How To

Start an A Cappella Group, by Chase DeLuca of Acasola

How To

Chase DeLuca was a co-founder of California State University Northridge Acasola. This week, he shares his unique insights on how to start an a cappella group.

So, you want to start an a cappella group. Maybe you’re not sure where to start. Maybe you already have lots of ideas, and are just looking for some tips.

I co-founded Acasola, the first a cappella group at California State University Northridge. The group had a really strong and fast start, and so the guys at The A Cappella Blog asked if I’d do a little post about starting a cappella groups.

Of course, it’s a huge topic. But what I think made the biggest difference for us was doing some research before getting started. By reading this blog post, it looks like you're doing the same thing; good job!

A big part of my research was simply going to lots of a cappella shows, and getting really involved in the whole world of a cappella. If you’re thinking of starting an a cappella group, you probably have already done this. But you can never have enough a cappella music on your iPod, and you can never go to enough a cappella shows. Keep it up!

The other big part of my research was conducting interviews with the founders of a cappella groups I admired, asking them to tell me the stories of how they created their groups. By asking them to tell me their stories, rather than asking them to answer specific questions, I found out about things I’d never even thought of.

Deke Sharon (commonly referred to as “the father of contemporary a cappella”) has already written a fairly extensive how-to document that goes into all sorts of details about creating an a cappella group. This document is available to all members of the Contemporary A Cappella Society.

Rather than recreate his work, I thought what would be most useful to you as a group founder, is a list of things that we did that I think helped Acasola get such a strong-start. I could (and possibly will) write entire blog posts on each of these points… but for now, just the list:

  1. Developed a strong understanding of the already-established a cappella community by attending events, listening to online music, and making one-on-one contact with members of other groups.
  2. Held interviews with founders of other a cappella groups.
  3. Physically posted flyers all around my campus.
  4. Found a partner! Things are always easier/more fun with someone else!
  5. Encouraged word-of-mouth to spread on campus.
  6. Advertised auditions with flyers, posters, Facebook, and word-of-mouth.
  7. Conducted auditions in a carefully-structured manner, as discovered in our research: held three days of open auditions, an evening “callback mixer,” for people being called back (to get to know them personally), then held callbacks the very next morning.
  8. Set the dues high to start with (it’s very difficult to raise them later). Acasola dues are $200 per member, per year. With 11 founding members this meant $2200 to start with. This is partly how we…
  9. Developed a “juggernaut” mentality. We accepted “problems” as part of the fun, and tackled them without fear. We willingly spent money wherever it would help us get ahead.
  10. Held a successful, well-planned and executed retreat exactly one week after callbacks. This facilitated bonding and…
  11. Clarified our vision, both for what the group would accomplish in year 1 and year 25. A crystal-clear long-range view put our immediate tasks in proper context.
  12. Started establishing ourselves as members of the broader a cappella community by inviting other a cappella groups to our school for a master-class with a cappella coaches.
  13. Established a weekly performance on campus (Fridays at noon) to increase university-wide support and awareness of our group.
  14. Made overt and repeated requests to be of-service to the university until university officials began initiating the requests themselves. (We performed at sporting events, and official school functions like commencement). This…
  15. Made it clear to university officials and students that we were here to stay; that we intended to become a service to the campus that would endure for years.
  16. Read about and implemented best business practices (I was, myself, a Business Management major). “Best practices” is about more than money. It’s also about social interaction and creating a productive culture.
  17. Fostered a culture of honesty and candor. We regularly checked our egos at the door, and aimed to eliminate any fear members might have of voicing their opinions. We aggressively eliminated judgment or retribution, and rewarded creativity and new ideas.
  18. Initiated an annual budgeting process that looked 18 months into the future.
  19. Wrote-out specific short-term and long-term goals. This had us, among other things, audition for and eventually perform in the ICCAs at only 3 months old.
  20. Constructed a written roadmap of the next 25 years of Acasola. Setting sights 25 years out opened the members’ minds to wild and crazy goals that they didn’t necessarily need to know how to achieve. Some goals, like getting our own house or producing an album, have already come to pass. Others, like buying “Acasola Island,” might take some time.
  21. Deliberately constructed effective leadership transition into our governing documents, so that each year’s leadership team would build off the success of the year before it.
  22. Declared that our success as founding members would be measured in the number of years the group existed without us.
  23. Never forgot that the whole thing—the songs, the performances, the friendships, and even the organization itself—was created for fun, much like a child makes up rules to a game of tag. To take anything too seriously would be to forget the truth: it’s all a game, and we made it all up!

