By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
Some talented and hard-working students at the Gainesville State School are getting the chance to express themselves in a creative and educational way with the launch of a regular program of vocal workshops.
It started in May of 2022 when Dennis Castiglione of Harmony Foundation International reached out to Kevin Hill, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Gainesville campus. Castiglione was interested in bringing an HFI program, Power of Harmony, to the school.
Power of Harmony engages youth in correctional facilities using the power of music. Volunteers coach the youth, demonstrate cooperation, and arrange performances. The organization believes that these experiences can help change the life trajectory of incarcerated youth by introducing vocal ensemble singing and positive role models.
“We got Dennis out here as a visitor,” said Hill. “We gave him a tour and he talked about what they do and we brainstormed an idea of how to introduce him to the school. We decided to have them perform for the next Family Day.”
That November Family Day, a two-day event held at Gainesville, featured performances by two barbershop quartets from the singing group Vocal Majority, a men’s chorus based in Dallas.
“The Vocal Majority is easily the world’s greatest men’s chorus,” said Castiglione. “I know that sounds pretty outrageous, but they are. Not only in terms of their abilities, they’re thirteen-time world champions at the International Barbershop Chorus Competition, but they are wonderful, giving people who are socially aware and always ready to help their community. They were the logical partner for me in Texas.”
Castiglione had chosen Gainesville largely for practical purposes: It was close to where Vocal Majority rehearsed.
“I called Mr. Hill and told him about the program and asked him if this was something he thought would be a good fit at Gainesville and he said ‘Absolutely’ and I said ‘Great, I’ll be there next Thursday.’”
“I explained more about the program to Mr. Hill and Mr. Claybrook (Stephen Claybrook, Family Enrichment Specialist at Gainesville) and they loved the idea. I told them it’s an opportunity to give them a creative outlet, it’s an opportunity for them to understand the power of singing in harmony, the power of singing with a group of people and making something better than what you could do by yourself. That’s what we strive to accomplish.”
Castiglione went directly from Gainesville to where the Vocal Majority were rehearsing and quickly got them excited about the project.
“I just married need with talent, honestly,” Castiglione said.
“Launching it on Family Day was really Mr. Hill’s and Mr. Claybrook’s idea. They said this would introduce every student to Power of Harmony not only by performing for them but by telling them your story and we’ll take it from there. Honestly, that was a brilliant move, one I plan to emulate at the other facilities where I do this, because not only was I able to share the Power of Harmony’s story, I was able to get the parents excited about the project as well as the students.”
The real test would be the performances. Depending on how the people gathered at Family Day received the Vocal Majority, that would give Castiglione, Hill, and Claybrook an idea how the youth at Gainesville would feel about participating in the project. By several accounts, things couldn’t have gone better. The performances, by quartets within Vocal Majority called “Studio Talk” and “Clutch,” were enthusiastically received by students and parents alike.
Next up was getting a sense of how many of the students were interested in being a part of the project, and there was a surprise on that front. Over forty youth expressed interest for a class that would only have seven members. That meant there would have to be tryouts.
Only students without any major rule violations in the last 30 days and passing all their classes would be allowed to participate.
The tryouts were similar to television-styled competition shows, with members of the staff serving as judges. Each youth performed a song of their choosing as well as having to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The youth selected (J. M., D.F., C.M., J.B., L.S., Z.B., N.B.) represent a mix of tenor and baritone/bass voices.
Castiglione and Vocal Majority member Donovan Davis were there for the first class on Feb. 8. “It really went as well as I could’ve hoped,” Castiglione said.
“Those young men were just bubbling with enthusiasm, not to mention that they had extraordinary voices. I started vocal warm-ups, and they matched pitch right out of the gate. I was moved by their interest, their performance, and the feedback I’ve gotten since then from the other instructors. The instructors have told me that these guys are magic. They want to be there, they’re having fun," he said.
The goal is for these classes to be ongoing, where members will come and go as their time at Gainesville ends, and new members will go on in their place. There’s also a recording studio in the school’s chapel that hasn’t been used for some time that members of the Vocal Majority plan to restore. The class will perform and record songs as they go along and the youth will get to keep their own copies of the recordings. There’s also the goal that over time these youth will perform at the school and other local facilities.
“I’ve really been encouraged by how well they were able to harmonize and embrace the a cappella style of singing,” Hill said. Among the songs the students have been working on are “Lean on Me” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
(Photos: Youth in a workshop with Castiglione; members of the Vocal Majority in Dallas perform at Gainesville State School in November.)