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Roundtable: Making A Cappella Work with University Vocal Programs

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For anyone who’s wandered the halls of college student unions, it’s no secret that a cappella groups have long been an obsession among vocally-minded academics. But there’s no doubt that over the last few years, the art of singing in as many styles and contexts as possible has grown to new levels of prominence thanks to television contest shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “The Sing-Off” and dramas like “Glee.” A cappella groups may be better suited than any other ensemble on campus to enjoy the increased acceptance and genuine fandom of this wave of bona fide pop culture curiosity. But the correlation to actual choral programs and music students is a little trickier than that; a cappella groups often exist entirely outside of any formal academic programs at schools and are sometimes even discouraged for young vocal majors. Still, we couldn’t resist looking into this issue. After all, you can’t complain about more and more people showing an interest in singing.

Choral Director spoke to faculty members of choral departments and student organizers of a cappella groups all across the country to get a feel for how things have changed for these groups steeped in tradition.

First off, let’s start with an idea about how these different types of a cappella programs fit in with the actual music programs at the various schools. Do these groups tend to have any faculty involvement? How are they a part of the greater aim of each school’s academics?

Stephen Gleason (Five Towns): They are vital. In fact, vocal ensembles are the central nervous system of the music program here at the college. Those students who major in music education, performance, and musical theater are required to be a member of a vocal ensemble at some point in their academic career this does not follow suit for any other course. We are fortunate to have a number of a cappella groups that cover a wide range of styles from traditional choral and chamber ensembles to barbershop, gospel, and jazz, of which I am currently the musical director.

Laura Zdrowski (UCLA): A cappella groups are completely separate from the choral and music department. A cappella groups are extracurricular activities that members participate in on top of their normal class load and student responsibilities. In the end, this separation is very beneficial because it gives non-music majors the opportunity to stay involved in music after high school.

William Weinert (Eastman): There are always several Eastman voice students involved in these groups, although the groups consist mainly of liberal arts students. The a cappella scene at the University of Rochester is very active, with several groups maintaining active performing and touring schedules.

Sharon Paul (U. Oregon): Our a cappella groups are all student-directed and extra curricular, but there is a lot of crossover between the students who sing in the UO choirs and the students who sing in our a cappella groups. The a cappella groups have a wonderful audience appeal and they have been able to generate a good following and an excitement about what they do.

Kent Tritle (MSM): At the Manhattan School of music, there are two ensembles in the program and no a cappella – the Symphonic Chorus, which is by definition all accompanied repertoire, and then there’s Chamber Choir, which does a combination of repertoire including a cappella works. It’s a combination of classically influenced repertoire. We don’t have what you might call a show choir or they used to call a swing choir or a pop jazz choir. That’s not part of the program at this point. We’re building the program more from the classical traditional side here.

Ed Polochick (Peabody): One of my two groups here, the Peabody Singers does often do a cappella works, but we would do things like Ligeti or Brahms. I try to make a mix of baroque through 20th century for them, but not much pop stuff. Frankly, I don’t have anything against pop stuff. I was on a staff partly as an associate director of a chorus that did pops all the time and I love pops.

What’s the attraction of these groups? What can students – vocal or non-vocal – find while participating in an a cappella group that they can’t find anywhere else?

LZ: A cappella is extremely versatile – groups can perform virtually any genre, so the style can appeal to a very diverse audience group. It’s also a very creative experience. Although members don’t usually compose their own songs, members of the groups generally arrange their own versions of popular songs giving them the opportunity to put their own creative twist on them. A cappella also puts a lot of emphasis on performative aspects like choreography, movement, and audience interaction, making it an engaging art form to both listen to and watch!

Erica Satin-Hernandez (Tufts): At our school, they give students the opportunity to pursue their passion outside of the academic realm and sing with people who have similar musical preferences. For example, Tufts has Christian and Jewish a cappella groups and groups who sing music of the African diaspora and African-American tradition including R&B, hip-hop, soul, and gospel. All singers can find their place in the a cappella world while also pursuing other academic interests.

I feel that a cappella groups have a lot more freedom with their music, not only in terms of the styles and genres of music but also the way that the music is sung and arranged. We aren’t restricted to “oohs” and “ahhs” and “lalalas” but we can make strange sounds to mimic instruments, we can beat box.

WW: Because the groups tend to be small, each singer has significant responsibility – not only musically, but also a responsibility to add personality to their singing. Also, much of the music they sing is fairly challenging rhythmically and harmonically, and sometimes involving improvisation, so singers build their skills in these areas.

CD: Friendship. In addition to rehearsals twice at least week (more during concert week or in preparation for large gigs) and various gigs up to 5 or 6 times a week, we live with each other, eat together, hang out on the weekends together, take classes together, and spend pretty much all school breaks together. It shows on stage when we perform because, as corny as this may sound, we honestly go up there and just have a good time with 15 of our best friends.

