UpClose: Jennifer Scrimpshire

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For more than seven years, the all-American rock band Foreigner has hosted more than 500 choirs all over North America at its concerts in support of music in the schools. The group has ten multi-platinum albums with sales of over 75 million units, and their massive catalog of hit songs includes: “Juke Box Hero,” “Feels Like The First Time,” “Urgent,” “Head Games,” “Hot Blooded,” “Cold as Ice,” “Dirty White Boy,” “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” and “I Want To Know What Love Is.”

The band teamed up with the Grammy Foundation to support its Grammy in the Schools programs, and donates proceeds from pre-concert sales of a greatest hits album to the foundation. In every city that hosts a Foreigner concert, a choir is chosen to perform with the band, and the band donates $500 to the selected choir program to spend as they see fit. Typically, a local classic rock or other station that plays Foreigner’s music hosts a contest where a choir submits a video performance of a Foreigner song through the radio station’s website, then the station’s listeners vote on the best choir, which is chosen to perform.

Choral Director shares the story of one choir lucky enough to participate in the program, as told by their choir director, Jennifer Scrimpshire.

On December 30, 2014, I received a phone call that would change my students’ lives forever. On that day, we received the news that we would be performing on stage with Foreigner in a live concert at the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, MS on January 9, 2015. Let me start from the beginning….

Show choir is a fairly new concept on the Gulf Coast and definitely was at Biloxi High School when I started teaching here in the fall of 2013. Most people don’t understand what show choir is or how it works. The show choir at Biloxi High School, Sound Surge, is the only competitive show choir on the Gulf Coast. At a parent booster club meeting in early December, it was decided that we needed to gain more community exposure so that our community could see what it is that we work so hard to do. A week or so later, Vicki Evans, my parent booster club treasurer, called me and said that she had found the perfect way for us to gain some exposure. She said that on her way to work that day, she was listening to a local radio station and heard that they were holding a contest for a local choir to have the opportunity to perform with Foreigner at the Hard Rock Casino. To enter the contest, your group had to be nominated on the radio station’s webpage. Of course, I thought this was a wonderful opportunity, and I was sold on the idea.

However, if you know high school students, you know that they have to buy into what you as a teacher are doing. I knew who Foreigner was, but did they? If they didn’t, it was a hopeless cause. The next day during our class time, I told the kids about the opportunity. To my surprise, not only did they know who Foreigner was, but also they were overjoyed for the opportunity to learn one of their songs and perform with them. I explained to them that they needed to go to the radio station’s webpage and nominate our group. I also encouraged them to talk to their friends, their teachers, their parents, and anyone else that they thought would nominate us. This was the last time that we talked about Foreigner and the last time I thought about it as we were getting ready for our competition season.

On December 30, our school district was still on Christmas break. I happened to be at my home visiting with one of my friends when my phone rang. I usually don’t answer phone calls from numbers that I am not familiar with, but for some reason, I decided to answer this one since it was local. When I answered, the lady on the other end asked me if I was Jennifer Scrimpshire and if I was the choral director at Biloxi High School. I told her I was – still having no clue this was about Foreigner. She told me her name and that she was calling from the radio station where the contest was held. She said that we had an “overwhelmingly large amount” of votes and that there was “no question” that we would be the winners. I was almost speechless. I couldn’t wait to call all of my students and tell them, but first, I HAD to call Vicki.

Vicki answered the phone, and the first words out of my mouth were, “We won.”  She said, “Good – what did you win?” I said, “VICKI, WE WON!” and again she said, “What did you win?” She had no idea what I was talking about. “We won the contest with Foreigner,” I said. She said nothing. My friend who had started this whole Foreigner thing was speechless, and, trust me, that is not an easy feat. Finally, she said, “Are you serious right now? You’re not making this up are you?” After she finally believed what I was telling her, she couldn’t have been more excited. What was once a nice thought and a wish was actually about to become reality. Next, I called my students – all 26 of them. It was like seeing (or hearing rather) a toddler on Christmas morning. Every single one of them literally screamed out loud when I told them the news. 

We were out of school for Christmas break for another week after receiving the news. During this time, Foreigner’s public relations manager, John Lappen, contacted me. He filled me in on all of the details of what we would be doing before and after the concert, what song we would need to prepare – which was one of the group’s top ten hits “I Want To Know Love Is,” and times for the event. The students returned to school on January 6. This gave us four days to prepare for the concert that would take place on January 9. Over those four days, we had two TV interviews and one newspaper interview. The students felt like stars. Cameras, reporters, and interviews were something a lot of them had never experienced before.  Our story was featured several times on both local TV stations as well as in the newspaper and on the newspaper’s webpage. Keep in mind that in the middle of all of this excitement about Foreigner, we were also preparing for our competition season that began on January 23.  Fortunately, the students had learned the words to the song we had to sing before coming back from break, so the only real work I had to do was to make sure everyone knew their vocal parts. My students’ focus and readiness to work on this material in class was incredible.  

