Thoughts From The Field

Earlier this year, over at Acaville Radio, we launched a weekly show where I sit down – live and in person – with an aca-group or artist for an hour or so, we talk, they sing, and we edit it down for the air. The absolute best – and most logistically difficult – part of this show is spending time with these artists.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a chance to sit in a room with nearly two dozen groups, from east coast to west coast, and talk about what they do, how they do it, and where things are in a cappella right now. And while I’ve never felt better about the state of the genre, there were some surprises along the way, too. Here are a handful of things I’ve taken away from it so far:

1. Our community is large and getting larger.

I sat down with high school groups that had only been formed a few months earlier, and pro groups that have been going for decades. The same was true at the collegiate and semi-pro levels, too. In many cases, the conversation was about what new groups were forming, what new performance opportunities were coming along, and how they were going to keep growing and developing.

I think, at least in my head, I too often compare today to ten or fifteen years ago, and marvel at how much has evolved. But we can just as easily compare today to five years ago, and get a similar result! More groups, more festivals and gig chances, more variety within the community. It’s pretty great.

2. Old problems are new problems.

For the show, we sat down for an hour with Deke Sharon, and talked (among other things) about the impetus behind founding CASA back in the day. A key reason? A cappella groups didn’t know about each other. The organization was initially started to help create and distribute a list of groups around the country (think pre-Internet, people!).

Well, that need is back and bigger than ever. Sure, there’s fairly widespread knowledge and understanding of many of the top groups out there. But we sat down with barbershoppers who didn’t know much about other parts of the aca-community, and with contemporary high school groups and directors who didn’t, either! One example: a HS group’s director said they didn’t think there were others like them in that town. And we were in the same town as a high school group that appeared on The Sing-Off!

Some semi-pro groups that are immersed in the Harmony Sweeps don’t know about the ICCA or ICHSAs. There are plenty of high school and collegiate groups that don’t know about some of the great semi-pro and pro groups out there. The schisms are everywhere, and they really prevent a lot of collaboration and learning opportunities for everyone.

3. The quality level has a bigger range, but a higher median.

Forgive the statistics-speak there, and let me try again in English: Good groups are better these days, and bad groups seem worse. But generally, the quality of a cappella is getting better all the time.

I suspect that is because with ubiquity of polished examples comes higher expectations. If a new high school group forms to do co-ed a cappella, you know they’re striving to be Pentatonix or Pitch Slapped or – if they’re looking in their own age space – Vocal Rush or Forte. If they didn’t have access to see or hear those groups, their aspirations might be a pretty-good regional group, or just to sound better than the school’s entry-level choir.

Regardless of the reason, though, the rising tide really does lift all ships here.

4. We have a feeder system. We need to nurture and celebrate it.

A cappella is going to only get stronger, and I think that will happen whether or not we still have a Sing-Off or a Pitch Perfect 7: Revenge of the PitchPipe. And we owe it to the same dynamic that drive sports: K-12 to college to the pros (or semi-pros).

So many great pro groups have singers who sang a cappella in college. The best collegiate groups attract those who sang a cappella in high school. Perhaps in the next few years, we’ll start to see a cappella programs at middle schools, too.

If this is true, then it’s a benefit to us all when the ACDA (the choral directors’ association) has presentations on vocal percussion at their conference. Or when new high school festivals start cropping up in medium-sized towns and suburbs all across the country. We all know a cappella is like a drug: once you get hooked, it’s hard to stop. So let’s get kids hooked early, and the whole community will be better over the long term.

Wouldn’t it be great to see ICHSAs with full quarters and semis, and maybe even an ICMSA for younger kids? Where every state has an AEA chapter? Where schools with even a marginal choral music program know that contemporary a cappella is important and take steps to connect with semi-pro and pro groups in their community?

That’s a path we could be on. And I don’t think it’s all that far-fetched. If we resource it appropriately and coordinate the players to make it happen.

5. This thing runs on passion.

There are a few folks getting rich on a cappella. But that’s not the payoff for most of us: it’s the music. Whether performing or watching, arranging or listening, so many people in the a cappella community are passionate about it. I saw that again and again, from every level and every place that we went.

It’s the jet fuel. It’s the secret sauce. As long as we keep that going, the sky’s the limit.

And that’s pretty great.

What do you think?