Blacksburg Middle School begins a cappella group

Jordan Truesdell works with different pairs of students to create a cohesive a cappella song. The students (from left) Emma, Mariah, Hannah, Stephanie, Jordan, Ellie and Mira, are from 6th, 7th and 8th grades.

BLACKSBURG — The empty halls of Blacksburg Middle School echo with the sounds of Miley Cyrus.

A typical Tuesday school day has just ended, and a version of “Party in the USA” by the pop star seeps through the closed door of the music room. Instead of a familiar guitar riff and other instruments, however, 14 middle school vocalists sing the tune in harmony without any accompaniment.

A group of Blacksburg Middle School students formed a new a cappella group in February. Although high school a capella ensembles are common, the group is one of a few middle school level a cappella groups in the state, simply because of the level of difficulty that surrounds performing without the accompaniment of instruments.

“Once kids know how to sing parts and get a feeling for it, it’s a matter of easing them into it in steps. We’ll do a couple of two-part harmonies until we get that, and then we’ll get a three part and go from there,” Jordan Truesdell said. “’Party in the USA’ has seven parts, which is a lot, but luckly we have 14 students and I get to put two students on each part. Nobody’s really on an island by themselves and everybody’s got a buddy who can help as they go through.”

The group was the brainchild of Logan Truesdell, who, after going to an a cappella festival with her father, Jordan, was inspired to see if she could start one at the middle school. Logan brought the idea to her dad, who has experience with singing and performing.

“We talked about it a little bit and I told her we should wait until the holiday concert was over, and then we could talk to the choir director, Charlotte McKee, and ask her about forming a group,” Jordan Truesdell said. “Being 11, she couldn’t wait that long, and instead of waiting, she asked (McKee) on the Monday after we got back.”

That enthusiasm for a cappella moved quickly from the Truesdells to other students and staff within Blacksburg Middle School, with Jordan as the director. “We found out there was an a cappella group so we got really excited and we joined,” said Mariah, an 8th grade student. “We wanted to do it because it’s modern.”

The chance to sing the music they listen to outside of school was a big draw for many of the students. “During the day they sing classical works and they get a lot of theory,” Jordan Truesdell said. “So really what they’re getting there is the meat, they’re getting the potatoes, the vegetables during the day. I get to serve them dessert after school. A cappella is really the dessert of the vocal world.”

As the students work through their two spring songs (or “arrangements”), they are excited for a Top 40 song in particular. Students Mariah and Emma, two 8th graders, as well as Ashton, a 7th grader, look forward to singing “Payphone” by Maroon 5. The song is more difficult “Party in the USA,” but Jordan Truesdell still thinks the group will be ready to perform it at the spring concert. He and Logan selected the songs after some help from singer and arranger Deke Sharon, who was the music director for the film “Pitch Perfect.”

“When I was planning on doing this and once we got the ball rolling, Logan and I were looking for music and I went online and asked if anybody knew of any good arrangements for a middle school age group,” Jordan Truesdell said. “(Sharon) contacted me and said, ‘Hey, some of the songs from ‘Pitch Perfect’ would be great,’ and he recommended that ‘Party in the USA’ was probably at the right level. He sent me a copy of his arrangement for it.”

And while a cappella may be difficult to learn at such a young age, it brings other parts of learning into play. “It teaches communication,” said Mariah. “I think the hardest part is making everything work together. You know your part but getting to fit with everyone else, getting it to blend well — that’s hard.”

But that’s only half of it. “It really teaches friendship,” said Ashton, a 7th grader.

Jordan Truesdell sees it the same way. “It isn’t unlike a sport. Once you get into the a cappella groups, all the kids have to work together. They find that once your sing together, especially if you sing harmony with someone else, you form a bond with all of the people you perform with. It easily crosses all sorts of lines,” he said.

A cappella and singing can provide an escape from the stress of teenage life. “The primary thing for me is to get the kids to enjoy music,” said Jordan Truesdell. “Music can’t always be a permanent job for everybody — most of us go on to do other things — but you can always sing.”

As for the group’s creator, Logan Truesdell doesn’t get any special treatment from her father and director. “She’s sort of blending in. Her job is the same as every individual singer’s job, and that’s to hold their part, to sing their part well and to blend with everyone else. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. That’s her focus right now,” Jordan Truesdell said.

The pairing seems natural though, as the Truesdells have performed on stage together in the past and share a passion for music. “It’s one of those activities we enjoy doing together. One of the two of us is constantly singing around the house all the time,” Jordan Truesdell said.

The a cappella seems to benefiting from the strong father/daughter relationship, and is on track to perform their two songs during the choir concert this spring.

Like most teenagers, Logan admits that having her dad come into her school is a little bit of an adjustment. “It’s a little strange. I’m not used to it because we’ve only had a few practices, so I just have to get used to him being here on Tuesdays.”

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