HomeThe Animals of Aca-Land: A Fluff Piece

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What is it about animals? And not just animals in general, but specifically the ones we choose to share our lives with – our pets. Anyone who has ever loved a pet understands the connection we make, the unconditional acceptance and adoration we give and receive. A cappellans aren’t immune to the charms of animal buddies - sometimes our pets even help us be better vocal musicians. Just for fun, we thought we’d share a few stories of our a cappella chums and their furry (and feathered) friends.

Benny the dog goes everywhere in Austin, TX, with his best friend, John Pointer. For anyone unfamiliar with John (is there actually anyone who is unfamiliar with John?), he is currently a member of the House Jacks, and was previously a member of Schrodinger’s Cat. John also performs solo, and as a member of Trio Los Vigilantes. He has a degree in cello performance and composition from the University of Texas in Austin, and has been a musician all his life. He is also working on several important projects that focus on empowerment of creative people, funding performances, and creating new opportunities for artists. One wonders where John finds time to be with his furry friend – but Benny goes everywhere in Austin with John, and John says he’s learned to be a “totally chill rockstar” in every situation. Benny is an athlete and also a bionic dog, having had two knees replaced due to sports injuries. John says that Benny fell out of the cosmos into his life, and makes his life better in every way. “He doesn’t care if I spend all my time beatboxing,” says John. “He just thinks that’s how I communicate. Also, he keeps my feet and heart warm.” For more fun photos of Benny, visit his Facebook page (yes, Benny has a Facebook page) at https://www.facebook.com/benny.pointer

Chico the dog almost didn’t get to be part of Craig Martek’s life – Craig was looking for a dog on Petfinder.com and knew Chico was The One as soon as he saw him, but his apartment manager wasn’t interested at the time. A couple of months later, a new management company with a more lenient dog policy took over, and when Craig went back to Petfinder, luckily Chico was still there, and the rest was history. Craig, a software engineer at Google Cambridge, sings with the Pow Arrangers, and since the group often gathers at his place, Chico has become the group’s mascot. He has been a guest star in a couple of group videos and photos and the whole gang loves him. Though he’s quite a happy dude, Chico’s underbite makes him look sort of sad, but since it leads to more attention and goodies, it seems like Chico totally makes out like a bandit.

We already knew that Lauren Barreiro was a cappella nobility, now it turns out her cat is too – meet The Duchess Hildgard von Biggums (aka Hildy). Lo, as we have come to know her, is currently singing with Musae, but is also remembered for directing and singing with the Florida State University AcaBelles. She has also worked for The Vocal Company, and now works as a freelance arranger and clinician. The Duchess – Hildy for short – was found in a Boston-area animal shelter and became the house feline for Lo and several other aca-roommates. When Lo decided to go back to school, Hildy made the move south as well and enjoys the warmer climes. Lo says that, among other talents, Hildy makes a first-rate Instagram model – indeed, if it weren’t for Hildy, Lo’s entire contribution to Insta would be photos of Starbucks cups with variant spellings of “Lo” on them. But more importantly, Hildy provides love, entertainment, and just enough sass to keep Ms. Lo in check. Hildy also loves shoes, lounging, tuna, hanging out in windows, and shedding in contrasting colors on all Lo’s clothes. 

Currently the director of the Marlborough (MA) High School Mixed Chorus and A Cappella Choir, Shannon Phypers has been involved with many recent aca-endeavors, including the NE Voices Festival (executive board), ICCAs (judge), Soup 2 Nuts, singing with The PickUps, and singing with Ithaca College’s Premium Blend. She made the move to the Boston area to spend more time with her boyfriend Tyson, who is also an aca-nut – a match made in heaven, I’d say! Shannon required a bit of persuasion on the idea of having cats, but Tyson worked some mojo and they adopted a pair of kitties in the summer of 2009, Lucy and Ethel. “They make us laugh every day!” says Shannon. Whether it’s chasing kibbles around the kitchen, squeezing into tiny bags or boxes, or demanding attention in no uncertain terms, they provide endless hours of hilarity. It seems they have another unusual (but not unexpected) talent – they sing. Naturally, they follow their own rhythms and harmonies, but Shannon says they are quite the vocalists. I guess talent runs in this family!

“Kali is a stress reliever for me,” says Mark Hines (co-owner and co-founder of The Vocal Company, former executive producer of SoJam, and former CASA board member). “She always loves me, always wants to be with me, and I feel like she could take care of me if I needed her to.” Kali is a shepherd/chow mix from the SPCA, and has been part of Mark’s family since 2003. Quiet and unassuming from the beginning, she makes herself available to Mark’s clients if they need a little doggy love to help them with recording or other projects.

