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Alumni Stay CONNECT-ed Through Music

A capella group CONNECT is made up of nine CCSU alumni. (Photo submitted)

By Amy J. Barry

Originating in late 15th-century Europe, a capella (Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”) is one of the most ancient forms of choral music, sung in churches without instrumental accompaniment.

Fast forward to 2017 and CONNECT, a CCSU-based a capella group, is putting an exciting new spin on this vocal harmony music with diverse, original melodies, beat boxing and music videos, and innovative interpretations of traditional works.

Founded in 2013, originally as the Hartford Wailers, CONNECT consists of CCSU alumni who live, work, and/or teach in the Greater New Britain/Hartford area and rehearse together weekly.

In recent years, the nine-member group has been making its voices heard in professional vocal competitions. After consecutive wins at SingStrong — an annual national convention to benefit Alzheimer’s research held in Washington, D.C., in 2015 and New York in 2016 — CONNECT earned the title of New York champions in a regional competition at Columbia University, beating out six other groups, including one from the Republic of Georgia. CONNECT also nabbed the Best Choreography award.

In May, CONNECT traveled to San Francisco to compete on the national stage against regional champions from six other states in the Harmony Sweepstakes, which has been showcasing the nation’s top vocal talent for more than three decades. CONNECT won third place, and Giselle Ziegler ’11, the group’s music director, won for Best Arrangement. CONNECT will host the Harmony Sweepstakes New York Regional competition in 2018.

Missed Connections

The members of CONNECT all sang in various choral groups at CCSU, and the one thing they missed after graduating was singing together.

“After spending four years in the A Capella Society at CCSU, they’re like family to you. Then you don’t have that weekly connection and can’t express yourself though song,” Ziegler says. “And so, within a year after graduating we got together and said, ‘Hey, we miss this, we need to put something together.’”

Ziegler and Michael Brown ’12, the group’s sound engineer, were both directors of their undergraduate a capella groups and together founded CONNECT. Ziegler says the singers’ bond as alumni contributes to CONNECT’s success.

“There’s a familiarity you wouldn’t otherwise get,” she says. “It’s one thing singing with people with awesome voices, but another thing singing with people when you’re familiar with their voices, and that gives us an edge.”

Kaylah Smith ’12, CONNECT’s business manager, works at the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, along with singer Kimberly Duncan ’13.

Smith notes, “Being involved in music doesn’t mean it has to be your profession. But I want to express myself artistically, perform with my friends, and I think that’s how a lot of us are — it’s a great outlet, a creative space where we’re able to work together and come out with a really cool product.”

Participating in music competitions adds a new dimension to the music for the singers.

“It’s definitely different than a concert,” Smith says. “You also have to be playing to what the judges want to hear and figure out what it is we have that will make us stand out, what will be noteworthy.”

“It’s really a treat on so many different levels,” Brown says. “To travel to do what you love, as well as travel with people you love — they’ve been like a second family since college. It’s a privilege to go and perform in these competitions because the people are so great — it’s not cutthroat.”

One-of-a-Kind Sound

“We’re a long way from monks singing a capella in churches,” Smith notes. “We need to keep up with what’s going on in music today that people can connect to, and they tell us, ‘This is really interesting, it’s something I want to hear on the radio.’”

“It’s different than the old a capella in that we incorporate a lot of different effects,” Smith continues. “We’re really lucky to have Lucian (Varela ’14),” Smith continues. “He’s a beat boxer and brings it to the next level. He creates sounds like synthesizers, drums, futuristic lasers — all with his voice.”

Brown adds, “What we do that’s a little different is finding ways to combine choral music with modern popular music. We’ll mix up three facets of music — choral music, pop music, and beat boxing — that are usually not married that way. That’s what Giselle does. She can put together songs you’d never think would go together and prove you’re wrong.”

As the group’s vocal arranger, Ziegler also has to take a piece of music and arrange it to fit nine voices, but that doesn’t faze her.

“It’s kind of a puzzle to me,” she says. “It’s a process that takes time and is something I really enjoy — settling on a theme and listening over a period of months to any music out there on the radio, online, on play lists, and, if something strikes me as belonging to this theme, figuring out how it would fit for our group. I’m so lucky to work with these amazing voices. Everyone brings a unique talent to the group.”

To hear CONNECT perform and for information on upcoming performances, visit

The Singers

Nine CCSU alumni sing in CONNECT. They are: Giselle Ziegler, Michael Brown, Kaylah Smith, Marcella Jalbert, Kimberly Duncan, Brian Jacobs, Lucian Varela, Kevin Walsh, and Matthew Weisher.

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