by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - SoundFX, St. Helens High School's student a capella choir directed by teacher Kevin Zmolek (center), runs through songs at a new piano.Music can be many things, but it probably shouldn’t be an out-of-tune piano

“If you have an instrument that’s all beat up and decrepit, that has an effect on the singing,” said St. Helens High School Choir Teacher Kevin Zmolek.

By trading in other old pianos around the school, fundraising, a diligent search to find a new piano for a discounted price and a down payment from the school district, Zmolek, his students and their parents were able to bring a new, shiny Yamaha grand piano into the choir room last year.

The presence of the instrument has invigorated the students, Zmolek said. He sees it as an investment and a community resource, available to more than just the school choirs but also any visiting choirs. With proper maintenance and regular tuning, it could last for decades, he said.

But they are still paying off the new instrument. Portland Piano Company allowed them to take the piano immediately with the understanding the $13,000 still owed would be paid by October.

Now with roughly $5,000 left to pay, Zmolek is confident they can meet this deadline. He hopes a good chunk of fundraising will come through a benefit concert planned for Jan. 24. The concert brings local singer, songwriter and producer Bart Hafeman, his band Hit Machine — known for their renditions of popular songs such as ABBA’s “Dancin’ Queen” and Michael Jackson hits — and the St. Helens High School a capella choir, SoundFX, which will be opening the show for the band.

Zmolek only just told the choir about the concert two weeks ago. They’re still digesting the news.

A capella, singing without instrumental accompaniment, has been growing in popularity, thanks in large part to the success of the TV show “Glee” which showcases the songs and adventures of a high school a capella group.

In St. Helens, SoundFX has attracted equal numbers of male and female students. They are drawn to the challenge of creating complex music using only their voices.

“It’s a way to really express yourself,” said Salena Mays, a senior. “You can just be yourself. Nobody cares.”

The singers use more than their voices to create layers of sound and meaning. They also use facial expressions and their bodies — swinging their arms to direct attention to a soloist, for example.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Zmolek said. “Everybody’s welcome. ... That diversity, that’s what music is.”

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