While we are moving steadily through January now, I'm still thinking back to all the wonderful things 2016 brought to a cappella. Pentatonix won another grammy and hit number one on Billboard. A collegiate group, the Northeastern Nor’easters, made it onto the Billboard Heatseekers chart. In Transit opened on Broadway to rave reviews. Varsity Vocals started the Open, a no-holds-barred competition with a winning purse of $25,000. The British won the ICCA (congrats Techtonics!). Pitch Perfect 3 started filming. The A Cappella Video Awards were created. We saw a second season of Sing It On (featuring four #TVCFamily groups). OneVoice was featured on America’s Got Talent. More supergroups were born, more high school groups formed, more MIDDLE school groups entered onto the scene. Oh… and there was an a cappella wedding or two in there (Hi, Angela Longo!).
I think 2017 is the year of integration. We will see more middle school a cappella singers turn into high school a cappella nuts spending their summers at Next Level, Camp A Cappella, and A Cappella Academy, graduating into collegiate a cappella, where they start new a cappella groups, write a cappella musicals, and study to help start the whole thing over again as they teach a cappella at middle and high schools.
The Scholastic Cycle
I want to use Alex Grover and Danvers High school in Danvers, Massachusetts as an example of this new scholastic a cappella cycle. Alex is a collegiate a cappella graduate, former Vice President of the Gentlemen Callers at Wheaton College. After college, Alex started Salem WitchPitch? at Salem High School, and then, once he settled into his new role at Danvers High School, Alex started Falconize (mixed), Ingrid Sound (treble), and most recently, Deception (small format mixed). Meanwhile, Alex’s former Salem student, Craig Simonetti, took his passion for vocal music to start the Hexachords, a six member mixed group born out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Today, the Hexachords have graduated from their scholastic careers and are moving into the professional circuit. Because of Alex, many students have pursued vocal music and at least one professional group was born out of his program. This is what we call the Scholastic Cycle, and it's something that, as it moves out of infancy will shape the future of our community.
What does that future look like? As an example - we recently produced an album with the Hexachords, containing covers of popular tunes in the style of a small form group, originals written by the group, and even a collaboration with some of our merry band of aca-nuts, Harrison Acosta, of UCF’s Voicebox, and Peter Yang, graduate of JHU Octopodes and producer here at TVC. That track, Addicted to a Memory, feels, to me, as though it is a glowing example of what is possible when you use recording as its own art form. Acosta’s arrangement is interpretive but not transcriptive of the original work. The group’s vocal acrobatics are heard in intricate backs, and cloaked vocal runs. And, Craig struts his stuff with lip buzzes that will shake the very fiber of your being. The battle between natural and unnatural is heard directly in the interplay between the sung and the synthesized. Take a listen, preferably on headphones with good low end…
I’m in high school, what can I do?
Let’s see more Vocalights this year. Current high school directors of 2017 are the product of the college scene of yesteryear. Now they’ve taken the future into their own hands. Not only is high school pumping out tomorrows ICCA winners, but now high school directors (Ben Spalding in the case of Vocalight) are creating the next PTX. Adult directors with the education and training necessary to curate five top notch talents into a unique group of tomorrow are buying in big. What can you do as a high schooler? Create. Always be creating. Find a group of friends and make a band. For me, it was a Toad the Wet Sprocket cover band (for an embarassing hot second). Maybe for you it’s a Nor’easters or a Vassar Devils cover band. Even if you can’t start your own PTX-lite, let’s see more high school barbershop. Let’s see a high school Take 6. You get the idea - and probably have some even better ones.
I already graduated… what now?
Let's go back to that whole Aca Open thing. After the scholastic cycle, we now finally have an endpoint outside of “drop everything and start a pro group.” We shouldn’t need a cash prize to operate as an artistic endeavor. But, let’s be honest - we exist in reality and expected return certainly helps to justify the hours of rehearsal and missed opportunity cost. In my opinion, the Open is the final spark the post-collegiate scene needed. I expect to see groups using the Open as an excuse to prepare a solid set of music. That set will be marketable outside of the competition stage and will give groups a product to market to corporate clients and audiences alike. This product will allow for regular, recurring gigs, which will further justify the existence of these post-collegiate groups. We’ve always had this endpoint with something like Harmony Sweeps but… I would venture that it’s just different when $25k is on the line.
But Varsity Vocals only has one event for the Open… we’re a new group… Why wouldn’t Home Free just enter and win the competition?
Well, I don’t work for Varsity Vocals, so I can’t speak on their behalf. But, I would think that there is a strong business interest in this program expanding. There is reason why, if they receive 1000 videos rather than 20, they may look into feeder events, allowing more groups to get involved. What’s the worst thing that happens? You prepare a set and don’t make the open? Now you have a set that you can film and market to bookers around the country.
OK, we have a set. How do we get it out there?
Remember when video killed the radio stars? We're seeing that again, only more violently this time with big video platforms like YouTube and Facebook. YouTube is far and away the best bet to market your group to potential suitors. Honest performances readable by the general public will line your gig calendar for months. Or - maybe you'll go viral, and the residual sales of your latest single or album will fund that in-ear system you've always wanted. I think we'll be seeing more groups investing in video as a central tenant of their existence. I also think we will start seeing Facebook Live streams of all of our favorite concerts. BONR, Vertigo, and more will be available live from the confort of your own home.
What in the world is BONR?
Right, right. So BONR is the Best of the Northeast Region showcase put on by the Nor'easters each year. The show is held in the beautiful Blackman Auditorium at Northeastern, with sound provided by yours truly. Heavy hitters like Berklee's Pitch Slapped and the Vanderbilt Melodores come out for a show you will most certainly write home about. No really, these sorts of shows have people flying in from across the country to catch a glimpse. You may have heard of it's distant cousin BOTM, and we've heard mumblings of a BOMAR (Mid-Atlantic), a BOSR...BORS(t)....BoFl?(South)... and others around the country popping up. Consider starting a supershow at your school. Get the help of your administration. If you need guidance, give us a ring!
Use 2017 to create. If you’ve been a fan of a cappella, but have never tried singing yourself, get on the train. Go find yourself an old Deke arrangement or try transcribing a Real Group track. Gather up a few of your friends and start singing. When you feel confident enough - perform those songs for audiences and eventually make a business out of it.
We find ourselves in a time when connection is paramount to the continuing success of our society. Music, and particularly vocal music, is the ultimate method of connection. As a wise fellow sorcerer once said, "Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."
So go. Do. Create. Inspire. It's time to turn on the light.