Orrin Konheim is a freelance writer and journalist who writes about television for various publications in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has also written about The Sing-Off here and you can follow him on Twitter @okonh0wp.
Afro-Blue, the ten-member jazz a capella group from Howard University in Washington D.C., won over a large contingent of fans on NBC’s The Sing-Off with their unique take through several different genres. A front-runner to win it all at one point, they were the last group to be eliminated before the final episode much to the chagrin of the fans.
Behind the scenes, the group’s success is driven by faculty director Connaitre Miller who founded the group in 2002. The group was composed of three current students, four additional students who graduated around the time of the Sing-Off auditions, and three students who were in the ensemble during the 2009-2010 season.
This is the first in a two-part interview Orrin Konheim conducted with Connaitre Miller for The A Cappella Blog.
Orrin Konheim: How involved were you with the group?
Connaitre Miller: The show had a rule that they wouldn’t fly in directors to the show. I did eventually go for a week but I had to pay on my own dime. I communicated with them every day by phone, e-mail and skype. I did the first two pieces for them.
Orrin Konheim: Why two?
Connaitre Miller: The show told us to prepare two pieces. One in case you make it to the next week.
Orrin Konheim: Did the kids know how to arrange themselves?
Connaitre Miller: Yes. In fact, six of them were in my vocal arranging class. Reggie [Bowens] was the leader because he was the most well-versed in arranging and he often plays the rule of student leader in the group. Mariah [Maxwell] was a composition major, so writing was her specialty. She had such a broad base from which to work, because she understood the concepts of writing in general, and she understood the concepts of jazz.
Orrin Konheim: Did you initially think that you would be able to play a role and were you disappointed in not being in the show?
Connaitre Miller: At first, I was taken aback. But I saw how great of an experience it was for the kids.
Orrin Konheim: Three of the Afro-Blue members from The Sing-Off are still in school. Which ones?
Connaitre Miller: John Kenniebrew, Devin Robinson and Integrti Reeves.
Orrin Konheim: One of the Pentatonix members Scott Hoying said some of their members had to withdraw from school. Did any of those three members consider that option?
Connaitre Miller: One of the differences where the students in Afro-Blue were concerned was they’re all music majors and they’re part of a community that understands what an opportunity this is. So we worked it out so that they had very light semesters and the teachers were very cooperative. They’re very good students. So it was up to them to make up the work when they could.
Orrin Konheim: When did they return to school?
Connaitre Miller: They came back to school on September 19th.
Orrin Konheim: They shot the final episode very close to when the show ended.
Connaitre Miller: The final episode was shot on the September 16th
Orrin Konheim: Did all the rest of the group just graduate?
Connaitre Miller: Danielle was in school in 2010, she hasn’t graduated yet. She was in Afro-Blue during the 2009-2010 school year. Just before she auditioned with us for the show, she had spent three months performing in Ethiopia with an agency band. She was coming to D.C. to do a reunion show with Afro-Blue so she was going to be in D.C. anyway for the audition.
Christie [Dashielle] and Eliza [Berkon] graduated in 2010. Eliza completed her master’s degree in music education here.
Orrin Konheim: If you have a master’s degree in music education is being in a jazz performing group that important?
Connaitre Miller: For [Eliza], it was extracurricular. Being in the jazz choir is not a requirement for music education. I think it gives you an advantage because if you’re going to be a music educator, you know how to deal with different styles of music.
She wanted to be in the jazz ensemble and she’s very good, so she sang in Afro-Blue for the two years that she was here working on the master’s degree.
Eliza’s a teacher now and the kids in her class are posting on the Afro-Blue facebook wall, “that’s my teacher!”
Orrin Konheim: What was Christie doing when you called her up to be in the group?
Connaitre Miller: She was preparing to start her master’s degree in jazz studies in Manhattan School of Music. She had spent a year mostly gigging, doing a lot of ensembles and a lot of solo work. She was teaching privately as well.
Orrin Konheim: What was it like asking them to make a big commitment for that show?
Connaitre Miller: I sent them an email asking them to be part of the ensemble that was going to audition and I told them the dates that the show might run until.
Orrin Konheim: Was their animosity between the group and Ben Folds?
Connaitre Miller: They loved Ben and Ben loved them. They’re students and students get critiqued all the time.
Orrin Konheim: Did you think that because Ben isn’t exactly known for his singing voice and is more of a piano player that he wasn’t as qualified to judge your group?
Connaitre Miller: I think he’s definitely qualified. Ben is a very well-established musician who’s made a mark and he’s very, very good at what he does. Having been at the position as an adjudicator at music festivals, you say what you hear, they may not agree with you, but you give your honest opinion and as long as you’re honest, then you did that. I thought Ben was a very good judge.
Orrin Konheim: Did you have a chance to see Ben Folds’ blog post? He mentioned you by name in his last post.
Connaitre Miller: Yes. Me and Ben have mutual acquaintances. There’s a guy who’s also a jazz arranger that has done some work for Ben and he’s a good friend of mine. The music world’s pretty small.
Orrin Konheim: Ben Folds said that you were his favorite group.
Connaitre Miller: I believe that’s true.
Orrin Konheim: He also said you were sublime so maybe he’s familiar with your work.
Connaitre Miller: He said sublimely brilliant. I think he found out that [of] all the songs that Afro-Blue did that [the ones] he liked best were my arrangements.
Orrin Konheim: What did the group think of Sara Bareilles? Danielle said in an interview that the group grew up listening to the judges’ music but she couldn’t have grown up listening to an artist whose first record came out two or three years ago. She must have been sugarcoating it.
Connaitre Miller: I can tell you that when the group first heard that Sara Bareilles was going to be the third judge this year, several of the female members of Afro-Blue got really excited. I did know Ben Folds and I did know Boys II Men, but I did not know of Sara Bareilles. So what I can say is that while Danielle might have misspoke, they knew Sara Bareilles and they were excited about that.
I thought OK, I have to Google her, and see what she’s done. They knew her through all of their music as they listen to everything.
Check back tomorrow for the second half of the interview!