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Meet Shawn Salley

Shawn Salley graduated May 5 with a bachelor’s degree in vocal music.  The Greeneville, Tennessee, native was involved in music from an early age, singing in church and playing percussion in his school band.  At his mother’s suggestion, he gave choir a try, and by his senior year of high school, he knew he wanted to study voice.  He sang in the Chorale, BucsWorth Men’s Choir and Opera Workshop during his time at ETSU, and also helped establish a student-led men’s a cappella ensemble, The Swashbucklers. Under his leadership, the group has performed at coffee shops, churches and local music festivals like BucAppella, sponsored by ETSU, and Men in Song, co-sponsored by ETSU and Milligan College.  In January, The Swashbucklers became the first group from ETSU to compete in the southern quarterfinal of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.  Before graduating, he spent the spring semester doing his student teaching at Johnson City’s Fairmont Elementary School and Washington County’s Daniel Boone High School, and his dream is to work as a high school music teacher.

What convinced you to come to ETSU?

I attended a concert by the ETSU Chorale my senior year of high school, and they were working with a composer named Ola Gjeilo – he’s my favorite composer.  I saw that they were getting many opportunities like that to work with these big names in choral music, and they also sounded great.  I watched it and thought, “I want to be a part of that.”  And so, this was the only place I applied, because I knew, and I’ve never regretted that.  Shawn Salley

What does it mean to you to learn from such guest artists who have achieved high levels of success?

It’s huge – it’s hard to even put into words – to see what has worked for them to bring them that far, and for them to share that with us is really great, especially in the a cappella area.  We’ve worked with Deke Sharon, who is a huge arranger who produced “The Sing-Off” and “Pitch Perfect,” and we just worked with Ben Bram, who arranges music for Pentatonix.  You get this extra set of ears and this extra opinion.  They hear things that we don’t hear, and we get another perspective on it.  Also, just to hear about how they made it is very inspiring, even if it’s not what you want to go into.  I like to arrange music, as well, and I’ve arranged a lot for The Swashbucklers, so to talk with Deke Sharon and Ben Bram and get some tips from them and see their strategies was really great.

You’re the founder and director of The Swashbucklers.  How did that come about, and how did you make it all come together?

It was the spring of 2015, and it was the third year of Greyscale (ETSU’s mixed a cappella group).  There was an overwhelming response to auditions for that, so Dr. (Alan) Stevens called me to his office and said, “The interest in a cappella music at ETSU has grown so much, and there’s too many great singers who should be in a group but can’t, because we only have one group.  Would you start a men’s group?”  I said, “Absolutely.”

Another music major named Ben Adamo and I co-founded it.  We picked music over the summer break and had auditions in September, and three weeks after our first rehearsal, we had our first performance at the Men in Song Festival, which is potentially our biggest audience every year.  That was nerve-wracking, but it was a really great experience to put it together that fast.

Describe what the whole Swashbucklers experience has meant to you.

Professionally, it was one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had, because going into music education, I have been given three years of experience leading ensemble and doing all the background stuff that people don’t necessarily think about, even members of the choir.  It gave me a learning curve before I get a job.

But also, personally, every year, it’s even more tight-knit than the last year as far as friendships between members.  We always say this at our shows because we have a song called “Brother,” and it sounds cliché, but it really is a brotherhood, and I think you have to be close like that in order to perform well together.  The music doesn’t just happen.  Part of the performance is seeing that relationship on stage between the members, and that’s something I think we do pretty well, just making sure everyone likes each other.  We try to hang out a bit – we plan game nights, movie nights, or something that has nothing to do with music – because we don’t want the rehearsals to be our only interaction with each other.
Shawn Salley (center) shares a lighthearted moment with The Swashbucklers in rehearsal.

You’ve done a lot to promote ETSU and the Department of Music by working recruitment tables, organizing choir tours and more.  Tell us about those, and what motivated you to do those activities.

All the orientations, open house events, the ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) conference, the TMEA (Tennessee Music Educators Association) and any of the big music education conferences – we usually get tables at those.  I always tried to work those and set those up, because I’ve enjoyed my time here so much that I want others to enjoy their time here, and in order for them to do that, they have to first get here.  And the Music Department has been so great for me, not just for an education, but also personally.  The professors are friends when they can be.  They’re professors first, but they’re just always great at maintaining a personal relationship with you – they care about you and want to know about your day, and that sort of thing.  I think that’s important, and I want other people to experience that.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future, in addition to teaching?

I’m looking forward to participating in some community ensembles, and there are quite a few to choose from in this area.  This is a very rich area for that, and a lot of people don’t know that.  I would also love to eventually start or join a post-collegiate a cappella group and continue that, because I’m not ready to give that up.  And travel – all over the world – just to see all the different cultures and the big “touristy” things, like the Eiffel Tower.

You say you’re not ready to give up a cappella.  What is the draw of a cappella for you, as opposed to accompanied choral music?

I love the accompanied choral music a lot and I’m excited to continue that forever, but it’s fun to perform in an a cappella group, because, like I said, it does give you this extra “family,” which a choir does, as well.  It’s just a different atmosphere.  In performing, you get to move around and interact a lot more with the audience, and it’s a totally different style of music – whatever is most relevant to our culture right now.  But I do think the classical choir music appeals to the emotions a lot more, which I love.  It’s kind of two sides of this really great thing.

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