High School A Cappella… What’s All the Buzz About?

Brody McDonaldBy Brody McDonald
High school a cappella is all the rage right now. It has enormous buzz. Why is that? Why is there such an explosion of a cappella in the high school ranks?

A cappella is exploding in the high school ranks because kids love…

  • Music that is familiar. Students have always asked, “Can we sing (insert song from radio here)?” That song might not be appropriate for a freshman mixed choir, but it certainly will work for an a cappella group.
  • The social aspect of singing together. A cappella is the new chamber music. It follows in the footsteps of doo-wop and barbershop, all the way back to madrigal singing. It is the epitome of recreational singing.
  • Singing anywhere, any time, at the drop of a hat. High school kids like to show off, entertain each other, etc. They’ll sing spontaneously in public no matter what, but there’s a better chance of getting your a cappella group together than having a balanced set of parts from your 40-voice chamber choir. Plus, it seems natural to sing popular music that gets radio airplay for the public.
  • Making funny mouth sounds. Yeah, young people like that. But in a cappella, those funny mouth sounds can translate into great performances.
  • The challenge of singing without a net. Of course, the challenge and joy of singing without a backing track or piano accompaniment isn’t exclusive to contemporary a cappella groups.  But with a cappella, it’s always present.
  • Singing on microphones and possibly with “toys” (pedals, throat mics, etc.). Young people like technology, ergo young singers like all of the gear that goes with a cappella singing.

And on the other end, directors love…

  • Groups that can be any size or configuration (male, female, or mixed). Choir programs come in a wide variety of sizes and ability levels. A cappella groups can be tailored to fit the program more easily than many other options.
  • Feeding the tigers. By this, I mean giving the best singers of the program a little extra red meat to chew on. A cappella music is challengingPop music often has simple solo lines, but duplicating the instrumental backs and the drum kit? That requires musical ability.
  • The growth that comes from student empowerment. A cappella groups typically have internal leadership opportunities: section leaders, a student music director, a merchandise manager, sound technicians, etc. In addition, a cappella groups are typically add-ons to an existing choir program and require the singers to do extra practice outside of rehearsal to make things go smoothly.
  • The chop building that comes from small ensemble work. In addition to the challenge of recreating a band with only the human voice, there’s the added benefit that most a cappella groups are 16-20 members or less. Whenever singers have to function with four or less singers on a part, they’ll get stronger.
  • Having a portable group for community relations. This is the very reason I started an a cappella group—I couldn’t take my 40-student show choir to every community performance request. Issues of size and transportation are much less with a cappella groups than show choirs or standard concert choirs.
  • Recruitment when younger singers hear “music they know.” Meeting new singers where they are is helpful. Thanks to a cappella, singing can indeed look cool. Consider the average middle school students that directors are trying to persuade to join choir. Sing them a spiritual and they might like it. Bust out a vocal percussion solo that transitions into an a cappella rendition of “Gangnam Style” and it’s game over.

A cappella still has some obstacles to overcome in the high school world because:

  • Directors fear “bad pop singing.” Some directors don’t yet understand that good technique is required in any vocal genre. Yes, there are a cappella groups that sing badly. There are also gospel choirs, concert choirs, and musical theater productions that are riddled with bad singing. But in every genre, there are also performers who use great technique. The genre and the level of technique are not linked, thankfully.
  • The tail wags the dog. Yes, this happens. It happens with show choirs, a cappella groups, vocal jazz ensembles, and more. The only way the tail will wag the dog in a program is if the director allows it. Directors must remember that they set the vision of their program and must keep their singers “eating a balanced diet.” All of my Eleventh Hour a cappella singers are members of my AA-level Symphonic Chorale.
  • Directors have little experience with it as a genre. Before forming Eleventh Hour, I didn’t have any experience with a cappella. That was scary. We all fear the unknown a little bit, and fear our own potential incompetence even more. But there are many resources available now that didn’t exist ten years ago. Directors, you should start by dipping a toe in the water and learn as you go. You can do this. Many, many people are willing to support you on your journey.
  • Directors might not know how to deal with sound gear. You don’t have to know everything all at once. You can start without sound gear and add it in as you learn (or don’t add it in at all). There are many resources for learning about live sound reinforcement, as well as contractors in every market who will appraise your situation, advise you on purchases, and train you on equipment.
  • Directors are lost as to how to find music. To be fair, there isn’t a lot of music available off the rack. However, there’s more coming every year. [Editor’s Note: Click here for Alfred’s contemporary a cappella publications.]

In short, it seems like a risk. And … that’s true. It can be a risk. But isn’t everything new inherently a risk? Some people will avoid change, but I think it’s intoxicating. Learning is my drug.

Brody McDonald is the choral director at Kettering-Fairmont High School in Ohio. He is at the forefront of the contemporary a cappella movement, and the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Choirs under his direction have performed regularly for state and national conventions, and appeared with artists such as Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes, and the Beach Boys. His award-winning high school a cappella group, Eleventh Hour, was featured on NBC’s The Sing-Off. He recently joined the faculty at Wright State University to develop an a cappella program, featuring the new group Ethos. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, he was a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Collegiate Quartet Champion, Stop the Presses.

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