Artsy side of Norwich gets the spotlight

With a tentative ear, Katie Whitney listened as the voices from the stage before her eyes carried into the rafters and bounced off of the concrete walls, getting lost in the meters of emptiness which lay behind her.

The acoustics weren’t great, something she was quick to realize, but at this point, Whitney knew her options were very limited. This certainly wasn’t the usual venue for her event, but knowing what is to come next year, she did not mind being displaced for the time being.

“The sound is terrible in there, but what mattered is that students had a chance to let their voice be heard,” said Whitney, a member of Norwich University’s class of 2009, and the director of the annual Battle of the Voices competition held March 2nd and 3rd.

For the first year since its creation in 2014, Norwich University’s spring singing competition was not being held in Dole Auditorium, due to its recent destruction as part of a major construction campaign to improve campus facilities. Having lost the one acoustically engineered location on campus for an event of this nature, the group moved to the school’s gym and multipurpose space, Plumley Armory with hopeful and determined hearts, coming together to make it the most successful performance to date, with more than 200 in the audience cheering on the performers.

“Honestly, being in Plumley didn’t really put any kind of damper on the event. The location is not what matters, it is the talent that is being displayed for everyone who comes,” said Meaghan McGrath, a 23-year-old member of Norwich’s senior class, and a Vermont local. “My junior year I had attended the event as a spectator, and this year, I just decided to give it a shot, and I am certainly glad I did.”

Joining McGrath were 15 others who wanted the chance to show off their musical talents in this year’s performance. According to Whitney, this year’s singers were some of the most diverse she’s had, coming from all walks of life on campus and all kinds of backgrounds.

“It is really cool to see people from the civilian side of campus come out to sing, and it is just as great when those from the Corps side also come out and audition,” said Whitney, who also formerly co-directed Norwich’s theatre group, the Pegasus Players. “It is wonderful to see a group of students who appear so different on the outside find a commonality with music.”

Among the students involved this year were newcomers to the event and also are a fair share of veteran singers as well. One of the returning singers was two-time Battle of the Voices winner Chris Timmons, a 21-year-old Northfield resident and athletic training major.

“I have been involved with Battle of the Voices for all four years of my college career, and I have really enjoyed the experience every year,” said Timmons, a senior at Norwich. “Winning really isn’t the best part, that has just been a side perk for me. I just enjoy being given the chance to play music with new people.”

That idea of meeting new people is one of the very reasons that Whitney takes such pride in the event and what it accomplishes.

“When we end up having all kinds of students sign up for Battle of the Voices, we have lots of friendships form among students that otherwise wouldn’t have happened,” said Whitney. “That, of course, is always one of the perks of directing, is seeing those relationships and personalities come alive and connect.”

For the performers, getting the chance to show themselves in a music-filled environment also has some risks, which include getting stressed out by several factors. On top of being relocated to a less complimentary location for the event to be held, the group’s total rehearsal time to get ready for the event was much less than in years past. In fact, their time was almost cut in half.

“Compared to the five to six weeks we usually have to prepare, we were working with three to four this year. Could things have used more time to be smoothed out? Sure,” said Whitney. “It was a lot to cram all the practice into the single month, and that is understandable as to why. For next year, we are actually looking at condensing it from two nights of performances to just one.”

“Practices should definitely have been spread out over a broader time frame because at times, things felt rushed and not as ironed out as they could have been,” said Izzy Moss, a 20-year-old Norwich sophomore from Fort Mill, S.C. “It would have been really nice to have more time to work on our individual songs before we started focusing on group songs because had we been more confident with our individual work, it would have made the group work easier to manage.”

Despite the technical issues and pressure caused by the shorter frame of time given to practice, the night itself went off without a hitch, according to Whitney and students who took part.

“It was a ton of fun for me both nights. I won the first night by popular vote and was pushed into the final round during the second night, but for me, I just enjoyed having the chance to perform,” said McGrath. “None of my friends had really ever had the chance to see me sing like that, so it was really cool when they showed up to support me.”

The competition, spread out over two nights, allowed for each act that had entered to perform two different songs between the two nights. On the first night, a winner was picked by popular vote, and that individual went on to the final round the next night. From there, judges make the last two picks for the final three contestants and then they battle it out for the number one spot.

“We really enjoy giving the crowd the opportunity to have their say and cast their vote for the winner of Friday night,” said Whitney. “However, having the judges for the second night just makes a lot of sense, because it adds a certain balance. Without the judges, it would have just turned into a popularity contest, and that is really not what we want to be the focus. The focus is the talent.”

Many of the students who participated in the 2018 Battle of the Voices had extensive musical pasts, but many like McGrath had not brought those talents into the public knowledge of their friends and the general Norwich University population. This show was their outlet to do just that, and many took the opportunity.

“Back in middle school I did a national singing competition, and in high school, I had plenty of opportunities to sing and sing with others,” said Moss. “None of my Norwich friends had ever seen me like they saw me then, singing in front of them on that stage. That was really special to me.”

Battle of the Voices is the only event of its kind on Norwich University’s campus, so when the weekend of the performances comes around, it is the only time for students who have harbored their talents to truly show what they are made of.

“Norwich certainly does have the strongest presence of the arts on campus, but when looking at the school’s culture and the lifestyle it really pushes, it makes sense,” said Whitney. “There is most definitely a considerable amount of talent within the confines of this school that goes undiscovered day today.”

For some, not having more events like Battle of the Voices is dissatisfying. Norwich has a certain attitude that most of the students share, said Moss. “I think at a school like Norwich, there is this belief that everyone needs to have this tough persona that goes to great lengths to not show sensitivity or great displays of emotion,” said Moss.

“When people have talents based in the arts, I feel like more often than not they want to keep to themselves because of that fear of not aligning with the Norwich stereotype.”

That stereotype is exactly what Whitney is hoping students will ignore when thinking about coming out for Battle of the Voices.

“For me, Battle of the Voices helped me realize how therapeutic music really is for me. It is just another way to relax, and even though Battle of the voices is technically a competition, for me that supposed pressure isn’t really there,” said McGrath. “I think most people need to look at it from less of a competitive standpoint if anything.”

“My advice to anyone looking at maybe doing an event like Battle of Voices or an event like it, would be to just go for it,” said Whitney. “You never know how much fun it is until you really give it a go and let the fear of being judged (be) behind you. I have found that a lot of kids over the years have surprised themselves with how they do.”

Timmons, just like McGrath, finds solace in music and the chance to show how much it means to him through performing.

“I just enjoy any chance I have to play, in front of people or not, it doesn’t matter. People shouldn’t let the fear of a crowd discourage them from coming out and auditioning for Battle of Voices,” said Timmons. “The most important thing is to just have as much fun with it as you can, what is there to really lose?”

Hopes are high for next year, and out of the 15 individuals involved in the 2018 show, those not graduating are looking at coming out for next year’s show, no matter the changes to the program that are undertaken. Whitney says changes are a possibility, but she hopes people come out for it, new and old, to make it another great year.

“It is such a privilege to work with this group of talented students year after year, and after every performance, I’m left even more excited for the next,” said Whitney. “Everyone should consider auditioning, it is always sure to be a good time.”

And, she added, “Also, next year we have the possibility of being in the school’s new auditorium, so there is so much to be excited for!”

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