A Cappella. No Instruments. So What?! (INTRO)

Not a bad question, I suppose. Except for the tens (hundreds?) of thousands who have performed in (American) college or high school a cappella groups in the past 15-20 years.  Many of those folks would likely respond with stories. Stories of rehearsals. Stories of performances, of audiences, of beautiful or silly or deeply moving moments. Moments on stage, moments backstage, moments on road trips or in the hallway or the (gulp) bathroom. Each moment can be attributed to one of the oldest and yet somehow newest methods of performing vocal music. A cappella. Oft-misspelled, occasionally mocked, and yet it has real power to it.

I take the name for this blog from a comment made by a judge recently on a television show which features a cappella music called The Sing Off.  Before performing a song on the show, a college group offered a background piece illustrating how several members gained acceptance and friendship upon joining the group.  After the group performed their song, judge Sara Bareilles explained how she recalled a notation from her diary made after she had joined a college a cappella group.  The entry indicated that she had found her “tribe.”

I thought this was a very apt description of what a cappella groups can be to their members.  While not everyone who joins a group necessarily feels this way, there is no denying the sense of love, commitment, acceptance, and companionship which can accompany membership in such a group. I sang a cappella in high school and throughout my college years. More on my background is available in the “About” section. But the proof of the power which a cappella groups harbor is evident in my life, 10 years after graduating college. I convinced my wife to date me and later to marry me when I sang to her with a group of friends [more on that in subsequent post here]. Many of my best friends today are people  I sang with in a cappella groups. And many of the best times of my life occurred with those same groups.

It may sound corny, but it is a tribe. A group of persons with a common interest and/or character. A group which is accepting, competitive, fiercely protective of its own. And frequently, it’s a fairly diverse group of people in the tribe. When I started a group at NYU, it was a true assortment of people with different backgrounds, interests, ethnicities, personalities, politics, and geographic origins. But what drew us all together was the desire to sing music, without instruments, for others. To be a part of that collective effort to make music. It didn’t matter if it was for people walking by on the street, or for a few hundred (or more) people in the auditorium. It was for us as much as anyone else. And that is a big part of a cappella.

I think it is also important to note how friendly and communal the a cappella community generally is. When I was in a college group, we frequently called or emailed a group at another college to ask about performing there on our tour, or inviting them to come sing with us (for no money), and the groups were often completely fun and agreeable. Even better, I recall being interested in starting a semi-pro group of 5 men during one of my college summers. I was a member of CASA, and I emailed then-President Deke Sharon (aka THE MAN in contemporary a cappella). Deke Sharon- founder of The Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, former Tufts Beelzebub, founder of the first true vocal band (The House Jacks)- responded. He not only wrote back with ideas and advice, he actually sent me a few arrangements of songs he wrote or co-wrote! It was one of the coolest, most gracious things anyone who I respected so highly had ever done!

It’s also crucial that the very foundation of a cappella music is built upon a very exposed, communal concept. The music cannot happen, it cannot work unless the parts are together, in terms of pitch, intonation, and rhythm. It is a vocal dance, a ballet of timing and musicality which requires absolute cooperation. If the pitches are off, everyone sounds bad. If the rhythms are off, everyone looks bad. But if it is done right, if all those elements come together, it is something which can be compelling and perhaps even transcendental.

Ok, so what’s the deal with this blog? I have now been out of college for 10 years. In the first 2 or 3 years out, I was convinced I could start a semi-pro a cappella group which would be fun and productive. I called a few friends from college, and we posted ads on various a cappella-related websites or listservs about auditions for a new all-male a cappella group on Long Island (NYC suburb). I figured we were close enough to New York City that we’d get a bunch of other a cappella alumni interested in joining us. I somehow failed to realize that people who live in “The City” tend to think of Long Island as a faraway land requiring two forms of transportation (Long Island Railroad AND a car? Forget it!) and unparalleled expense.

Anyway, we got a group going for a few months, but people somehow just could not maintain a commitment to one rehearsal a week. This was something of a shock to me, as our college group had rehearsed 2 or 3 times a week for years, but I suppose it is far easier to drag oneself away from the bar, er, books than from one’s spouse/girlfriend/family/television.

We tried to get that group up and running a few times, never lasting more than a few months. Then I gave up and went to law school.

