By Brody McDonald
High school a cappella is all the rage right now, and there are several factors that have contributed to its fairly recent explosion in popularity. Sure, the success of TV shows like Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off have helped feed the buzz around a cappella. However, those types of shows don’t tell the whole story, and there are several other important reasons why a cappella singing is growing. Fortunately for educators, the increased stature of this activity has helped with the development and availability of resources for anyone who might be interested in developing ensembles within this genre.
Why Kids Love it
One reason why a cappella is exploding in the high school ranks is 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 will certainly work for an a cappella group. Students also enjoy 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. In some respects, it is the epitome of recreational singing.
What else makes a cappella appealing? Making funny mouth sounds. Yes, it’s a little bit of nonsense, but young people love it, just as they also like things like the “cinnamon challenge.” Watching someone choke on cinnamon is funny once – maybe twice, tops. In a cappella, though, a little nonsense can translate into great performances. Young singers love to make creative noises.
They also love having the ability to sing anywhere, any time, at the drop of a hat. High school kids like to show off and to entertain each other. They’ll sing spontaneously in public no matter what, but there’s a better chance of having their a cappella group together than having a balanced set of parts from their 40-voice chamber choir. Plus, it seems natural to sing something in public that gets radio airplay. Forcing an Eric Whitacre piece on the patrons of Wendy’s just doesn’t feel right.
A cappella has added benefits, such as the challenge of singing without a safety net – a backing track or piano accompaniment to prop up the choir. Of course this isn’t exclusive to contemporary a cappella, but with a cappella, it’s always present.
A cappella also allows singing on microphones and maybe even “toys” (pedals, throat mics, and so on). Young people like technology, ergo young singers like all the gear that goes with a cappella singing.
Why Directors Love It
There’s also a lot in a cappella for directors to love. A cappella can enhance any choral program because groups can be formed in any size or configuration (male, female, mixed). As most choir programs vary greatly in number of students and their ability levels, a cappella groups can often be tailored to fit the program more easily than other small vocal ensembles, like gospel choir, vocal jazz, barbershop, and show choir.
A cappella also helps develop young singers in a number of ways. Singing in small, unaccompanied groups is akin to feeding the tigers: this means giving the best singers of the program a little extra red meat to chew on. A cappella music is challenging. Pop music often has simple solo lines, but duplicating the instrumental backing and the drum kit? That requires extra musical ability.
Any opportunity for the growth that comes from student empowerment should be embraced. A cappella groups are well suited for this, as they typically have internal leadership opportunities for section leaders, student music directors, merchandise managers, sound technicians, and so on. In addition, a cappella groups are typically add-ons to an existing choir program and require the singers to do extra practice outside rehearsal to make things go smoothly. There is profound chop building that comes from small ensemble work. Beyond the challenge of recreating a band only with the human voice, there’s the added benefit that most a cappella groups are 16-20 members or fewer. Whenever singers have to function with four or fewer voices on a part, they’ll get stronger.
A cappella can also help your program’s image. It is helpful to have a portable group for community PR. In fact, this is the very reason I started an a cappella group – I couldn’t take my 40-person show choir to every community performance request. Issues of size and transportation are much easier to handle with a cappella groups than show choirs or standard concert choirs. Singing outside the school is great to drum up community support (especially around levy time), but there’s also the aspect of internal recruitment when younger singers hear music they know. Meeting new singers at their current musical interests 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 some Moses Hogan 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.
If I’m being totally fair, 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, musical theater productions, and so on that are all riddled with bad singing. However, in every genre, there are also performers who use great technique. The genre and the level of technique are not linked, thankfully.
In addition, no one wants a scenario where the tail wags the dog. Yes, unfortunately, this happens. It also happens with show choirs, a cappella groups, and vocal jazz ensembles. 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 my Eleventh Hour singers are members of my AA-level Symphonic Chorale.
On top of all that, many directors have little experience with a cappella as a genre. When I first started an a cappella group, I didn’t have any experience with the style, and that was scary. We all fear the unknown a little bit and fear our own potential incompetence even more. However, there are many resources available now that didn’t exist 10 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.
You might not know how to deal with sound gear. That’s okay. You don’t have to know everything all at once. You can start without sound gear and add it in as you learn – or not add it in at all. There are many resources for learning about live sound reinforcement, as well as contractors in every market who will come appraise your situation, advise you on purchases, and train you on equipment.
You might also be 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, and websites like betteracappella.com will help you connect with arrangers who will customize charts for your group.
Other resources include the newly-formed professional association for teachers who “do a cappella” – the A Cappella Education Association (AEA: www.acappellaeducators.com). You’ll find an amazing amount of resources, you’ll connect with teachers all the way from seasoned professionals to complete newbies, and you’ll learn about a cappella festivals near you. I can’t recommend this organization highly enough. Additionally, not only do Hal Leonard and Alfred Publishing each have a growing catalog of a cappella arrangements, but there are books available, as well. My book, A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing, contains an overview of everything it takes to start and run an a cappella group. Lastly, if you are interested in learning how to craft your own arrangements for your group, check out A Cappella Arranging by Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell.
So what are you waiting for? Dive in and get going! The best way to learn is by doing it.
Brody McDonald teaches at Kettering Fairmont High School where he directs Eleventh Hour – the first high school group to ever compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. He is at the forefront of the high school a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice-president of the A Cappella Education Association. Brody is the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. This year Brody joins the faculty at Wright State University as director of ETHOS, a new pop a cappella group. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse high school singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place at Wright State University June 23-28, 2014. For more information, please visit www.campacappella.com and www.brodymcdonald.com.