The Catamount Singers of Western Carolina University are getting back in the swing of things after two years of pandemic disruptions and preparing for their annual spring concert, set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23.
Singers in one of the university’s premier vocal ensembles are feeling good. And hoping to pack the house. They returned to in-person rehearsals and performances this spring and have a new director, assistant professor of music Tiffany Renée Jackson.
“It’s refreshing. It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Darius McLeod, a junior from Chapel Hill, about his third season with the Catamount Singers, which performs each spring semester. “There just seems to be a better sense of togetherness. And it can reflect in the way we sing with each other.”
COVID-19 upended life for performing artists around the world. It forced the Catamount Singers to also find creative ways to collaborate, rehearse and perform remotely.
Singers in the group said they’re thrilled to be back together and preparing for the upcoming concert. It’s in the Coulter Building Recital Hall and is free and open to the public.
“Come to the show and check us out,” McLeod said. “Listen to some good music and enjoy yourselves.”
Madison Sciarini, a sophomore from Winter Springs, Florida, is in her second season with the Catamount Singers. After the pandemic, it’s amazing to be in person, she said.
“Now you have that human interaction, and you can talk through your parts with people, and you can really feel the music and feel the singing,” Sciarini said. “It’s super exciting. I feel like no one has seen the Catamount Singers in this way, so it’s amazing to present this new group to everybody.”
Jackson, who joined WCU in fall 2021, is excited to be leading the Catamount Singers.
She earned her bachelor’s in music from the University of Michigan, her master’s in music from Yale University, and her doctorate from the University of Connecticut, and is an accomplished classical, jazz and opera singer who has performed on stages around the world.
Yet, leading the ensemble is something of a learning experience for Jackson. “This is going to be my debut conducting and directing an ensemble,” she said of the upcoming concert.
Students said they’re glad to have Jackson leading the ensemble and sharing her knowledge, professionalism and passion for music and teaching.
“I met Dr. Jackson when she first got here. I thought she was a force to be reckoned with, so I had to be in her class,” said freshman Kennedy Cox, of Fayetteville. “It’s even better than I could have imagined.”
Mickey Prince, a freshman from Carson City, Nevada, who’s majoring in criminal justice, said she sings as an outlet for stress. She learned about the audition-only Catamount Singers in a course catalogue and tried to sign up a few classes into the semester. She sang great when she showed up to class and got to stay.
“It’s (something) I plan on continuing every spring,” Prince said of the Catamount Singers. “Dr. Jackson makes it a really safe place ... It really does feel like family.”
While Jackson works to provide a safe space for the students, she also challenges them. Each student in the group sings solo performances. That means they have to “dig deep and bring it” come showtime, Jackson said.
Jackson’s hoping to help the Catamount Singers move forward with new tours, performances and collaborations. She’s also focusing on helping the group develop an earthier, more soulful sound. She’s taking some emphasis off stage production and polish and putting it on good old-fashioned singing — pushing students to connect with their personal voices and to understand the music they’re singing and its traditions and context.
“In most choral traditions, the idea is blend, blend, blend. In the Catamount Singers, I say I don’t want you to blend. I want you to sing,” Jackson said. “The students didn’t know they could learn that way. They didn’t know that learning could also mean learning about who they are. They didn’t understand that being part of a singing group could mean finding their own voice.”
That’s what’s going to be on display at the spring concert, Jackson said. Some of WCU’s strongest singers performing as soloists, but also singing together through a wide range of genres. “People are going to see a group of everyday kids who are supporting one another, who are having the time of their lives and who are shining like superstars,” Jackson said.