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Finding Harmony

The UT Chamber Singers have become cultural ambassadors through song.

December 10, 2018 | Updated: May 14, 2021

Every career field has its zeniths. For journalists, it may be working for the New York Times. For football players, it’s likely playing in the NFL. For choral singer Shelby Berkley (’18, ’21), it was singing in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.

“It was an experience I know I’ll never have again in my life,” says Berkley, a Knoxville native with a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s in choral conducting, both from UT.

In the summer of 2018, Berkley, a member of the Chamber Singers, was one of about 40 UT students who traveled to Ireland, where the group sang in cathedrals and churches and for communities across the country.

International and cultural exchange trips have been a staple of the Chamber Singers experience since 2007, when Angie Batey, director of choral activities in UT’s School of Music, took the group to New York City to sing at Carnegie Hall. The trip coincided with the city’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade—a cultural experience they hadn’t planned for, but which the students welcomed with glee.

“That sparked an idea,” says Batey, who is also the director of graduate studies in music and associate dean of diversity and inclusion for the College of Arts and Sciences.

She began planning trips that would allow the Chamber Singers to both perform in historic venues and experience cultures outside of the Southeast. In total, 240 students have performed with Chamber Singers in New York, Ireland (2012 and 2018), and England (2015).

Chamber Singers overseas trips map

The trips are among the students’ best memories of college.

“When else do you get to live and work together, every single day, with 40 of your best friends?” says Berkley, who was a Chamber Singers member from his sophomore year through graduate school.

The university’s choral ensembles—Chamber Singers, Concert Choir, Men’s Chorale, Women’s Chorale, and UT Singers—are open to any student who auditions. No one is turned away; every student is assigned to one of the five groups. By design, the ensembles feature music students as well as novices and others from a wide range of academic majors. “So a first-time choir member might end up sitting next to someone who aspires to sing with the Metropolitan Opera,” Batey says.

The Chamber Singers rehearse twice weekly and perform three major concerts a semester. They also participate in and organize events for the community—which is how Berkley first discovered the group.

Every year, the School of Music hosts a choral arts concert, inviting choirs from high schools across East Tennessee to perform. As a senior at Karns High School, Berkley performed at the concert with his choir. Afterward, he stuck around to watch the a cappella groups and Chamber Singers perform.

“I had never seen music performed at that level before,” Berkley says. “I had never seen so many people on fire for music, putting everything they had into it. It changed my life.”

Berkley, who initially hadn’t planned to attend college, did everything he could to get accepted to UT. Joining him on Rocky Top was his high school girlfriend, Hannah Gamble. They sang together in Chamber Singers and later married. She also participated in the Ireland trip and is currently the choir director for South­–Doyle High School in Knoxville.

“There’s just such an incredible amount of opportunity at UT,” Berkley says.

In the School of Music alone, there are eight active student organizations , including groups for future teachers, string players, conductors, and women in music. On top of Chamber Singers, Berkley performed with VOLume, an all-male a cappella group that performs renditions of pop songs.

Chamber Singers challenged him not only technically as a singer but also culturally. Over the years, Berkley performed Hannukah and Christmas songs, traditional African American spirituals, and Tennessee folk music. The exposure set the stage for the 2018 trip to Ireland. “A lot of us had never been out of Knoxville before,” Berkley says. But when they did go, they were prepared.

In addition to singing at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the Chamber Singers performed at Christ Church Cathedral, another Dublin cathedral where in 1742 Handel’s Messiah was performed for the first time. It’s another memory Berkley knows he will likely never be able to replicate.

“To be singing there with these people who are really more like your family, it suddenly dawns on you that you’re in this very special moment; you’re at this timestamp of history,” Berkley says. “And you feel so lucky to be exactly who you are, where you are, doing what you do.”

The Chamber Singers ensemble plans to continue its tradition of international performances in the summer of 2022. The group will tour Scotland and England, where in London they will sing at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

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