Cleveland's Lee University gains reputation as a dream school for vocalists

Cleveland's Lee University gains reputation as a dream school for vocalists

January 17th, 2010 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Candace Whittington, left, and Bryan Sanders front the Voices of Lee as they rehearse a song on stage at the Conn Center on Tuesday.

Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Candace...

On the way to Jackson, Miss., for a recent performance, the Voices of Lee vocal ensemble pulled into a Mississippi truck stop in the wee hours of the morning to gas up their bus.

As the singers walked in, remembers the group's director Danny Murray, a startled cashier asked, "Have ya'll been on TV? Weren't you on that 'Sing-Off?' You were my mama's favorite!"

That brush with fame was the direct result of eight hours of prime-time exposure on NBC's nationally televised singing competition in December.

Lee University, in Cleveland, Tenn., has become known for its singers who have won spots on national reality shows such as "American Idol" and "The Sing-Off" over the last three years.

Actually, university sources say, those singers are just the latest in a growing roster of emerging professional musicians to have passed through Lee's music department during the last two decades.


According to information provided by the university, the school had 60 music majors among its 750 grads in 2009. The department, while small, is nonetheless compiling an impressive list of nationally known alumni.

The musical "Who's Who" begins with Jay DeMarcus of country music band Rascal Flatts, who came to Lee for three years in the early 1990s after hearing one of Danny Murray's vocal groups perform in Ohio.

The talent line-up continues with Jimi Westbrook of the country group Little Big Town; Jeremi Richardson, Melissa Green and Janna Potter Long of the contemporary Christian quartet Avalon; Scott Stapp of the rock band Creed and Nathan Chapman, producer of Taylor Swift's "Fearless" CD, who is nominated for a Grammy in Best Country Album at next month's awards ceremony.

Additionally, there are numerous instrumentalists now playing professionally -- from Rachel Skidmore, in the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera string section, to Neil Coomer in New York City. Mr. Coomer has also sung with Dolly Parton and was a vocalist on the 2005-2006 season of "Saturday Night Live."


These successes have possibly contributed to the small private school's 23 consecutive years of growth. Lee's student body has increased from 960 in 1986 to 4,262 in fall 2009, according to Phil Cook, Lee director of admission.

"We received an increase in phone inquiries, e-mail requests and our general communication with prospective students as a result of Voices of Lee on 'The Sing-Off," he said.

"One specifically was a music major who had just been in Knoxville, hadn't heard of Lee but saw 'The Sing-Off', and e-mailed us immediately," said the admissions director.

"Frequently at college fairs, the questions somehow make it back to the well-known alums who have been part of the music industry. They (prospective students) hear of Lee based on one of these people."

Dr. Paul Conn, Lee University president, has a favorite expression to describe that name recognition: "Music is to Lee what football is to the University of Notre Dame."


Phil Stacey, a recording artist and former "American Idol" finalist, said in an e-mail interview that he applied to Lee because he wanted the opportunity to travel with the Lee Singers.

He named that group's former director, Dr. Walt Mauldin, as a professor who made an impact on his life. He said Dr. Mauldin "kept him in school when I was tempted to quit and pursue a music career."

"I think being involved with the Lee Singers gave me invaluable leadership training, which I exercise in running my own business today. And nothing can beat being on the road with the Lee Singers every weekend and summer to prepare you for touring!" Stacey joked.

Dr. Brad Moffett, current director of the Lee Singers, also is an alumnus of that choral group.

"The Lee Singers have had many go on to be successful in the music industry. Janna Potter Long and Melissa Green toured with Avalon, and Janna is still a member of the group. There are others less famous who have become successful as arrangers, writers and producers," he said.

Dr. Moffett said he has discovered that most music students come to Lee because they heard one of its ensembles.

"Our ensembles join music excellence with heart and spirituality. For a young person who is a follower of Christ, that combination is a big draw for our program," he said.

Like Phil Stacey, Lee senior Phil Nitz of Tampa, Fla., had family members who were alumni.

"But it was the opportunity to be part of Voices of Lee that caused me to come here," he said.

Grammy-nominated record producer Nathan Chapman said in an e-mail interview that he, too, chose Lee after hearing one of its choirs perform at his Nashville church.

Although he was an English major at the school, he said "a great college teaches you how to juggle lots of tasks and that's something I've definitely used.

"Lee helped me grow up and be prepared for the real world," he said.


* Jay DeMarcus: Before he formed multiplatinum-selling country group Rascal Flatts, he played piano for New Harvest, a Lee University vocal group directed by Danny Murray. He also boarded in Mr. Murray's home, and the choral director was in Mr. DeMarcus's wedding to Allison Alderson.

* Four Voices: Chad Guyton, Brandon Guyton, Lester Rector and Dr. Jayson VanHook, former members of Voices of Lee who won the 1996 Collegiate Barbershop Quartet Championship then were named 2002 World Champion Barbershop Quartet They remain the only quartet to have won both student and professional titles. Dr. VanHook is now an assistant vice president at Lee.

* Phil Stacey: "American Idol" Season 6 finalist, now contemporary Christian recording artist.

* Voices of Lee: A cappella ensemble selected as one of eight groups to compete on NBC's "The Sing-Off." They placed third in the new reality show.

* Stephanie Culberson: Miss Tennessee 2001 and Lee pianist who placed second runner-up to Miss America.

* Jimi Westbrook: Singer, songwriter and musician in Little Big Town country quartet.

* Jeremi Richardson, Melissa Green, Janna Potter Long: Members of Avalon, Dove Award-winning and Grammy-nominated contemporary Christian music group.

* Scott Stapp: Lead singer of the rock band Creed, although he stayed less than one year.

* Nathan Chapman: Producer of Taylor Swift's "Fearless" CD, the top-selling album of 2009. "Fearless" won a CMA for Album of the Year and is nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Album.

* Mark Harris: Singer-songwriter in 4Him, seven-time Dove Award-winning contemporary Christian band.

* Elicia Brown, Chrystal Washington Johnson, Ashleigh Massie: Performers in Voices of Liberty at EPCOT. Ms. Brown also sings at Beth Moore's Living Proof women's conferences; Ms. Johnson was featured on the Gaither Homecoming video taped in Israel.

Sources: Lee University, various Internet sites

Nathan Chapman at Lee Thursday

Nathan Chapman, Lee University alumnus who produced Taylor Swift's "Fearless" CD, will speak Thursday at 10:30 a.m. in the Dixon Center on the Cleveland, Tenn., campus. Mr. Chapman said he will share his experiences at Lee and "how they helped shape and guide me to where I am in my life now." The chapel talk is free and open to the public.