Creating Connection Through Music: An Interview With Members of BYU Noteworthy

BYU Noteworthy
Jeff Borders

Jeff Borders

BYU Noteworthy is bigger than one song, one performance, or one type of song. It's all about ministry, connection, and unconditional love.

The powerhouse singers of BYU Noteworthy are no stranger to success. Their video “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone,” has amassed an astounding 61 million views on YouTube. But according to artistic director Amy Whitcomb, the group’s purpose is much bigger than one song, one performance, or even one video. This group of nine amazingly talented women have a simple mission: ministry, connection, and love.

“Our purpose is ministering. It’s love without judgment or conditions. Pure love. And inclusion. We hope to be that piece of light on campus and in the world…a safe space, a reminder that you are known and loved.”

– Amy Whitcomb

In one of their most recent videos, members of the A capella group sat down to talk about their history, identity, and purpose.

I reached out to Amy to see if she would be willing to answer some questions about the group, and she graciously agreed to help. Joining me for this interview are Amy Whitcomb (Artistic Director), Ellie Hughes (Soprano) and Brittan Wawro (Alto).

 

BYU Noteworthy Members: Brittan Wawro, Skylar Mertz, Megan Ackerman, Lizzy Newbold, Augustine Larsen, Anna Slezak, Ellie Hughes and Grace Ibarra.

“It’s easy to compare Noteworthy to our male counterparts, but there’s no one out there like us. We have a lot to say when it comes to standing up for women and all people that stand in need of comfort or recognition. We are fierce, soft, compassionate, and determined. No two of us are alike, and that makes us special.”

– Ellie Hughes

 

What led you to join Noteworthy?

Amy: I saw a flyer in one of the bathrooms in a building that no longer even exists on BYU campus, and I was immediately intrigued. I didn’t know much about a cappella and really just wanted the audition experience. But once I auditioned and made it to callbacks, I was like “I HAVE to be in this group.” It was meant to be. Since then, Noteworthy has always been my heart & soul.

Brittan: Noteworthy was never really a set part of my plan, but when we got our new director, Amy Whitcomb, I started to see changes in the group that reflected exactly what I wanted as a musician and person. She focused on female empowerment, authenticity and performing for the love of music, and not the desire for views. For about a year, I was getting the strongest prompting that Noteworthy was exactly where I needed to be, so when the time came to sign up for auditions, I didn’t hesitate.

Since Noteworthy’s early days and its appearance on The Sing Off, what do think the biggest changes have been?

Amy: Noteworthy has been growing and evolving for the last 15 years. When we first started, Noteworthy was ALL HEART. Once BYU Performing Arts Management adopted us in 2014, Noteworthy made some of its most successful music videos, yet sort of lost sight of the sisterhood tradition, the purpose of connection with women everywhere. When I came in to direct, we reconnected with our roots, we re-branded, we found our modern, feminine edge. And we remembered our purpose.

Brittan: The biggest change from Noteworthy’s start to now, in my opinion, is how much we have embraced individuality and purpose. As women, we often hold ourselves back, without even realizing, because we are fearful of what the world is going to think of us. Amy has played an enormous role in helping us explore who we are individually and as a group

“A cappella is unlike any other type of music, and in my opinion, the most fun to be a part of. There is something so beautiful about creating a product that is solely made from individual voices. It is a HUGE team effort because, especially in a group of 8, you will stick out if you don’t know your part.”

-Brittan Wawro

While A capella has been around a long time, shows like NBC’s The Sing Off catapulted the voice-only music into America’s living rooms. Prime time television coupled with the rise of streaming platforms made it easier for A capella groups and soloists that may have never seen commercial success. The resulting success of groups like Pentatonix and Home Free have shown that A capella isn’t just a niche market anymore.

A cappella is no joke. It’s HARD to pull off. But it’s magical. Because the voice is like a window to the soul. When I sing, it sets my soul on fire. It’s like letting my truest self out. It’s this means of expression that isn’t forced. It’s just…ME. So couple that with nine plus people doing the same thing. Letting themselves be vulnerable, letting themselves be heard, be seen…there’s just so much soul in a cappella.

-Amy Whitcomb

How do you choose songs and come up with arrangements?

Amy: The arranging process is super unpredictable. Sometimes I sit down to arrange a mash-up of two songs, but one just rises to the top and starts to arrange itself. I think arranging for Noteworthy has been one of the most fulfilling creative ventures of my life. It’s like a big puzzle to make sure every piece is there that you need, and then it’s this opportunity to explore the female singing voice, to try new things, to evoke certain feelings & emotions with syllables, with vocal style, with harmony, with unison.

 

If you could collaborate with anyone on a song, who would it be?

Amy: Oh MAN, I love this question. Kelly Clarkson? Demi Lovato? Or maybe Barbra Streisand. If we could collaborate with someone who is now deceased…Judy Garland. Or Whitney Houston. Or ARETHA. Impossible to choose one.

What has been your favorite song to record or perform?

Ellie: I have so many favorites honestly. I Can Only Imagine was a really big one for me. Recording that song came at one of the most difficult moments of my life. I got to pour all of that sadness and emotion into one of my best performances yet. The video is also stunning and I’ll never get tired of it.

What does Noteworthy mean to you and what perspective have you gained from being a member?

Amy: I always tell the girls that Noteworthy has not only made me a better musician and singer, it has made me a better human. There are so many lessons to be learned working in a group setting like this with nine different personalities, opinions, views, nine uniquely talented women, nine college-aged women, that are trying to find themselves, and are constantly evolving and learning and growing.

“Noteworthy means the world to me. Aside from the anticipated musical growth, Noteworthy has taught me what it means to be a better friend, supporter and ally. It has helped me discover who I am, while simultaneously seeing the beauty and depth in those around me. ”

-Brittan Wawro

Where do you see Noteworthy going in the future? Are there plans for any future alumni reunion collaborations?

Amy: I’m sure we’ll do something HUGE for our 20-year anniversary coming up in a few years. This group and the way that it has touched so many lives is worth celebrating always. Our gratitude for the alumni that have put so much blood, sweat, and tears into building this group can’t even be put into words. Moving forward, we hope to continue to honor the Noteworthy purpose and spirit – to keep growing, keep innovating, keep loving.

 

In 2017, the current members of Noteworthy collaborated with alumni from the group in a stirring rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” The video to date has garnered nearly 4 million views on YouTube.

“One of my favorite things to say about my experience in Noteworthy is that it’s like a video and audio diary of this time in my life. My college experience has been shaped by participating in concerts, videos, and now, an album. In the future I’ll get to look back at this time of my life and re-experience exactly what I was doing.”

-Ellie Hughes

If you could tell everybody one thing about Noteworthy, what would it be?

Brittan: If I could tell people just one thing about Noteworthy, it would be that there is an incomparable love that emanates within the group. Love for each other, love for our fans, love for music and love for people. I have never been in an environment where I felt so safe and so cared for.

Noteworthy’s newest album, This is Noteworthy, is available now on Amazon and other retailers (we’ve embedded it on Spotify below). And for those attending BYU, the group is holding auditions on Monday April 5th and Thursday April 9th.

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