Wow, you made it all the way through! I tried to keep the list in chronological order, but it’s certainly not an exhaustive checklist of steps to creating an a cappella group. For that, see Deke’s tome. But if my list tips you off to some things you hadn’t thought about before, then I think I’ll have succeeded in my aim.

Now, how would you like some one-on-one coaching? Since my graduation from CalState Northridge, I’ve had the great pleasure of advising several other founders during the creation of their cappella groups. Two are even competing in this year’s ICCAs (CSUN Vocal Percussion Radio, and Northern Arizona University Elevation).

Nothing would give me greater joy than to help some other leaders get their groups off the ground. Please feel welcome to call me at 818-588-6314 and we can chat about your particular situation!

A 12 Step Program for an Effective Rehearsal, by Ben Bram of The SoCal Vocals

How To

Ben Bram is the music director of The USC SoCal VoCals, the 2008 ICCA champions. Ben is a junior majoring in music industry at the University of Southern California. This week, he shares his unique insights on how to run an effective rehearsal.

The first requirement for a healthy rehearsal is a strong leader. If you don’t have a lot of experience, make sure you’re armed with an acute self-awareness and a keen intuition. The following steps are geared towards directors of student-run collegiate a cappella groups, but most if not all of these points can be applied to high school and professional groups as well.

-Leave it at the door. The mood of a rehearsal is of the utmost importance and directly translates into productivity. Set a good example for the rest of the group by coming in positive and energized, regardless of whatever may be bothering you. Be aware that you set the tone of the rehearsal. Even if you’ve had a bad day, force yourself to enter with a positive and productive energy.

-Start on time. Even though your group is an extra-curricular activity, take it seriously and create a professional rehearsal environment. Enforcing promptness will create a productive atmosphere, while allowances for lateness will most likely lead to allowances in other areas. If you tolerate lateness, the group will probably discover that you tolerate other distractions as well. It’s a slippery slope.

-Have a plan. Don’t run rehearsals flying by the seat of your pants. You owe it to your group (who in most cases has elected you to lead them) to do some preparation. Know which songs you plan to work on, and what your specific goals are for them. Make notes in the arrangements about dynamics, phrasing, tone, etc. Repertoire choice and order during rehearsals is also important. If the group is tackling a very challenging song, sing a familiar, fun song afterwards to keep up the energy and morale.

-Warm up properly. Come up with a diverse regiment of warm-ups, each with a specific goal in mind. Do the rudimentary vocal warm-ups first, then move on to blending exercises, intervals, dynamics, etc. Throw in a new warm up every now and then to keep it interesting.

-Take breaks. A fidgety group is often an unproductive one. Take short breaks—at least 5 minutes every hour—to keep the focus fresh. This time is essential for the group to be social, otherwise jokes and side conversations will start to invade the rehearsal time.

-Keep the group focused. Collegiate groups are extremely social. This camaraderie is really special, and truly does add another dimension to performances that I see missing from many “hired-gun” professional groups. However, too many jokes and side conversations during rehearsals can kill productivity. Don’t be afraid to share in a joke with the group, but also know when it’s time to regain focus.

-Communicate well with other leaders. If your group has multiple leaders, communicate with them before rehearsals, not during. If you are not all on the same page, it makes it confusing and difficult for the rest of the group to accurately ascertain the information you’re trying to present, and it will also make them less confident in their leaders.

-Know the voices of the ensemble. Make it your priority to really get to know all the voices in your group. Know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, what the different ranges of their voices sound like and what their habits are. With this information, you are so much more prepared to make informed decisions to bring the ensemble to its full musical potential.

