Tiffin U backs up Ben Folds

When rocker Ben Folds came to perform with the Columbus Symphony Saturday, his team turned to the Tiffin University Music Department to provide his background vocals. Music Department Director Brad Rees put together a select group of TU students, alumni and staff to serve as his Columbus “Foldschoir,” which The Columbus Dispatch called the “secret weapon” of his performance.

“It is really exciting to put together an all-star group that represents the entire 19-year history of the TU Music Department,” Rees said. “In this amazing group of singers – we have alumni from the 1990s and 2000s, a member of the TU class of 2014, two TU graduate assistants, members of our teaching staff, and even a member of the incoming class of 2018. It makes me very proud to be able to create a Foldschoir like this that personifies the quality and growth of the TU music program.”

The Columbus Foldschoir included Rees and seven other members.

Prisca Strother attended TU in the mid-2000s as a member of TU’s a cappella group Up in the Air. Now a singer-songwriter working out of Atlanta’s Namaste Studios, Strother is a partner in the production team Bravo Ocean, whose clients include Katy Perry, Tricky Stewart, Outkast, Jesse McCartney and other pop stars and hit-makers. Bravo Ocean Music also is producing Strother’s debut solo album, to be released within the year.

Jeanette Berry is the current artist-in-residence at Tiffin University, where she teaches voice and directs commercial music ensembles while completing a master’s degree in humanities. She moved to Tiffin a year ago from New York City, which still serves as home base for her band, Jeanette Berry and The Soul Nerds. The band is to release its first full album this summer. For two years, Berry served as background vocalist for recording artist Lauryn Hill.

Katie Kufel graduated from TU this year with a degree in forensic science and is beginning a two-year term as a graduate assistant, coordinating music department facilities, equipment and events. As a member of TU’s vocal groups Up in the Air and Higher Ground, Kufel performed, toured and recorded extensively, and also served in multiple administrative and support roles within the music program.

Rachel Chiles enters as a first-year student at TU in the fall. An experienced vocalist and pianist, she is majoring in professional music performance and arts administration. She is a native of Belle Center, a graduate of Benjamin Logan High School. The Foldschoir was her first professional performance experience.

Nathan Santos serves as TU’s director of commercial music, teaches courses in music theory and analysis, directs several ensembles, and serves as instructor of guitar, bass and piano.

Prior to his move to Tiffin, Santos taught at Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and St. Francis University in Pennsylvania, and has shared the stage with Bernadette Peters, Bruce Hornsby and Olivia Newton-John.

Mike Burkey attended TU in the late 1990s, and was among the first students involved in TU music. A singer, keyboard player, beatmaker and producer, Burkey was a member of Up in the Air and other TU groups. As a student, he also led his own R&B and hip-hop bands.

While Justin Binek is not on the year-round TU staff, he has been on the teaching staff of the TU ProMusic summer camp for 12 years. Binek also served for nine years on the vocal jazz faculty at The University of the Arts and is a doctoral student at the University of North Texas.

The concert marked the fourth time Rees has incorporated TU students and staff in a Foldschoir. In 2009, he included two TU students in another Ben Folds appearance with the Columbus Symphony; in 2011, three students joined Folds with the Indianapolis Symphony; and in 2012, three students participated in the Pittsburgh Symphony performance.

The 2014 Columbus concert was unique in that it took place in an outdoor venue on the same day as the Columbus Pride festival and parade. Folds used the Pride event as the theme for an improvised song he created for the show, which prominently featured the Foldschoir. The piece can be seen on YouTube.

“I am really proud of fielding this team for such a great show,” Rees said. “It means so much, looking at the many ways these great singers and people have contributed to Tiffin music over the past two decades. It’s even more fun to anticipate our program’s future growth, with all the talent coming into our new commercial music performance degree program. And with the new music facilities coming our way, pro music experiences like this one will become pretty commonplace for TU musicians.”