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Online chorus drawing national attention

2/28/2013 - South Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

Though they usually meet online, Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA) chorus students met for a live practice at the OHDELA office in Downtown Akron Feb. 15. Shown from left are: (back row) Vickie Reljin, Karina Gubata, Erika Blon, Jasmine Henson, Kristene Lindsey and Director Diana Newlon; and (front row) Hannah Fulks, Natalie White, Michaela Proffitt, Allison McKinney and Jasmine McMasters. Chorus students not pictured are Randi Beatty, Tawny Davis, Grace Hanna, Jada Milner and Daniel Sills.
Photo: Liza Piza Photography
DOWNTOWN AKRON — As far as Diana Newlon knows, she’s the founder of the first all-online school chorus in the nation. The unique chorus has even caught the attention of National Public Radio (NPR) and NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

Newlon, who lives in Coventry Township, is in her second year as a music instructor for the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA), a home-based online school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade living in Ohio.

According to Newlon, the idea for the chorus came from students in her Music Appreciation class. During a section on vocal music, she allowed students, if they chose to, to sing for the rest of the class.

After several students sang one day, Newlon joked about putting together a choir, but the students really wanted to sing together, she said.

The group started as a club last year and became the school’s first chorus this past fall, said Newlon.

“Years ago, I was the leader of a youth ensemble for my church on a district level,” she said. “These kids tried out from all over Ohio and we got together once per month. I thought if it worked in that setting, it could work at our school. So I talked to OHDELA Principal Tim Spencer about having it as extracurricular activity for students. It was successful, so Tim and I agreed that it would work as a class. From what I have been able to find out, my class is the first online chorus in the nation.”

Since OHDELA students live all over the state, Newlon uses Wimba Classroom, a virtual classroom environment that includes audio, video, application sharing and content display. Newlon said she posts videos and audio files of the music the students are expected to work on and then they make videos of their singing and submit them to her for critique.

Once a month, the students meet together with Newlon for a five-hour practice at the OHDELA office in Downtown Akron.

Students who live less than a two-hour drive away from the OHDELA office are expected to attend the live practices, Newlon added.

Newlon said that one student who lives in Celina — about a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Downtown Akron — attended every live practice last semester.

“This semester I’m trying to go to her more often,” she said.

All of the participants currently active in the chorus are girls, but one boy is enrolled in the class, said Newlon. The group includes two eighth-graders and more than a dozen high school students, she said.

The response has been exciting, she added.

“In December, the students and I were interviewed by Molly Bloom from StateImpact Ohio, and the article got picked up by the national affiliate of NPR news. I have since heard from college professors, music professionals and other teachers from various states.”

In addition, Newlon received a voicemail from Nigel Lythgoe from NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” inviting the choir to attend Columbus auditions.

She decided the group is not ready for the show, but the phone call was still exciting, she said.

“I didn’t feel that would be a good thing for the students at this point — it is too early.”

However, the students have performed for smaller audiences, and more shows are planned.

The choir participated in a winter showcase at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Downtown Akron in December, during which the choir performed eight songs involving multiple costume changes and choreographed dance steps they learned from watching videos of Newlon dancing in her living room, she said.

Newlon said the chorus is also preparing for a performance at a Canton Charge game March 30. They plan to sing “God Bless America,” which will feature a cappella three-part harmony, she said. Following that, she anticipates having the choir perform at a nursing home in Akron.

She said the students also will sing at the OHDELA graduation in June, and they’re working on a song called “Proud” from the London 2012 Olympics, as well as Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.”

Local talent shows may be in the choir’s future as well, and they are already signed up for one with Cleveland’s WKYC-TV, said Newlon.

She said she has high hopes for the group’s future, including possibly incorporating drama by working on a mini-musical and holding a one- or two-week long training camp to learn the parts.

For now, though, Newlon said that many students enrolled at OHDELA don’t even know yet that chorus is an offering.

“We need to do a lot of advertising,” she said. “There’ll be so much more in the future, but this is what we have so far.”

To learn more about the online school and its offerings, visit www.ohdela.com.

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