Critical Mass hits a high note at Commencement

Critical Mass performs the national anthem during Friday evening’s Spring Commencement ceremony at Global Credit Union Arena.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Caps soar, confetti rains down from the ceiling, cheers spill into Grand Canyon University's Global Credit Union Arena, and Critical Mass will experience it all, 11 times over, for Spring Commencement.

It has become a tradition for the College of Arts and Media choral group to perform at every Commencement ceremony.

“Over the years it’s grown to be a very meaningful part of Commencement,” said Dr. Juan Hernandez, assistant dean of music and the group's conductor. “For many that are graduating, it is their last performance with us that their friends and their family get to see either here or online. It’s just a great thing to finish the year with.”

Dr. Juan Hernandez conducts Critical Mass at the first of this spring's 11 Commencement ceremonies.

Critical Mass makes two appearances at each ceremony, starting with its 30-minute opening set as everyone gathers, and finishing with singing the national anthem at the beginning of the ceremony.

While ground students are busily packing the week leading up to the first graduation ceremony as they prepare to leave campus for the summer, these 14 student performers are on stage in the Arena rehearsing, doing multiple reruns and vocal exercises.

“Let’s take it from the top once more,” instructs music director and pianist Mark Fearey at an afternoon rehearsal the day before the first Commencement ceremony as his fingers fly down the piano. The students follow, bringing their microphones closer and taking their performer’s stance.

We cannot achieve what we do together, by ourselves. The strength that we have together, the little that I do have, becomes so much more because of them."

Cooper Townley, Critical Mass

Busy with a rigorous and consistent show schedule throughout the academic year, Critical Mass performs up to 60 musical pieces at concerts on and off campus, and some of that repertoire is performed at Commencement ceremonies.

But even with the long hours and repetitive vocal exercises, nothing prepares these students like prayer does, said recent theatre graduate Cooper Townley.

"I rely on the training and the preparation that I do, but all that can fail. He (God) is the One who's got me, so I do it for His glory first."

Abigail Huettemann (center) not only sang on stage with Critical Mass, but she also walked across the stage as a graduating senior.

“It’s so fun to provide live music for the people that are graduating,” said graduating senior Abigail Huettemann. “Whenever we are up on the stage, there are always a bunch of people in the front rows who are dancing and singing along with us, having a fun time. It brings a fun atmosphere to graduation.”

As family and friends are finding their way to their seats and graduates are taking photos in their caps and gowns, Critical Mass fills the background with upbeat pieces ranging from gospel music and jazz to musical theatre and pop.

These student performers have grown a special connection to the event, some of them having performed from freshman year through senior year, waiting for the moment they themselves get to wear their cap and gown on stage.

“There were a lot of upper classmen in the group when I was a freshman, so I’ve watched all my friends walk across the stage. I was the youngest of the group, and now it’s my turn,” said Huettemann.

It is a full-circle moment for both her and fellow graduate Tory Barton.

Cooper Townley (center) said the biggest thing he learned from being part of Critical Mass is "the power of a group."

“I don’t think it was something I thought I would be doing freshman year,” admitted Barton. “I built up the courage and confidence to audition sophomore year, and I have loved it since.

"This is probably my favorite of all our performances. It is a very diverse crowd of people, and we get to perform a 30-minute set of random songs. The most people we sing for is at graduation.”

Students can audition for Critical Mass at any point and don't have to be a vocal-performance major. The group is made up of those who simply love to sing and inspire others through music.

Townley did not hesitate to be a part of another group on campus and grow his talents.

“I feel like it’s the little thing that I can give back to the school,” Townley said. “It feels really lovely to have the opportunity to do it, but ultimately, we do it for God and the school that has given us so much.”

Critical Mass performs during Thursday afternoon’s Spring Commencement ceremony.

Townley, who originally did not plan to join the group, said becoming a member came out of the blue. Fearey reached out to Townley and mentioned the ensemble needed a baritone. Before he knew it, he was in.

“The biggest thing I have learned is the power of a group,” added Townley. “We cannot achieve what we do together, by ourselves. The strength that we have together, the little that I do have, becomes so much more because of them.”

Critical Mass is taking the stage for the final six Spring Commencement ceremonies, this time for online and cohort students, for 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. ceremonies today through Friday.

GCU staff writer Izabela Fogarasi can be reached at [email protected]

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