I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner. Honestly, it never entered my mind. Maybe it hasn’t occurred to you either that having a rehearsal combined with another local group can be amazingly beneficial. Recently, my high school’s a cappella vocal ensemble, Eleventh Hour, has been doing joint rehearsals regularly and we love them. They actually started by accident.
There is a group just up the road from us in Dayton named Vega, from Chaminade Julienne High School. Their director, Joe Whatley, student taught with me and still calls me for advice from time to time. He wanted me to clinic his group, but my schedule was really tight. I told him that if he brought Vega to my school, I’d work with them on the night that Eleventh Hour typically rehearses without me.
Vega had really improved since I worked with them the previous year. They were doing so well, in fact, that I decided on the spot to march them into the middle of EH practice. Vega had everything planned out to a “T” including a great visual plan, dynamic musical choices, and immaculate tuning. They just didn’t perform at the level of they were singing. They seemed tentative and a bit scared.
I had Vega perform for EH and then opened the floor for constructive critique. Then we traded places and let Vega critique us. I noticed that the students were very positive, but still had many great suggestions for each other. The biggest thing I noticed was that Eleventh Hour really upped their game. Yes, I am proud of Eleventh Hour and think they generally do a fine job. However, they were going through a down period and were rehearsing with a certain complacency that vanished when Vega walked through the door. They immediately sang more in tune, and realized with a shock that they had much less of a visual plan than they desired.
On the other hand, Vega realized that they should perform more like rock stars. One thing I can say about EH is that even if some of the music gets shaky, they know how to cover up and sell like professionals. I invited Joe to come grab a cup of coffee and told EH to help Vega tap into their “inner rock stars” while we were gone. When we came back, the transformation was astounding! By briefly removing the directors and allowing the students to feel more comfortable, a weight seemed to be lifted from Vega’s shoulders.
We finished the rehearsal by singing a song that we both knew (by coincidence, but it would be easy to plan this). We sang it once together, and then did some “merging” of the groups. One run-through was half EH/half Vega, and then the second run-through was the opposite. It was fascinating to see how the students became incredibly observant of each other, watching and listening to each other to enhance their ensemble, their visual performance and more. These are practices that every group should employ all the time, but they were magnified by singing in a “new group.”
Here are some thoughts from Joe Whatley as to why he found the joint rehearsal valuable:
My favorite benefit is the motivational factor. Deep down we all want to be great and when you put groups together they want to “show off” what they can do. With another group in the room, the motivation to be great grows.
We can also feed off of each others’ ideas – get some cool thoughts for songs, or choreography.
You can then get into the mixing up of groups, which forces students to listen more and adjust. We get use to what we sound like inside of our groups and sometimes don’t listen as much as we should. It’s a great reminder and exercise in listening and adjusting.
Finally, the kids enjoy it. They enjoy hanging with other groups, performing, socializing, and talking about music. It’s amazing to see kids who don’t know each other become instant friends through the vehicle of pop a cappella.
As you can see, Whatley had the same thoughts I did. We’ve done this joint rehearsal process with several different groups and the outcome is always the same – it’s just fantastic. All that said, joint rehearsals are a special treat. They are a break in the routine, but mostly because they reinforce all the practices that take place during your “routine” rehearsals. Even the “standard” feels fresher after a joint rehearsal.
On another occasion, Eleventh Hour did a joint rehearsal with an a cappella quintet from Marysville, Ohio. Their director, Jeremy Alfera, was featuring the quintet singing an a cappella selection in the middle of his show choir’s competition set. Here’s what Jeremy had to say about the experience:
As a show choir director, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Show choir can be such a rigid, intense, “perfectionist” type of artform. I think my students were (as was I!) initially shocked at the laid-back, non-competitive atmosphere. The encouragement and support between groups was just tremendous, and really elevated my students’ confidence and performance level. I know they left feeling like rock stars or celebs.
The truth is, it’s inevitable that choirs (and their directors) can get in a day-to-day rut. Learning and teaching can become monotonous. Having this environment change really lit a new spark for me and my students. It can also be difficult to step back and see the big picture when you are “down in it.” It was so refreshing to get another expert’s take on our music making. I know my students learned a lot not just from Mr. McDonald, but just as much from Eleventh Hour and Fusion! I was blown away by their professionalism and expertise.
Overall, I was glad my students got the chance to share their love of music with others, beyond the walls of our own school. There are so many great things going everywhere, and a million different directions you could take a choral program. Why wouldn’t you want to see how others do it, and share your own experience? It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
The last thing I will say about this practice is that it not only helps re-energize your group, but it also invigorates you, the director. It’s fun to coach someone else’s group, and it is certainly helpful for your students to get a different point of view. While you are together, you’ll inevitably have some idea swapping on issues like sound gear, rehearsal techniques, parent booster activities, and so on. On top of all that, you’re establishing tighter bonds with those directors. Maybe someday you’ll have a full-blown “buddy concert” with them, or you’ll pool your money to bring in a professional group you couldn’t afford on your own.
Take some time to reach out to other a cappella groups in your area and create bonds through joint rehearsals and even concerts. The stronger our community is, the more everyone wins. A rising tide does indeed lift all boats.
Brody McDonald is the director of Choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured on numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice-president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also 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 a cappella studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place June 23-28, 2015 at Wright State University. For more information, please visit www.campacappella.com and www.brodymcdonald.com.