-You will be wrong sometimes. Accept this fact early on and you’ll be much better for it. Just because you’re the director, doesn’t mean you’re always right. The best leaders are those who know when to admit their mistakes. If someone else in the group presents a good idea, don’t be afraid to take their cue. Don’t feel as if you have to do everything yourself. Which moves us on to the next point…

-Don’t go at it alone. Don’t be afraid to seek advice from the group and make use of everyone’s skills. If someone has a particularly good ear for dynamics, by all means make use of their talent! Allowing the entire group to have an involvement in the musical process will make it much more fun for them and they’ll give you more of their focus. However, with that being said…

-Know when to put your foot down. Maintain a balance between firm leadership and open receptiveness. You can't rule a cold dictatorship, or else you will have a mutiny on your hands. Keep people involved, allow for comments and include everyone in the musical process. But don't let it get too out of hand. You're still the leader, and when people get too much freedom, the process becomes too chaotic. It’s all about balance.

-Inspire your group. Constantly give the group something to work towards and articulate your goals for the group. If you’re always satisfied, the group won’t feel the need to improve. Give praise when it is due, but also push the group to work even harder. Your group will thank you for it.

Vocal Percussion, by Robert Dietz of Ithaca College Ithacappella

How To

Robert Dietz is a vocal percussionist for Ithaca College Ithacappella, an extremely successful all-male group out of upstate New York. Over the last few years, Dietz has won numberous awards for his drumming, throughout the Mid-Atlantic region of the ICCAs. This week, he shares his unique insights on how to successfully execute vocal percussion, specifically in a foreign setting, and under less than ideal circumstances.

OK, so you’re the best vocal percussionist in your group. Heck, maybe you’re the only vocal percussionist in your group. You’ve practiced your kicks, hi hats, and snares for hours. You don’t even need to think about where you’re going to breathe in that clave pattern. It’s all coming natural, but uh oh, your sound guy thinks a VP is the guy who breaks ties for the senate! Where you hear a well rehearsed, groovin’ beat, he hears some college kid spitting like a baseball player with a maw full of tobacco. What are you gonna do?

First, I need to dispel a myth for many musicians. Despite what you may think, and what many of us hope, most audiences don’t have any knowledge or appreciation of what makes for good live sound. In other words if your perc sounds lousy, blaming it on the sound system isn’t going to cut it. Unfortunately that puts you and I, the performer, in the unenviable position of having to control something that is almost by definition out of our control. The good news is that there are a bunch of tricks you can do before, and even during the performance if things go south to help get back on track without missing a beat.

As in politics, the best defense is a good offense. You can avoid a lot of percussion problems before the curtain goes up with a good sound check. If you don’t know your sound engineer, try to spare a minute to talk to him or her and get a sense of whether or not they have done this sort of work before. An a cappella neophyte is much more likely to make a mistake mid-show, and knowing that ahead of time can give you a big leg up when things go wrong.

If you do know your engineer, or if you are running sound yourself, it’s never a bad idea to have a backup microphone somewhere on hand just in case the main VP mic cuts out on you. You can have that mic pre set at the board to whatever levels and EQ are best for you, then turn it off and place it out of sight just in case of an emergency.

Besides getting to know your engineer, soundcheck is the time for you to get to know the microphone you will be using during the show. If you’re a major nerd like me it’s a great idea to practice with multiple mics outside of a performance setting to get used to how they respond to your sounds and what angle you may need to hold them at for best response. If you’re a normal, sane person here’s my tried and true method for finding a good angle to hold your mic on the fly:

Step 1 – hold the mic directly in front of your mouth, as you would to sing, almost but not quite touching your lips.

Step 2 – move the microphone around in a semicircle following your lips toward whichever side you’re holding the mic in. It should come to rest in a small dip between your lips and your cheek.

Step 3 – once you’ve found that “resting dip” in your face, move the mic a few inches away from your lips and, presto, you’re in a good general position for most mics.

The number one mistake I see from VPers is that they hold the microphone too far away from their mouths. Many microphones have a proximity effect that allows them to pick up lower frequencies when placed closer to the source of sound; frequencies that can give your kicks and snares a lot of extra punch. Plus, holding a mic closer allows it to pick up nuances that it might not from farther away. Any good (or reasonably good) sound guy will simply turn you down if you are too loud.

That’s all well and good, but what if your sound guy is really awful? Let’s say you’re mid show and your mic cuts out altogether. There’s no backup mic, and the engineer doesn’t seem to have any ideas. What then?

