If you’re ever discussing the amazing achievements of vocal students with Paducah Tilghman High School choral director Matthew Hinz, the names Jailon Chism and Blake Denson are sure to come up. Both former PTHS students, Jailon and Blake are now freshmen at the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky, respectively. They’re also cousins. The singers are studying on full-ride scholarships, earned through remarkable high school careers in music and academics at PTHS and the prestigious Governor’s School for the Arts program. And they’re redefining the traditional view on the path that leads to success.
“To look at Jailon Chism you would think football star,” Matthew Hinz begins. “But early on in high school he made a decision to focus his time and energy on music.” Jailon, a University of Louisville freshman and member of its noteworthy Collegiate Chorale, is currently studying on a Tier 1 scholarship which offers full tuition. Before that, he was a Governor’s School for the Arts participant for voice and a 2-year member of the Kentucky Music Educator Association (KMEA) All-State choir. He sang with the Paducah Tilghman concert choir and notable men’s ensemble Prime Rib. He also starred in the PTHS production of Oklahoma! “He blew the audience away with his portrayal of Jud Fry,” Hinz recalls. “When he opened his mouth on stage the entire audience were amazed that this young man was even in high school.” But before all that, a chance enrollment in choir as fulfillment of an Arts and Humanities credit turned into a lifelong love of music. At that point, says Jailon, “the music started becoming more of a career possibility.”
Natalie Krupansky, music teacher at McNabb Elementary and private voice coach taught Jailon and Blake for two years in private lessons. “What I remember most is how eager and committed they both were,” she says. “Jailon would text me ideas about repertoire he had found on YouTube at midnight,” she adds.
By the time he auditioned for and earned a place in GSA, Jailon knew he wanted to study music in college. In a master’s class for students at the summer program, Jailon was asked to perform a musical piece. In the end, the professor who mentored him became his current voice coach at U of L.
On top of balancing his coursework and musical ensembles, Jailon is expected to maintain a 3.0 GPA. The application process for his scholarship, which is extended to GSA alumni, was difficult and stressful at times. “You really have to trust in the people you’re auditioning for; they’re not just there to criticize. They’re there to help, “ Jailon comments. “When I came here it was the warmest welcome possible. It’s important to be prepared. Getting into the school of music has way more to it than just choir; for someone who chooses music as a career, that should be a selling point, because there is so much to learn.”
Blake Denson came to vocal music through a different path. He started out as a percussionist in the Paducah Tilghman High School band. Before that Blake explains, “My mom always sang around the house, so music has always been around me.”
The transition from band to choir was successful for Blake. “Blake may be one of the most naturally talented vocalists I have ever known,” Matthew Hinz says. “There wasn’t a style of music that I did not hear him sing unsuccessfully.” As soon as he realized Blake was serious about pursuing music, Hinz adds, “he began taking vocal lessons and he immediately began to grow.”
Natalie Krupansky recalls Blake’s determination and drive from the beginning.“Blake would hang out by my studio door waiting to see if I had any extra time,” she reflects. All that determination has paid off. Blake participated in the PTHS ensemble Prime Rib and was a 2-year member of the KMEA All-State choir. He also earned a place in GSA’s vocal program. “Blake had great success in vocal competitions his senior year,” Hinz continues, “including winning the prestigious Alltech Scholarship competition.” The audition process for the Alltech scholarship is difficult, Blake explains. “It includes singing three arias, sight-singing, sight-reading, and an interview, among other elements. To those music students motivated to apply for this impressive scholarship, Blake advises: “Get in the practice rooms and practice sight reading—that’s a big deal these days. It’s up to you to be able to read and memorize your music.”
Blake is a freshman at the University of Kentucky. He is a member of the internationally-renowned AcoUstiKats, recent participants of NBC’s The Sing Off. Blake is studying for a double major in Music Education and Vocal Performance. He participated in the Men’s Chorus Fall Extravaganza and the Alltech Holiday Celebration. You could say it’s been a busy semester. However, music is still his outlet. “It’s a way for me to express myself; the only thing that I can do from 5 in the morning till after midnight and not complain about. I enjoy it that much.” “We often see gifted students who have also been gifted with the drive to succeed,” Krupansky says. “These two young men are the perfect storm in that they exude both of those traits. I look forward to watching them develop into brilliant artists.”