This past summer, I attended (for the first time) a Next Level session, hosted by The Vocal Company. For those of you unfamiliar with Next Level, let me describe it briefly:
Next Level is a week-long workshop, held at the home of the Vocal Company in Rochester, NY. Each Next Level session invites several participants (spots are limited) to observe and participate in specific, a cappella-related activities with a special guest, usually someone who has achieved a large measure of success in the a cappella world. Examples include a week-long arranging session with Robert Dietz (from The Sing-Off), a week-long teaching/coaching session with J. D. Frizzell (director of One Voice) and Dr. Erin Hackel (director of MIX and LARK), or in my case, a week-long recording and mixing workshop with Ed Boyer (recording engineer for Pentatonix and Glee’s “The Warblers.”)
The week, which begins Monday morning and usually ends Friday afternoon, is expertly organized and planned by The Vocal Company’s director of education, Shannon McNulty, who manages to cram an entire a cappella curriculum into a specific time frame, ensuring that participants are given plenty of one-on-one time with instructors and ample time to work as a group on assigned projects.
Just so you get a better understanding of what to expect, should you ever decide to attend a Next-Level event, let me give you a few highlights:
Monday began with a “so…what do you want to learn” power session. I appreciated this because it gave everyone a chance to voice their concerns and open up about what experience they already have. The instructors took note of this, and it was clear during the week that they were addressing each participant’s level of expertise differently.
For example, many of the participants had no experience with either Pro Tools or Melodyne, so these students were led through the process of using each program slowly, while some participants already understood both and were able to get an advanced understanding of both programs.
The Vocal Company gave every participant a chance to record another singer and a chance to edit a track in Melodyne; an experience one would never get at an a cappella festival.
Tuesday’s mission statement was simple: “HOLY CRAP! ED BOYER IS COMING TOMORROW AND THIS TRACK ISN’T EVEN REMOTELY DONE YET! WE HAVE TO SCRAMBLE AND PUT EVERYTHING TOGETHER IN A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
While this might seem like a chaotic nightmare of disorganized planning, the real-world scenario of falling behind a deadline is part of almost every recording process. When the deadlines start piling up, engineers invent shortcuts and pieces of the recording are left out purposely. For anyone who wants to record a cappella music or open up their own recording studio, this is the day when you take notes and watch the magic happen within the blink of an eye.
Oh. And we played laser tag. It was very intense.
So Wednesday morning offered up my first critique of the process. Ed Boyer was trapped in Hurricane "I-Don’t-Care-About-Your-Schedule” and unable to arrive on time, so the morning was divided up into learning segments. Some participants learned about songwriting, some got more experience with editing, and some, like me, were able to have prepared mixes critiqued by David Longo, head of the Vocal Company.
Now I LOVED this because it gave me a chance to present a mix I had already done and watch a master like David tear it apart with sharp pointy teeth. I feel like I learned more in this short session than most of the previous two days, and my critique simply is that this section needs to be much longer. I know it was a spur-of-the-moment choice, but out of those moments comes something really valuable.
Ed arrived sometime mid-morning and began working on the mix we had spent Monday and Tuesday preparing. Watching Ed mix was like watching Mozart compose or watching Van Gogh paint/rip off his ear. Ed Boyer moves so fast and flawlessly that it almost seems like what he’s doing isn’t even human.
We were warned beforehand to ask lots of questions because Ed moves so quickly that he rarely stops to explain what he’s done. Of course, I was the jerk who asked the most questions, and Ed always gave me an answer. Whether or not I understood the answer was a different story, but that was my problem, not his fault.
If it wasn’t clear already, this is one of the best parts of Next Level: the close proximity and one-on-one time you get with each artist. True, a cappella festivals give you that same proximity, but the schedule is so compacted that it is often difficult to corner someone and get all the answers you are looking for. Plus, with hundreds of people, artists tend to hang out with the friends they already have, whom they haven’t seen in months.
Here at Next Level, the group is small and everyone is in the same house for five days, so there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
Ahh. Now here is my biggest critique of the week, and it comes with some explanation, so bear with me.
On Monday, Shannon mentioned in passing “On Thursday, you will arrange, track, and edit an entire recording in one day, so Ed can mix on Friday.”
At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that, and then Thursday came around…
No. She wasn’t kidding.
Thursday was a 24-hour, you’ll sleep-when-you’re-dead, track-a-thon. Four participants arranged the song by 1 p.m., we tracked until 10 p.m. and we edited all night.
Now, I’m 33 and my all-nighter days are FAR behind me (see: Marc’s grad school experience). To effectively describe the mood I was in that night would be…Imagine if a mouse was eaten by a leopard, and then that leopard was crushed under the foot of an elephant. I was the mouse.
Why was in such a bad mood? Well, I explained this to the instructors on Friday: I'm old and tired. With the rigorous schedule and lack of adequate sleep I had already experienced, I wasn't in the mood to go all-in.
To be fair, the other participants, all far younger, were bundles of energy, bouncing around until 5 a.m. ready for the next task, while I was cursing every minute I still existed. And to be fair, this was common practice for Next Level recording weeks, and I just wasn’t in the loop.
I tell you about this not to keep you away from Next Level, but to give you the early warning I never had. It’s a great exercise, as most a cappella albums are put together in a very short amount of time (some even over one or two days). It just wasn’t for me.
Unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I went to bed around 4 a.m. which no one seemed to have a problem with.
Friday was the shortest day, as we only had activities booked in the morning. We watched Ed mix our Thursday track, once again pestering him with questions until he could stand it no more.
As a final celebratory “get-the-hell-out-of-my-house,” the Vocal Company has a chalk-throwing party in their backyard. So…bring clothes you don’t care about.
The Vocal Company’s Next-Level events are the next evolution in a cappella experiences. To really get a sense of where a cappella is moving and to get a complete knowledge over one area of expertise, you MUST attend this event at least once in your life. I know I’ll definitely be back.
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