A Capella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Capella Singing with Brody McDonald and Eleventh Hour
I don't know about the rest of you, but a cappella music has always been something that sparked my interest. As a future music educator, I thought that the workshop with Brody McDonald and his student a cappella group "Eleventh Hour" would be a great experience and it was!
Brody McDonald's presentation broke down the different aspects about a cappella and how music educators can bring a cappella groups into their own programs. He began with a basic question: what is a cappella? His answer included:
McDonald continued by addressed a couple of the general questions most people have when it comes to a cappella in our schools. Some of these questions include:
Have no fear, Mr. McDonald is here with the answers! McDonald explained that forming an a cappella group is similar to how a general choral ensemble is created. Students go through an audition process and are eventually selected for the ensemble. McDonald emphasized that the students chosen for the ensemble should be those who are excelling in school, are hard-workers, and are willing to step up to the plate to take on leadership roles if need be. Everyone holds their own part in a cappella so confidence and teamwork are essential for a successful group. McDonald continued his presentation by breaking down the process of choosing music:
Once all of this is completed and your playlist is made, listen to it a lot! If it flows well and you don't have to press the stop button halfway through, you are on your way! From there, it's all about experimenting to see what does/does not work and trying new approaches. Then, you could have your students notate their own part after they've played around with some sounds (improvisation). The bass part in particular could be a little tricky, especially if you are using music that is already arranged. Playing around with the different syllables is key to get the sound that's stylistically appropriate for the song(s) of you choosing. Another part that could be quite a challenge would be the vocal percussion aspect of the song. A student needs to be able to keep time and know when to use sounds that are appropriate for the song (they go hand-in-hand with the bass). Having a concept for each section of the song will help all of your singers, especially the vocal percussionist (VP), know what to do and for how long.
This is just a taste of what Brody McDonald had to say. I thoroughly enjoyed his workshop and the outstanding performances by "Eleventh Hour!" For more information about a cappella music and how to get a group started, check out these websites:
-Caitlin Walton, Junior, IC ACDA Special Events Coordinator
On Thursday night, the high school a cappella group Eleventh Hour (performed on the Sing-Off) nailed their performance at Jazz Night in the Conference Theater. Their set list consisted of popular tunes, most from the past few years, and their vocalists were quite skilled in this style of singing. I was impressed by their arrangements, which sometimes involved all eight of them on different parts, and by the confidence and ease with which they performed.
To learn more about how their group is run, I went to their interest session this morning. Brody McDonald, their director, talked to us about what a cappella music actually is and then gave us resources to choose repertoire. What intrigued me was the fact that the song choices usually start with a soloist; either students bring pieces to their director and tell him they'd like to solo, or the director chooses a song and then picks or auditions a soloist. I have always worked with groups that work on a song for weeks and then audition a soloist- but for this kind of ensemble, choosing a soloist first makes perfect sense. You need someone who can nail the solo, and the group is capable of doing any arrangement to back up the soloist. Also, since they can arrange the charts themselves and they likely know many of the pieces from the radio, it is less important that they learn the ensemble parts before the solo part.
Next, Mr. McDonald told us about the "walk-the-dog" test for new pieces: he puts the song that the students want to sing on repeat for about 20 minutes as he walks his dog around the block. If he can stand it that long, it's in- if he can't, it's out! He also expects the students to put their repertoire on a playlist and listen to the original versions many times in order to determine the stylistic qualities of the pieces. Once they fully understand a piece, they determine the character of each section. They make a chart that details each section in terms of volume, vocal percussion, vibe/style, and "cherries," which are like musical "cherries on top" that add an extra fun aspect to a section.
We worked with the bass singer for a while, learning about what syllables he sings and about a cool Boss OC3 pedal that drops the vocal input an octave or two. Then the vocal percussionist demonstrated basic kick, snare, and cymbal beats as well as the difference between good rhythm and good sound. Mr. McDonald suggested that when choosing a VP, you should choose the student who has good rhythm and maybe needs help with the percussion sounds over the student who has cool sounds but can't keep a beat or sounds too busy vocally.
I loved the sound and vibe from this group and I look forward to working with an a cappella group of my own some day!
