Silvis college student to sing at Obama's inauguration

Originally Posted Online: Jan. 06, 2013, 11:26 pm
Last Updated: Jan. 06, 2013, 11:50 pm
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By Jonathan Turner,

As will at least half a million people, Marlee Sullivan, of Silvis, will see President Barack Obama take the oath of office in person two weeks from today. Unlike nearly all of those, she gets to sing in the ceremony right before the midday swearing-in.

A 19-year-old junior at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., Ms. Sullivan will perform with the 200-voice Festival Choir from Lee -- representing the best of its seven choirs -- on the upper west terrace of the U.S. Capitol.

"Lee has been known for its music since it started," the 2010 Quad Cities Christian School alumna said last week at her home, a day before heading back to Tennessee and a planned nine-hour rehearsal on Saturday. "It's kind of known for its musical excellence."

A school of 4,954 students, Lee's choirs have extensively toured at home and abroad for 50 years, singing in such famous venues as Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, the White House, the Vatican and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Ms. Sullivan sings in the 200-member Choral Union and 25-voice Ladies of Lee and hasperformed in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Disney World and last month sang at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., at an annual Christmas celebration.

Lee students found out they would be going to Washington for Inauguration Day on Nov. 1, in a surprise personal announcement by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, a Republican who's also served as governor.

As vice chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Sen.Alexander said he recommended the Lee musicians because "their great talent and inspirational musicianship will thrill the millions of people who will be watching the inauguration of our president."

University president Paul Conn said: "Lee University is a patriotic campus. At the last presidential inauguration, we suspended classes so students could watch the ceremonies together on TV in large groups around campus. We plan to do the same this year. It's thrilling to know that this year, our students will be part of the festivities."

"We were all kind of stunned and amazed," Ms. Sullivan said of the Nov. 1 announcement, at which the Festival Choir performed. "Everyone was like, 'What, is this real?' It was so awesome. I'm really excited. I'm proud and thankful to be singing at the inauguration."

According to music school dean William Green, Festival Choir members were chosen not only for their talent but for their commitment and ability to travel well. A group ofup to nine songs has been chosen for Jan. 21, including "This Land is Your Land," "God Bless America" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."

The selections were made to evoke American spirituality, patriotism, religion and regional flavoring; and all had to undergo three approvals from inaugural organizers.

The inaugural weekend has the choir arriving on Friday and attending its first Washington, D.C., practice on Saturday evening. Sunday will be spent in rehearsals. Monday will have the choir performing before the actual prelude, which will feature the Marine Corps Band.

"I'll probably cry," Ms. Sullivan's mother, Jennifer, said of watching her on national TV. "It's been neat to hear her practice.It's amazing to hear this little girl, who used to sing next to me in Sunday school so beautifully. She's the section leader, first soprano, for her choir. She has a scholarship for that."

"If it weren't for my choir director at Quad Cities Christian, I probably wouldn't be a singer today," Marlee said of Vanessa Frye, who also is a Lee University grad and whose son, Alex (who lives in Moline), is a freshman at Lee and also will sing in the inaugural choir. "She really helped me, directed me and bettered my voice so that I would be able to do stuff in college with choirs."

Ms. Sullivan -- who graduated high school at 16 and is apublic relations/advertising major at Lee -- hassung in church choirs since seventh grade, and attends Christ Church in Colona. Of all the places she has performed, Ms. Sullivan said, "I think Washington is going to be my favorite place," even though she already has been to D.C. five times, partly because her father, Mark, took his school groups on trips as an eighth-grade history teacher.

Mr. Frye said he has never been there, so he's very excited, Ms. Sullivan said.

"It's really neat. She's got a phenomenal voice," Bill Olmstead, principal of Q-C Christian School, said of his former student. "She's just a super girl."


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