Creating a contemporary A-Cappella group can be the best thing that has ever happened to your traditional high school choral program but it could also negatively impact it; it all depends on your approach and most importantly, your WHY.
Generally speaking, students tend to be best motivated by starting from the known and gradually moving to the unknown. It’s always effective to reach students where they are at and then expand their comfort zone. In this case, “A-Cappella” is what most students know as contemporary A-Cappella groups sing popular music: music they hear on the radio. As a result, a-cappella is generally more socially accepted by their peers and by non-musical parents which makes it a much easier draw to attract students compared to a traditional choir.
With that said, choir/vocal education exists to provide our students with expansive musical understanding, to expose and enrich students with high-quality and meaningful repertoire, to develop vocal technique/literacy, and artistry.
The growing pains of my student-run a-cappella program
When I first began my extra-curricular a-cappella program, nearly 20 years ago, it was both a blessing and a curse. By the second year, we had a talented 8-voice male student a-cappella group that rehearsed on their own and wrote their own arrangements. By year 3, we also had a female group, followed by a mixed ensemble in year 4, all running on their own. Every member of the a-cappella program was required to be in choir, and the a-cappella groups performed their main concert on the same night, alongside the choirs.
While this all seemed ideal on paper, there was a clear divide between choir and a-cappella; certain a-cappella members started to believe the audience was coming to the choir concerts just to see their small group perform. These students became entitled within the choral program, showing their peers that they couldn’t care less about the choir, and the only reason why they were there was because it was a requirement in order to perform at the choir concert; keep in mind, the majority of performance opportunities came alongside the choir (concerts, tours, graduation, etc).
Common Issues with teacher-led a-cappella programs
There are also many teacher-led a-cappella groups that instill that same divide; the top students are chosen for the group, possibly a competitive group, and end up weakening the entire choral program. Essentially, their elite opportunities end up diminishing the overall choral product and opportunities for all other students. In this teacher-led a-cappella model, here are two examples of what can go wrong.
- There is no requirement to remain in choir, so these super-talented a-cappella students are no longer serving as the vocal glue for the students around them.
- A-Cappella students remain in the choir but they prioritize their efforts toward a-cappella. While they have the capacity to be role models in the choir, they choose to exhibit minimal effort because they really only care about the a-cappella group. (This is exactly what happened in my program for a good 7 years).
The student-led or teacher-led situations listed above brings me back to the best vs the rest mentality that is the very essence of this Choral Clarity Blog. Whether we have a select chamber choir, show choir, barbershop group, or a-cappella group, the concept of pulling out the most talented students only works if they also remain part of the self-selected, core choral program. There is great value in giving the most musically-deserving students extra opportunities, but not if it comes at the expense of the other students; what these top students learn within a select a-cappella group should be shared back within the choral program.
These a-cappella singers should be leaders in our program. Besides being role models, they could be section leaders, vocal leaders, etc. These singers should know their choral parts better than everyone else and demonstrate elite behavior. They should have pride in their choral ensemble.
One big myth about a-cappella is that it is totally different than choral singing. Great a-cappella groups require great fundamental vocal technique, pure vowels, clear articulation, balance, blend, dynamics, a well-developed ear, and strong sight-singing skills, along with communicating text/meaning, and developing stage presence/artistry. These skills are virtually identical to choir and individual vocal training as well. Yes, there are some a-cappella-specific skills that must be learned, but an elite a-cappella singer should also have elite choir skills.
So how do we make A-Cappella the icing on the cake, and not the one group that matters in the entire school?
Simple Answer: We have to figure out our big WHY.
Why do we have an A-Cappella group? If we have it for the wrong reasons, we will create the wrong results.
An a-cappella group, whether student-run or teacher-led, should require its members/vocal leaders to be outstanding choir members.
What is an outstanding choral member?
1. A role model to other students in the choir
This is a student who shows up on time and prepared every day, demonstrates appropriate body alignment when singing, holds their music properly, marks their music, supports their peers, and is trustworthy.
2. A strong singer who learns their music first
Students chosen to be in an a-cappella group will likely possess well-developed ears and strong sight-singing skills. If this is the case, they should be the glue that learns their choral music first and permeates the correct pitches, tone, and rhythm throughout their section in lightning speed.
3. A choir member who believes in giving back to the choir
All students, regardless of talent, can give back to their choir. But in this case, our a-cappella-bound singers should willingly give back musically through teaching or coaching others. Whether maintaining a section leader position, being a student vocal director, or sight-reading leader, our strongest singers should be helping other singers to improve. On top of that, their extra opportunity in an elite a-cappella group should offer them additional tools to help others. If these talented singers are self-absorbed and only interested in their own ego, they will not be helpful in the choral setting.
What was missing from my high school a-cappella program during it’s first 7 years?
While every a-cappella student was required to be in the choir, I didn’t provide them with a clear reason WHY they should be there.
Yes, I gained more students in the choral program as a result of a-cappella, but I didn’t gain better focus, increased retention, or more vested choral members.
Once I created the WHY, my choral program AND a-cappella program began to flourish in tandem.
Here is a solid “WHY”
These singers should be in our choir because they will continually develop their ear, improve their sight-singing skills, improve their fundamental vocal technique, develop pure vowels, clear articulation, and learn how to balance and blend; in our choir, all students will be exposed to the art of a-cappella as we connect it to choral writing, word painting, voice-leading, etc. All students, not just a-cappella students, will learn how the vocal/choral skills learned in this class apply to a-cappella singing. And lastly, all choir members are going to understand that choir is the tree, and a-cappella is a branch. Dessert might be the most enjoyable part of a meal, but it doesn’t make it the main course. A-Cappella may be the most fun they have singing, but that doesn’t make it the most important part of their learning.
How to Train the Student’s That Can’t Sight-Sing – a simple system
The results when I clarified my “WHY”
We now have 8 student-run a-cappella groups, and just created our very first teacher-led group. Several of these groups have successfully competed in major competitions and performed on national television. We have a YouTube Channel that features all of our student-run groups.
Our two self-selected curricular choirs, a treble ensemble and a mixed ensemble, now have super-focused daily rehearsals, learn high-level repertoire, are fantastic readers, and are intentionally connecting their choir knowledge into their a-cappella groups; the musical leaders of our choral program are the leaders of our a-cappella program.
Concluding with clarity
I have tremendous respect for the fine high school a-cappella groups out there; I believe the highest form of artistry, musicianship, and rehearsal technique exists in these groups. The point of my WHY is to say that if members of these world-class high school groups don’t find tremendous value AND give back within their choral program, the entire choral program will truly be focused on just a small handful of singers, diminishing true opportunity for most potential singers in that school.
Having “A-Cappella” Groups can negatively impact traditional secondary level choral program OR they could also be the very best thing that has ever happened; it all depends on your approach and even more importantly, your WHY!
Stay tuned for next week’s blog post when we try out J.D. Frizzell’s a-cappella rehearsal approach!