-Laura White, Sophomore
I attended a fascinating session, led by Dr. Amanda Quist from Westminster Choir College, that focused on overtones and the harmonic series. This session was, in a word, mind-boggling. The information that Dr. Quist presented totally changed my perceptions of pitch and resonance.
Dr. Quist started the session by speaking to the importance of resonance in choral singing, asserting that it contributes positively to the shared experience of the ensemble. She then began to break down exactly how sounds are constructed (and what determines the resonance of a sound) through the use of a computer program called Overtone Analyzer. The software allows you to import a recording of your singing and then isolate specific formants to hear how they contribute to the sound. Dr. Quist defined a "formant" as "a concentration of potential acoustic energy around a particular frequency region." She explained further that the lower 2 formants determine the vowel of a sound while the pitch is determined by the "Singer's Formant," a clustering of formants 3-5. None of this made sense to me until Dr. Quist played a recording of herself singing a straight tone on a single vowel and took it apart using Overtone Analyzer. When she removed the overtones of the pitch, the vibration was lost and the sound was barely audible. As she added the overtones back in one by one, it started to sound more like the recognizable sound of a human voice. Just as she had explained, the vowel was impossible to discern until formants 1 and 2 were included, and the fundamental pitch was unclear until formants 3, 4, and 5 could be heard. There were loud gasps from the audience as we all came to the mind-blowing conclusion that each individual overtone is equal in importance to the fundamental pitch; without overtones, essential information is lost.
Dr. Quist explained how all of this ties into the concept of resonance: "Resonance occurs when the fundamental pitch or its overtones are aligned with one or more formants." She also explained that manipulating the vowel allows access to different formants. I was amazed to learn how much control an individual singer truly has over the way his or her voice resonates; it's all scientific.
Later on in the session, Dr. Quist had an ensemble come up and sing, and we watched the graphs of their sounds on Overtone Analyzer in real time. She had them sing in all different styles...sometimes breathy, sometimes straight-toned, sometimes with a lot of spin, and with varying dynamic levels...and we were able to see which formants lit up on the screen depending on the group's method of voice production. I was shocked to learn that the straight tone does in fact vibrate in more than one formant, and therefore it is a resonant sound, but not nearly as much so as a sound that has a lot of vibrato, as demonstrated in the video below.
It was incredible to learn about the importance of overtones, and especially about the fact that we have the power to manipulate our overtones in order to change our sound. I also learned that if you can teach the members of your choir to understand the way the voice is constructed, then they can take a scientific approach to producing the desired sound, and the possible range of collective sounds the ensemble could produce becomes almost limitless. This session was certainly an eye-opener! (Or, more accurately, an ear-opener)!
-Juliana Child, Ithaca College '18
Renowned British conductor Simon Halsey led a session that explored various approaches to score study, with a specific emphasis on how to approach pieces by Benjamin Britten. He described the routines of several different conductors, himself included, and explained that there is not just one right way of preparing a score; he says that it is important, as a conductor, to "find what works for you" as you prepare so that you may impart meaning to the choir to the best of your ability. But, regardless of your process of score study, it is always necessary to "get inside the text." Halsey says, and I quote, "You cannot stand up and do anything with your fellow musicians until you know the score inside and out."
