News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 7, 2013

Two TH South musicians heading for Carnegie Hall

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Morgan Outcalt loves to sing, but while she was in middle school, a disease robbed her of her ability to make beautiful music with her voice.

She feared she’d never sing again, or at least in a way that would make people want to listen.

Just before seventh grade, she developed a rare autoimmune disease, called mixed connective tissue disease, which attacked her muscles and joints.

Among the muscles affected was her diaphragm (the muscle extending across the bottom of the ribcage), which made it difficult for her to sing. She had to work hard to retrain and strengthen her diaphragm.

With the help of music teachers and vocal coaches, she’s made a comeback.

Today, the Terre Haute South Vigo High School senior — along with fellow senior Jaena Gormong — are on their way to New York City to perform in an honors choir at Carnegie Hall. They’ll join talented singers from across the country to participate in the 2013 American High School Honors Performance Series.

Outcalt describes it as a blessing and a great opportunity. “It’s kind of like a big bang ending for my high school singing,” she said. She doesn’t plan to pursue a career in music.

Gormong says the opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall is “mindblowing” and not something she ever expected. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.

The girls’ families are paying for the trip, and they will be accompanied by their mothers, Jamie Halbert and Beth Gormong.  

Paul Ellison, Terre Haute South choir director, said he nominated the two seniors because “they work really hard and are extremely talented, and I Iike to nominate those students who go above and beyond for opportunities like this.”

Both seniors are in the advanced choir group, the Chamber Singers. They say they’ve always enjoyed singing, and both have performed in school musicals as well.

“Music has been a big part of my life and it’s been a good stress relief as well,” Outcalt said.

She developed the autoimmune disease the summer before seventh grade and in August 2007, she spent a week in the intensive care unit of Riley Hospital for Children.

She missed a lot of school in seventh grade. “Physically, she could hardly move,” said her mother, Jamie Halbert.

Because it affected Outcalt’s diaphragm, it also affected the quality of her singing. For about six months in middle school, Outcalt was in fear she would never be able to sing again, or at least to the level she had achieved prior to the illness, Halbert said.

“All those things that go along with singing she had to learn again. It was a real struggle for her, but she never gave up. She has a huge passion for music,” Halbert said.

Those who helped Outcalt with her comeback included Ellison, Anita Gambill and Kathy Cook.

Halbert said her daughter’s trip to New York and Carnegie Hall means a lot to them both.

“I’m so thankful because I know how sad she was … when she would try to sing and would cry because nothing sounded the way it used to,” Halbert said. “I kept encouraging her and saying, ‘Hang in there.’ We’ll get someone to work with you.”

Outcalt continues to take three different autoimmune medications to help control the illness, and she must limit her physical activity.

Today, the South students and their mothers are headed to New York, where they’ll stay until Monday.

The girls will spend a lot of time in rehearsal, but they’ll also have plenty of time to see the city, including the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero and a tour of Manhattan. On Friday, they’ll take in a Broadway play, “Newsies,” and on Saturday, they’ll be in the audience for the Today Show.

Outcalt plans to attend IUPUI next fall and major in philanthropic studies; she wants to work for a nonprofit organization. Gormong plans to study music ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University and wants to be a worship pastor in a church.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or