School of Music hosts Professional Choral Institute

For more than a week, voices from around the country have filled USF’s new music building. A group of 55 choir members, made up of both professional and aspiring student vocalists, are taking part in a unique educational experience known as the Professional Choral Institute.

This two-week musical workshop, which will culminate in an on-campus performance Saturday evening and a CD available on iTunes, allows a select group of pre-professional singers to learn from multi-award-winning ensemble Seraphic Fire.

USF Director of Choral Studies James Bass said the institute combines talented student vocalists from around the country with experienced professionals in a collaborative educational effort.

“We wanted to create an initiative housed here at USF where we could bring some young, pre-professional singers here to learn how to become a professional ensemble singer, then join them with a professional choir, literally singing right next to the professionals,” said Bass, who sings in Seraphic Fire. “The end aim is to have a recording and eventually we’re hoping for a Grammy nomination.”

These hopes are not far-fetched.

The students are working with a group that includes Grammy-winning conductor and record producer Peter Rutenberg. He and other members of Seraphic Fire teamed up to produce a best-selling album with the Western Michigan Chorale that reached No. 1 on the iTunes Classical charts in August.

Auditions for the institute began in November, with students submitting electronic vocal samples. Of the 30 singers selected, 14 are USF students.

Kerry Mayo, a senior majoring in musical performance, said this experience has introduced a degree of musical teamwork she hadn’t known before.

“You all have to breath together, we have to look at each other, you have to really connect with the other singers,” Mayo said. “Being in a professional ensemble is not something that has been talked about very much, and for me, it’s been extremely eye-opening.”

USF graduate student Brett Karlin said he is pursuing his master’s in music conducting and taught alongside USF professor and Seraphic Fire member Brad Diamond.

“It’s been a really unique experience for me,” Karlin said. “An opportunity for a young conductor to actually get experience in front of some of the top, young choral singing musicians is really outstanding.”

The students began practicing with master teachers May 23 – working to get up to speed with the professionals from Seraphic Fire, who are joining them for the recording and performamces. The recording process started Wednesday and continues until Saturday.

They have been working on a version of Brahms’ “Requiem” that uses chorus and piano instead of an orchestra. Though the group is made up of mostly pre-professional singers, Diamond said the result will be far from amateur.

“This is operating at an incredibly high level,” he said. “The product that is going to be in hand when this process finishes is going to be incredibly professional.”

Though the institute’s finished product will be the album, the intangible resources, such as technique training, that pre-professional singers will receive are just as valuable.

Mariam Osman, who graduated last spring with a bachelor’s degree in music composition, is finishing up a degree in German – the language used in Brahms’ “Requiem.” Even with her knowledge of the language, she said she has learned a lot from the institute.

“There’s a lot of stuff that is eye-opening,” she said. “This is not like spoken German. I do research in linguistics – singers’ diction is totally different from the kind of stuff we do in phonetics and phonology.”

Osman also said the professional teachers have taken the pronunciation of the lyrics to a level of precision she had never been taught – breaking down every syllable and knowing exactly how to achieve the ideal sound.

Bass said the participating students are not only gaining knowledge, but also adding to their resumes.

“At the end of the process, they go away with their name on a recording that will be released on a label, on iTunes, so there is a monument left of the work.”

The institute is also an opportunity for the USF School of Music to build its national reputation. Karlin said that the choral singers from outside the Tampa area make up an eclectic mix, ranging from students, to professional singers, to people who work non-musical day jobs and simply have a passion for choral music.

Thomas Desmond, a senior majoring in musical performance, said he spoke with several of the singers from around the country who plan to apply to graduate school at USF because of this experience.

“We’re showing off a brand new building,” he said. “I’ve talked to multiple singers who are finishing up their bachelor’s, and they’ve said to me, ‘I am totally going to audition here and apply here for the master’s program,’ because they’ve been able to work with our faculty and in our building.”

Students were asked to pay a tuition fee of $1,250, but much of the funding came from outside sources, such as the USF Foundation. USF’s School of Music also contributed by allowing the institute to use all of its brand new facilities for free.

The performance on campus does not mark the end of the process. The institute will have a second performance in Fort Lauderdale, as well as extensive production work by the Seraphic Fire professionals on the recordings. Bass said he expects the album to be available by mid-August.

Saturday’s performance is at 8 p.m. in the USF Concert Hall. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $15 for students.