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A Rich Tapestry of Voices

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Van Canto, a (mostly) a cappella heavy metal group, is one of a number of popular current ensembles stretching the vocal paradigm.

Van Canto, a (mostly) a cappella heavy metal group, is one of a number of popular current ensembles stretching the vocal paradigm.

By Bryan Reesman

Thanks to the massive resurgence in a cappella, vocal music has made a strong cultural comeback. From choral flash mobs to virtual choirs to popular touring acts, dulcet tones are filling our ears on TV and in the movies, offering an organic antidote to overproduced pop music. Take, for example, the main theme from the smash Broadway musical The Book Of Mormon or the choral and piano rendition of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” in the pilot episode of NBC’s Crisis. There has probably never been a better time for educators to tap into pop culture to encourage talented young students to try out for different vocal extracurricular activities, be it choir, a cappella, barbershop, or whatever suits them best.

A cappella quintet Pentatonix were the winners of the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off.

A cappella quintet Pentatonix were the winners of the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off.

Susan Rubin, a Boston-based singer who has been involved with New World Chorale, Zamir Chorale, Voices of Hope, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Boston Jazz Oasis, says, “I have high school and middle school kids that I’ve worked with who record themselves and post on SoundCloud. It used to be a very narrow group of people involved in choral singing, and now it’s the ‘in’ thing to do. More and more kids are singing. More and more kids are doing theater. There are more programs for kids, and I think a lot of schools are really adopting more of the a cappella kind of singing because that’s what kids are intrigued by.”

Rubin recently attended a Christmas recording session featuring current and alumni members of the Lexington High School madrigals group, and it was an ear-opening experience. “It was so interesting to hear the madrigals kids sing,” she says. “It was such a different quality that I didn’t recognize it. It’s not because I’m older _ it’s a different vocal quality that they’re using. The sound of the madrigals for decades has pretty much been the same, and now there’s such the pop influence. You’ve got The Voice, American Idol, Glee, and The Sing-Off. It’s cool to sing now.”

“For a lot of students, joining an a cappella group is like joining a fraternity or sorority or really joining any kind of organized activity,” says Mickey Rapkin, author of the book Pitch Perfect (which was adapted into the hit film) and a proud former member of Cayuga’s Waiters, Cornell University’s oldest all-male a cappella group. “It’s about finding a second family. There’s also something awesome about not needing instruments. You can be in the basement of a bar and suddenly burst into four-part harmony on a Lorde tune. Whether it is choral music or doo wop or contemporary a cappella, singing is always cool. Even if you’re wearing a sequin vest.”

Naturally, what has been driving the renewed interest in vocal music is the a cappella trend of the last few years. Pentatonix, winners of The Sing-Off television competition, have released four chart-topping EPs of mostly pop covers and Christmas songs. They are contemplating recording an originals album soon.

“I give Pentatonix a lot of credit,” says Lyndsey Parker, managing editor for Yahoo! Music. “I went to one of their shows, and there were some glee club and  theater types that you would expect to see at any kind of a cappella or choral event, but the majority of the audience was the people you would see at any pop show. And they were so into them. They loved them.”

Mickey Rapkin’s 2008 book, Pitch Perfect, looks into the competitive world of college a cappella.

Mickey Rapkin’s 2008 book, Pitch Perfect, looks into the competitive world of college a cappella.

“We have little kids to 80-year-olds at our shows, and I think people can appreciate vocal music at any age,” says Scott Hoying, one of the five members of Pentatonix. “Vocal music was really popular back in the day and is coming back now because the younger generation is really into it. Every single day at our meet-and-greets we hear, ‘This something that my daughter and I can really agree on. This is the one music that my child and I both listen to, so thank you for that.’ We always get that, which is really cool.”

Young singers are also open to classic rock and pop tunes, which can give educators a chance to expose them to a wider range of music than they might have previously experienced. The 1982 Yes song “Leave It” is a great example of a hit rock single with a strong a cappella influence. Of course, pop and rock renditions have been popular with vocal groups for a long time now.

“The way you and I know contemporary collegiate a cappella has been around for 20 years now,” says Amanda Newman, executive director of Varsity Vocals, which produces the annual ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate a Cappella) and ICHSA (International Championship of High School a Cappella) events. “It’s been around for 100 years, but it really picked up in the mid-’90s. It’s always been pop music, it’s just that nobody really cared about it because singing wasn’t cool. You were cool if you were on the football team. You weren’t cool if you and your guy friends got together and sang Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man.’ There was a limited audience on the East Coast of girls that would come to these shows, and they did idolize those guys, but it just didn’t have the larger cultural notoriety that it does now.”

The annual ICCA competition has grown over the past 20 years. This year’s ICCA, which culminates in late April in NYC, is comprised of 300 collegiate groups and approximately 100 high school with roughly 15 students per group. That is a total of about 6,000 participants.