Halsey's own process of score study involves three hours of deep analytical work in the morning: deciphering hidden meaning behind the text, figuring out how the harmonic rhythm contributes to the emotions of the piece, etc. Then, throughout the day, he reads poetry, the point of which is to stimulate the mind. In the evening, he works for three more hours on more technical things, such as writing in chord symbols or IPA, and he does not delve back into creative work until the following morning. His method creates a balance between both the emotional and technical elements of music that must always be taken into account. Regarding composers like Britten, though, he explained that the majority of his time is spent on bringing the text to life. I learned that all aspects of a beautiful poem set to music, such as a Britten piece, can tie back to text; text stress is influenced by musical phrasing (and vice versa), chord progressions give hints about where the story is leading, dynamics inform the emotions of the speaker in the poem...it's all connected to text. The most valuable lesson I took away from this session was that choral conductors must explore every aspect of music as thoroughly as possible, but at the end of the day, the conductor's job is to ensure that the choir is able to communicate what the poet and composer were each trying to say. Music needs to tell a heartfelt story, and unless the story is alive in the conductor's heart, the performance will fall flat
-Juliana Child, Ithaca College '18
I was absolutely amazed and moved by this group! They were so versatile and beautiful! One of my favorite pieces they did was Ji-Hun Park’s song cycle,“The Fisherman’s Song.” Before the performance of “The Fisherman’s Song,” the conductor (and composer), Ji-Hun Park, explained to the audience how there would be two English phrases we would understand: “The storm is coming!” and “It’s sinking!” This piece is filled with various emotions and sorrow, as they are conveying how the sea represents the fisherman fighting the waves and protecting their families through tough times. The story they told was incredible and with their movements around the stage, it really showed how expressive they were and gave meaning to the piece, as well as their culture. I also loved how the conductor was just as involved as the choir. When the choir moved around a lot and moved from place to place, the conductor did as well, which that really shows he was very engaged and connected with the choir
Another piece they performed that I really enjoyed was “Arirang,” a Korean folk song. Similar to the last piece, there were such beautiful melodic lines and story-telling. They even incorporated some elegant and graceful dance movements to convey the meaning of the text. The energy and intensity they had drove the emotional aspects of the piece to a whole other level. Overall, it enlightened my perspectives on choral music.
-Laura Stedge (Freshman)
Day Four of the National Conference was an absolute blast! Today has been a day full of meeting new people and learning even more information than the day before! Our members have been keeping themselves busy with various workshops (see other blog entries), checking out different booths, and chatting with fellow choral educators. Also, our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts have trying to keep up with all of the excitement! Check us out on Twitter (@IthacaACDA), Instagram (@ithaca.acda), and Facebook (Ithaca College ACDA) to comment, ask questions, or anything else! We are always open to hear what everyone has to say or if you would like to see anything else on the blog.
From start to finish, our day was filled with beautiful choral music. I was able to attend a couple different workshops that have expanded my views on music education as well as talk with fellow choral educators about their own programs. We are also very thankful to have been awarded the Best Student Chapter award alongside the Michigan State chapter. Congratulations to Michigan State!
At the end of the day, our chapter attended the concert for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Temple Square Orchestra. From start to finish, I was extremely moved by the level of musicianship. The program touched my heart. The orchestra, choir, and handbell choir were absolutely stunning. Some of the choir members even tweeted at us!
That's a wrap on the Recap today, but I am so excited to see what the last day of the conference has in store for our chapter!
Another great day in Salt Lake City at the ACDA National Conference! I’ve learned a great deal in such a short amount of time and I’ve been truly inspired by all of the wonderful conductors, composers, presenters, and performers that I’ve had the opportunity to observe and interact with. Some of my favorite parts of the day today were the two interest sessions that I attended with VOCES8.
VOCES8 is a classical a cappella octet from the United Kingdom—we actually saw their performance in the Jazz and A Cappella night concert the previous night, which I had thoroughly enjoyed. They were incredible performers with unbelievable blend and intonation; I also loved that they dabbled in a wide variety of repertoire, ranging from classical to jazz to pop to film music.
My favorite part of the group, however, was that they are not only incredible performers, but truly inspiring and innovative educators. In both of their sessions that I attended, they discussed what they called “The VOCES8 Method.” The philosophy behind their system is that “singing is for everyone.” They believe that singing and music are not only good within themselves, but also good for students because they improves so many other intelligences and exercise so many different areas of the brain. In their system, they attempt to address the three problems that stand in the way efficient music and vocal education:
1.) Fear—students are often afraid to sing alone, and if the teacher isn’t confident or competent enough to lead the group, the students will never be able to overcome that fear.
2.) Finances—often times, teachers and schools do not have the resources to support a sufficient music education program.
3.) Time—schools will often cut music programs or music classes when class time is limited in the school day.
In their first workshop, “The VOCES8 Method: A Musical Wake-Up for the Voice, Body, and Mind,” they began by teaching us a short sample lesson. They started with a mirroring activity beginning with simple movements (in the hands, arms, head, shoulders, etc.) and then combining movements with simple sounds (such as sighs, sirens, etc.). They ended up teaching us the phrase “dum tee keesh tee” and asking us to take out the vowels so that it was a simple vocal percussion line, then added in movement of snaps and claps. This end product became one section of a three-part round.
