New high school ensemble performance standards favor a cappella singing

The National Association for Music Education – NAfME – has released a draft of brand new standards for music performance ensembles at the high school level. These standards are available for public comment until October 21st and high school a cappella enthusiasts should be happy with what they see.
First and foremost, the vision statement provided by the creators of the document includes mention of “emerging ensembles”. While a cappella groups aren’t listed explicitly, they would certainly fall under that label as well as the traditional “chorus” label that is plainly referenced.  To be fair, the only ensembles that are overtly listed are instrumental groups.
One of the essential questions of the new standards revolves around musical selection and giving students an opportunity to pick their own repertoire of study. Students’ ability to select music will be a skill they can take to their own peer-led groups in college or the community following high school graduation. A cappella, with the ability to sing music in the students’ vernacular, provides an outlet for student selection not seen in previous performance ensemble models where teachers drive the music selection. When students get a say in the music they perform, it takes on more intrinsic meaning for the students.
Creating or composing music for the performance ensemble is also something usually not seen in the choral program outside a cappella ensembles. This new focus contained in the performance ensemble standards fits in well with a cappella music. Students hear a new song on the radio but a printed arrangement doesn’t exist. They can wait or they can craft their own arrangement with or possibly without the help of their teacher and with or without the use of traditional music notation. Again, this is a tool that could be useful to the students down the road, a goal for these new standards.
While the analysis and performance pieces of these new standards are pretty basic throughout all choral ensembles in a school setting, a cappella music can certainly fulfill these requirements as well. I’ve never advocated for an entire choral program based on a cappella music, but incorporating even one song into a program could hit on the two main concepts that might be more difficult to reach in a traditional setting.
You can review the standards yourself at the NAfME website if you’d like but they are being removed October 21st, 2013, with the goal of having a finalized set to release in the Spring of 2014. Follow the link to comment on the new standards or download the document itself  by clicking here.

A cappella Education Association aims to give teachers the tools to succeed

One way to inject popular music and energy into school-based ensembles is to include contemporary a cappella groups in their choral program. But many teachers don’t have the knowledge, skill set, or repertoire to incorporate this fast-growing style of music into their existing program. The A cappella Education Association, a new national organization abbreviated AEA, is aiming to help expand the resources available to teachers in order to help that process. Founding members J.D. Frizell, Brody McDonald, and Ben Spalding spoke with me recently about the group’s goals and what they have in the pipeline ready to help teachers looking to get into the a cappella game.

“A cappella music is the perfect intersection of student excitement – we get to sing stuff on the radio!? – and vocal proficiency,” says Spalding, head choral director at Centerville High School in Dayton, Ohio. “Singers must hold their own part on as few as one to a section, memorize complex arrangements, and perform with energy and great visuals.”

Spalding’s school group, Forte, has been runner-up at the International Competition of High School A Cappella for the last two years in addition to winning numerous recording awards including the coveted Best Overall High School Album. Most school choral directors are unsure how to wade into the a cappella waters , something McDonald would like to fix.

“If the director hasn’t done a cappella themselves, they are intimidated by things like sound gear, vocal percussion, and rhythmic syllables,” says McDonald, who holds a Masters in choral conducting from Bowling Green University and directs multiple choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School in Ohio. “We plan to help teachers overcome that fear by providing information about such topics that can translate a cappella into a musical framework that is more familiar. ”

“Our goal is to reach teachers who are not currently involved, and help them get in the game,” says Spalding. “By starting from scratch, [with a new organization] being formed BY teachers FOR teachers, we will help alleviate any concerns teachers naturally have about getting involved in new styles of music.”

Legal a cappella arrangements for high school are hard to find as most music publishers don’t carry titles. The AEA wants to provide a common place for arrangers around the country to share their original songs and get them in the hands of educators.

“We plan to have a library of original pieces arranged so that members may download music for free without fear of copyright infringement,” says Spalding. “We’ll have original music from folks like Deke Sharon, Ben Bram, Christopher Harrison, Street Corner Symphony, Alex Phan, Bryan Sharpe and others.”

“You wouldn’t believe how many groups get stuck on King Singers or Deke [Sharon]’s arrangement books just because they don’t know anything else,” says J.D. Frizzell, the group’s President. “I was there 6 years ago.”

To provide this content, the AEA website (http://www.acappellaeducators.com) is being readied for launch. The site will have a variety of resources for teachers that expand beyond sharing arrangements and include resources for teachers without a background in this type of music.

“We want to create a comprehensive, interactive website that will allow members to access resources (written, video, audio) on subjects like recording, vocal percussion, visual performance enhancement, arranging, and rehearsal,” says Spalding, who notes the group will incorporate newsletters and presentations at existing music education conferences to further this goal. “We also will begin to address issues of a cappella pedagogy, including pop vocal technique and elusive topics like vocal percussion notation.”

The national board of directors and 15 state-level presidents are already in place. Content is being developed within the organization to roll out in the near future with the goal of expanding the choral directors that see a cappella as a viable option while also reinforcing those who already do.

“The AEA leadership is seriously committed to the task at hand,” says Frizzel, the Director of Fine Arts and Vocal Music at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis where he oversees the K-12 program and directs three choirs. “They are willing to do the hard, behind-the-scenes work that no one else wants to do, while maintaining a long-term perspective.  If the focus of its last six months of planning is any indication, the AEA will be tremendously effective in its mission.”

Though they are passionate about a cappella music, they aren’t banking on a cappella being the end-all in choral music, and would eventually be open to collaborations with other organizations once the a cappella community is large enough.

“It’s also very important for people to know that we have a love for the traditional choirs as well and that we know that both traditional and contemporary do so much to help the kids,” say Spalding. “Through contemporary a cappella I’ve seen such huge musical growth with my kids and this is also a legitimate art form.”

The trio is joined by a host of other committed individuals serving in board and state-level roles. They plan on going live with the site later this year. If you would like to donate to get them off the ground, they have a CrowdTilt account going strong.

A cappella singing made me a better chorus teacher

Greetings acatribe readers. This is an article I’ve wanted to write for a long time but never had the forum. As you will soon discover, my posts to this blog will center on music education and popular music.

When I auditioned for the Potsdam Pointercounts, I wanted to sing pop music and be a part of that great group. They sang at the open house I attended and I thought it would be fun to do that, too. I didn’t know how much I would actually take into my career from the experience.

To put it delicately, I am not a good piano player. In fact, I am what “they” call a “bad piano player”. My a cappella background helps me, though, as I routinely get out from behind the piano when my students are learning songs and I sing with them. They get to hear me model more than a lot of teachers who play all the time and I get to hear them on a closer level as I weave down the rows. (It’s also a classroom management bonus to not be tethered to one spot in the room.)

I’m a middle school chorus teacher and I have a wide range of singing voices I can demonstrate thanks in part to my time as a Tenor I in the Pointercounts. I model in my falsetto for the unchanged and changing male voices as well as my girls. Using different vowels in my upper range is something I did extensively on my accompaniment parts in a cappella and continue to use daily. I sing in my regular voice with my more developed guys but I spend about 80% of my chorus time in my falsetto.

Teaching my chorus students without the piano also has another benefit – the kids actually listen to each other. Instead of listening for constant support from the piano, they listen for my voice and when I drop out they listen to each other sing. I do a lot of rehearsals a cappella and it makes my singers that much more confident on their parts. When we do add the piano later, they are watching my conducting and not relying on the piano part because they learned the song by leaning on each other.

I firmly believe my a cappella training helps my choruses sing with better vowels and with better listening ears. It’s not just about doing popular music or choreography. The educational benefits can be far-reaching.