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Perfecting the Pitch - Elite Cypress Lake performers, popular before Hollywood hoopla

May 22, 2017 09:28AM ● Published by Kevin

Photo courtesy of The A Cappella Group.

Just as the Glee television series led to the popularization of high school show choirs, the recent Pitch Perfect movies have shone a spotlight on the similar world of contemporary a cappella performance. While the increased visibility has certainly made an impact, it’s worth noting that choirs have been making music in our schools and communities long before all of the recent Hollywood hoopla.

Since 2003, for example, Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers has been the home to TAG, or The A Cappella Group. Its founder and music director, Gary Stroh, has shaped TAG into a premier choir. Just last year, for example, TAG placed fourth in the nation at the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) finals in New York City.

That achievement seems all the more remarkable realizing that TAG is a purely extra-curricular activity for the 21 participating students who meet once a week for two hours after school. The choir receives no financial support from Lee County Schools. As Stroh points out, “We are on our own to raise all that we can raise―that’s why we like to go out and perform a lot. Last year when we went to the finals, the community was amazing with their support. People would send us checks out of the blue. We got booked for tons of concerts all over town that helped us raise funds so that none of the kids had to pay anything to go to the finals last year in New York City, which was amazing.”

That generous community support has also enabled TAG to commission tailored arrangements from the country’s top arrangers. “Most of our songs have anywhere from 8 to 12 parts plus vocal percussion plus the soloists, so it’s not your standard four-part choir music,” notes Stroh. “I love this because it’s much more musically fulfilling, much more complicated, and intense.” TAG, he says, has produced CD recordings in each of the last seven years.

Despite graduating over half the choir last year, a particularly steep loss but one that comes with the territory, Stroh enthusiastically reports that “this year's crop is just as solid.” The group hopes to repeat and perhaps surpass last year’s success, already having won this year’s ICHSA quarterfinals.

Thanks in part to recent media awareness, the future looks bright for high school a cappella choirs in general, and TAG specifically. As Stroh points out, “Our group is in its fourteenth year, so we were doing it way before everybody thought it was cool. But the Pitch Perfect movie is definitely the number one thing that has really driven contemporary a cappella...we do have lots of kids who have seen us and want to be in the group, and want to get into that world.”

Stroh sees that world as collaboration with his students. And while the spotlight is rightly on the singers who do all of the performing, Stroh’s behind-the-scenes work is no doubt the driving force behind the group’s sustained excellence. “Seeing the fun,” he says, “that they have when they are able to go out, and how people are amazed and go crazy over them, and to do it year after year, is cool.”

TAG details are on Facebook, Twitter and at cypresslakevocal.com.

Written by pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle, who received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel.

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