Voicing Change

by Bethany Wagner ’14

In the heart of Los Angeles, the world’s entertainment hub, a burgeoning community of APU alumni works to transform the music industry one gig, one song, one note at a time. Backing up celebrities, singing on the soundtracks of blockbuster movies, appearing on hit television shows, these professional vocalists reclaim the Christian tradition of excellence in the arts and shine light into one of the world’s most influential industries.

Case in point: Kala (Conant ’02) Balch. Shortly after graduation, recruiters impressed with her demo reel hired her to perform with late gospel legend Andraé Crouch and on Fox Network’s hit show and musical sensation Glee. She joined fellow alumnus David Loucks ’96 in a small ensemble singing the background vocals for the entirety of the show’s six seasons and more than 30 albums.

A successful singer for nearly two decades, Loucks did not initially plan to pursue a vocal career, but his experiences in Men’s Chorale, University Choir and Orchestra (UCO), and music courses paved the way to his first professional singing gig right after graduation. He has since performed and recorded as a background singer with Faith Hill, Katharine McPhee, Adam Lambert, Sandi Patty, and Josh Groban. He also sang on the soundtracks for several hit films and on popular television shows, including The Voice and Dancing with the Stars.

In a highly competitive industry, such success stories stand out. Top singers must read music fluently, learn harmonies quickly, possess trained rhythm, blend with other voices, understand the nuances of different styles, and adapt well to new directions. “Showing up to jobs prepared, singing with everything you have, and treating all with respect and humility—these simple actions make all the difference,” said Loucks.

When contract singer Monique Donnelly ’97 walks into the recording studio, she helps producers and directors reach the exact sounds and styles they want. She has tackled a variety of genres, from voicing an animated fish in The Lorax to a baby penguin in Happy Feet, from background vocals for classical artist Groban to a solo on pop/parody singer Weird Al Yankovic’s newest album. Audiences can hear her voice on more than 200 feature film scores, television shows, video games, commercials, and albums.

“In one session alone, a project can contain many different personalities,” she said. “One moment I might sing an operatic melody, the next I might yodel.” Donnelly credits the classes and ensembles at APU, as well as the school’s close proximity to Los Angeles, for her wide range of abilities. “I attended concerts, performed, and networked in the heart of a nation’s music culture while still a student,” she said. “That revolutionized my understanding of what music—and my own voice—could do.”

But more than talent and versatility sets these alumni apart. Each possesses a servant’s attitude and a desire to share Christ. “Many entertainment workers make the spotlight their goal,” said Donnelly. “But by listening to the struggles of coworkers, thanking God after a performance, or simply trying to show kindness to all, I aim to show the love of Christ.”

Loren Smith ’06 strives for the same goal through the power of his original music. Blending the unique styles of R&B, jazz, and gospel, he performs at concerts across North America and overseas. He released the inspirational album Love Lifted Me and the recent hit single “Break Free,” which encourages listeners to choose joy: “You gotta break free/free from worry/free from sorrow/free from heartache.”

Smith’s wide smile, deep laugh, and joyful attitude inspire others, as audiences leave his concerts encouraged and recruiters hire him again and again for television and film scores. “I try to show integrity, excellence, friendliness, and love,” he said, “whether I’m performing or just having a conversation with a coworker.”

These singers often make the most meaningful difference not in front of a microphone, but backstage during rehearsals or in the break room between recording sessions with producers and fellow performers. “We share our stories, struggles, experiences, and beliefs,” said Balch. “Surrounded by the pride, greed, and competition of this industry, many people just need to know someone cares.”

“The landscape of entertainment is changing from the inside out,” said Loucks.“By working and connecting in a field with such a huge reach, we can represent Christ to people both inside the industry and across the world.”

Bethany Wagner ’14 is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. bethanykwagner@gmail.com.

Originally published in the Summer '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.