Hitting all the right notes — together

It’s a Monday evening at the Dade City Woman’s Club and vocal coach Alison Graham sits at a small round table, near a bank of windows.

Girls are sitting around her on the floor, listening as Graham reads through judges’ comments from their most recent competition.

It’s a routine the girls know well.

The singers, who are members of Graham Music Studios, are accustomed to performing, and also to being judged.

Alison Graham, of Graham Music Studios, uses a blend of constructive criticism, humor and kindness to help the singers under her direction to develop their voices. (B.C. Manion)

They make frequent appearances at local events, such as the Pasco County Fair, the Kumquat Festival, Church Street Christmas, the San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival, the Dade City Christmas Stroll, and the holiday show at The Shops at Wiregrass.

They compete at Spotlight on Talent, a local showcase and also every year at Access Broadway in Orlando, which has regional and national contests.

Graham’s groups have been competing in Orlando for about 10 years.

Last summer, her middle group won the national competition and this spring, her oldest group took the top prize in regionals.

Graham’s groups compete in regionals every year in Orlando, and at nationals when they’re held there. The nationals rotate between Orlando, New York and Las Vegas.

While her groups and individual members in the groups have a good track record at competitions, Graham said that’s not her focus.

“It’s not about the trophy,” she said.

She’s far more interested in the individual development of each of her singers.

Amelia Collins awaits her part during a practice on a Monday evening at the Dade City Woman’s Club.

Her groups also aim to foster teamwork and camaraderie.

After a singer performs, Graham said she tries to talk to her before the awards are announced.

She wants to know how the singer felt about the performance. Sometimes the singer will acknowledge that she hadn’t prepared enough; other times, she’ll say she gave it her all.

“I don’t care what place you got. I care about: ‘Did you do well for you?’ Did you do your best?’,” said Graham, who has been coaching vocal groups and giving private voice lessons for more than 20 years.

Striving to reach their potential
She wants her singers to make the most of their ability and to continue the quest to improve.

“One of the things I say all of the time is, ‘Good is the enemy of great.’ If you’re OK with good, you are not going to be great,” she said.

Sometimes, the judges won’t see a performance the same way that Graham sees it.

When, for instance, the judge gets it wrong in Graham’s opinion, she’ll tell the singer: “We both know you got ripped off.”

Georgia Piersall dons an apron for a practice session of ‘Opening Up,’ from the Broadway show, ‘The Waitress.’

In the same breath, though, she’ll remind them: “You can’t control the judges. You have to focus on what you can control.”

Graham has three singing groups.

In general, Showtime is made up of elementary students; Showbiz is made up of middle school students; and Showstoppers is made up of high school students. Occasionally, a younger girl may be part of an older group.

And, because there are three different age groups, Graham has set up a system: “There’s a big sister, a middle sister and a little sister, and they look out for each other,” she said.

They bond with each other and validate each other, too, she said.

“If a girl kills it and still comes in fifth, the other girls will support her,” the vocal coach explained.

Graham’s weekly group lessons are 45 minutes long, beginning at 6 p.m., for the youngest singers; then at 7 p.m., for the middle group; and at 8 p.m., for the oldest group.

It costs $50 a month for the group lessons, but that doesn’t include expenses for costumes or entry fees for competitions. Most of her older singers also take private voice lessons with her.

Graham began her career as a music teacher at Hunter’s Green Elementary School, but decided to offer private lessons when her son was born, more than two decades ago.

The waiting list for her private lessons grew so long that she decided to form groups.

Most of the singers at Graham Music Studios come from Dade City, but some come from other areas, including Zephyrhills and Sumter County.

Graham said the success of her program is a result of the dedication of her singers, and the support of both their parents and the community, at large.

“I have a lot of people say, ‘Is your job like Dance Moms? I bet it is.’

“Honestly, it’s the opposite of Dance Moms.

“When I came to Access Broadway, one of the moms had Starbucks for me. Another mom ran and got my lunch for me.

Showbiz, the middle group from Graham Music Studio, rehearses a number from ‘Wicked.’

