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October Student Showcase: Sydney Atkinson, Guitar and Voice


This month we’d like to showcase a student who surprised us with a wonderful performance at our recent Thursday Night Lights concert on Flemington Main Street: 16-year-old Sydney Atkinson.

What do you study at YOUniversity of Music and Arts, and who have been your teachers here?
I am taking classical 
guitar lessons with Tom Amoriello and I’m a part of The True Voice Project with Adam Kishbauch!

What do you like about playing the guitar?
I like that I can create something beautiful just by pressing down on some strings. Every time I practice guitar, I feel like I’m accomplishing something and slowly the parts that I practice get better and soon the entire song comes together!

You did a fabulous job performing for our recent Thursday Night Lights event on Flemington Main Street. In fact, the video clip we’re publishing with this article was taken that very night. You sang several songs while accompanying yourself on the guitar. How did you become interested in being a singer/guitarist, and is your guitar teacher (Tom Amoriello) working with you on the vocals as well?
Taylor Swift was a big influence because it was so unreal to me to see a girl like her on stage with her guitar singing songs that she wrote when she was only sixteen! Yes, Tom [Amoriello] is working with me on playing classical pieces as well as playing music I can sing with. Playing both types of music at the same time is very cool because the techniques I learn with one style can be transferred to the other.

What kinds of music do you play? Who are your musical idols? Are you composing your own songs, and is songwriting something you are interested in pursuing further?
I play a lot of different music, however I play most of my classical studies and a mix of pop songs and alternative____________. My musical idols are a mix of famous musicians and some maybe not so famous artists. I lived in Memphis, Tennessee for a while, and one of my close family friends, Ryan Paule, was in a local band. He was the first person to give me the opportunity to perform out in public and meet other local musicians, some being given great opportunities themselves, like Patrick Dodd! My dad’s friend, Jeff LaQuatra, was the first person to introduce me to classical guitar, and, of course, there’s also Taylor Swift! I have written some songs, but recently I haven’t written anything new. However, I am definitely interested in composing new music!

What do you like about being a student at HAA/YOUniversity of Music and Arts?guitar_lessons_flemington
I love that being involved here has given me the opportunity to work with people of all ages! Getting to interact with people my age with The True Voice Project is helping me prepare for jobs and seeing people younger and older than me play complicated pieces of music on their guitars is wonderful because I can see what I need to work to improve on!

We know that you are a member of our True Voice Project ensemble, but do you currently play in a band, and if so, tell us more about that.
No, I’m currently not in a band but it’s something I’d love to do.

What kind of music do you like to listen to in your free time?
I listen to a mixture of different music, though I find myself listening to a lot of Alternative Rock and pop.
What would you like to do after graduating from high school? Any plans to pursue a music career?
I would love to pursue a career in music, weather I’m playing and writing the music or producing it. I would be happy in any and all aspects of it.

Other than your music studies, what are your favorite activities?
I like to cook, bake all kinds of dairy free treats, and I like to crochet hats, gloves, and scarves.

What else would you like to tell us about yourself?
I have a dog named Barney, one younger sister, and two parents who all support me very much!

Click here for more information about our Music Lesson Program!

Finding Your Own Voice (By Eileen Cooper)

“Frank Sinatra! Pavarotti! Lady Gaga! Kristin Chenoweth! Justin Beiber!” When I meet new students, I always make a point ofeleen cooper voice teacher asking who their favorite musical artists and influences are, and I am inevitably surprised by the vast myriad of responses that I am given. My reasons for asking this question go beyond the wonderful novelty of hearing such a colorful and varied spread of musicians; I ask in order to understand where my students are coming from, musically. More often than not, a singer will exhibit traits (or their interpretation of said traits) characteristic of their idols, incorporating the vocal color and style they have heard into their own performances.

While I love to hear my students “getting into” their music by using these stylistic traits as they sing, I think it is incredibly important for them to find their own voices, separate from imitation. Each singer is given an instrument that is unique primarily because their emotional psyche and overall physical shape (from their height and weight to their facial bone structure) is unlike that of anyone else. While two people may sound similar, their individuality - both physically and emotionally - afford them the opportunity to explore their own voice and interpretation of music. Students who are willing to explore their own sound are likely to discover new ways of expressing themselves musically, both in their technique and in their musical interpretation. In fact, they often find that letting go of certain stylistic tendencies can help them feel more free while singing, as they are no longer inhibited by something that is artificial to their own voice. This is not to say that a vocal or stylistic device produced by one singer cannot be admired or serve as an example for another singer. We learn via experience and so it is paramount to the learning process that we soak up as much as we can from those already in the music performance business. However, it is of note that these artists (generally) did not become highly successful and admired because they made a career of imitating others; their status within the musical community was attained through honing their individual strengths and the willingness to trust their own unique instrument.

The goal, then, is to learn from artists whose music speaks to us on a deep level, and then set off to explore our own voices so that we can be true to ourselves when we bring a piece of music to life. We each have the chance to share the beautiful and unique music inside of us, if only we allow ourselves to search for our own voice.

