Jazz Choir Performs at MMEA Conference


Lisa Donaldson

Jazz Choir performs at the Fall Choir Concert, Oct. 23.

Through a unique opportunity, the Parkway West Jazz Choir is performing at the Missouri Music Educators Association’s (MMEA) widely-attended conference on Jan. 29. The MMEA hosts the annual conference at Tan-Tar-A resort, at the Lake of the Ozarks, featuring workshops for educators and musical performances from groups from around the state.

“The kids in Jazz Choir and Jazz Combo last year made three recordings and submitted the CD to the state, and they bring in a panel of out of state judges who listen to them without knowing which school or what director or what kids did it, and they select the one that’s most suitable. For traditional choir, there are six slots, but for jazz choir, there is only one slot. And we got that slot,”Jazz Choir Director Brian Parrish, said.

Working towards this performance since August, the members of the Jazz Choir and Combo have practiced as a group and as individuals.

“Parrish gave us part tracks, so we listen to that and learn our part, and then on the same CD is the ensemble singing. We find our part in that and sing along. We also have sectionals occasionally,” junior Sidney Baker, member of Jazz Choir, said.

However, most of the challenges the students face come after learning the music, as they clean the ensemble sound.

“One of the biggest challenges we’ve come across is blending our voices together and making sure that the sound is locked and pointed,” Baker said.

CJ Schrieber, drumset player in the Jazz Combo that accompanies the choir, said endurance has been his biggest challenge during the up-tempo songs in the set.

“I’ve worked on being able to play my left leg and right arm as fast as I can, so I can play comfortably when it’s fast. As a combo, we’ve been starting slowly and working on one section [of a song] at a time, and slowly getting faster and putting it together.”

Even with occasional ensemble difficulties, tunes are carefully selected to match the strengths of the singers and the setting of the conference.

“The initial challenge for me was to pick songs that would feature the kids in the best way possible, and appear visibly and audibly challenging to the listener. We are performing in a room of 500 or more distinguished music educators who really know what they’re talking about, so I had to pick music that they would consider rigorous but also entertaining, and also really feature the strengths of the ensemble,” Parrish said.

Parrish eventually chose the songs “New York Afternoon,” “Muddy Water,” “The More I See You,” “Summertime” and “Come Back to Me,” each with their own mood and difficulties. Participants believe the rapidly approaching performance and intentionally difficult music makes Jazz Choir a greater commitment this year than in years past.

“It takes a lot of our time. It’s not just an elective; it’s a part of our lives,” Baker said.

Parrish pushes his students to do additional work in order to perform at a high level, especially in light of the MMEA conference.

“We’ve had regular rehearsals during class time but we also add extra rehearsals and extra performances,” Parrish said.

Ultimately, learning jazz has been a fun and valuable experience for the students involved.

“You don’t have to follow certain notes, you can put in whatever you want as long as it sounds good instead of having a sheet of music to read note by note to the point where it’s almost boring,” Schrieber said.

Parrish’s favorite thing about jazz is the mixture between discipline and freedom.

“You cannot be a good jazz musician without real discipline and practice and commitment, but at the same time the genre really values the ability to be free within the context of your preparedness,” Parrish said. “Once you’re prepared, be free with it. And that’s just wonderful; what it yields and what it teaches students about life in general is really cool.”