Over the past 20 years, in addition to our curricular self-selected choral program, we have also created an extra-curricular A-Cappella Program that has become a major lifeline to our school and community. We currently have 8 student-run a-cappella groups. All groups choose their own leaders, accept their own members, rehearse on their own, write their own arrangements, do their own teaching etc.
Our A-Cappella program consists of 3 female ensembles, 2 male ensembles, and 3 mixed ensembles. The overwhelming majority of members (90% are members of the choral program) with many of the remaining 10% involved in instrumental music.
I was well-aware of the brilliant work of Dr. J.D. Frizzell and his Briarcrest “One Voice” ensemble; this teacher-led high school a-cappella ensemble successfully performed on America’s God Talent, has many albums and recordings, and has won countless A-Cappella awards. As opposed to my student-run a-cappella program, J.D. is in charge of his rehearsals, hires professional arrangers, gives the students tracks to learn their part, and sets the expectations for the group.
Frizzell Method Faces its Biggest Challenge
I knew so much about Dr. Frizzell’s Method because he freely writes about it. While I was a big fan of his final product, I was torn about bringing his approach into my student-run program. When analyzing my current program, I saw the tremendous value in how my students were developing tremendous leadership, accountability, arranging skills, and took such pride within their 8 student-run ensembles. I didn’t want to take any of this away from the students, as these groups have been immensely successful over the years, performing on national television shows, placing in high-level competitions, and performing at major events as well.
With all of that said, there was a level at which Dr, Frizzell’s “One Voice” was performing that was just so unreal. I felt the need to figure out how to try out the Frizzell method to improve the overall level of my program.
As an active member of Choral Clarity’s Facebook group, I reached out directly to Dr. Frizzell to begin a dialogue on this topic. When we connected, I was inspired by his willingness to share as well as the support he gave as I was trying to figure out how to incorporate a new, differing approach into a well-established a-cappella program.
Here were the main obstacles I needed to overcome within my program:
- How do I get my students to accept the idea of using a hired arranger since they currently write all of their own arrangements?
- With every ensemble rehearsing once a week, mainly on Sundays (which is not conducive to the Frizzell method), how do I find a way to utilize or modify his 5-day method?
- How do I convince my students to allow a teacher/coach to rehearse them from start to finish when they take such pride in teaching the music themselves?
- Since none of the student-run groups were auditioned by me and all of the “top” performers are divided between the 8 groups, how can I give this opportunity to the most deserving students? Keep in mind that holding auditions might not bring in the most deserving students, as this opportunity might not have immediate appeal.
- Assuming we use the Frizzell Method on a brand new, well-chosen group of deserving student, all of whom are also in student-run groups, how can this experiment positively impact the student-run program? Moreover, how can I ensure this doesn’t negatively impact the student-run groups due to the ego of these selected students. This new commitment with professional arrangements/coaching, and success might make them less interested in their student-run groups.
Here was my plan for implementation:
I decided to create a seniors-only a-cappella group where I chose leaders of the 8 a-cappella groups to be in it; by doing this, I knew these singers would still remain motivated within their own student-run groups. It was my hope that these students would take newly-found skills and applied them back to their ensembles. I explained this as part of the reason for this experiment and why they were chosen.
For this experimental group, we borrowed an amazing Rob Dietz arrangement that was first performed by “One Voice”, which came with the part tapes.
Since the Frizzell Method is based on 5 days of in-school rehearsing, I needed to modify to 3-days after school (in his blog post, he does offer tips for modifying to suit different needs). The equivalent of Day 1 was done on their own completely where it was their responsibility to learn the music with part recordings. We essentially had the method’s Day 2 at our first rehearsal, Days 3-4 were combined into an elongated second rehearsal (2 hours), and had Day 5 as written.
Finally, we hired a professional clinician, Evan Feist, who was a former student of mine and someone who has worked with Dr. Frizzell over the years. While I could have run the rehearsal myself, I wanted my students to see this as a brand new experience and have new ideas infused into our program.