They then taught us the other two parts to the round and divided the group into three smaller groups. Each group did one section and they layered each line into the round. When they said “change,” we would have to rotate around so that all three parts were happening. Although we were all musicians and singers, this was actually quite a brainteaser. They ended up teaching two melody lines and added them as well to create a five-part round. Once we had the round going, they had us experiment with dynamics and articulation.
After we worked through this whole process for about eight minutes, they debriefed it with us. They explained how they didn’t explain anything and simply instructed us to copy them. They introduced solfege without getting into what it is or how the solfege system works. They taught us an African rhythm with clapping without telling us that they had incorporated it.
My favorite part of this lesson was that it could be taught by anyone—they actually created this method with the intention of making it accessible to general classroom teachers and not only music teachers. In their own words, they’re aiming to be “secret agents of music” by just simplifying music learning to its most basic elements.
-Casey Kobylar, Junior, Co-Treasurer
In my face to face meeting with Rollo Dilworth yesterday, he suggested that I come to this session where he was one of four panelists discussing the problems and possibilities in choral methods courses, and I'm so glad that I did. The session was incredible, and taught me so much that I can take beyond Choral Methods courses into the classroom!
The session consisted of four panelists: Rollo Dilworth, Judy Bowers, Steven Demorest, and Patrick Freer. They each had 8 minutes to present, and then we had the opportunity to ask questions and have discussions. Here is a summary of what each panelist presented:
Dr. Dilworth started out with a VERY fun exercise: He had us say the words Latte (in a high head voice), Water (in a mixed middle voice), and Root Beer (in a low chest voice). He then told a story with us filling in the blanks of the three drinks exercising our whole range. Dr. Dilworth explained that by exercising these different parts of our voices we were demonstrating that all three voices could have a place in choral music.
This transitioned into Dr. Dilworth explaining about the idea of Culturally Responsive Teaching (Geneva Gay) and how we as choral directors, can apply it to the choral classroom. He suggested several resources including NAfME's book: "Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom." He also stressed the importance of having a core sound with singers that have different colors and weights for different songs and for different styles. Dr. Dilworth also suggested ideas about demonstrating cultural caring, and cross cultural communication with students.
Dr. Dilworth left us with the idea that in traditional teaching methods: product is taught first, then process, and then people. However we should switch the paradigm and teach the PEOPLE first, then teach the process, and with those two ideas in mind the product will come.
Dr. Bowers took the session by a storm (Can I get an Amen?!). She focused on our need to emphasize attendance in public schools and for that to happen we need to have people in our Choir! She suggested that we should expand our idea of what musicians can be in our groups and gave us suggestions on how to teach musicians who can't read music in choir.
She suggested outlining musical "rules" at the beginning of rehearsals and then rather than correcting students when something goes wrong, simply ask them which rule they broke- and they would make the fix! She also suggested using terminology that is more accessible to everyone, i.e. a Slur would be "lean, shut up, shut up."
She left us with the idea that we should focus on teaching music to everyone: people in public schools, community choirs, even prisons, and that equity should be at the center of our teaching.
Patrick Freer focused on using research-based techniques and employing a model of transparency in the choral classroom. He centered his ideas mainly on adolescent boys, but it could be applied to any teaching situation. He also discussed the necessity to keep a balance between pedagogy and research and how teaching assessments (such as EdTPA) might actually be a good way to teach choral directors to use pedagogy in the classroom.
Steven Demorest focused on teaching the students to be individual musicians with musicianship skills. He also stressed the importance of music literacy. We also discussed how we could use our students as mentors in the classroom, giving them more responsibility will keep them engaged further on in their musical learning.
Overall, the workshop was very informative and I know my peers and I learned many things to take with us in our future endeavors.
-Rebecca Saltzman, Senior, IC ACDA President
Today the Ithaca College Chapter of ACDA had the honor of receiving (along with Michigan State University) the award for Best Student Chapter! It was an honor and a privilege to receive this award again, and we are so thankful for the recognition.
