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Thursday, October 02, 2014, 11:33 a.m.
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Students sing at Carnegie Hall in New York City

This article was published April 10, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

CONWAY — Sisters Anna and Callie Palmer, who live in Vilonia, used the same adjective to describe their trip to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall: amazing.

Anna, 15, and Callie, 13, are part of Voices of Central Arkansas, part of the University of Central Arkansas Community School of Music.

The choir was invited, based on scores from two earlier performances, one in Dallas and one in Chicago, to perform in March at Carnegie Hall.

Jann Bryant, director of the UCA School of Community Music, said about 36 of the approximately 60 students in Voices of Central Arkansas went, as well as many parents, on the optional trip.

The students had to be dedicated — they rehearsed on weekends, she said.

“It was hard music,” Bryant said.

She went on the trip as a replacement for someone at the last minute.

“It was fabulous; it was amazing,” Bryant said.

VOCA, as Bryant said it is referred to, is directed by Sheri Cook-Cunningham, visiting assistant professor of choral-music education at UCA. She became the VOCA director this school year, replacing Ryan Fisher.

“He’s the one who announced, ‘Do you guys want to go to New York City and sing at Carnegie Hall?’” Bryant said. Fisher took a position at another university.

The group left March 28 for New York City, performed March 30 and returned March 31.

Cook-Cunningham said VOCA is made up of “kids who are united with a love for singing.”

VOCA is an umbrella group for three choirs: the Choristers, the beginning choir; the Children’s Choir, for grades four through nine; and the Youth Choir, which is primarily a high school choir.

“We had from fourth grade all the way up through 11th grade,” Cook-Cunningham said.

In addition to public-school students, “we also have quite a few home-school students, as well,” she said.

One of those is Grace Rapert, 14, of Conway. It was her first time in New York City.

“I liked it a lot because I love big cities,” she said.

“We went to see Wicked on Broadway, and I loved that, and I really liked Times Square. It was kind of a culture shock. It was different than Arkansas, definitely,” Grace said, laughing.

The Carnegie Hall experience was “awesome,” she said.

“I really liked being on that stage because it’s so cool that so many different people have sung on that stage, so it was an honor to get to sing on that stage,” Grace said. “I thought it went really, really well.”

“I think it was a great experience for the students because they got to work with Rollo Dilworth,” Cook-Cunningham said. “He is a composer, pretty famous for working with middle-school students, primarily, and a professor at Temple University.

“They learned the music, all the notes and everything, before they went there. He refined what they did,” Cook-Cunningham said.

Callie, who has been in Voices of Central Arkansas for three years, agreed that it took dedication to get prepared.

“I really liked the music pieces that we sang, and the rehearsals were long and tiring. but we had breaks,” Callie said. “If you wore comfortable clothes, they weren’t all that bad.”

Anna said performing at Carnegie Hall has been a goal of hers.

“I just love singing; I’ve actually been doing it for six years. I’ve been working toward New York City,” she said.

Anna and Callie each sing soprano.

The rehearsals were “pretty tiring, and sometimes I wouldn’t want to go, but then I would think about the trip and everything I would get to do,” Anna said.

It was the sisters’ first trip to New York City, and their first time to fly.

“I was holding my friend’s hand when we took off, but I loved it, just looking out the window and seeing everything,” Anna said.

Stopping in Chicago for a layover, the plane had “a really rough landing,” Anna said. “One woman said she’d been a flight attendant for 14 years and never experienced anything like that.”

Callie said the flight was “a lot smoother” than she thought it would be.

“It was fun. I liked it a lot better than driving; it was a lot quicker,” she said. “It was so cool looking out when there were no clouds below you, and you could look down and see all the cars moving around.”

Carnegie Hall was awe-inspiring for both of them.

“I actually never thought I would get the chance to go and sing in such a big place; it is huge,” Callie said. “I was just amazed at how big it could be. It was amazing.”

Anna said the hall was larger than it looked from the outside.

“It was huge; I definitely was not expecting it to be that big,” Anna said. “I wasn’t really nervous. I felt like I was really well-prepared for it, but it was very elegant and huge.”

The UCA-based choir performed with 11 other U.S. choirs and one from Korea.

“The director made it really fun, and he made it so we could enjoy it while we were up there, not just stand there,” Callie said.

Cook-Cunningham said the choir performed to “a packed house. What a unique opportunity.”

She said the group received a standing ovation.

Grace said that was a special moment.

“We got a really long standing ovation. Everybody was standing up and smiling and clapping. It was a really good feeling that we made everybody smile,” she said.

Seeing Wicked on Broadway was one of Callie’s favorite experiences, and the sisters both mentioned how impressed they were by Times Square.

“My favorite part was Times Square,” Anna said. “It was like 10:30 at night, and it felt like the middle of the day, and I loved it. It was cold and rainy, but it was definitely worth it.”

Anna said she enjoyed sampling pastries from several shops, and Callie mentioned a particular pizza she can’t forget.

Another highlight, Anna said, was going to Ellis Island and seeing the Statue of Liberty.

In the end, it was all about the singing, though.

“I don’t think I”ll ever be able to perform anywhere as amazing as Carnegie Hall,” Callie said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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