Here’s are the 7 Biggest Surprises/Take Aways
1. How inspiring a professional arrangement can be
It is so cool for students to write their own arrangements; a good number of students go on to write arrangements in their college groups, and some members have continued into the professional world of a-cappella as arrangers. With that said, even the best high school arrangers don’t have 15+ years of a-cappella writing experience. When Robert Dietz writes an arrangement, there are intangibles that keep all singers involved, and the potential for musical moments that can be transfixing. The ownership our students took to his arrangement was unbelievable.
Here is the recording our brand new group after using the 3-day version of the Frizzell Method
(Recording Engineer/Producer: Nicky Brenner)
2. The empowerment of the beatboxer
In our student-run groups, the beatboxer (or vocal percussionist) was a separate entity who just sort-of showed up to lay down a beat. They were, if you will, the kicker on a football team. Using the Frizzell Method, the beatboxer played an integral role in counting off the tempo and keeping it during all rehearsing. They went from being a side-attraction to the tempo leader who counts in the singers for every aspect of the group rehearsal. Our beatboxer loved this experience, learned so much, and all the other members gained a new-found respect for him.
3. The individual vocal tracks didn’t help that much
One general critique I have heard from directors of a-cappella groups of the Frizzell Method is that it is a “cop-out” to use part tapes. First off, anyone who hears “One Voice” would know instantly that a high school group of students could not sing at that level without a firm ability to sight-sing. The vocal tracks that we used, the same ones that Dr. Frizzell’s group used, were not fully isolated parts; they had all parts with a specific vocal line slightly louder.
As all of my students are fantastic readers, the vocal tracks in some cases sped up their learning process, but several students told me that instead, they chose to input their own part into Noteflight, which gave them a clearer ability to isolate their part.
4. The level of empowerment of every student
Evan Feist served more as a coach than as a teacher. These students were using their musicianship to determine what was right/wrong, coming up with a mood/meaning, shape, and dynamics. While it’s hard to believe, the aspects of music-making empowerment that was happening in this coach-led environment was far-greater than what they were experiencing in their own ensembles when they had full control. The main reason is that in a student-run group, the student leaders took pride in their own decision-making ability, frequently dismissing opinions and ideas of less established members. In this Frizzell-inspired environment where the coach was the facilitator, every member of this group was equal.
5. The cohesiveness of the ensemble
I expected the “chosen” students to be prideful that I picked them, but I didn’t expect such a newfound bond that they would form; these students, all of whom are in choir together, felt such a high from the shared experience, that they want to continue beyond our one-song experiment. Hence this recording, which was their second 3-day rehearsal series.
Here is POBJFKHS’s “Vibe” second run using the abridged Frizzell Method, singing “Who You Are” arranged by Ben Bram.
(Recording Engineer/Producer: Nicky Brenner)
6. The consistency of their singing
By using a methodical approach, the foundation was set, which led to accuracy and consistency. This approach is so simple and yet so brilliant: everyone must first know their part, then understand how their part links with similar parts, then know their part within the context of the entire ensemble, then conceptually have a unified meaning, and then shape the meaning through performance choices (dynamics/staging, etc). By doing this, singers are prepared by the end of day 1, even more prepared by the end of day 2, and by the end of day 3, they are locked in completely. They have reinforced their part and their understanding at such a high level that there is tremendous consistency AND focus in every rehearsal take.
7. The immediate improvement of all the student-run ensembles
As a result of the “chosen” group learning just one song in 3 rehearsals, all of the student-run groups had improved their arranging skills, which lead to improved sound from every ensemble. Better part writing lead to better sound. Several ensembles had also improved staging and dynamics dramatically by adding a group discussion into their rehearsals.
The future of A-Cappella at my high school
Since every member of the group graduated, we held auditions in June for “Vibe”, opened to 11th and 12th grades only.
This will be a brand new experience for every group member. “Vibe” will rehearse once a month after school for 3 days; the group will use professional arrangements and will provide its members with rehearsal tracks; all members must come to the first rehearsal prepared with their parts learned. As a result of only giving up 3 after school days per month (roughly 1 hour long), their time commitment will not overshadow the student-run a-cappella program which rehearses every week on Sundays. All members of “Vibe” must remain in the student-run a-cappella program and every group is represented in “Vibe”.