Wallace State Singers paying tribute to decades of music at WSCC

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HANCEVILLE – As part of Wallace State Community College’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, the Wallace State Singers will present a special concert commemorating the last five decades. 50 Yesterday and Today: A Musical Birthday Celebration for Wallace State, will be held April 7-9 in the Recital Hall of the Burrow Center for Fine and Performing Arts. Shows will be at 7 p.m., nightly.

“We wanted to do something very special for our spring concert this year as the college turns 50,” said Tiffany Richter, director of the Wallace State Singers. “So we decided to go back in time and create a show that features the music of the last five decades, songs many of our former singers may very well have performed themselves, and bring back those memories of days gone by. Of course, we’ll also have numbers featuring current music, so the show should be something everyone will enjoy.”

The Wallace State arts program dates back to the mid-1970s when the trade school transitioned into a community college, offering more programs and activities for area students to join and expanding the college’s cultural outreach in the community.

During Richter’s term as director of the Singers, she has seen several of her students go on to obtain jobs in the entertainment field, with two currently working at Dollywood in Tennessee and one more working at Disney World in Florida. Many others have continued performing with programs at four-year institutions where they have earned scholarships.

“I grew up with a love of singing, but without Tiffany Richter and Lauren Salerno (head of the Drama department) I would not have had the tools I needed to perform for a living with Dollywood Entertainment Company,” said Paige Harbison. Harbison and Breanna Moore are the two performers working at Dollywood. Keillian Carpenter is at Disney World.

First Act
Jim Walker started the music program and directed its first group of singers and choral groups. Walker, who retired in 1991, said it took a few years for the department to grow. He was a one-man show that first year as the department’s lone full-time faculty member. Robert Bean was added as a part-time instructor the following year. Bean and Mike Sparks, teaching piano and organ, brought the department to three full-time staff members the third year.

Walker directed his first group of singers during the second year of the music program.

“I talked with Dr. (James) Bailey about some ideas that I had about the growth of the department and the school in general, and I felt like it would be beneficial if we could have a PR group to get out in the high schools and churches,” Walker said. “He agreed and we started the Wallace State Singers. The group did a tremendous job of getting the word out about Wallace State.”

After that, the program continued to grow, with the class of 1978-1979 being the first big group of singers, he said. The Singers were often called on to perform when dignitaries like Sen. Howell Heflin or Rep. Tom Bevill would visit the college, Walker added.

In his 15 years at the college, Walker said he’s seen many of his former students move on to complete their education at four-year colleges and become high school band directors, church music directors and some have even made a living in the entertainment industry. Near the end of his tenure, Walker directed a young man from Sumiton named Jimi Westbrook in the Wallace State Singers. Westbrook is now a member of the award-winning group Little Big Town. “He was a great performer for us and he’s just continued that,” Walker said.

Walker said he’s maintained contact with many of his former students, naming off numerous students across the United States who are working in the music industry in one capacity or another.

“There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction of seeing these students that come through and go ahead with their careers in music,” he said. “We had a lot of students come through and you could tell off the bat they had the ability to perform. To see them develop that talent provided a great sense of satisfaction.”

Second Act
Just as in the beginning, the Wallace State music programs are open to everyone enrolled in the college, not just students interested in a career in music.

“I think you would be surprised at how many people in the community have been a part of our music programs at Wallace State,” said Richter, the college’s fourth director of the Wallace State Singers. Other directors were Karen Comer and Mike Sparks, who continues to work with the music program and is the chair of the college’s Humanities program.

One former singer is Leah Bolin, executive director of the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce. She still remembers the first time she learned about the opportunities available at Wallace State.

“I was a young student at Cullman Middle School and Mr. Walker heard me sing at a Rotary Club meeting,” Bolin said. “He told me, ‘Young lady, if you’ll continue to sing I will guarantee you a scholarship at Wallace State Community College.’ That made an impact and I continued to perform and earned that scholarship performing with the Singers and the Concert Choir.”

Bolin, who attended Wallace from 1989-1991, said she enjoyed being around other artist who cared as much about the music and performing as she did. “Being in that environment was invigorating,” she said. “The dancing wasn’t my favorite part, but it was a lot of fun connecting with other musicians.”

“I do believe if Mr. Walker hadn’t offered me the scholarship in the Singers, I would have probably delayed going to college, if at all,” said Felicia Carden, who has been the director of the children’s choir at her husband’s church for the last 25 years.

For Denise Duke Ledlow, she developed a love of music and performing as a Wallace State Singer. “Mr. Walker saw something in me that I had not seen,” she said. “Being a part of the Singers gave me a love of music and confidence that I could sing. That love has continued to grow. I sing on the worship team at my church and will sing anytime I am given the opportunity. It is my true enjoyment and my way to find peace.”

For some being in the Singers is a family affair. Taylor Carpenter Folks and her older brother Chase Carpenter sang together for one year before he transferred to a four-year college. Their father, Scott Carpenter was a Wallace State Singer staring in 1980.

“We all look back at the memories and are grateful for the experiences and the musical knowledge we learned,” Folks said.

Sarah Jane Walker, who performed with the Singers and Concert Choir from 2013-2015, said she made her “absolute best friends in the entire world,” while doing so. “I would not trade my beautiful two years of Singers for the world because it helped me grow as an individual with more confidence, deeper relationships, and the most joyful memories,” she added. “This department was and still is a blessing from God.”

Many former singers from Wallace State’s past will be returning to perform in a special number near the end of the show during each night of the performance.

“I’m excited about coming back and joining in with all those voices,” said Bolin.

Richter has also encouraged past faculty to be a part of the event. And Walker is excited about the prospect of seeing many of his former students. “I will be there on Friday night for the performance,” he said. “Needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing them. I keep up with a lot of them on Facebook and a lot of them are planning to attend.”

Walker added that he’s proud to see how the department has grown over the years and of the performances he’s seen through the years since he’s left. “I’m a big fan of Tiffany’s and she’s doing a fantastic job with them,” he said. “If people in the community would just take the time to come and see the Singers whenever they perform, they will see a tremendous amount of talent and a great show.”

Looking to the future, Richter’s goal is for the Wallace State music programs to grow and be known far and wide as the premiere fine and performing arts program in the state. “We have so much to offer students when it comes to the arts, and we are constantly working to provide more,” Richter said. “We truly care about each and every student. We want to see them grow in their talent and use it in their everyday lives, whether their goal is to be a professional performer or as a vocalist for their church choir.

“Music, like any art, touches our souls and provides an outlet for creativity, passion, drama, for all of our emotions and for every occasion,” Richter added. “I’m proud to provide that outlet to the students who participate in our programs.”

The college is currently working on an agreement with Cullman County Schools to offer a special Performing Arts dual enrollment program, which will allow area high school students the opportunity to participate in Wallace State music, drama and art programs for college credit. They will earn high school and college credit simultaneously while also having the opportunity to perform with the instrumental or voice musical programs, the theatre program or other artistic outlets offered through the Fine and Performing Arts program.

“I can see the day when our singers or the concert choir is 100 members strong,” Richter said. “I can see the day when hearing Wallace State Community College instantly brings to mind a fine arts program that is second to none.”

Admission for the April 7-9 shows is $8 for adults and $5 for students. Reserve tickets by called 256.352.8277. Tickets will also be available at the door.

For more information about Wallace State and its programs, visit http://www.wallacestate.edu or call 256-252-8000.