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Central Washington University

CWU A Cappella Group Heading to LA for Semifinals

Excitement is building for seven Central Washington University students as their small, mixed a cappella group continues to gain momentum. 

Members of Boots ‘n’ Cats hit it off from the start, and their energy and hard work is paying off. A second-place finish at their first competitive performance has advanced them to the Varsity Vocals International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella regional semifinals on April 5 in Los Angeles. 

In between rehearsals where the singers take a serious approach to improving their craft, they’re doing radio performances and newspaper interviews, making YouTube videos, organizing concerts and fundraisers, and competing on stage—all after attending classes in pursuit of their degrees. 

The singers are Emily Salisbury, Nicole Prigge, Antonio Fernandez, Aryn Chatterton, Bo Mendez, Sarah Hemenway, and Ben Lundgren. And they’re “freaking out” from the attention. 

“It’s a good freak out,” said Lundgren during a recent rehearsal in CWU’s McIntyre music building. 

Before seven close friends who share a passion for singing and performing formed Boots ‘n’ Cats, they were individual musicians who mostly knew of each other. Some went to high school together and a couple attended the same community college before enrolling at CWU. 

Dreaming up a new group

Last summer Prigge and Salisbury came up with the idea for the new troop over a lunch date. 

“I was like, if you could make an a cappella group, who would it be?” Prigge recalled. 

“We got out a legal pad and put some names together,” Salisbury said. “Nicole and I have really busy lives. We wanted people to trust so our dream, our idea would come to fruition. We approached people one by one. .... We got a yes from everyone and the ball got rolling. Quickly.”

And their repertoire? Feel-good songs with toe tapping beats. Each song tells a story, and the group’s set arrangement tells another story. It’s a 12-minute, uplifting presentation that compels anyone within earshot to groove along.

The name Boots ‘n’ Cats is not a pairing of cowboy apparel and CWU’s mascot. Repeating the words boots and cats while emphasizing only the consonants is a way for beginners to grasp the concept of beat boxing, aka vocal percussion. The name was suggested as a joke, but it stuck.

Fernandez, from Kent, is the group’s resident beat boxer and bass singer. He’s working toward a music composition degree at CWU. Fernandez was introduced to beat boxing in sixth-grade when he watched an Internet video demonstrating the technique. 

“Since then, I thought, you know what, that is so cool, I want to learn how to do that. … And so that’s kind of been my drive—finding cool noises and trying to emulate them myself,” Fernandez said.

A passion for music

Like the other members of Boots ‘n’ Cats, Fernandez embraced a passion for music at a young age. 

“It’s been the one thing that’s enlightened me in multiple cases. If I’m trying to get a lift up, or if I’m already high on life and just want to celebrate, music has just been my foundation of who I am,” he said.

Boots ‘n’ Cats submitted an application in October for the Varsity Vocals contest and was accepted in November. They finished second out of 10 groups in the February quarterfinals contest at Pacific Lutheran University. Fernandez took home an individual award for outstanding vocal percussion. The win advanced Boots ‘n’ Cats to the upcoming semifinals. 

“And if we win first or second, we’ll be going to New York after that. So fingers crossed,” said Chatterton, who’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in music. 

Chatterton, from Issaquah, grew up in a musical household with a father who plays piano and a mother who sings. This is the first time she’s been part of an a cappella group.

“It’s kind of like being in a great relationship. It’s not a connection you find every day,” she said. 

Salisbury, from Puyallup, first connected with music in church. The CWU senior is working on a vocal performance degree and says a cappella is a lot of fun. 

“Working with all of these people who are literally in the same boat as me, all trying to make music sound catchy and hip and relatable with just your voice is challenging ... and it’s been a blast,” Salisbury said. 

Lundgren and Prigge grew up together in Ellensburg. Lundgren got his start at singing when his school’s choir director, after seeing him in a community play, suggested he audition for choir. Before that, the vocal performance major learned to play cello.

“I get on stage, I start singing, and I’m just happy. I’m in the zone that I don’t get with anything else,” Lundgren said. “A cappella music is fun. It’s relatable to my generation. … It’s relatable to a lot of people.”

Prigge, who is an exercise science major, loved to sing when she was a little girl, but it wasn’t until she was about 17 that anyone actually heard her voice. 

“I was that kid in choir who didn’t want anyone to hear them sing,” Prigge said, adding that she stuck with music because it’s ingrained in her family and gives her a spiritual outlet. 

Hemenway, from Walla Walla, is a vocal performance major expecting to graduate from CWU this spring. She started singing in church alongside her dad who was a worship pastor. 

“Being on stage is one of my favorite feelings in the whole world,” she said. “If I could be on stage for the rest of my life, I’m totally OK with that.”

Mendez, from Othello, also is set to graduate soon with a degree in music education. Church musicals and roles in living nativity scenes helped get him hooked on the art. 

“Music is the venue of my expression that speaks to me the most. I feel like I can express myself through music a lot more than other areas,” he said. 

Getting to California

The group estimates travel expenses to Los Angeles to be about $4,000. They’ve sought business sponsorships and hosted bake sales and raffle drawings. All the singers have jobs that will help fund the journey. Supporters have also contributed to a gofundme.com account. As of this writing, online donations—ranging from $10 to $200—totaled $1,615. 

Ten groups are competing at the semifinals at Pomona College. The winners will advance to nationals on April 26 in New York City.

The International Championship of Collegiate a Cappella, owned and operated by Varsity Vocals, is the largest a cappella tournament in the world. Five judges critique the performances in the categories of vocal performance, visual performance, and subjective rank. Individual awards also may be given for outstanding soloist, outstanding arrangement, outstanding vocal percussion, and outstanding choreography. Each group has 12 minutes to perform its set. Groups that exceed the limit will be penalized.

Watch the PLU performance that advanced Boots 'n' Cats to the semifinals on YouTube. To learn more about the group, find them on Facebook. For more information about CWU’s music department go to cwu.edu/music

TOP PHOTO: Central Washington University senior Sarah Hemenway, center, rehearses as a member of CWU's mixed a cappella group Boots 'n' Cats in March 2014. Ben Lundgren, left, and Antonio Fernandez, right, also are part of the seven-person troop. (Rich Villacres/CWU)

MIDDLE PHOTOS FROM LEFT: CWU senior Emily Salisbury sings at a recent Boots 'n' Cats rehearsal. Central Washington University students Nicole Prigge, left, Antonio Fernandez, center, and Aryn Chatterton, right, rehearse as members of CWU's seven-person mixed a cappella group Boots 'n' Cats in March 2014. ((Rich Villacres/CWU)

ABOVE PHOTO: Central Washington University's mixed a cappella group, Boots 'n' Cats, from left: Aryn Chatterton, Ben Lundgren, Emily Salisbury, Antonio Fernandez, SarahHemenway, Nicole Prigge and Bo Mendez. (Rick Spencer/CWU)

Media contact: Barb Arnott, CWU Public Affairs, 509-963-2841, barnott@cwu.edu

March 19, 2014