Brody McDonald is an accomplished barbershopper, co-founder with Deke Sharon of Camp Acappella, and wrote the book Acappella Pop – A Complete Guide to Contemporary Acappella Singing. Currently, he directs Eleventh Hour (familiar to fans of The Sing-Off) at Kettering Fairmont High School in Ohio. “I bought Marcus from a breeder 12 years ago during my first marriage,” says Brody. “After the divorce, it was just Marcus and me. I used to come home from work and his friendly greeting was the whole world.” Brody has since married a wonderful lady named Marty and has two (human) kids, Ayla and Miles. Still, there are times when Marcus’ unconditional love is still the main event. “No matter how late I work, how tired I am, what mood I’m in,” Brody says, “Marcus loves on me and makes me feel like a million bucks.” Nice going, Marcus.

O’Malley came to be part of Meredith Strang’s life when she and her husband plugged their “wants” into petfinder.com and found that the perfect dog had just posted the day before – it was kismet! Meredith is a member of Treble, and whenever she has rehearsals at her house, O’Malley sits in the middle of the group soaking up all the music, not to mention a fair amount of petting. He’s gone with the group on every retreat and was even present during recording – listen closely for the unconditional love on the tracks. O’Malley also gets to be Meredith’s companion on work days, since she works from home. A lot of us wish we had such good company at work!

Potter the bunny was originally named Beatrix (after the author of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit"), but at his first vet checkup, his new "mom" Andrea Asuaje was told he was a boy, so with a slight switcheroo, all was well. Andrea, who sings bass in Jaded and used to be part of the University of Florida's No Southern Accent, worked for a time as a reporter in St. Augustine, FL, and was sent to cover a benefit for a local no-kill shelter. There, she met this little bunny-guy and decided to bring him home. Potter is litter-box trained and has the freedom to roam the whole house - although he does have a cage that functions as a den and he hangs out there sometimes. As Potter has gotten a little older (he's about three years old now), he has become very attached to Andrea and loves to be held and cuddled. The feeling is mutual, of course. "Potter was my first companion out of college and out in the world when I was on my own for the first time," says Andrea. "To this day, he's my little boy, and I've grown extremely attached to him." It's easy to see why.

Rusty! is a mini-schauzer mix who makes his home with Wes Carroll, a vocal percussionist extraordinaire (formerly of the House Jacks and Five O'Clock Shadow). Wes is also a math teacher/tutor, and is currently recording a number of a cappella covers of "the songs everyone else is too embarrassed to admit they love." When Wes decided to adopt, he went to a local shelter, and noticed Rusty! (the exclamation point is silent) sitting quietly while all the other dogs were going nuts. When Rusty! walked over to Wes and put his head down in Wes' lap, the decision was made, and there have been no regrets. Rusty! likes to lie around with his people all day - something Wes appreciates because he doesn't get enough of that in his life. Not that Rusty! can't be boisterous and silly. He is a dog, after all.

Shirley Blue & Rocco share a home with Amy Malkoff, CASA web content manager and member of All About Buford (currently on hiatus, this group was named after Amy’s dear departed Buford, an orange and white Persian cat). Amy has been involved with many CASA projects and is well-known and loved by many of us aca-folk. Shirley was adopted from an animal shelter about 14 years ago. She’s a sweet, loving girl, and Amy says there is nothing more comforting than “Shirley-purr.” Amy found Rocco on Craigslist.org, and says he is the prettiest cat in all the land. He is also very smart and knows many words, including “ball,” “outside,” “bathtub,” “purr,” and “no” – the last of which, Amy says, he knows but often ignores. Rocco has a crabby alter-ego named Zocco who appears when he gets riled up – many of us who have been kept by cats can relate to this, no doubt. He has a favorite game called Roccer, which Amy describes as soccer with Rocco – he chases balls and bats them around. Amy says he’s also a little obsessed with her, which seems perfect for a charming feline companion.

Amy Engelhardt, formerly of The Bobs, and currently a masterclass clinician, Broadway composer/lyricist, and session singer, had a 10-year argument with her husband Alex about whether they should get a cat or a dog. At long last, Amy won out, and they picked out a cat from a shelter - or rather, as Amy says, the cat picked Alex. They named him Sitka P. Coldfoot, after a beautiful place in Alaska (Sitka) and the village where Amy and Alex were married (Coldfoot, also in Alaska). The middle initial P? "He has not told us what the P. stands for," says Amy. She describes rather elegantly how it is that Sitka makes her life better: "Show biz is a world of agendas, idiots, and idiots with agendas. Sitka is 100% pure. And tuxedos are the best, perkiest, smartest, goofiest kittehs."

