In this edition, we’re taking a look at The 5s of co-ed a cappella groups.
Five natural advantages to co-ed a cappella groups
1) Covering all bases. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of singing in a co-ed groups is the ability to cover a full range of vocal parts. This provides the opportunity for mixed groups to perform the sort of full and complete sounds that will work on any song.
2) Theatrics. As exemplified time and again by groups like The SoCal VoCals, co-ed groups have the unique opportunity to play off of guy-girl dynamics to really tell a story on stage through the visual presentation.
3) Versatility on soloists. Particularly for more casual a cappella fans, a performance starts and ends with the soloist. Mixed groups have the fullest potential to cover a range of artists and to really vary their style by alternating between male and female front persons.
4) Social balance. It’s easy enough for an all-male group to devolve into a glorified frat, or for an all-female crew to get torn asunder by the cattiness of college-aged girls. The co-ed dynamic provides room for members to balance one another out—keeping each other on their best behavior—or at least keeping things functional.
5) Appealing to a wider audience. With men and women on board, co-ed groups can generally draw in a wider audience, be it because female fans find the guys cute, or the girls of the group are better at talking up their a cappella shows and drawing spectators in. Ultimately, the more diverse your group, the more diverse the audience will be. That’s a very good thing, and gender diversification is the first step in that direction.
Five things that are frustrating about co-ed a cappella
1) Taking the theatrics too far. For every 2008 Finals SoCal VoCals, there’s a Sing-Off version of the SoCals group to balance them out, taking the theatrics too far to the point where the group becomes awkward to watch and takes away from an otherwise great performance.
2) Misusing your talent. I recall watching a mixed group cover Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” a few years ago and give the solo to one of the girls. I get that that vocal part can easily work just as well for the female voice, but I couldn’t help thinking some of the edge was lost in the more feminine rendering of that solo. With more voices to choose from, there’s more potential to not put people to their best uses.
3) Splitting time rather than synergizing. I’ve seen a number of co-ed groups that seem to always be male-dominated or female-dominated—alternating between the extremes, and never really synergizing the two sides, which is where the potential for co-ed greatness truly lies.
4) The difficulty of achieving a good blend. As great as it is to hear the mix of male and female voices, when you can actually hear that mixing, it often means the blend isn’t as smooth as it should be. It’s an inherent challenge to co-ed a cappella.
5) Social dynamics tearing would-be great groups apart. On the “pros” side of this list, we referenced the potential for men and women to balance one another out from a social perspective, but it’s also a fact of life that some boys and girls just don’t play nicely together. Mixed groups invite this dynamic to risk tearing them apart.
Five of my favorite uses of the co-ed dynamic (in no particular order)
1) University of Rochester After Hours performing “The Chain” (2010). This performance stood out primarily for the visual presentation, starting with the men and women pairing off to dance quite formally to the rhythm of the music, culminating in a lovely series of motions to complement the round at the end of the song. This was stunning to watch without ever crossing the line overly-theatrical.
2) and 3) The SoCal VoCals performing “Crazy Ever After” (2010) and Penn State Shades of Blue performing “Seasons of Love” (2007). I’m noting both of these songs as one because the best qualities were so similar—featuring rotating soloists almost line by line to capture the different voices and the message of the respective songs.
4) Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped performing “Good Girls Go Bad” (2010). This is an example of how getting a little over the top with the theatrics can work. Very good performance musically, and the transition to the female soloist came complete with her removing her glasses and taking her hair down to get into character—captivating stuff.
5) Syracuse University Groovestand performing “Thank You” (2007). This was an example of truly fun co-ed a cappella. This Boyz II Men classic isn’t so much about harmonies or blend as it is about energy and attitude—from the belting female soloists, to the male vocal percussionists and basses, this piece just popped.