This is the story of a group of ambitious voice students; a talented mentor who recognized and fostered their talent amid budget cuts and scarce resources; and a meteoric success that included winning one of the state’s top music awards.
Wamogo Regional High School’s Advanced Chorus recently had the honor of winning the state’s Honors Ensemble Performance high school chorus category held by the Connecticut Music Education Association each year.
“We found out New Year’s Day,” said Matthew Valenti, 64, of New Hartford, the teacher and conductor of Advanced Chorus. “I am extremely proud of them. This is a real feather in the cap of the school to have such a small class win a competition like this.”
Weeks before the news of the win, the six-member Advanced Chorus had performed a holiday show in December 2016 at Wamogo (located at 98 Wamogo Road in Litchfield) that had the school abuzz about their talented renditions of traditional and contemporary songs. Led by choral director and part-time music teacher Valenti, the Advanced Chorus will next perform a concert at the 71st CMEA All-State In-Service Conference at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford on March 31.
Valenti said months prior to the current school year, a small group of Wamogo upperclassmen had approached the Board of Education. Their aim was to have the school administration create a special class that was custom designed for music students of exceptional ability. Interested students were all auditioned and deemed to be above-average in vocal musicianship. An elective class titled Advanced Chorus was created that was to meet a couple of days per school week at Wamogo. But then came the question of who was going to teach the class.
The school enlisted retired music teacher and conductor Valenti to assist the fledgling choir. Valenti was credited in the past for creating and revitalizing school bands at Torrington Middle School and the Avon Old Farm’s Boy’s School during his 43-year public-school career. (In 2014 he retired from TMS by literally riding his horse into the sunset while wearing cowboy gear on his last day of school).
“I’ve had just about everything that has to do with music,” Valenti said. “This was an unusual situation for a class, especially with layoffs due to arts budget cuts. These kids wanted to advance their studies. They wanted something more challenging.”
Valenti also brought the added experience of writing several musicals with his librettist wife Barbara Sargent-Valenti — works which have been performed at the Warner Theatre and venues in Waterbury. He had also worked as the guest musical director at Hartford Children’s Theatre Company. The position at Wamogo was part-time, so Valenti had to jump right in to get the students in performance-shape in a quick, focused fashion.
“A cappella singing can be a challenge,” Valenti said. “It was exciting to hear the kids rising to the challenge.” Part of Valenti’s teaching approach in getting the kids connected to the music is allowing them to select their own material. When working at Torrington Middle School in the school’s string band, he said the kids had selected and henceforth been proficient at Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as well as works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
This semester, the Advanced Chorus students responded speedily and with enthusiasm, and developed their individual voices as well as the ability the blend their six voices together as a group, covering such diverse repertoire as classical art songs; 1950s doo-wop; and modern-day top-40 pop-song mash-ups.
Within only a few classes, Valenti was immensely impressed by the students’ talents and by their leaps-and-bounds of musical progress.
“I knew they had this potential,” he said. “We did ‘An Irish Blessing,’ ‘Carol from an Irish Cabin,’ and ‘A Teenager in Love.’” Valenti referred to traditional classical songs as well as the 1959 pop song by Dion and the Belmonts. He said, “I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe this group.’ It’s a tight group. The kids are good musicians. Their voices really fit together.”
Valenti realized he had a good thing on his hands, and wanted to share it with the larger world. He said, “I had never entered a group into a competition before, but I did it. We recorded a tape as part of the audition process.” He referred to the CMEA competition.
Valenti got the chorus to agree to make a basic sound recording of their songs during class. A fellow teacher recorded their songs via a laptop and a microphone. Valenti submitted the songs to the annual CMEA competition. Much to the group’s surprise, on New Years Day 2017, they discovered they had won the contest’s high school vocal competition, sharing the top honor with the Seymour High School Chorale in Seymour. As part of the honor, Valenti and the Advanced Chorus will perform at the 71st CMEA All-State In-Service Conference at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford on March 31.