Eva Kiviat Brown found Violet in a pet store and it was love at first sight. Eva wasn't even looking for a dog, but there was something about Violet that Eva just couldn't resist. She ran to an ATM and made the purchase on the spot. Eva was a member of Binghamton University's Kaskeset, and a few years ago, Dave Brown (creator and cohost of Mouthoff, and founder of BYU Noteworthy) responded to Eva's post on a CASA forum about a new group being formed. The group fizzled, but a romance was born. Eventually, Dave moved west from NYC to Salt Lake City to take a job, and the couple dated long distance for a couple of years, but in 2012 Eva (and Violet) moved to Utah to reunite with Dave. Eva and Dave got married just a few weeks ago, so now Violet has a stable home life. Violet has quite an entertaining personality, and is a big love bug. She knows when Eva or Dave is feeling down and snuggles up to comfort them for as long as she's wanted, and when she's happy, she shakes her entire butt from side to side.

Finally, we’ll break into the extended percussion solo that is the acapet saga of this reporter, yours truly, Melinda Thomas (my quick bio is at the end of this article). Feel free to jam alongside as I attempt to remain succinct and yet somehow edifying, and bear with me as I may tend to sink into sentimentality and wax rhapsodic here and there. My critters are my family, and my best buddies. Oh, along with that husband guy. *grin*

We begin with the least cuddly of the bunch, Yolko, Souffle, and Holly (short for Hollandaise), the three hens. It’s actually stretching the point to call them “pets” because they really have no particular use for us humans except for the food, water, and coop-cleaning we provide. However, they are not only quite entertaining, they also feed us with delicious, high-quality organic free-range eggs. which has to count for something. Moving on to the caprine portion of our program, we come to Bob, Ray, Mango, Willow, and Xander, the goats. We have had several other goats as well since we moved to the boonies 14-1/2 years ago. Bob and Ray are pygmies, Mango and Xander are Oberhasli (a Swiss dairy breed, though since they are boys, milk is not in the picture), and Willow is a “mutt.” They also provide entertainment, but their most important contribution is in the realm of fire safety – they keep the ladder fuels in check, something that is rather important, living as we do in fire country. Neither chickens nor goats seem to have any opinion about a cappella music, though the goats have been known to harmonize a bit around dinnertime. “Bellowing” would be another way to describe it.

Transitioning back into the more traditional pet realm, I introduce Stella, a long-haired black cat who manages equal parts of rough-and-tumble feral with princess-on-a-cushion priss. She is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle, but when she decides to turn on the charm, she fairly knocks us over with it. I say “us” because she is elusive with others and only shows herself – and her personality - when my husband and I are the only people nearby. We have longtime friends who visit frequently, and they’ve never seen her. I think they believe she is imaginary. Much more visible and gregarious is Kaylee, a spunky tabby who believes she is in charge. Of everything. Always. Sometimes I think she’s correct. The cats do not care for singing. Stella, in fact, has been known to climb up next to me on the piano bench when I practice and bang on the bass notes of the keyboard while shrieking at the top of her lungs, just to get me to stop – which I usually do, since it’s hard to sing and laugh hysterically at the same time. I generally try to practice when she’s not in the house, for obvious reasons.

The queens of our hearts are our two beautiful doggy girls. First, the amazing, recently departed Ruth, who at thirteen years was still running, dock-diving, and bouncing in the air at treat time. Ruth was the epitome of patience and sweetness, always ready for a hug or a walk, a car ride, or just a nap. She came from the shelter with the name and it fit her perfectly. And then we have our beautiful blonde, the apple of my eye, Manor’s English Amber RAE, better known as Emma, my first purebred golden retriever. She and I have done a lot of activities together, including obedience training, AKC Rally Obedience (resulting in the alphabet soup at the end of her formal name), agility training and demonstrations, and now K9 Nosework, a sport that builds on dogs’ natural instincts to use their superior senses of smell to hunt. Emma is surely one of the sweetest, most good-natured creatures that ever lived, and she makes me want to strive to be half the person she seems to believe I am – a tall order, but if I succeed, I will be quite a great being.

Just a beginning, no doubt there are many more furry (and feathered) buddies out in the aca-verse. If you enjoyed this installment, perhaps we’ll revisit the subject sometime and share more of our of our wonderful, loving acapets.

Have a pet you want to tell us about? Let us know in the comments!

About the writer:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University.  She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus.  She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical? These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium. She is also a Northern California CASA Ambassador.