Seventh-semester biomedical engineering major Jerry Merkel didn’t know what to expect when he auditioned for the University of Connecticut a capella group A-Minor as a freshman. Now, four years later, he’s the music director of the 13-member group and has his sights set on the future.
“It was stressful at first,” Merkel said. “We lost seven members when I was elected at the end of my freshman year. But it was also nice for me, because I could build up a new generation of singers in the group.”
A-Minor is the oldest co-ed a cappella group on campus. Originally founded in 2007 by a group of students from the Asian American Cultural Center, who wanted to enter a competition, A-Minor has grown in the nine years since. It’s set to release its latest album ‘Ignite’ in October.
“It’s been a long journey. It takes a lot of energy,” Merkel said. “We started recording in January and did another recording session in March. It takes a lot of stamina. When the recordings get back, we have to write notes on what we want changed, what we want to take out, what we want to leave in. We’ve been working with a studio called Liquid Fifth, which does exclusively a cappella groups. They’ve been really great to work with.”
Besides recording albums, A-Minor performs in the fall and spring Rush Concerts and does gigs for UConn soccer and volleyball games. Additionally, the group competes in several a capella contests such as the Open Circuit Competition in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Merkel acts as the coordinator for the group, keeping things in order and sorting out logistics, along with organizing the music.
“My job as a music director is to be the guide,” Merkel said. “I’m the person you go to when you need to know something musically. I write and interpret the arrangements of the music, make schedules for rehearsals, prepare for the competitions and organize performances.”
As music director of A-Minor, Merkel tries to choose songs that will be memorable and rousing to the audience.
“We like to do current songs, we tend to look for songs that aren’t overplayed,” Merkel said. “The main question is if the audience is into it as much as we are. We look for songs with a build up, like a peak in the middle. It’s a moment of connecting with the audience.”
Merkel’s personal favorite? “‘American Boy’, which we performed last year. It’s one of the top arrangements I ever did.”
Though Merkel arranges the music, the group has a large say in the music that they perform.
“Our album that’s coming out, a lot of the credit goes to the group,” Merkel said. “They have a wide range of tastes. It’s their job to bring me the music and it’s my job to determine which ones we do, to come across the best and engage the audience the most.”
A-Minor is choosy about who they take on. This year, only one new member was accepted into the group.
“When you audition, you prepare a verse and a chorus of a song to perform.” said Merkel. “We see if you can hold your own solo and see if you can add character to it. When we do callbacks, we ask people to do songs in a certain style– if they can sing it a little jazzier, sing it more powerful than it actually is… we see if you can add your own style to it.”
Maintaining musical balance is an important part of building a good-sounding group. One of Merkel’s jobs is to determine which voice parts the group needs.
“We try to aim for the ‘pyramid of sound’, which has more people with middle and low parts and less of a high part,” said Merkel.
Once members are accepted, they practice for over six hours a week, on Mondays and Sundays. Though the schedule is demanding, Merkel feels that it helps the group improve and reach a high level of musicality.
“You can’t just be good,” he said. “It takes experience, times and patience to build up a great sounding group. We always have the goal of getting better and better.”
All the time spent together helps the members of A-Minor bond.
“We’re all very close to each other. We hang out outside of rehearsal,” said Merkel. “Over the last four years, we went from just an a capella group, to a performing group. We sounded great, we looked great and we felt like a family.”
Though Merkel is graduating in May, he hopes to leave a legacy behind with A-Minor.
“I want to be an inspiration to others,” he said. “I hope that other groups will use my arrangements. I plan to keep arranging after I graduate and get my name out there.”
Ultimately, Merkel feels that A-Minor is a tight knit group that will keep striving forward after he’s gone.
“They’re a great group of people,” Merkel said. “We strive for the best we can be musically, as both a group and as individuals. We try to be professional and have fun at the same time.”