help of instruments.”
Their next challenge was how to go about getting their first gig, but that was solved by a surprise phone call from Mark Norwood, now Artistic Director for Reedley’s River City Theatre Company. He asked if the group would sing for the preshow of their Christmas production. “We accepted and a lot of great things have come from it,” said Michael. “From there, we’ve just been trying to get our name out there, singing at any event we possibly could. In all honesty, I didn’t know what would become of us after the Christmas season but, since then, there hasn’t been a month when we haven’t performed and we’re all very grateful for that.”
Although one of their female members, Lindsey Jones, didn’t grow up in Reedley, her parents did. Lindsey grew up in Visalia and got her first musical experience in choir in junior high, remaining in choir all through high school and while attending UC Davis in 2008. “I’ve known forever that I love to sing and that I never wanted to be without singing in my life.” Also involved in theatre, she has been in a production in Visalia and was in Beehive at the Reedley Opera House last fall. She is currently part of the River City Theatre Company’s production of Guys and Dolls which opens on July 9.
Lindsey’s interest in Vocal Experience was because she knew of Michael’s passion for music. “Coming to Reedley, not having any musical outlets, I saw this group as the perfect opportunity for me to continue doing something I loved with some really talented and amazing people.”
Another recent graduate of Reedley College, Lindsey will be attending CSU Fresno in the fall. “I am majoring in Mass Communications and Journalism with an emphasis in Public Relations at Fresno State. I don’t know exactly what I want to do with that but I plan to study abroad in the Spring of 2011 and hope to get involved in some internships to help me figure out a career path.”
For Lindsey, the group is more than just a great musical opportunity, they are quickly becoming like a family. “I love the performing part of being in The Vocal Experience, but I also love the time I get to spend with my fellow group members. We don’t just get together and learn the music then leave — we have barbeques together, go out to eat and spend lots of time together outside of Vocal Experience-related things.”
So far, the group’s biggest challenge has been finding time to rehearse, which they try to do at least twice a week in each other’s homes. “The most difficult thing is just trying to get the schedules of all the group members to coincide,” shared Jeff. “We have to be very diligent and efficient when it comes to rehearsal time. All of us are busy and have lives beyond the group, and it also takes a lot of work to put all our music together. However, hard work is necessary and we all know this. If having to work hard is the toughest thing we have to deal with then I think we must be doing something right.”
What they all say they enjoy most about being a part of this group, beyond the friendships, is the challenge of singing a cappella music. “It is an impressive thing to get a group of singers together and have them perform their individual parts, without instrumentation, and have it all come together in perfect harmony,” continued Jeff. “There is a ‘wow’ factor involved in a cappella music that even gets to us as performers.”
“I am so proud of the young people that make up The Vocal Experience,” said Mark Norwood. “Many in the group are former students of mine and I have known them since they were children. Watching them dedicate themselves to refining their talents through hard work and the sheer love of the performing arts fills me with great hope for the cultural future of our community. I kind of view them as Reedley’s River City Theatre’s road troupe even though they are their own entity. They represent us very well!”
“Our goal, forever and always, is to keep our music in peoples ears and keep producing the best quality of music we can,” said Michael. “It’s always a great feeling when someone stops you and compliments you on a gig they saw a month or a week ago, and asks when our next gig is. Music is good for the soul and The Vocal Experience puts our listeners first and we invite anyone who hasn’t experienced us to lend us your ears.”
The group has recorded a Christmas CD and plan to record their newer music in the future. They want to sing anywhere they can and find ways of spreading the word about their existence. Recently, they started a Facebook page toward that goal. Anyone interested in booking The Vocal Experience can contact Michael via thevocalexperience[at]yahoo[dot]com.
They will be performing for the upcoming 4th of July celebration at the Reedley Sports Park. See our article, Reedley’s Spectacular Fireworks Show, for more information.