Five Reasons for A Cappella Groups to Develop Farm Teams

The 5s

In this edition I’m looking at five reasons to develop a “farm team”.

Some background before the list: To my knowledge, no high school or college groups currently have a formal “JV” or “developmental” system in place, though there are a handful of elite, longstanding groups absorb experienced members from other groups in a non-systematic way. (For example, The Whiffenpoofs at Yale are a seniors-only ensemble, and thus other a cappella groups on campus have, in some instances, unofficially groomed future members for the elite group.) Therefore, think of this post less as an endorsement of an existing practice, and more as “a modest proposal” for how your group might look out for its own future.

I write this list with full acknowledgment that many schools would not have sufficient interested parties or talents to make such a system work. Similarly, the a cappella world, and performing arts in general, has its share of big egos (warranted or not)—many of whom would not abide placement on the farm team. This solution is not one-size-fits-all for every school, group, or singer, but would have the potential for success with the right factors in place.

The Modest Proposal: Scholastic a cappella groups should consider forming a secondary a cappella group to act as a developmental roster and feeder system to the main group.

1. Retain the fringe. A cappella groups decline auditionees for any number of reasons. Some folks get turned away because they simply don’t have the vocal chops to cut it with the caliber of the group, and it’s fine to cut them loose. But then there are the fringe talents. Say you’re turning away freshman tenor because you already have three other group members who bring the exact same talents to the group. Maybe you don’t need him now, but what about two years from now when all of your current tenors have graduated? Sometimes you’re rejecting someone because her personality seems like a wild card. Might you be interested in seeing how she turns out after she’s had a year or two to mature and settle into her better developed identity? Same with the singer whose confidence isn’t quite there yet or the talented vocalist who hasn’t sung in a formal setting anymore and doesn’t yet know the technical side of music or how to blend effectively.
A farm team allows you to keep these fringe players in the fold, instead of watching them join a different a cappella group or slip off into a different extracurricular outside the realm of a cappella. A developmental group can focus on giving them time to find their footing and see how they blossom with someone teaching them the fundamentals in relatively laidback rehearsals and low stakes performance settings. Think of the fringe members’ participation in the farm team as an extended audition in which you can really get to know them and see if they fit the group, while simultaneously preparing them for success. Speaking of which…

2. Teach them your way. Anytime someone joins a new group, there’s a learning curve. No two groups rehearse in quite the same way, nor do they have precisely the same identities or aesthetics. Grooming talent on your farm team gives them a leg up on learning the values and norms of your group, so if they do join your main roster in the years to follow, they’ll be far better prepared for the transition. Moreover, you may even get your farm team singing the same arrangements as the main group, so can call them up to the big leagues with a sense of institutional knowledge already in place.

3. Cultivate more leaders. There are plenty of different options for who directs your developmental group, but one of the more appealing ones is to delegate the responsibility to young leaders from your main roster. Giving them extra responsibility and experience running rehearsals grooms them to eventually lead the main group; furthermore, it gets the developmental talents accustomed to listening to and learning from someone who will likely be directing them for years to come.

4. Give singers experience. Have your farm team perform local gigs. Heck, have them compete. There’s no substitute for the actual experience of performing for a live audience, and if you can have singers join your main roster with exactly that sort of experience already under their belts, you can go a long way toward defeating first-gig jitters and breaking down any aura of intimidation around competition.

5. Have backups. People get sick. They have personal problems and need to temporarily leave the group, or even school altogether. Politics and drama happen and a group member might elect to take his ball and go home. If you have a developmental system in place, you’re affording yourself the opportunity to call up substitutes or replacements, which will lessen the chance of missing a gig or having your hopes at competition trounced by factors beyond your control