A few years later, after law school, I tried a different approach, inviting many of the alum of my other college group, the Potsdam Pointercounts, who lived nearby to come over and sing. I figured if we could get 12 or 14 people interested, we could surely have at least 1 person covering each part for our “rehearsals” (which were typically an hour of singing and equal time for beer and snacks). This arrangement did not work for very long either.

And then I stumbled across a new podcast called “Mouth Off.” It was fascinating to me- two guys (Dave Brown and Christopher Diaz) who loved a cappella as much as I did, who were college graduates and were [then] not actively performing in groups, talking about the a cappella world. It became the most important part of my week, listening to their show. It was a chance to learn about new groups, or groups of which I had never heard, sometimes from places I didn’t know embraced such a cappella (Finland- Club for Five– whom I will discuss in another post). It was an opportunity to learn about individuals in the a cappella community, focus on detailed aspects of a cappella music such as arrangements or chords or vocal percussion. It was amazing, not only because Dave and Christopher clearly loved a cappella as much as I did, but also because they were like me. They had been deeply impacted by their collegiate a cappella experiences, and they realized that exiting college did not mean you could not still love and be a part of the a cappella community.

Anyway, after listening to them for a few months, I thought about publishing my own a cappella blog. But life intervened with the birth of my first child and a heavy caseload at work.

This year, my second child was born and work has continued to be busy, but I also attended the voCALnation a cappella conference in New York City. I wasn’t part of a Contemporary A cappella League group, but I was very interested in attending some of the workshops, such as one with terrific arrangers like Tom Anderson, Nick Girard, Christopher Diaz, and Clare Wheeler, and also some of the recording workshops like one put on by Dave Sperandio. I had a great time, and even ran into an old friend from my high school a cappella group.

Also, this summer, I stumbled onto (with help from Peter Hollens) a website called Turntable, where a bunch of people, both fans and performers, involved with a cappella music were interacting, playing their favorite groups or songs and chatting about upcoming performances, group membership changes, and so on. It was thrilling to learn about new groups and interact with people whose names I had heard and people who I had never heard of before, all of whom shared this common interest. (I was there under the handle “db1bulldog”, a reference to a college nickname which need not be explained here).

Between this and VoCALnation, I had ideas. Ideas about songwriting (from the amazing Duwende workshop), about arranging, about recording. About being involved again. So, even though I had put aside a cappella for years, acknowledging I was too busy, I couldn’t resist the need to sing again. Recently, I auditioned for an a cappella group which wasn’t really looking for what I had to offer. But the truth is committing to an a cappella group now would be difficult if not impossible. In fact, it would not be fair to any group, because my family and my job have such a grip on my time right now. Being in an a cappella group requires commitment and patience, time and effort and practice– at least if it is done right.

I hope that when things calm down for me in another year or two (is that even realistic with 2 kids?), I will try again to start up a group of my own.  Until then, however, I needed an outlet for my thoughts on the a cappella explosion which is going on in pop culture right now and the rapid and exciting developments which are occurring within the a cappella world itself. More importantly, I needed a way back into the a cappella community. The acatribe. I needed to communicate with my people.

So, here we are. I have a LOT of thoughts about a cappella music. About what I listen to, what I see, what I like (and don’t like), and what I want to see more of. I am more interested in professional and semi-professional groups in recent years, so you may notice more of a focus on those categories, but I also listen to college recordings from the BOCA and SING series and will certainly touch on those groups as well. Sometimes I’ll write things which interest acafans who are not singers. Sometimes I’ll write highly specific or technical thoughts about more advanced a cappella ideas or concepts. Perhaps nobody will care. But dammit, I’m putting it out there anyway.

Where’s the pitchpipe?! Let’s get this show started!

1 Comment

  1. Patrick Holden   •  

    Really fantastic stuff so far. I really do think the term “tribe” applies very well to an a cappella group. Tribes, historically, were mostly made up of family members. And I think these groups tend to be more family-like than say a club or a fraternity. You touched on a great point briefly when you said that a cappella is an “exposed, communal concept”. But I think this goes to the heart of why a group like this is more like a family than others. Singing, in it’s nature, is an extremely personal thing. More personal than other form of music because it sounds you produce from your body. Everybody does it–in the shower, in the car, while doing chores–but few people do it in front of their friends (sober) and even fewer people do it in front of an audience. So when you go into an a cappella group your saying to these people, sometimes complete strangers, that “I want to share this personal thing with you.” And the reason we can do this is that the people you sing with all agree to share the same part of themselves. And this brings them closer than another group can do, like family.

What do you think?