What US A Cappella Can Learn from European A Cappella

The 5s

In this edition, I’m looking at five things US a cappella can learn from European a cappella.

1. Focus on the music. In 2012, many attendees of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals questioned the judges’ decision to rank Kings College of London’s All the King’s Men as the third-place group over crowd favorites like Voices in Your Head and The Accidentals. While we can debate the relative merits of these groups’ performances all day long, the simple fact remains that the adjudicators focused on music, and the tuning and blend of the British group was without peer.

Taking things a step further, consider professional ensembles like The Real Group out of Sweden. I’ve heard some American fans say that they don’t connect with the group because few of their song selections come from the contemporary American pop catalog, or because not all of their music is in English. While folks have the right to personal preferences, I’d contend that any groups that want to hear a pure a cappella sound, and strive toward that end themselves are doing themselves a disservice if they overlook The Real Group.

2. Have a distinctive identity. This point goes out, first and foremost, to all of the small semi-pro groups out there emulating established acts like Pentatonix, Arora, and Ball in the House. Yes, the cream will rise to the top, and if you can merge elite talent with a solid work ethic, you’ve got as good of a chance as anyone to achieve a measure of success. But how many small groups that are kind of funny, kind of sexy, and have a run-the-gamut repertoire are grasping at YouTube attention and gigs on college campuses? What’s setting one apart from the others?
While note every European act has a well-defined niche, consider an act like Denmark’s Postyr Project that so clearly defines itself as “the electronic vocal group” or Finland’s Fork with it’s rough edge rock sensibilities. These groups look different, sound different, and boast repertoires that revolve around the group identity, minus the “fat” of extraneous songs one group member happens to like.

3. Get outside of the a cappella box. There was a time when England’s Boxettes operated outside of the a cappella universe, as we think of it in the US. They thought of themselves as a singing group and cobbled together music by innovating sounds via their mouths and mic technique well outside the sphere of what their contemporaries were doing. While there’s certainly value in studying the greats, there’s also something to be said for blazing your own trail and just making music without borrowing syllables, elements of performance, or song ideas from groups around you.

4. Look abroad and travel. Pop quiz: how many musical artists or groups, not from North America, are you familiar with who have never appeared on US Top 40 radio? The kind of folks who read this blog are probably disproportionately prone to know at least a handful of acts from abroad, but the fact remains that most of us don’t have much consciousness of what’s going on outside our own borders. Any number of European groups are pulling material from elsewhere in Europe or from the US and Canada, in so doing adding depth and richness to their set lists, and more importantly allowing international influences to help mold their aesthetics and become more interesting artists.

5. Play festivals. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe hosts over 2,000 shows with performers from over 40 countries each summer. Without fail, the festival includes dozens of a cappella groups, many of them made up of UK university students. I’m not necessarily suggesting that US college groups hop a flight for Scotland each August (though, if you have the means, why not?), but I am suggesting that it’s worth looking for performance opportunities beyond a cappella competitions and festivals, and your own campus shows. Seek out music and arts festivals in your region—ones that already feature a cappella, and better yet, those that do not. Expose yourselves to a brand new audience and you might be surprised at what new opportunities can follow.