First off, don’t panic. People’s reactions in these situations can range from confused looks to stopping their percussion altogether. Remember that style can trump substance. The show must go on, and if you keep grooving and looking like you’re having a good time then the audience may not even realize that there’s a problem. If they do, they’re much more likely to stay in the music with you if you stay committed to the performance.

The next thing to do is to find the best way to be heard using whatever else is available onstage. If there are area microphones for the group, move closer to them and angle your face so that your sound is directed toward the nearest pickup. That way you will at least be amplified somewhat with the rest of the ensemble. If there are no group mics, or if you’re not able to get to them gracefully, turn out toward the audience so that your sound is directed at them as much as possible. You would be surprised how much unamplified percussion can cut through a group, even in a large space. No matter what you do, I highly recommend keeping your percussion mic in place as though it were working normally. This will give your sound engineer the best opportunity to remedy the problem if it’s something he or she can deal with from the board.

When it comes to solving sound issues during a show, there is no substitute for a good sound guy. However, when the chips are down and your sound starts going out the window, always remember above all to keep performing. In the end, making music is supposed to be fun both for the performer and the audience. Keep that fun rolling as best you can and people will walk away with a much better impression of the show regardless of whether or not they heard every beat.

Publicize an A Cappella Group, by Hannah Winkler of The University of Michigan Dicks and Janes

How To

Hannah Winkler is the president of the The University of Michigan Dicks and Janes, a wildly successful mixed group with a long tradition of entertaining performance and high achievement in competition. This week, Winkler shares her unique insights on how to publicize an a cappella group.

It’s certainly not easy being one of fourteen a cappella groups on the University of Michigan campus. A thrifty student, no matter how a cappella-crazy, just can’t make it to all the shows; many of them fall on the same night and all cost between five and ten dollars. It becomes impossible in terms of time and money to support all your friends, and unfortunately, it’s the a cappella community members who have to be at their own performances who most want to support their aca-friends in other groups at the same time. No group can simply count on an unquestionably large audience. So the objective is clear: in order to have your voices heard by a packed house, publicize your concert to the most people you can reach in the most effective ways possible. You’ve put in hours and hours of rehearsal and planning to make the event a success—it would be a shame to have it sparsely attended and for only a handful of people to hear your songs! In addition, you’ll make less money from a small audience, and more often than not, a cappella groups need money. As a member of the Dicks and Janes (one of the ten co-ed ensembles on our campus, a group that receives no funding from the University, and a group that travels all over the country,) I’ve learned some helpful hints when it comes to the very important task of publicizing.

Your concert is coming up in three weeks: hit the ground running by using word of mouth. Whether you go to a small school or big school, it is essential that all the members of your group start chatting up their friends and encouraging them to attend your upcoming performance. They tell their friends, and they tell their friends, and already you’re forming your audience. Make ticket prices cheaper if bought in advance from a group member. You increase the hype and have guaranteed guests. You’ll want to then extend beyond your groups of friends to the larger school community. Put up flyers everywhere! Your flyers should be eye-catching and attractive, and should clearly state the information that is essential to the event (group name, event title, date, time, location, and price). Students, teachers, and community members tend to look at campus kiosks, bus walls, coffee shop bulletin boards, bathroom stall doors, student posting walls, and restaurant windows. Don’t be afraid to stand in a central location or common area on your campus and hand out small flyers (quarter sheets) to people passing by, to write your event information on your classroom chalkboards, or to announce the concert to your classes! You should also try having your group sing on the street between classes or in the evening, writing with chalk on sidewalks with a lot of class-to-class traffic, creating a Facebook event (and an ad!), and singing/announcing your event on local radio stations. In the days immediately preceding your concert, really push your publicity—follow through with what you’ve done and amp it up.

If you want to extend your a cappella group’s network and performance opportunities, it is important to publicize more than just your concerts. You need to publicize your group and get your name out beyond your campus bubble. The best way to do this is to maintain a professional website. A MySpace page, Facebook group, and Wikipedia article can’t hurt either. The website can include (but is not limited to) the group’s description, repertoire, calendar of events, sound clips, videos, and contact information. If you are able, you may want to sell CDs and other merchandise from your site and also generate an email list to inform your fans of your activities. Ads in local newspapers can help get your name to the community, and posting videos of your performances will allow potential clients to check out your material.