SG: Vocal ensembles in general provide the student with an organic learning experience; one that enables them to collectively develop their skills in harmony, sight-reading, and ear-training. In addition the exposure to different literature is a fundamental aspect of ensemble singing which grants a student access to a new world of discipline and technique, not to mention an intimate study of language.

Academia aside, the organization of vocal groups, particularly a cappella groups, require little overhead and maintenance making them attractive to both faculty and administration. All you need to start a great a cappella ensemble is dedicated and talented students, exciting arrangements, and a seasoned director and you are almost home.

CD: Are students in your program discouraged from getting involved or starting up any a cappella groups for fear that they’ll develop bad habits or accidentally damage their voice?

EP: I have seen that, but if they’re voice majors studying with a good teacher they’re generally safe. Every once in awhile, someone slips through the cracks a bit and pushes it a bit too far and then they end up with some vocal problems, but generally it’s not that big of a problem. There are several on our voice faculty who have done pop stuff and know how to train for it and, frankly, it’s just like any other instrument. It’s a different kind of technique that you use and you have to learn how to develop it.

C.J. David (UNC): The program here teaches a classical style of singing instead of the more pop/musical theater style that a cappella has adopted. So much of what we do in rehearsal is counteractive to what they teach. They do allow and encourage a cappella participation if your musical focus is leaning toward a modern musical theater style, but they do caution students about the damage the a cappella style of singing can do to your voice without proper care.

KT: There’s a lot of use of the voice where people are using more Broadway techniques – you know, “belting” – or popular techniques that are not conducive to, for example, a conservatory situation, where your voice majors are really training to be future oratorio and opera singers. Frequently there will be kids who were in high school singing, let’s say, “Rent,” which you could say definitely uses extended techniques beyond the classical cannon! If they end up going to a conservatory environment to study voice, they really cannot be singing that way. At least until they have really garnered what is a classical technique.

CD: The impact of media on a cappella, from viral internet videos to all the different vocal performance showcases on television, must be tremendous. How are you noticing it in your work?

SG: On the positive side, Internet media sites and social networking have unlocked a veritable treasure trove of musical performances, both classic and current. On the other hand, the commercial success of vocal and a cappella music featured on shows such as “Glee” and “Sing-Off” do not always showcase groups with the best literature, arrangements, or talent even. The internet and television are certainly a major contributor to the current vocal music boom, and have certainly garnered interest from a younger demographic. The bottom line is there are wonderful groups and fantastic vocal music is being performed in many places, but the volume far outweighs the quality.

CD: I definitely think that interest in singing has increased and is becoming more popular because of shows like “Glee” and “the Sing Off.” For the Clefs in particular, we had a member graduate in 2008 who was on American idol, and we saw a pretty decent increase in ticket sales at our concert during that year and in the years following.

WW: I think it is always great to see singing promoted among young people. One way or another, though, this always seems to be happening. Different decades see it manifested in different ways, but young people have always found ways to get together and sing.

CD: Finally, let’s look at the evolution of a cappella at your school and in general. How do programs of today compare with their predecessors?

SG: I’d have to say they have grown not only in size but in diversity as well. Ten years ago your choices as a student for a vocal group were limited to either the chorus or select choir, both traditionally based. Maybe as an extra curricular activity you could participate in a Barbershop quartet or gospel chorus. Fast forward to today and you have a plethora of vocal/a cappella oriented classes ranging from Broadway and cabaret, to jazz, pop, you name it! Most of which are offered as either a degree requisite or at the very least for course credit.

My own student experience with vocal ensembles pre-date (just a little) the Internet and the sophisticated mobile and telecommunications we have today. We sang arrangements that were provided by instructors who were knowledgable and experienced, they distributed material using musical discretion and care. The do-it-yourself vibe that is perpetuated by YouTube stars and blog journalism has infiltrated its way into music composition, arranging, and distribution. I’d like to see a more academic mobilization of vocal and a cappella music where there is a mentorship between teacher and student, more of an intimate connection between singers and their material. This keeps music beautiful and clearly makes the distinction between folk art and fine art.

LZ: With more established roots, technology, and attention given to a cappella, these groups have been challenging themselves to improve musically and to expand awareness of a cappella throughout this huge campus. The number of groups has increased exponentially from 2 groups 10 years ago to 10 groups currently — the demand for these groups is extremely high because everyone wants to be a part of it!

CD: A cappella is completely different at UNC than it was in the past, especially in regards to the Clef Hangers. In the past our singing style has been musical theater and classically based, whereas we now use a more breathy tone that projects more sound and better blends to create what we call a “wall of sound.” Our repertoire has also changed, becoming less choral and incorporating more rock and pop songs. We still try to keep our choral roots by doing two or three songs that are TTBB choral pieces each semester.

Listening to CDs like “Voices Only” and the yearly BOCA CDs, I hear recording techniques like auto-tune and voice alterations, which I think is great; I love using technology to experiment with the human voice and see what it can become. I do hope though that groups don’t get too crazy with the music they create and don’t forget about the power of the simple human voice. Making songs sound like the original is great, but I hope people don’t forget that voices alone sound pretty cool and can still be epic.

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