Myself and the President of Michigan State University ACDA student chapter, Jessica Glaser, met Heather Buchanan (standing in for Dr. Amanda Quist) backstage at Abravanel hall. Dr. Buchanan then presented our awards on stage with our own chapters cheering us on in the audience! Following this, we ran over to the Tabernacle, and had the award ceremony there as well!
It was so overwhelming and wonderful to receive such an incredible amount of support and love from the ACDA community. Thank you so much to the Ithaca college community, our professors and peers who support us, Dr. Derrick Fox, and especially our advisor Dr. Janet Galván.
-Rebecca Saltzman (ICACDA President and Senior)
Development of Expressive Conducting Technique: Harmonic Rhythm and Chant, Add Laban and Body Mapping
Dr. James Jordan presented an exciting workshop yesterday about body-mapping and conducting. He was such a compelling and engaging speaker and I can say that my perception of my body-map has definitely been enlightened. Prior to this session, my conducting professor Dr. Derrick Fox had us watch a portion of his DVD, Anatomy of Conducting, so I was a little bit familiar with Dr. Jordan’s conducting approach.
“The choir will perceive what you perceive.” Dr. Jordan explained that awareness of your own body will inform how best to shape your conducting gesture in order for the choir to respond. He also warned us against copying other conductors' gestures because they have different bodies than you.
As conductors, we must remember that sound is fluid, and that sound is a horizontal event, not a vertical event. In order to convey this, we have to know how our joints work in our arms we conduct with.
How many joints do we have in our arms? Many people will conclude with 3 joints: your wrist, your elbow, and your shoulder. But actually, we have 4! Your shoulder being the third joint is a false preconception. Your third joint is actually in your armpit! To the right is a picture of the skeletal structure of your arm Dr. Jordan provided.
Dr. Jordan suggests, “Use a water bottle. Stick it up your armpit!” That way, you can feel the joint and how it works with your arm. The fourth joint is in between your clavicle and sternum (right in the center between your two shoulders) – place a finger there and move your arm, and you can feel that joint move! Knowing where your joints are is crucial for any conductor in order to fully understand their own body and how to shape their gestures to best inform their ensemble.
Dr. Jordan then moved into Laban Effort/Shape that shows flow, weight, time, and space in your gesture. It is a very interesting methodology that I would love to research more into. In order to use this expressive language of your body, the harmonic rhythm of a piece can inform you on how to shape a phrase. Dr. Jordan used Mendelssohn’s “Verleih’ Uns Frieden” as an example. Most people would analyze the first phrase as 4 bars + 4 bars, but by analyzing the harmonic rhythm, it makes sense to interpret it as 6 bars + 2 bars. I will upload a snippet of his session explaining this concept--check back soon!
Here is a helpful bibliography list that you might want to check out. There are some very interesting and informative resources on this list!
-Sunhwa Reiner (Junior and ICACDA President-Elect)
Seeing the renowned Salt Lake Vocal Artists in concert was a truly amazing experience. Their sound is clear and full of expression. It was an honor to observe and meet Dr. Brady Allred, an accomplished conductor, conductor of the group, and one of my personal inspirations. They performed such a variety of music: starting with an organ-accompanied C. Hubert H. Parry piece, to Bach, to Bob Chilcott’s “The Singing Heart” and Marcin Wawruk’s Spanish piece “Ceciliada” with percussion. They then sang a beautiful world premiere of Larry Nickel’s “I Cannot Dance.” After that piece, they performed my personal favorite of the concert: Eriks Esenvalds “Stars,” which was performed with both water glasses and singing bowls. I’ve never seen singing bowls before, but they have a very similar sound to the water glasses—they are a traditional Tibetan instrument. These unique instruments created an unbelievable ethereal atmosphere, along with the Salt Lake Vocal Artists' voices. After this piece, they sang Jake Runestad’s “Alleluia” and Vladimir Martynov’s “The Beatitudes.”
The concert was nothing short of incredible, and I am so glad to have been able to share it with my friend Juliana! We went up to Dr. Allred afterwards and I told him what an inspiration he has been to me as an aspiring choral conductor. Dr. Allred was so kind and it was such an honor to meet him. Here’s a picture of the two of us!
-Sunhwa Reiner (Junior and ICACDA President-Elect)
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