Eileen Cooper teaches voice at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts. Sign up for a trial voice lesson at no charge to you!

Freeing the Voice (By Natalie Megules)

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the voice is Voice Teacher Natalie Megulesdefinitely the party music wafting out of that window. It can express our joys, our fears, and our excitements. What does it really mean to have a free voice, if we use it every day? Babies know more about this than adults do; any small irritation, desire, need, or discomfort is expressed by crying or screaming. When babies are particularly ear-shattering, adults comment, "What a set of lungs! They'll be a singer someday." Well, I hope so! And I hope even more that baby can hold on to that vocal freedom.

     As we grow and orient ourselves to the world around us, we have to learn to edit ourselves. "Ssh, it's not polite to be loud in church," or "Settle down!" or "Let's use our indoor voices," or "Children should be seen and not heard." The world isn't as safe as it was when my father was growing up and could run and play and scream unsupervised until dark, when mothers would simply come out on to the stoop and call their children in for dinner.  

     Children today have a whole host of voiceless, indoor activities with computers, e-mail, video games, and social networking and texting. As they move into the unsteady social hierarchy of middle school, they must edit themselves even more as they navigate what is acceptable to say and do to fit in. By the time we reach adulthood, we rely more and more on computers and e-mail to communicate.  I once taught a lawyer who told me of the tightness in her shoulders as she hunched over a screen eight hours a day. To create an electronic record of all correspondence in the office, she had to e-mail her boss, who was only a few doors away, rather than just taking a walk and delivering the message verbally.

     If we are speaking less and less during the day, how then do we free ourselves enough to be able to sing? The voice is an instrument like no other, because it is part of our body. It's much more personal if we can't get it to "work." As singers, we need to get back to that place of relaxation and freedom that we experienced when we were children, and a voice studio should provide that enviroment.

     Voice lessons should be free of judgment, criticism should be gentle and designed to foster healthy growth, and above all, a student should feel like they can be completely free. Free to let the voice be a channel for expressing their deepest emotions and facets of their personality. As a teacher, it's so rewarding to see the layers of nervousness fall away as someone finds his or her voice. You don't have to do as much emotional work with a clarinet! It's a secret dream of mine to get voice students of all ages back to a place where they can be so free that they don't think twice about running and yelping towards that neighborhood ice-cream truck in the summer. "I'd like a rocket pop, please," isn't something you need to e-mail your boss, anyway.

Natalie Megules, Voice Teacher

The Benefits of Choral Singing (By Erin Repsher)

I think we all would agree that the sound of a child’s singing voiceErin Repsher, Conductor, Hunterdon Youth Choir is one of the most beautiful and precious sounds on earth.  To hear this natural instrument in its purest state is a very touching and inspiring experience.  Reciprocally, the children who are creating these wonderful sounds are enriching their lives and receiving positive benefits to last a lifetime. 

Studies show children who sing in choral ensembles are exposed to experiences which positively influence their social, emotional and academic life.  As a music educator and choral director, I have witnessed this growth and joy year after year while working with my students.  It is truly remarkable to see (and hear) a child producing such expressive and sophisticated music with their singing voices.  As children learn and make music alongside their peers, they can enjoy the following benefits:

•   Success for all types of learners:  during a typical choral rehearsal, music is explored by utilizing multiple intelligences (i.e. visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, logical/mathematical, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, verbal/linguistic, etc.)

•   Improvement of literacy skills:  there are many strong connections between reading the words of our favorite storybooks and reading a melodic phrase on a music staff.  In addition, the natural flow of choral lyrics can greatly impact a student’s ability to become more fluid and fluent readers.  Fluency is an integral part of successful reading

•   Increased success and understanding of mathematics: music is filled with patterns, fractions, addition, subtraction, grouping, sequencing, etc.

•   Children delve into their expressive side while exploring different emotions found in their song repertoire

•   Choral music helps us learn to work cooperatively while strengthening our social skills to achieve a common goal

•   Children build confidence as they learn to take risks, improve their talents, and perform for others

•   Music has a naturally soothing and relaxing quality.  It does wonders for our mind, body and spirit! 

•   Choral singing has been shown to improve memory, practice/homework habits, responsibility and creativity

Rehearsing and performing with a choir can generate an immense sense of accomplishment.  These fun and rewarding memories will last a lifetime!  I invite you to attend a demo session of our Advanced Choir at no cost to you.  The demo takes place on December 2, 2010 from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts (4 Minneakoning Rd., Flemington, NJ 08822).