When performance day came, they were beyond ready. Here is what some of my students had to say when asked what their thoughts were about this performance, the opportunity, and what they thought when they heard the news:

“I mean, Foreigner is one of my favorite bands, and it’s one of my dad’s favorite bands, so it’s just gonna’ be really special.” 

Taylor Creel, junior

“It’s like a dream come true. I mean, I never imagined just being a sophomore in high school and being able to sing with Foreigner. It’s just amazing. Just being able to be up there with them, share the spotlight a little bit, and get our name out there.”

Corey Brown, sophomore

“I don’t know all the music, but I know this song by them is the most popular song. To know that we get to perform with a band of that high of a caliber, that’s what makes it exciting.”

Ryan Raines, sophomore

“Because we are such a diverse group, our music interests vary. However, most all of us knew exactly who Foreigner was and were beyond excited when we learned we were going to get to perform on stage with such a legendary group.”

Reagan Norwood – BHS Senior

When performance day arrived, the students seemed to be bouncing off of the walls. They just couldn’t contain their excitement. Their teachers were talking about it, their peers were talking about it, and I can guarantee they were talking about it to anyone that would listen. As a music teacher, to see that kind of excitement in my students was just out of this world.  The students reported to my room immediately after school that day to get dressed. We wore our group t-shirts and jeans as directed by John Lappen. When we got on the bus to travel to the Hard Rock, reality still had not set in. The students were singing, as always, laughing, and carrying on. It wasn’t until we pulled up outside the Hard Rock, saw the lights, and saw Foreigner’s name on the marquee that reality really set in. Oh my! We were about to perform with Foreigner.

After taking a ton of pictures, we were met in the lobby of the casino by Foreigner’s merchandise coordinator, Brandon Helmers. Brandon led us through all of the doors that you aren’t supposed to go through as a regular patron of the casino. We felt like royalty by just doing that, and we hadn’t even performed yet. He explained to us that Foreigner is paired with the Grammy Foundation. This foundation helps keep music education programs in public schools through donations. Before the concert, we were to sell Foreigner CDs. All of the profit from the CDs that we sold would go straight to the Grammy Foundation. The kids were to be divided up into groups and walk through the audience before the concert selling these CDs. Next, we were taken into the concert hall. To see the instruments and the sets up on the stage was breathtaking. We were completely awestruck. Sparky, the stage manager, instructed the students on how they were to line up, get on the stage, and get off of the stage. As soon as he was finished and all questions had been answered, it was time to open the doors and let the fans in.

Says Scott Goldman of the Grammy Foundation, “Foreigner has been a partner with the Grammy Foundation for the better part of the last four years. During that time their merch sales and other fundraising activities have resulted in over $40,000 in contributions. These funds support the Grammy Foundation’s Grammy in the Schools initiatives. We are thrilled to continue as Foreigner’s charity of choice and deeply grateful for their support!”

When the concert started, there was standing room only in this concert hall. I would estimate that there were probably 1,000 or more people there. We had not anticipated that we would be able to watch any of the concert, but we did. We got to watch about five songs before we had to prepare for our number. One of the stage hands came and got us between songs to go back stage. Our hearts were pounding out of our chests. The adrenaline was pumping so hard that some of us might have been light headed. The music started, and it was time for my kids to get on stage. I was almost in tears just watching them. The members of Foreigner were so wonderful to perform with. They interacted with my students, danced with them, and sang with them. One of my students actually got to strum on the guitar to help end the song. 

My students felt like superstars.

The performance that my students shared with Foreigner was a springboard for our competition season. It lit a fire in them. The Biloxi High School Show Choir, Sound Surge, went on to bring home two second place titles, three first place titles, as well as awards for Best Choreography, Best Vocals, Best Show Design, and one finals placement. I will always be grateful to Foreigner and its members for the opportunity that they awarded to my students and me. This performance was a once in a lifetime opportunity that changed the lives and hearts of my students forever.

Jennifer Scrimpshire is a 13-year veteran music teacher originally from Ellisville, MS.  She is a graduate of South Jones High School, William Carey University where she earned her bachelors degree in Music Education, and the University of Southern Mississippi where she earned her masters degree in Music Education. She is currently the director of Choral Activities at Biloxi High School where she directs the choir – the Biloxians, a mixed ensemble, and the award winning show choir, Sound Surge. She is a member of the Celebration Choir at First Baptist Church of Gulfport and is also the pianist in the orchestra for Down Stage Productions – a local theater company. She resides in Biloxi with her husband, Jason, and their five year old daughter, Annalise. 

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