Palisadians Gemma Holscher and Savannah Scott Lead Pacifica Christian A Cappella Group
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Thanks in large measure to the singing talents of two Palisadians, Pacifica Christian High School in Santa Monica advanced to the finals of the prestigious International Championship of High School A Cappella.
Its team, WolfPACapella, recently won the Western Regional semifinals title and then took home second place at Nationals in May. They beat 191 other high school groups with more than 3,000 students competing—a significant accomplishment for such a small school and a group in only its second year of competition.
Palisadians Gemma Holscher and Savannah Scott have known each other since they were in elementary school at Calvary Christian. They wanted to pursue a cappella in high school, so they approached Head of School Jim Knight with the idea to start a group. The request was granted, the team was formed and the rest is history.
“When challenged, it’s amazing what creative young people can do, and here is a COVID story that literally sings,” Director Tehillah Alphonso said. “I’m very proud of these students and everything they were able to accomplish in the face of this pandemic. It is very difficult to arrange, direct and perform virtually, and these kids persevered.”
Under normal circumstances WolfPACapella (a play on words with the school’s mascot, the Seawolf) would have headed to New York City to compete live in the finals. This spring, due to COVID-19, the finals were held virtually.
With this past year’s unprecedented drop in the number of performance opportunities for young artists—particularly at the high school level—it has been nearly impossible for emerging artists to find consistent platforms to express themselves, but at Pacifica Christian, students have turned coronavirus lemons into lemonade. Holscher and Scott are glowing examples.
“I’ve been doing vocal training for eight years, since I was 9 years old,” said Holscher, a 17-year-old rising senior who typically sings alto. “I do online lessons with Sarah Edwards, who was in the LA Opera and is also an actress. Savannah takes lessons from her too.”
While she loves to sing, Holscher admitted she was not a natural talent.
“I wasn’t born with a voice,” she shared. “I was so bad. We were singing ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical ‘Annie’ and I was screaming … trust me, you would not want to hear it. So yes, it’s a passion but I’ve had to work at it.”
Scott is a lifelong Palisadian who has had an interest in performing for as long as she can remember. She sang in the choir at Calvary Christian and has danced at Fancy Feet since she was 4. It was there she got her first taste of the stage, performing in musicals and summer productions. As a dancer she started with ballet, but shared she enjoys jazz and tap, as well as more contemporary forms like hip hop. She has even taught herself to play ukulele.
“Dancing was my foundation, but I can definitely see myself acting or singing too—I’m a triple threat,” said Scott, an 18-year-old Class of 2021 graduate with a mezzo octave range. “I was just the assistant director for the school production of ‘Macbeth’ and it was a great experience to have before college.”
Scott has committed to Boston University, where she plans to major in acting, although she is currently in the audition process for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. If she is accepted, Scott would once again get to take in-person voice lessons with Edwards, who now lives in England.
Despite the challenges, through WolfPACapella, the girls’ friendship has grown stronger.
“We weren’t really close [at Calvary Christian] because [Savannah] was a year ahead of me, but once I got to Pacifica, we started hanging out more,” Holscher said. “We became close through the group and now we’re like best friends. I actually live two minutes away from her, near St. Matthew’s. I live on the right side of the hill and she lives on the left side.”
Scott elaborated: “We were just acquaintances in elementary and middle school but when quarantine hit is when we really became friends … we’re both perfectionists, so we need each other. She is wise beyond her years. Sometimes she’s my older sister, sometimes it’s the other way around. She knows just what to say to me and I know what to say to her.”
Hoslcher shared that she enjoys numerous pursuits. She is the starting setter on Pacifica’s volleyball team and played varsity basketball last year. She took three AP classes and has been playing classical piano for eight years. She plans to major in psychology and minor in music.
Rounding out Pacifica Christian’s team are Skadie Kosta, Naomi Jones, Talia Segal, Erine Magne, Amanda Lee, Daniel Boutros and Noah Skoog. WolfPACapella’s video performance of “Reckless Love” was cheered on virtually through a live simulcast hosted on Varsity Vocals’ YouTube channel. Holscher and Scott were able to film some of their performance sequences together in the Palisades, surprising even themselves with the creative result.
“Though motivation was low for more online work, our love for music and each other pushed us to create a video we thought would inspire others and add light to the lows of COVID,” Holscher said of the virtual competition. “Everyone in the group had their parts. We recorded them on our iPhones. It’s not the same as doing it in-person but we made it work.”
Scott added: “I actually think having to work virtually and individually was a blessing for us because it forced us to learn additional things we otherwise wouldn’t have. I’m grateful to be part of the team and surprised we’ve gotten as far as we have. We all have our own passions and we respect each other’s artistry. I had a Zoom with the teacher where I recorded my part singing into a mic with headphones on in my room and got more than half of the audio track done. Then, I went back later and added my own riffs and harmonies.”
WolfPACapella’s recent win at the Varsity Vocals ICHSA semifinals followed an unexpected triumph in the March regional quarterfinal. The ICHSA—International Championship of High School A Cappella—was founded in 2001 out of the growing interest in a cappella singing at the high school level.
This season, all competitors faced the challenge of creating a four-minute music video in lieu of a traditional in-person performance, all while maintaining appropriate social distancing measures.
Alphonso not only was forced to coach her team via Zoom, but was also teaching and directing them from Taiwan. With delays in her performance contract keeping her overseas, Alphonso overcame the 16-hour difference to motivate and craft the students’ performances, bringing out their best.
Students individually recorded their parts, added video clips from their homes and neighborhoods during quarantine, and sent everything virtually to Taiwan to be edited into the winning performance.
“It’s been a crazy adventure that I struggle to wrap my head around sometimes, but I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity,” Alphonso concluded. “The students showed up, and there’s no telling how far this group can go.”
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