High school A cappella Jives With Teacher Evaluation Systems

Student leadership and choice has been a hot topic among music educators recently as the element is being used to evaluate teachers. To earn a perfect score using teacher evaluation tools such as the Danielson rubric or the new National Core Arts Standards, students need to take ownership of their experience and proceed beyond teacher-led activities. In many cases, that’s exactly what they are doing in their high school a cappella groups.

While attending a recent festival on a cappella music in schools, I asked students why they joined a cappella groups, particularly those that met outside of the school day or where they needed to sacrifice their free time. Overwhelmingly their answers had to do not with performing or even being “cool.” These students said being in a cappella groups helped them become better musicians. They wanted the chance to learn about new types of music and hone their listening ability.

These responses are the exact reason we nurture student choice and leadership in schools. These responses are how you create lifelong learners. We can argue about the actual evaluation tools, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not important.

The Danielson rubric

Created by Charlotte Danielson, the “Framework for Teaching” – commonly called the Danielson rubric – was originally designed for teachers as a “foundation for professional conversations among practitioners.” Instead it has become a way to evaluate teachers. Continue reading…

Vocal Percussion in Contemporary Choral Music

Hey all!

It has been a while since I have posted but good things are coming!  This week is the National American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) Conference in Salt Lake City, and I have the honor of presenting an interest session on Vocal Percussion in Contemporary Choral Music!

Ever since I grew up watching “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”, I fell in love with a cappella music, mostly due to the fact that Rockapella killed it every show. When Jeff Thacher joined on as the groups vocal percussionist, I was more than hooked, I was obsessed!

Now, in 2015, after performing with my collegiate group (The Potsdam Pointercounts) and pro groups (Ithaca-based Sons of Pitches, and The Fault Line), I find myself presenting on a topic I am fond of to choral directors from across the country!

Now, for those of you not attending the conference, I will give you a sneak peek of what I will be discussing.

Why Vocal Percussion?

Teachers have asked me this before and I usually give them a variety of answers. Here are some reasons I tell them:

1. It provides a new opportunity for students to perform- Think about it. As students grow up, some see singing as being silly or they become too timid to sing because they do not want to be judged by their friends. Some students think they cannot sing at all. Vocal percussion opens a new opportunity for those students to still be a part of a group setting and contributing, without having the anxiety of singing.

2. It helps build rhythmic and reading skills- Working with vocal percussion in its beginning phase is like teaching a student how to play an instrument for the first time. You go through each note and how to play/perform it.   You then go through practicing on simple rhythms until the student becomes comfortable. As the student progresses, the level of difficulty increases. Students continue developing mental memory, building their “chops”. The same goes for students learning vocal percussion. Students can go through a similar process where they are starting off simple, then build upon those skills until they have learned complex sounds and rhythms.

3. It helps build improvisational skills- One of my favorite memories of performing with The Fault Line was our arranging process. We attempted to make songs sound different than their original counterparts. Our group would listen to the original and think about how we could change it. My favorite example was when we performed Fall Out Boy’s ” Dance Dance”. When we first started performing it, we tried to stick to how the original sounded. It didn’t really fly. We went back and thought of ways to change it without losing the integrity of the song. The result was a slower, laid back, swung version that changed every show with the inclusion of scat solos from our lead singer. The vocal percussionist and bass are the driving rhythm of the group. Think of the form of the piece… Do you want to go into half time at a certain part? Let the beat drop? Change the entire sound? The possibilities are endless. Be creative, improvise!


Throughout my week in Salt Lake City, I will be tweeting from my Twitter handle @JGloTweetsStuff and my student group’s handle @EldKeyElements Follow both for updates as I will be seeing and chatting with JD Frizzell, President of the A Cappella Education Association, Brody McDonald, author of A Cappella Pop, and many others in the a cappella world!


Contemporary A cappella Brings Pop Music Into Schools – And That’s A Good Thing

Despite an incredibly robust music scene outside of schools, popular music hasn’t been embraced by the educational establishment. Even contemporary a cappella with its popularity in movies and on television hasn’t caught on as a curricular ensemble in many schools, instead being relegated to after school programs and extracurricular status. To me, that is backwards.

When music started to be added to the school curriculum in 1830s, it was largely to support the music-making going on outside the school day. Boston church choir director Lowell Mason was interested in getting music education to the masses instead of just the rich to improve the caliber of musicians available to his choirs. The resulting crusade added music to the school day in Boston where it eventually spread across the nation.

Why, then, have schools been reluctant to add popular music based on its perceived value? The Boston school system rejected Mason initially, saying it didn’t have time for musical pursuits. They tried using the same rationale against music as a whole that many use against popular music today. Continue reading…

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. 

A cappella Music Shouldn’t Be Limited To Cost-Effective School Music Alternative

Ben Folds is wrong. There. I finally said it.

Folds is the most recognizable face promoting a cappella music in America and he’s really good at doing that. In December, an editorial of his debuted over at Huffington Post just after the first episode of season four of The Sing Off.  Titled “Why A Cappella Rocks,” Folds discussed a cappella singing at the high school and collegiate levels and why it has taken to that age range particularly well. As a music teacher, I just have a problem with the way he did it.

“The data has shown us that test scores improved profoundly when academic classes are peppered with music classes,” writes Folds. “Students, like the young people of Vocal Rush, breathe life into those stats.”

Not exactly. See, the students of Vocal Rush went to an auditioned charter school in Oakland. Before they are allowed to step foot on campus, they must meet rigorous entrance standards including already having pretty good grades. The same is true in music programs around the country – it’s not that music makes kids smarter, it’s more that smart students gravitate to music and can handle the multi-tasking involved. Kids that aren’t smart or able to balance all the other responsibilities that go into being in a music group are weeded out – usually by the time they get to high school.

But this point isn’t that big of an issue. Most people believe it to be true even if it’s loosely based in actual research. My biggest problem in Folds’ argument came a few paragraphs later when he inadvertently said teachers shouldn’t get paid.

“Also, a cappella music is cheap, and in a world where fiscal responsibility actually drove policy, it would be noted that it cost absolutely nothing to sing,” continued Folds. “Schools are cutting their music programs in an attempt to save money. But wait. A crazy thing is happening. This next generation of students is filling the musical education void by just doing it themselves. Each year sees more and more high school and a cappella groups working outside the school systems, coming together and teaching themselves some kind of voice leading, and arranging skills enough to perform, and in many cases, perform outstandingly.”

No, Ben! Don’t give them ammunition to cut my school music program! I can just hear financially-conscious administrators around the country:

“Ben Folds says the next generation of students are filling their own music education void with this Acapulco stuff so we don’t need to fund it.”

It is always great when students take the initiative themselves but we teachers kind of, sort of, want to get paid to help them with it during classes that we teach. Those kids in Vocal Rush have extra music classes where they are learning this material thanks to their position at the Oakland School for the Arts. Instead of advocating the cost-effectiveness of outside-the-day a cappella groups, Folds should be touting the benefits of a cappella music alongside traditional music programs and as an integral part of those programs.

The thrust of Folds’ argument – that a cappella music is valuable and worth sharing – is certainly true. In the future, I just hope he empowers more teachers to use it in their classrooms instead of making it seem like this completely separate entity. It doesn’t have to be.

(I still love you, Ben. Send me a tweet. We’ll chat.)