If your group is just starting out, simply getting exposure is critical. You should start singing in front of a variety of audiences—sing for free on the street or in a park, ask local businesses if you can perform in their establishments, and serenade students in their dorm hallways. Reach out and talk to people. Maintain a professional attitude, but brag a little! Bottom line: don’t be shy to put your group out there. Remember, you’ve worked hard to put together a talented group with a good sound. Now you just need to share your passion with the community.

Arrange for A Cappella, by Callum Au of The Oxford Gargoyles

How To

Callum Au is a member of The Oxford Gargoyles, and in 2008, won honors for Outstanding Arrangement at the Western Europe ICCA semifinals. This week, Au shares his unique insights on how to arrange music for an a cappella group.

A cappella is its own genre of music, and its charts require a skill-set of their own in order to write them. The basic mistake that can be made is to attempt to sing something that wasn’t really written for vocals--while you can get away with basically transcribing a song as played by a band, you can’t use the same voicing and textures that they originally used--parts have to change in order to be vocal-friendly. The group which I arrange for, The Oxford Gargoyles, is a mixed 12-piece jazz a cappella group (2 Sops, 4 Altos, 3 Tenors, 3 Basses) from Oxford University--so obviously this is the sort of group that I am most familiar with--however, I think that a lot of the technique is constant over all a cappella charts, independent of style or group. Here’s a list of some of the more important points...

1) It’s really important to take into account exactly who you’re writing for. A cappella is exposed moreso than any other genre of music, in that the group members don’t have an instrument to prop them up, so it’s entirely up to them to nail whatever they’re given (and they can’t blame a broken reed or weather conditions). Thinking about people’s breaks, their stamina, their range is really important--there’s no point giving someone an un-singable (for them) line due to something silly like this. This is doubly important when writing for a soloist – it’s always best to have someone in mind when writing a solo for them.

2) Think about textures and syllables--what effect do you want to achieve? Certain scat lyrics can create certain textures and volumes. Listen to any of the best a cappella groups in the world and you’ll hear that a huge amount of time has been spent on the scat lyrics. Make everything as exact as possible on the sheet music, so that there’s no room for doubt later on.

3) Think about what people are actually capable of doing musically. With the best will in the world, not many people will be able to sing a Coltrane solo note-perfectly (Bobby McFerrin springs to mind, and after that things start to get slightly more difficult)--and therefore, even if you write an awesome chart on Giant Steps with the Coltrane solo harmonised in big band sax section voicing, it will never sound good. Conversely, simplifying things too much also sounds terrible (take all the chord extensions out of Giant Steps and you’ll see what I mean). It’s important to strike a balance between things being singable and things sounding right. As a general rule, 2 extensions per chord is enough. Don’t be afraid to transcribe stuff if it works, but don’t make a straight transcription if it then becomes unsingable.

4) Try and make the chart as interesting as possible for everyone. No-one wants to sing a song where there’s a soloist throughout and the rest of the group sing a two-bar pattern on repeat. Through-composed charts are great--again, most of the best a cappella groups in the world use through-composed charts--it keeps everyone’s interest (and therefore concentration) up.

5) Think about balance. Although ideally there is never any more than one person per part in any a cappella group, in a collegiate system this is difficult (not least because of commitment issues) and therefore balancing numbers on parts to make the right bits stand out is essential. This is the reason the Gargoyles have only 2 sopranos – the top voice will always cut through more, and therefore does not need as much power behind it to be at the right level in the mix.

6) Arrange things that you like. Seems like a no-brainer, but charts on tunes that you don’t really like will inevitably end up less good than charts on tunes you do.
Other than these things, it’s really up to you. The main thing to remember is: if it sounds right, it is, and if it doesn’t, it’s worth re-doing so that it does.

Start an A Cappella Group, by Chase DeLuca of Acasola
A 12 Step Program for an Effective Rehearsal, by Ben Bram of The SoCal Vocals
Vocal Percussion, by Robert Dietz of Ithaca College Ithacappella
Publicize an A Cappella Group, by Hannah Winkler of The University of Michigan Dicks and Janes
Arrange for A Cappella, by Callum Au of The Oxford Gargoyles