staff, August 8, 2015

Nebraska_Thomas2Jackson Thomas doesn?t just hear music. He feels it.

Ask him why choir music is so appealing and the University of Nebraska graduate goes to his happy place.

?It?s not only about the music,? he said. ?It?s about the community of sitting in a room and listening to a choir hit the heights.

At the tender age of 23, Thomas is making beautiful music with the KC VITAs Chamber Choir, a choral ensemble he recently founded in Kansas City. The VITA in its title stands for Vibrating Internal Thyroarytenoids (the muscle that helps support vocal function).

Founding this choir is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Thomas. (Not that he?s lived that long, but still?)

?When I was younger and trying to figure out where I fit in the world, I?d go to a choral concert,? he explained. ?There was always that moment that would send a chill down my spine. Audience and singers were one. We were artistically in it together.?

VITA?s focus is contemporary choral music, and its aim is to draw in fans who want an unexpected experience. And it?s getting noticed: Its inaugural concert this summer drew 450 people.

?We only printed out 200 programs,? Thomas said with a laugh. ?We could have never guessed so many people would come. It was thrilling.?

For that matter, Thomas couldn?t have predicted that the choir would?ve even existed a couple years ago. He started out at the University of Nebraska with plans to become an opera singer, and there was no career ?fallback? when he began his studies.

?I went to college believing that if I didn?t become an opera singer my life was literally over,? Thomas said. ?Obviously, I was being too rigid.

?What I learned in college is that so few people get to perform opera all the time,? he added. ?I also thought, ?Maybe that lifestyle isn?t for me because going solo can be kind of lonely.? That?s when I began to find other musical forms that really excited me.?

His high school band and choir directors, both University of Nebraska alums, pointed him in the direction of their alma mater. Once persuaded, Thomas headed for Nebraska?s campus in Lincoln, and his experience there was ?life-changing,? he said.

?The University of Nebraska gives you freedom in your degree plan to really pursue a lot of different things,? he added.

A work-study program in Berlin started him on his current path of directing a musical ensemble.

?It was a soul-searching time,? he said. ?I was in a country where I didn't speak the language living with a family who spoke German. I really began to think of other avenues of music, which was the best thing I could have ever done. I came back with a new outlook.?

After graduation, he also got a new address following a move to Kansas City. One night while he was speaking with friends there, the idea of starting a choral ensemble came up. He was momentarily daunted by the suggestion because there were many choirs in town.

?This is a city that sings,? he explained. ?I wondered if they needed another choir.?

Then there was the lightbulb moment. Thomas decided that the group?s niche would be to exclusively perform new music.

?I also thought that this could be a great way for rising composers to have their pieces done by a great ensemble,? he added.

There were still a few concerns, though, a chief one being his age.

?I thought that no one would want to sing for a 23-year-old director they didn?t know,? he said.

Thomas put ads on Facebook for musicians and singers. But his choir isn?t made up exclusively of his online ?friends.?

?Over half the choir were strangers,? he said, and added that the group is an eclectic mix that includes members who have doctorates in vocal performance along with newcomers.

Nebraska_ThomasThe next step was finding new music for them to perform. Again, he went to social media and asked for new compositions on Facebook. One of his favorite pieces was set to four poems of Emily Dickinson and was written by Leslee Wood. Thomas said that it brings the idea of a prairie to life. Another Dickinson classic became the piece ?I Hide Myself? with music created by Anthony Maglione.

His goal now is to make the choir bigger and find new compositions - that is, when he isn?t pursuing a graduate degree in choral directing at the University of Kansas and directing a youth chorus at a local church. All of those prospects are thrilling for this native son of Carrolton, Mo.

?I grew up in a super-small town that was the county seat,? he said. ?There were 75 [students] in my graduating class.?

[btn-post-package]Music was his outlet to the wider world and, fortunately, it was never far from him.

?Music has always been a part of my family,? Thomas said. ?I don?t know of a person who is a blood relative who can?t sing. It was always there. The first time I ever sung solo was in fifth grade in a school awards ceremony. Of course, I was nervous. But I learned that if you don?t have those butterflies in your stomach then you?re doing something wrong. I pretty much sang every chance I had after that moment.?

By Cindy Pearlman