Fifth Element members Joe Holtan (left) and Adam Dean posed with Port Washington High School Vocal Music Director Dennis Gephart (center). Photo by Sam Arendt
A visit by graduates who have made a name for themselves as a cappella singers reminds Port High students that music can be a lifelong passion
Port Washington High School graduates Joe Holtan and Adam Dean returned to their choir classroom Friday, Jan. 7, with four other members of the Fifth Element, an a cappella group that taught Port High students to sound like bass and percussion instruments.
The student-run group from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire also did clinics for music students at Port’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
On Friday night, Fifth Element performed a concert in the auditorium to an appreciative audience of 400, many of them Port High classmates of Holtan and Dean, who graduated in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
It was a great start to a one-week tour of Wisconsin and Minnesota that will have the group performing and putting on clinics in Mukwonago, Eau Claire, Oshkosh, Antigo, Green Bay and Fridley, Minn.
Fifth Element has garnered considerable acclaim, including inclusion on an album produced by Ben Folds that features the hottest collegiate a cappella groups throughout the nation.
The group is also on an album produced by the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America that features the top arrangements by groups from throughout the country.
No one is prouder than Port High vocal music director Dennis Gephart, who makes a point of bringing former students who have progressed in their music careers back to their alma mater to inspire current students. “They really connected with the kids,” Gephart said. “I’ve been beating into their heads that they need to know the chords and intervals, and they (Fifth Element) talked about using the different chords and intervals.
“Half of them (Fifth Element) aren’t music majors. They showed you can have a career that is not music related and still have a passion for music. It’s something I try to impress on the kids. This is something they can appreciate for the rest of their lives.”
Holtan, a senior majoring in advertising with a minor in music, is the music director for Fifth Element. He is also in UW-Eau Claire’s male choir, the Singing Statesmen, and president of its concert choir.
He was a singer-dancer with Kids From Wisconsin for three years, performed in all Port High musicals and grew up appearing in the Port Recreation Department’s summer musicals.
Like Holtan, Dean was in all Port High musicals and many summer theater shows. He transferred to UW-Eau Claire from Purdue University, where he was an engineering student. He is now a junior, majoring in marketing and sales.
“Purdue didn’t have a music program, and I really missed being in a group like this,” Dean told students. “I jumped from engineering to the business school.”
His posters and other promotional work for Fifth Element will be included in his marketing portfolio.
As the music director, Holtan chooses the numbers in the group’s repertoire.
“I listen to people’s ideas of songs and say, ‘I think it would be good for you’ or ‘I don’t think that will work. Let’s look for something else,’” he said.
Holtan wrote five of the 12 songs, including the title song, on the group’s recently released album “Runaway.”
But mostly Holtan takes popular songs and arranges them for the group.
“It’s really cool. You can take anything you like from the radio and arrange it for a cappella to make it sound like the original,” he told the students. “We do a lot of different genres and arranging it is a blast.”
Unlike barbershop music, which is harmonies sung without accompaniment, Holtan said, a capella is singing with vocal percussion accompaniment.
It’s something people have done on street corners for years, and it is seeing a resurgence in popularity on television and on stage, said Holtan, who enjoys performing before an audience.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to be up there and really enjoying it and have people appreciate the work that goes into the shows.”
Holtan said he would like to work in the music industry, but not necessarily on stage.
He wrote and arranged music in high school under Gephart’s tutelage and started Backstage, a Port High student-run a cappella group that is still active.
“The music program at Port High is great,” Holtan said. “Gephart is really giving kids a lot of opportunities. He has them learning the theory rather than just the music. The choir program gave me a head start to continue music outside high school. I knew things that other students didn’t.”
Gephart said Fifth Element’s concert was like a choir department reunion.
“Kids showed up I thought I would never see again,” he said. “Every year, many come back to perform in the holiday concert. It’s a good community in the department. It’s nonjudgmental and accepting of everybody.”
Information on Fifth Element can be found on www.5emusic.com.