Erin Repsher, Conductor, Hunterdon Youth Choir

Singing, Opera, and the Exorcist Cat (By Phyllis Schmidt)

I grew up on a small family farm.  We raised Holstein cows (for milking), steers (for eating) pigs, chickens, and ducks.  We had lots of cats who were attracted to the milk, and our wonderful and very smart border-collie dog, "Whizzie", who was trained to bring the cattle into the barn.  We farmed the usual crops necessary to feed and house all the animals; corn, wheat, hay, straw, alfalfa.   My three brothers and I were born into a sports-minded family.   My father made his living as a farmer, but he really wanted to bephyllis schmidt piano teacher playing baseball.  He was the on the varsity baseball team during his college years while he was working toward his business degree. My mother played varsity basketball in high school.  Consequently, all of had at least one sport that we excelled in.  Mine was softball; I played second base on the varsity softball team in high school. 

Meanwhile, among the animals, and the farming, and the sports, there was singing.  I constantly sang, hummed, and whistled, much to the dismay of my brothers, especially my older brother who was very vexed and annoyed by my laryngeal displays.  I used to beg to mow the lawn (the gas-powered lawn mower was very loud at that time – there was no thought of noise pollution) so that I could sing at the top of my lungs and not get myself into trouble.  Then there were those times that I did get myself into trouble – I was quite the tease and would harass my brother by singing or humming or whistling around him.  He was never impressed by this.   However, my mother was impressed.  She noticed my constant singing, humming, whistling, and she signed me up for the waiting list for the best piano teacher in town. 

Luckily, I lived about 5 miles from Penn State University which had a vibrant arts community.  My single aunt took me to many wonderful musical and theatrical events there.  I had a single Uncle who lived in Queens, NY.  He worked as a steel salesman; his office was in the Chrysler building in Manhattan.  One year, my aunt took my brother and me to visit him.  It was the first time we had ever seen an elevator or an escalator.  My brother and I rode up and down on my Uncle's apartment elevator and got out on the roof – this was for hours.  We were mesmerized by all things "city".  Later when I was in college, my aunt and I went back to NY and went to the opera.  By this time, I had studied opera in college - both singing, and in music history class - but I had never been to an opera.  Seeing Grace Bumbry (Delilah) lying on top of the tenor on a bed singing in Saint-Saens "Samson and Delilah" was heavenly.  Well, it wasn't so heavenly for Samson since he died at the end, but it was for me.   I really did not think anyone could sing so well lying down and - without a microphone.  It was in French, and there were no LED English translations in front of you at the time, so I could not understand a word.  But, it did not matter.  It was still delicious.  On my return to college, I got the part of Letitia in Menotti's "The Old Maid and the Thief" and had my own opera experience.

And now – the exorcist cat.  Several years later…a few years later…many years later…quite a few years later!...my younger daughter (25) moved home and brought her cat with her.  His name:  "Peapod"    Why Peapod?  Because they were 2 peas in a pod.   Dear Lord.  Peapod had competition right from the start because my daughter's old cat, Velvet, still lived with me.  Peapod and Velvet definitely did not become BFFs, in fact, we had to move Velvet to the basement, and keep Peapod on the first floor.  This was after we tried to keep Peapod in the bedroom during the day and on the first floor during the night, while Velvet was on the first floor during the day, and in the basement at night.  You can imagine that this did not work.  Peapod dug up and destroyed the carpet near the bedroom door.  Eventually, he learned how to jump up on the dresser, then jump down – with just enough velocity – to turn the doorknob and open the door.  The worst part was that Peapod would bite everything and everyone who came in contact with him.  Petting him for less than 5 seconds resulted in a bite. Not petting him for less than 5 seconds resulted in a bite.  Moving bare legs resulted in a bite.  Moving covered legs resulted in a bite.  Toes moving under a blanket resulted in a bite.  Knees moving on a chair under the kitchen tablecloth resulted in a bite.  You get the idea.  After a thwarted bite effort – and this is the exorcist part –  he would hiss his exorcist hiss and scrunch up his nose, draw back, widen his beady eyes even more than usual, and attack.  We installed a squirt bottle filled with water between the kitchen and the living room.  This way we could squirt him during bite season (that is, every day), we could squirt him when he tried to run down to the basement (that is, every day) to terrorize Velvet, or simply hide under the car.    

Finally – and this is the opera part – I found my secret weapon.  One day I came home in a particularly jovial mood and started singing about everything and everyone.  I was even singing to Peapod about Peapod.   I was singing the conversation, (recitative) in my opera voice.  I was making up the conversation as I went along. Something like, "Oh, my dear Peapod, Why do you bite me?  Why do you hiss your exorcist hiss?  What have I done to you to deserve thi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-is?" (the usual opera high drama) On especially important Peapod words (like this) I would hold the note and sing as high as I could in my coloratura range and trill. Peapod did not like it one bit.  He put his back up and immediately jumped off the chair, ran under the kitchen table, and flattened himself like a pancake under the tablecloth.  Now I use the secret weapon whenever I need to.  I sing, hum, whistle, trill, and do so as loudly as possible, in my best fortissimo way.  You know what they say, "it's never over 'till the fat lady sings".  And, I intend to keep on singing for a long, long time.

Phyllis Schmidt, Piano Instructor

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