What separates Advanced Chorus from other high school music classes such as music literacy and harmony, is that the students basically created the class and wanted to be there. Many of them have advanced education in music and are preparing to enter careers involving music. Several study voice with a private vocal teacher in order to improve their craft.
The Advanced Chorus class alternates between meeting two and three times a week during the school weekday, meeting in Wamogo’s auditorium. Valenti said they usually start with about 10 minutes of scales and warm-up, followed by going right into the rehearsal songs for 45 minutes.
The group has performed in concert a few times, the first being at Wamogo’s holiday concert in December 2016. Following the convention performance will be the Spring concert at the high school.
The Advanced Chorus’ students’ backgrounds and ambitions are as varied as their respective vocal parts in the choir.
Wyatt Sattazahn, 17, of Morris is a senior and serves as both the Advanced Chorus’ bass and tenor (he is the only boy in the group). “I have been singing and playing the piano since I was eight,” he said. Sattazahn said he plans on pursuing music education where he has been accepted at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
“Last year in Chorus, we wanted to do harder pieces,” Sattazahn said of the group’s formation. “We all click really well, and we love to perform.” He added, “We all suggest things and help with the creative process. We all have such different backgrounds but we blend together and it’s really amazing.”
Sattazahn and an Advanced Chorus colleague Alexandria Renna also participate in SingOut! CT, an area glee chorus for young singers, led by Broadway and cabaret performer Alecia Evans. Sattazahn and Renna also share a local voice coach that helps them with their craft.
Renna, 18, also a senior in the Advanced Chorus, said she will also likely pursue music education at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. On winning the CMEA competition, she said, “It’s really awesome. There are only six of us in the Chorus, so we get to sing so many parts. It’s easy to blend. You can hear if you’re off a bit.”
Renna added that for the Convention and Spring concert performances, they may also sing “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway musical “Rent.” “It’s an a cappella song that is complicated but really fun,” she added.
Renna said musical genes run in her family, adding, “My grandmother was a singer. She was in a band on the radio. I grew up around music.”
On the other side of the chorus’ “U” formation, alto Jada Barger, 15, a sophomore, brought musical theater experience for her part in the Advanced Chorus. She appeared in the school productions of the musicals “Grease” and “Sister Act.”
Barger said, “There are only six of us, so we work hard and have a really good time. Our voices sound so good together.”
On winning the State competition, Barger said, “I didn’t even know at first. People started congratulating me, and I had no idea what they were talking about. Mr. Valenti explained it to us, and it makes me really proud.”
Soprano Savanna Turner, 17, of Thomaston, a senior, said she plans to get a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and go to college for filmmaking.
“I want to make music videos,” Turner said. “I am trying to get as many music classes as possible. I want to have a better understanding of music.” Turner said she wants to eventually produce videos in the punk and “post-hardcore” music genres. She said some of the bands she admires include Pierce the Veil and My Chemical Romance.
“I have been taking chorus classes since sixth grade,” Turner said. “With Advanced Chorus, what is really nice is that it is a lot more in depth. We have less going over each part, and we go through the music a lot quicker.”
She said, “We have a lot of like-minded students. The class has made me make so many friends since I moved to Wamogo. I feel connected.”
Unfortunately, the Advanced Chorus will be losing four of its six members when they graduate from high school this year. Chorus director Valenti said he does have some strong possibilities in the up-and-coming Wamogo underclassmen to fill their graduates’ vacancies. “We should have seven or eight kids for next year,” he said. “At the winter concert, they made such a super presentation, that kids want to be part of the group.”
Their backgrounds and their ultimate career goals may differ but the Advanced Chorus became an important milestone this semester with the six students learning their craft and honing their abilities to sing both individually and as a group. Winning the State Competition was an honor for the group, the students concur. Many agree that performing for professionals at the Convention will become a memory that the students will carry forward into their various music careers in the future.