From “The Voice” to “The Singing Bee” to “The Sing-Off” to “Glee”…It seems that singing is everywhere in pop culture nowadays. But not to worry: this classic form of expression is not a passing fad (cough, rollerblading, cough) especially here at OSA.
In the Oakland School for the Arts Vocal Department, run by Cava Menzies, being innovative is the main focus. Vocal goes above and beyond, truly defying gravity.
I sat down with Ms. Menzies on a calm but hectic Friday afternoon while she was in the midst of preparing for “That 60’s Show”, the annual spring vocal show. She was kind enough to let me have twenty minutes of her hard-to-come-by time.
An interview space was quickly set up, as she and I posted outside of the Vocal Concert Choir room. On occasion doors would swing open and let out harmonies of Marvin Gaye and The Beatles; the quality soundproofing of the room really keeps the musical runs contained.
She was open to all questions, so I asked her about everything from her childhood, musical influence, and the future of OSA’s Vocal Department.
“I was heavily active in music [while growing up] and by the time high school came around I was totally confident in my musical skills.” she reminisced. “But as soon as I got to Berkelee [School of Music], it was a rude awakening.” She laughed as she recalled how “the whole experience humbled me and made me realize that being an artist is about honing your craft.”
When asked about her influences Ms. Menzies said “I have always been influenced by music with my dad and whole family. I’ve always been around a music scene, from jazz to classical, and it has meant that my inspirations have been eclectic.”
When she’s not teaching a department of over 100 kids, it often seems like Ms. Menzies is always in the hallways running errands; despite this, her vibe was surprisingly chill. The Vocal department has doubled, if not tripled in size since OSA’s humble beginnings. “It gets hard to manage,” she explained, “but the kids are so talented it eventually pays off.” Luckily, she does have the assistance of wonderful teachers such as opera maestro Alex Taite, contemporary songstress Lisa Forkish and gospel goddess Branice McKenzie.
“Vocal Music is a great group of kids,” she continued. “We are a family because we can understand each other. The vulnerability that comes with singing helps each of us, helps lift each other up.”
I definitely observed this in the classroom: the atmosphere is quite intimate, as kids gather together in their vocal groups (sopranos, altos, bass, etc). They warm up together with breathing exercises and soon their chaotic cacophony eventually turns into a beautiful bliss. Once done warming up, they gather as a choir and begin to perform the selected song for the day, which can range from tribal songs to jazz and beyond. Perfection is key as they perform the song until everyone expresses it as their second nature. And what happens in the classroom seeps into the hallway. These kids stick together in a pack; whether in a classroom or at lunch, Vocal comes together as a strong force.
This was especially clear during “That 60′s Show”; I sat in on rehearsals and went to two of the actual produced shows and savored every single moment. It really captured the essence of that particular time period for people living, growing and thriving in the 60′s. With selections from Led Zeppelin to the Temptations, it was a time capsule event that mirrored perfection. From the dance moves, to the song choices, to the authentic costumes, the show was a hit, selling out all three days with an additional sold out bonus show.
“These are some of the songs kid’s parents grew up to and it was great to see how they relate,” said Donn Harris, OSA’s art director. And yes, it was interesting to see the crowd response: people of all ages were on their feet (though of course sitting respectfully at appropriate moments), truly having a blast from the past.
“Oakland loved this,” exclaimed an audience member. “It’s amazing to see so much soul in these young kids’ throats.”
Another middle-aged attendee proudly shouted out, “These songs made me feel young tonight!”
Like them, I felt as if I was actually at Woodstock or the Fillmore or the Howard Theater back in the golden days; when I got home I downloaded most of the setlist onto my iPod.
Congratulations to Ms. Menzies and the amazing Vocal department for such a great show. We all look forward to what you’ll be doing next year!