Crimson Express jazzes up

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The University of Indianapolis’ vocal jazz/pop ensemble, Crimson Express, performed Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall. Directed by Associate Professor of Music Pete Schmutte, UIndy’s Crimsonites had a set list of 11 songs including a Disney Medley and a Swing Mash-Up. The concert ended with the alumni-inclusive song “Oh, Happy Day.”

UIndy’s vocal jazz/pop ensemble, Crimson Express, performs arrangements by Associate Professor of Music Pete Schmutte for its fall concert of 2016. Photo contributed by Peter Nichols

UIndy’s vocal jazz/pop ensemble, Crimson Express, performs arrangements by Associate Professor of Music Pete Schmutte for its fall concert of 2016. Photo contributed by Peter Nichols

The Crimson Express singers are students at UIndy. Female voices include junior Samantha Burkey, freshman Aubrey Budzenski, sophomore Morgan Ellis, freshman Sidney Hochstetler and sophomore Christianna Lopez. Male voices in the group include freshman Gabriel Castro, freshman Justyn Clark, sophomore Brenden Everett, freshman Matthew Hill and junior Luke Garrigus.

To prepare for their concert, the students practiced two days a week for nearly three hours with Schmutte and were expected to work on the music individually. According to Schmutte, the Crimsonites rehearsed around a grand piano which is the typical rehearsal style for Crimson Express.  He said this is partially because it allows him to hear them but also because they can build each other’s sound.

“Since we’re a smaller group, I just have them gather around the piano,” Schmutte said. “And that way, it’s easy to ask questions, plus they can hear each other. If you’re standing in a row, it’s hard to hear the person next to you. I think they get a better sense of how their parts work together.”

Schmutte said that the Crimsonites work to stylize a piece originally written for a solo artist into a number suitable for a group. He said it is a very democratic process.

“All popular music is popularized by solo voices,” Schmutte said. “You think of a solo artist, and they’re singing that song. So what I had to do was try to put [in] those nuances and the little stylizing that somebody does when they sing a song,–– how they scoop into a note, –– how they sing a note, whatever gives it character. What we had to do was get 10 people to move as one voice, a solo voice. Everybody has their own interpretation of how they sing a song. So we have to come up with a consensus about how we’re going to do it. Sometimes, I’ll know specifically [what I want done]… Sometimes, I won’t have a definitive answer, and I’ll say, ‘Morgan, how would you sing that?’ And she’ll do it, and I’ll say, ‘Oh I like that; let’s all do that.’”

Schmutte said he also listens to how the students sing when they are rehearsing to get ideas on how they should sing a particular note; he then uses what he heard to influence their performance. Crimsonites’ suggestions are all taken into consideration by Schmutte.

“I try to let them know that we all come in here with different levels of gifts,” he said. “Just because you’re a senior doesn’t mean your interpretation is better than the freshman’s. So it’s getting the freshmen to feel secure and comfortable enough to say, ‘Hey, how about this?’ and make a suggestion.”

While the group worked well together, that is not to say, however, that the
performers did not experience difficulties while preparing for their first ensemble concert together.  Of the 10 performers, six  are freshmen. Schmutte said that while it is part of the learning process, making young performers feel comfortable and included within the group and getting them to step up took some work.

“The biggest challenge was getting these freshmen to realize that they really had to step up to learn this music….  I said to some of them [at our rehearsal Tuesday night] … you all just sound like you’re in high school…. So I told them, ‘The reason you’re in this group is because I know you have the skills to do that [sing the pieces well].’ And just trying to get them to sing out [is a challenge],” Schmutte said.

The audience appreciated the hard work of the group, according to sophomore Erin Miller.

“I came to see my friend in the show,” Miller said. “It reminded me of my days in show choir.  They did a really awesome job.”

The performance included an array of diverse songs from the Beatles’ classic “Something” to a swing-time mashup featuring “Just In Time” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The female members of the Crimson Express executed their own number, “River Deep, Mountain High.”

“The show was really upbeat and fun,” freshman Teyler Siples said. “I loved the girls’ number.”

Schmutte said he had been worried about the quality of the performance at their Tuesday rehearsal, because he said it sounded “amateurish,” when he wanted it to sound professional. But he said that he was “ecstatic and pleasantly surprised” at how well the Crimsonites performed at the following day’s rehearsal and at the performance.

“So then when we had our rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon, it sounded 100 percent better, but there were still some things. But when we got into performance, it was like everybody focused on whatever they had to give, [and] they put it in their songs. I was relieved and delighted, not necessarily in that order, but delighted and relieved. What they showed me, and hopefully showed them, that they’re capable of achieving that level. And I mean some people really sang much better than their natural talent allows. They really pushed themselves. I was very happy,” Schmutte said.

Schmutte said because they had six freshmen, it took longer to work on the pieces and achieve the quality that he wanted, but they improved and will continue to do so.

“[So] we had a shorter program. But in the spring, they will have one semester under their belt,” Schmutte said. “We’ll probably learn more and have more difficult material.”

Crimson Express will perform again on April 17 at 7:30 p.m., in the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall.

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