Taking Stock of the 2015-2016 Season: 7 Observations

Well, the summer is approaching, and we’ve reached the end of another school year and another competition season. It has been a remarkable one, with past finalists winning at both the high school and post-collegiate level, and an international first at the highest-profile collegiate competition. Along the way, there have been remarkable recordings, stand-out performances, and more.

But at this point, the history has been written. Instead, permit me a half-dozen or so observations at the end of the season:

A cappella is stronger than ever. As a part of our Competition Countdown and #TheSpotlight shows, we had a chance to talk with (and listen to) over 200 groups. Some are better than others, but both the median and mean quality just keeps going up. I’ve talked with several longtime observers – many have (rightly) said that we’re hearing middle and high school groups performing as well as the best pro groups a decade ago. Plus, we’re still seeing new groups getting formed, so the ecosystem remains really healthy.

Breadth, depth – and specialization – is growing. Over the last 50 or 60 years, the science and business of medicine just exploded. And as it got bigger and transformed, a funny thing happened: specialization. You get a pain while on the court, and you’re just as likely to see a Sports Medicine doc instead of a general practitioner. We’re seeing something similar with a cappella – witness the continuing explosion of south Asian groups, Jewish a cappella groups, geek-themed groups, 80s-focused groups, and … well, you get the idea. What a great thing this is! There’s room for everybody, and if you have a passion just for ancient Russian a cappella folk music? There’s a group for you.

Lines are blurring. It may seem paradoxical that when we have more specialization, we’re also seeing delineations between genres begin to fade. As we’re hearing more 9ths and 13ths work their way into pop a cappella covers, or barbershop quartets bringing out vocal percussion, the silos are every so slowly beginning to break down. This is perhaps the most gratifying observation of the last season – sure, it’s early days for this and it’s happening slowly, but we have so much to learn from each other that this cross-pollination can only be positive.

Some nagging issues remain. All of that notwithstanding, we still have things to confront in our own community. At the ICCA finals, there was one – one! – all-female group. One might ascribe that to a random occurrence this year, but a look at our history tells us otherwise. Yet there are a metric ton of great female groups out there at all levels…so what’s going on here? We need to continue the conversation about how we’re evaluating these performances – are we suitably equitable? At the same time, events this year highlighted a couple of extremes in terms of how to coach groups and help them improve, bringing to light some other aspects of ourselves that could use some (civil) discussion.

There’s a flash vs. substance conversation to have. Are we appropriately rewarding soul and storytelling? This season saw performances that were objectively remarkable, entertaining crowds in halls large and small. And often, they were rewarded. But the overlap between entertainment and emotional connection with the audience is not complete, and there were times when groups that just put on a fun show got higher marks than those who were digging deep. Is that OK? Is that who we want to be? I dunno. But it’s worth talking about.

We’re placing a big emphasis on soloists. About two thirds of the way through the ICCA finals this year, it just hit me like a ton of bricks: the solo + backing arrangements have become more ubiquitous than ever. At the time, it seemed like The Voice-ification of a cappella – rewarding the stellar solo performer over the tight, emotive, ensemble work. To be clear: I’m not anti-soloist, and there were solos at the finals (and other shows) that were mind-blowing. To focus on that approach exclusively, though, ignores the wide variety of textures, dynamics, and effects that can come from a meaty, front-and-center, ensemble arrangement. Perhaps this will be like a pendulum, and will swing back with time – we’ll see.

The future is exciting. OK, I said I had six observations, but I can’t help including this one, too. Think of the great stuff ahead: more genre mash-ups, more stellar talent, an ever-stronger pipeline from middle school to post-collegiate singing. Sitting at the ICHSA finals this season, I was practically giddy at the array of talent on display. There are local and regional high school festivals popping up everywhere. Yet the untapped potential remains off the charts – in terms of getting more singers into the genre, in terms of international collaborations, in terms of greater pop culture incorporation. 2016-2017 is gonna be fun!

Have your own observations? Share ’em!

What do you think?