Evaluation and feedback opportunities limited for school a cappella groups

In a conversation with a well-respected popular music historian and educator, I broached the subject of a cappella music. Specifically, I was interested in his thoughts of adding a session featuring a cappella music to a popular music conference I run here in Western New York. His response was less than enthusiastic.

“Most chorus people think it’s kind of silly,” I paraphrase. Needless to say, there won’t be an a cappella session this year.

This conversation highlights the mainstream music educators’ approach to a cappella singing, though. Countless students around the country are preparing for individual and group performances to perform in front of a judge and outside of CASA-sponsored events, a cappella doesn’t play a role. Where I teach in New York State and around the country, contemporary a cappella isn’t represented in rated school music performance festivals and students are missing out on feedback from other knowledgeable sources than their own director.

In New York, our students prepare for Major Organization Festival, a fancy name for a performance by a large ensemble like a chorus or orchestra in front of judges. Songs performed at this evaluation (not competition) are picked off a list provided by the state music association and some a cappella music can be found there. Of course, it was written by Thomas Morley in the 1500s and others in his artistic vein.

There is an entire section in the New York State manual devoted to Madrigal singing and another for Barbershop. These songs are all expected to be performed unaccompanied and it is a great starting point to make inroads with contemporary a cappella. The biggest advantage these types of music have isn’t their seniority, it’s the standard repertoire. Every group that sings “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” at a Major Organization Fesitval signs the same arrangement by Joe Liles of Sweet Adelines International.

With more mainstream success and a swell of interest from outside school walls, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.  These lists don’t need to be lengthy. The Gospel Choir repertoire list has just four song options at the highest level of difficulty. The new A cappella Music Association and others groups interested in supporting contemporary a cappella should make it a point to standardize a list of legally available repertoire and contact state music agencies to add it to their repertoire lists. 

What do you think?