SELINSGROVE — A Selinsgrove Area High School student received a tremendous honor recently when she joined the nation’s best high school musicians for the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) 2020 All-National Honor Ensembles (ANHE).
Tori Ross, currently a junior, achieved the honor during the 2019-20 school year, during which time, she worked hard to gain a chair or part in her local, district, region and state music honor ensembles.
The 2020 ANHE was the culmination of her dedication last year. But it’s also probably just one peak in more to come in her lifelong passion.
“As soon as I learned to walk, I started dancing,” Ross said. Her gift was so evident that her parents enrolled her in general music classes at Susquehanna University from 18 months old until the start of kindergarten.
“My love for music has only grown since,” she said.
Though she is also involved in instrumental pursuits, Ross said her emphasis is on singing. Her voice is categorized as a mezzo, “which means that my middle range is the strongest,” she explains. She can alternate between a lower soprano or higher alto range. Last year, the first she could participate in the state and national choral festivals, her video auditions and written application first secured her a spot as an alternate in the national event. She explained that 30 “soprano 2” singers were accepted, and she was the 31st. Four months later, Ross was notified via email that one of the chosen singers could not attend, so she was invited to fill the spot.
“When I saw it, I could not believe it,” Ross said, adding, “Needless to say, there was a lot of jumping up and down and shouting.”
It was exciting, but not altogether surprising, for Rachel Ulsh, choral, musical and vocal instructor at Selinsgrove Area High School, to get the news.
“Tori has an incredible drive for excellence,” she said. “She pursues every endeavor with poise, willingness to learn and take direction, and is incredibly dedicated. She also has a strong support system in her family at home as well as at school.”
Ulsh has only ever had one student (Hannah Doll) chosen for the national chorus in the past five years she has served in her role.
“An audition is never predictable,” she said. “Therefore, no matter the talent and dedication, one may never know how they are judged.
“It just so happened that the judges were in favor of (Ross’s) hard work, the tone of her voice, and musicianship in the audition,” she said, adding that the honor is well-deserved.
“Tori was up against the best sopranos across the nation. Her attention to details in the music and devotion to vocal lessons and training is evident in her achievements.”
Participating in the national event were accomplished music students across the United States, as well as overseas in military base schools. According to Ross, a total of 552 musicians participated in the ANHE, and 241 were in the All-National Mixed Choir.
Though COVID-19 prevented the usual in-person event, ANHE held a virtual event Jan. 7 and 8.
Though the virtual platform presented some challenges, including some minor technical issues, and simply getting used to sitting in her dining room verses in Gaylord Palms in Orlando — where the event would have been held — Ross said she had a great and memorable experience.
“I could not interact with other students like in a normal festival, but we had a lot of fun in the chat sections of the virtual meetings,” she said. She connected with a fellow PMEA District 8 student, and many of the students connected via social media and remain in touch.
Ross said she also loved the masterclasses, speeches and presentations from the event’s guests, and especially enjoyed meeting a surprise guest, Eric Whitacre, who she described as “one of the foremost composers in the world, especially when it comes to choral music.”
“He told us all about how he writes his pieces and shared with us numerous stories,” Ross said. “He even gave us a sneak peek of a piece he is working on! His presence was a gift for us all.”
As part of the event, all participants recorded videos of their pieces, due about two weeks after the festival ended. Ross said a tech team is combining the individual videos into several larger ensemble group videos.
“In order to sing in time with the piece, we were required to wear headphones connected to a device showing a video of the conductor conducting the piece while the click track of the piece played along with it,” Ross said, adding that from start to finish “It was a tedious process, but it was completely worth it.”
The ensembles are expected to premier online during the NAfME Music In Our Schools Month in March.
Music a part of school life
At school, Ross sings in the Honors Choir, and also participates in the spring musical and marching band. She also plays the piano and percussion in concert band, marching band, and chamber music. Currently, she is involved in the play, The Crucible.
Before the COVID shutdowns, Ross was preparing to play the lead role of Donna in her school’s production of “Mamma Mia!.” Ross said she was “heartbroken” when the show was canceled after all the work she and her fellow students put into the preparation. However, she said, “the experiences along the way were just as valuable, and I would not trade them for anything.”
Outside of school, Ross takes piano lessons with Kay Hooper, which includes a yearly recital. She was previously involved with the Susquehanna Valley Youth Chorale for about eight years, which she said “taught me a lot about choral singing.” In addition to vocal training at school, Ross takes vocal lessons with Mary Muller.
Ross also credits her participation with the region’s Kid’s Theater Experience as an influence and support in her pursuit of musical theater.
Calling it “more of a hobby,” this year, Ross is playing percussion in PMEA band for the first time, and participated in districts and is planning to audition for all-state band and orchestra. But she is only permitted to attend one all-state festival, and she said All-State Chorus is her first choice.
Currently, she is looking forward to participating in All-Eastern Mixed Chorus, an honor she was recently chosen for. Ulsh said three other students were also recently chosen for “All-Eastern” honors: Maya Caron and Renee Long, for Treble Choir, and Xiao Yan Shin (flute) for All-Eastern Band.
Ross has many interests and is not yet sure what she will do for a career, but music will always be part of her life.
“Even if I do not end up having a musical career, I will absolutely keep singing, playing piano, doing musicals, and more,” she said. “That is the one part of my future that I am certain of.”
Ulsh has no doubt that Ross will succeed, wherever her future takes her.
“Tori strives for the very best in every aspect of her endeavors,” she said, adding, “Whatever she chooses to do with her future, it will be bright indeed!”