By Nicole Lemal
Times West Virginian
Trophies may decorate the East Fairmont High School classroom where choral director Skip Wilson teaches, but shiny gold awards can’t hold a candle to the impact students say he has made.
EFHS senior Katelyn Lawson can remember a time when she was shy, a time when she felt she had to hide her identity from the world. But thanks to her choral group and Wilson, she has blossomed. Learning from him and being around him has made an impact on her life.
“He has, as cliche as it sounds, made me the person I am today,” Lawson said. “He’s humbled me. He’s made me realize things. Sometimes, first place doesn’t really matter. It’s just your attitude, and just knowing that hard work and dedication can get you a lot further in life.”
Many other students have felt that impact, enough that they recently walked away from The National Music Festival in Williamsburg, Va., with four superior ratings and one group receiving the Outstanding Choir Award.
From New York to Florida and as far as Oklahoma, 24 teams competed.
“When I found out, it was very emotional, considering this is my last year,” Lawson said. “As soon as they called our name out, I started crying. I was like, ‘This is the perfect way to end my senior year.’ I was just overwhelmed with emotions. It’s good to know all my hard work and dedication paid off.”
Receiving superior ratings, the men’s ensemble, the women’s ensemble, the Barbershop Quartet and the Elizabethan Chamber Singers impressed the judges with their performances. The Elizabethan Chamber Singers scored 96 points, earning the honor of the Outstanding Choir Award. Five points separated them from the rest of the field, which is a huge difference in music ratings, according to Wilson.
Reaching this level was not an easy task, he said.
“That’s a lot of work and a lot of effort, and that’s a lot of listening to what I have to say and trusting me, and I always tell them I’ll be fair. I don’t judge them. I’ll treat them all the same. I’m just so proud of the kids.”
All Wilson can think about is those first few days of the school year when he had his students focus on the pronunciation of vowels. Going back to the vowels was part of the basics for his instruction. But months later, he realized even more how crucial those first few days were for his choral groups. Vowel pronunciation is even more difficult for students in West Virginia, who typically have the southern accent attached, he said.
Ratings are based on a number of factors, including musicality, pronunciation of vowels and consonants, and presentation. Now, the students are belting out difficult music, such as “Il bianco e dolce cigno,” which was one of the selected pieces performed by the Elizabethans at the festival. Pronunciation is already a challenge, but singing in a foreign language presented even more obstacles.
But one thing is certain: It was all worth it for Wilson, who loves working with his students.
“We had to work twice as hard to go to a festival, and it was wonderful when one judge said to us, ‘Your vowels were wonderful,’” Wilson said. “That’s a great compliment to singers. We have a challenge of learning the piece and then singing in a foreign language and working on the vowels, the consonants in a foreign language, and we try to be very authentic. I study a lot and read a lot and solicit anything I can to make my kids better. That’s my goal as a teacher and educator.”
Practice also cultivates more than perfection. His students know that.
“It’s an honor to be in this group,” senior Carissa Funk said. “He always says practice make permanent, which is very true. He’s very much like a father to us. He’s always there when we need him.”
Although his groups were recognized with the highest ratings and walked away with more trophies to decorate their classroom, Wilson said the greatest testament to the work of his students comes in the form of compliments. And up against some very large high schools at that.
“The greatest compliment that was said to me was, ‘Your students were so professional acting,’” Wilson said. “That’s a real compliment to those kids. They are high school kids who like to have fun, but when they take that stage, they know what the job at hand is. I always tell them, ‘Let the singing speak for you and then everything else will follow.’”
It’s a message that continues to resonate with his students, especially the ones who are preparing for their last concert at EFHS.
“We are a very high awarded group,” Funk said. “We are all a family. We love each and every person. We’re taught a lot of things, respect especially. I can graduate this school and know that I’m going to look back on this group and just go back to how I’ve grown up to be.”
Their spring concert will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at East Fairmont High School. Tickets are $5 per person and can be purchased at the door.
Email Nicole Lemal at firstname.lastname@example.org.