For those aspiring singers for which the ICCA or American Idol are too big a step initially, there is YouTube, where legions of young people have posted their renditions of famous tunes. Look up “a cappella” on that site to find an endless variety of videos, many by amateurs wanting to share their talent and get feedback and many by quirky performers such as Smooth McGroove, who offers his a cappella renditions of video game songs like Super Mario World and Tetris. He actually shows multiple angles of himself recording the different parts. Pentatonix were inspired to graduate from collegiate pastime to Sing-Off contenders after one of their performances, recorded and uploaded to YouTube by a fan, built a strong buzz.

Soloist Emily Shanny of the Nor’easters helped Northeastern University’s mixed a cappella ensemble win the 2013 ICCA Finals. Photo by Joe Martinez Photography.

Soloist Emily Shanny of the Nor’easters helped Northeastern University’s mixed a cappella ensemble win the 2013 ICCA Finals. Photo by Joe Martinez Photography.

YouTube is also a good place to find videos of choral flash mobs, which are groups of singers who assemble in a preordained public space and perform a song, surprising and delighting those within earshot. Choral flash mobs have been captured on video in spaces as varied as train stations, libraries, and malls. Perhaps it can inspire students to do the same in their community. In a way, it’s singing and theater combined.

Educators can tap into a world of different ideas for vocal music simply through the wealth of songs found online. Kids liked to be plugged into what is hip and current or a refreshing take on something classic. A fun, left-of-center-video worth checking out is television composer Bear McCreary recording vocals for the pirate show Black Sails. In the “Black Sails _ Singers of Sails” clip, he directs three singers as they deliver a “nah nah nah” style take on a sea shanty. It’s funny to watch and hear them growl out the gruff vocals in key and without losing their composure.

One of the advantages of a cappella renditions of established songs is fresh interpretations of well-known melodies. “Every time we go through an arrangement, we go back through it 100 times and change little things,” says Hoying of the Pentatonix process. “That’s one of our priorities when we try to finish up an arrangement.”

Taking on music not normally associated with a pure vocal format can test one’s singing abilities in other ways. German rockers Van Canto started as a conventional metal band, but their desire to do something more vocal-oriented inspired their transformation into the world’s first a cappella metal band, replicating the chugging riffs, rumbling bass, and soaring vocals of the genre (with drum accompaniment). Since 2006 they have recorded five albums mixing covers and originals, toured Europe and beyond, and performed at festivals in front of as many as 50,000 people.

“We feel well accepted by the metal community, although there are always people claiming that Van Canto is not metal,” explains group member Stefan Schmidt. “On the other hand we reach many people outside the metal scene, because our music is interesting for everybody who likes vocal music.” He admits that the live performances are challenging. “Metal fans are used to a steady, wide, distorted rhythm guitar sound. We are able to reproduce that, but it’s hard work and we do not have much time to breath.”

The sheer versatility of modern vocal music means that educators have the chance to lure in new talent by appealing to their different interests. Not everyone might agree on the material to be performed, but the chance to sing one’s favorite songs is enticing.

“John Legend and Sara Bareilles came out of a cappella groups, and until recently they had been the only ones who were launching music careers from it,” says Newman. “The charming and special, magical thing about high school and college a cappella is that, for most students, this is the only chance to do something like this _ to be like a pop star of sorts and get to sing songs with such intensity on stage for people that have paid to come to see you _ before they go off into the real world to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, and working professionals. Although, now there are careers to be had in the a cappella world. There are opportunities to form a group, be on The Sing-Off, and get a recording contract.”

Obviously, pop music is the engine driving much of the vocal music craze, but as Hoying notes, it is a way to bring it to the mainstream and make it accessible for those who do not know anything about it. “All types of vocal music will become popular in the end,” believes Hoying. “I’m the biggest fan ever of a really good choral piece, and we always talk in Pentatonix about how much we miss that and how we wish we did it. That’s why we wrote ‘Run To You’. It’s an original [choral] song that brings us back to our roots and what we all loved in the beginning.”

Choral music will be getting its turn in the television spotlight this year when USA premieres It Takes A Choir, a show inspired by the BBC series The Choir, which has aired since 2006. In the original, English choirmaster Gareth Malone teaches choral singing to people who have never had the opportunity or experience to sing in the past. In the American incarnation, Malone will journey across America seeking out communities that could benefit from the camaraderie and challenges involved with creating a show choir. Rather than have people compete against one another and face the supreme test of an audition in a forum like American Idol or The Voice, the idea is to teach, push, and inspire people with music. Malone feels the competition shows often give negative connotations about singing because of the pressure involved. It is a good lesson to teach students in terms of the value of singing, although some people thrive on challenges.

“If you’re singing a cappella, whether you’re in Pentatonix or auditioning for American Idol in an empty room with nothing to accompany you, you can’t really hide your imperfections,” asserts Parker. “And by imperfections I don’t mean character. You can sing with character. But if you’re a crappy singer there’s no way to compensate for it, and that’s actually one of the things that I think is interesting about a cappella music in general, that it does come in an era where there are a lot of pop singers that are coasting on Auto-Tune, audio trickery, and performing with backing tracks. A cappella is really about the voice, and if you cannot sing, people will call you out on it.”

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