Willamette Singers earned rare opportunity to perform with Ben Folds

by University Communications,

For Madison Hall ’16, singing with singer-songwriter Ben Folds was a pipe dream.

Little did she know, as a performer with the Willamette Singers, her dream would become a reality Sept. 20, 2014 at the Arlene Schnitzer Auditorium in Portland, Ore.

“This opportunity felt like the culmination of many years of admiration, teen angst and work toward becoming a better musician,” she says about Folds, who she’s admired since middle school.

“I wish I could tell that eighth-grade version of myself, ‘Guess what? In five years you’ll be performing these songs with real, actual Ben Folds!’”

The Willamette Singers, Willamette University’s vocal jazz group, performed with Folds as part of his appearance with the Oregon Symphony — a rare opportunity for most choirs.

Choirs wishing to sing with Folds normally have to go through a strenuous audition process. But this wasn’t the case for the Willamette Singers.

Kerry Marsh, Folds' choir director, extended the invitation because he recognized the talent of the Willamette Singers and because he has a long, professional relationship with the group’s director, Wallace Long.

With an early start Saturday morning, the Willamette Singers rehearsed all day in Portland with Folds and the Oregon Symphony.

“I was very excited for the Willamette Singers to have this opportunity," Long says.

“One of my goals as a teacher is to help train my students to operate in a professional music environment. This opportunity put them in an environment where they had to bring out the best they had with very little rehearsal and very high expectations.”

Though a difficult task, Long says he’s very proud of the choir and its Sept. 20 performance.

“In every possible way, they proved that they were up to the task,” he says. “In speaking with Mr. Folds after the concert, he expressed several times how pleased he was with the collaboration."

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity meant a great deal to many of the student performers, as well.

“Performing with Ben Folds was unforgettable,” says Lisa Wang ’15, an international studies major. “It makes me all the more thankful that I go to an institution and have a director who are able to provide me with kinds of incredible experiences.”

Rhetoric major Brian Highkin ’15 agrees, adding that the concert has taken the Willamette Singers’ performance capabilities to a new level.

“What I realized as soon as I got there was that Dr. Long has done a great job of conditioning us to work at a high standard, so I didn't feel unprepared,” he says. “Getting to be part of a show like this was such a cool experience.”

The Willamette Singers, winners of the 2013 DownBeat award for the Best Large Collegiate Vocal Jazz Ensemble in the nation, will release their latest CD, “Love, My Old Friend” on Oct. 4.

Their first on-campus performance of the year will take place during Family Weekend, beginning Oct. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Smith Auditorium.

• Article by Natalie Pate ’15, politics and French/Francophone studies major