“They are just: ‘Whatever those girls need.’

“That’s why they’re successful,” Graham said.

Occasionally, though, something will come up, and she’ll have to have a chat with a parent.

She’ll say: “My job is to do what’s best for the group, and your job is to what’s best for your kid. Sometimes, those things don’t overlap.”

Ultimately, though, “they all have to understand that I’m the one who is going to pull the trigger in the end,” the vocal coach said.

The community of Dade City provides welcome support, Graham added.

“If we were from a large town, like Tampa, you just don’t know them. But in Dade City, people know these girls,” she said.

Having the girls look out for each other is essential when they are performing at a large event, Graham said.

At The Shops of Wiregrass, during the holidays, for instance, “when those little girls come off the stage, the big girls are waiting there for them,” she said.

The girls grow attached to each other and to Graham, and the vocal coach also bonds with the singers.

There’s a lot of affection and laughter, but a good deal of focus and effort, too.

Offering criticism and kindness
Catherine Beard, a relatively new singer in the oldest group, said belonging to the group requires commitment. “It takes a lot of hard work. We all have to practice over and over, until we get it right,” she said.

She thinks the singers are in good hands.

“Mrs. Alison is absolutely wonderful. She’s kind and supportive. She’s experienced. She knows what she’s doing,” Beard said.

Some girls in the oldest group have been singing with Graham for a dozen years.

Megan Phillips joined Graham’s group 11 years ago.

She was delighted when Showstoppers received the top honor at Access Broadway’s spring regional competition. The group put in extra practices to prepare and faced quality competitors, she said.

Phillips appreciates Graham.

Members of Showstoppers rehearse ‘Opening Up,’ a song from the Broadway show, ‘Waitress.’

“Mrs. Alison is a second mom. I’ve known her almost my entire life, and she’s a great person. She’s supportive and nice, but she’s not afraid to tell us what we’re doing wrong and what we need to improve ourselves,” Phillips said.

She values the other girls in her group, too.

“We really are a family here, and I love everything about Showstoppers,” Phillips said.

Mikayla Mauradian, a member in the middle group, appreciates Graham’s candor and high standards.

“Miss Allison is truly a great teacher and we love her, and she always pushes us to do better, no matter the rating,” Mauradian said.

Georgia Piersall, a member of the oldest group, said the bond between the singers helps them perform well together.

“It definitely helps to have a group of girls who are as close as sisters to work with,” Piersall said.

Plus, she added: “Mrs. Allison is so incredibly dedicated to what she does, it amazes me. She treats us like her own and is always proud of us, no matter what.”

Graham feels connected to the girls, too.

It’s always emotional when one of her singers graduates and moves on, Graham said. “I cry every year. I just sit there, and bawl and bawl.”

The girls may leave, but they tend to come back to visit.

Many show up at the end-of-year performance and pitch in backstage, Graham said.

The vocal coach believes that being part of the group gives the girls something they wouldn’t have independently.

“Something, at some point, is going to go wrong for you,” Graham said.

The friendship and support the girls get from one another, helps cushion them for life’s blows.

“It’s having a safe place to land,” Graham said.

Members of Showstoppers: Catherine Beard, Mackenzie Ferrell, Analiese Gallagher, Maitlin Hart, Chase Hemphill, Kiersten Herman, Megan Phillips, Georgia Piersall, Shelby Surratt and Haley Sanders.


Members of Showbiz: Bailey Bardin, Amelia Collins, Haley Collins, Isabella Como, Emma Crist, Lyndsey Furtado, Lyra Lacson, Emily Loyed, Mikayla Mauradian, Kassie Miller, Mackenzie Robinson, Payton Rodgers, Emma Shireman, Analee Tomkow, Marlee Tomkow and Macy Whisnant.


Members of Showtime: Carly Bowling, Katarina Carroll, Ellie DeLoyed, Sally Harper, Larkin Mainwaring, Lacey Miltner, Emeley Poblick, Sophia Poblick, Shyleigh Reeher, Mackenzie Trenkle and Keaton Ward.

Published May 16, 2018

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