As Easy as ACB: A Cappella Basics

May 1, 2017

Nine years ago, several young men in my program approached me to start an extracurricular ensemble. They had a profound appreciation for traditional choral repertoire; however, they hungered for a contemporary a cappella event. As a second-year teacher with virtually no contemporary a cappella experience (I think I attended one showcase in college), I was apprehensive, but if high school guys beg you for more singing opportunities, then you find way! We start every venture in life as a beginner, so what did we have to lose?

These guys spurred the creation of a sister group, and together they launched an a cappella culture at our school. Since that time, both groups have explored various facets of a cappella, from competitions to recordings, and from gigs to a cappella festivals. Still, it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I found myself wondering how to make sense of the a cappella world.

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

A cappella groups are emerging at all levels of instruction—from middle school to college—as directors recognize the benefits of this art form for their students. By incorporating diverse musical styles, programs become more attractive to a wider range of students and audiences alike. This assists with recruitment, retention, outreach, and visibility. As is the case with jazz, barbershop, and traditional choral a cappella repertoire, the unaccompanied nature helps foster independent musicianship, rhythm comprehension, and aural skills. Students are encouraged to take personal responsibility, resulting in benefits for students individually and your program collectively.

Step by Step, Ooh Baby!

In introducing contemporary a cappella, you don’t have to dive headfirst into the deep end. On my own journey, I took baby steps with my students to ease us out of our comfort zones. As directors, we must acknowledge the concerns that stand in our way and seek solutions in moving forward.

I don’t have enough time to take on another project.

You don’t need to start a group to engage students in this repertoire. Consider introducing an a cappella selection within an existing ensemble.

I have no experience with contemporary a cappella.

Start with something familiar. If you are more comfortable with barbershop or jazz, then find quality arrangements in those genres to introduce your students to the basics of a cappella. A well-rounded choral education should include these styles.

I don’t have any a cappella charts in my library.

A cappella charts have become more accessible due to the efforts of traditional publishers and the growth of self-publishing. Start with off-the-rack charts from publishers such as Alfred and Hal Leonard. Then, when you feel more comfortable, try your own hand at arranging or reach out to arrangers for custom charts. Consult other directors and groups at your local university for ideas, arrangements, and advice.

I don’t have enough time to take on another project.

Empower your students to be stakeholders in the process. Consider a small group activity in which students create their own arrangement of a popular song. Provide some parameters such as a specific musical artist. Encourage them to start simple (viz. solo and bass line) and then challenge their creativity. (I have done this in every curricular ensemble, and I’m always pleasantly surprised—from the beginners to the more advanced singers.) Empower students by allowing them to suggest songs, by facilitating improvisation activities, and by encouraging their arrangement efforts. This frees up your schedule and motivates your students.

Perhaps these first steps will lead to the creation of a separate ensemble, or perhaps they will just lead to a more well-rounded choral experience. Either way, your students win!

You Say You Want a Revolution

If you decide to take the ultimate step in starting an a cappella group, there are several factors you should carefully consider.

Know thyself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Reach out to others to overcome your weaknesses, and don’t be afraid to fail every now and then. How much time are you able to invest? If you are already teaching all day, working a church job, and giving private lessons, then perhaps create an ad hoc group or establish a limited rehearsal schedule.

Know thy clientele. What do your students need to complement their educational experience? If you have a ton of talented girls, then perhaps create the group as an opportunity for them to take it to the next level. Consider whether this should be an exclusive or inclusive experience to best meet the needs of your students. How much time are your students prepared to invest? If they are already being pulled in multiple directions, ensure that they can fully commit to what you have in mind.

Know thy audience. For whom will you be performing? My guys perform a healthy dose of music from the 1950s and 1960s because we often sing for an older audience base. (We still mix it up, though, to challenge the listener!) Meanwhile, my girls have a more contemporary bent as meets their own style and audience expectations. Always ensure that your repertoire is appropriate—especially thematically—for your audience.

Know thy resources. What financial resources and equipment do you have at your disposal? If you have limited funds, consider off-the-rack charts or self-arrangements. You may not have a dream audio setup, but you can still create powerful music with your students.
Since embarking on my a cappella journey, I have grown alongside my students in creativity and appreciation for diverse styles. If you are considering an a cappella undertaking, remember that we all start somewhere. Stop hesitating, take the plunge, and prepare for a transformative experience for you and your students!

Matthew Swope is director of choral activities and performing arts department chair at Winter Park High School, where he directs two a cappella groups — Take 7 as well as Naughty Scotty and the Octapella.

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