Monday, September 16, 2013

Brody Mcdonald Is Building Bridges

In the ever-growing world of a cappella education, Brody Mcdonald, author of “A cappella Pop” and award-winning director of “Eleventh Hour,” in partnership with Wright State University, has created a unique collegiate a cappella experience.
Much in the same way that “MIX” is part of the University of Colorado, “Up In The Air” is part of Tiffin University, and “Afro Blue” is part of Howard University, Brody has been hired to initiate a director-led a cappella group at Wright State in the hopes that the group’s success leads to increased enrollment for the music department. The auditioned group has several unique characteristics that are uncommon to collegiate a cappella groups: First, the class is taken for college credit. Second, the class works directly in conjunction with the school’s music department. Third, the class has a pre-requisite that all members must belong to another performing ensemble in the college.

Brody was kind enough to sit down for an interview and I learned all about this new project.

How did you become involved with Wright State University?

I knew the director of Choral Activities, Hank Dalman for thirteen years; his son was in my high school program. He came to the high school to coach my chamber choir, and afterwards we had a discussion about how to recruit for Wright State. The idea of an a cappella group wasn’t even mentioned at the time. In the spring of last year, he called me to interview for this position.

So the position was designed for you?

Hank emailed me in the spring. He had already talked to the dean about starting an a cappella group and he wanted to do this. He called me in to ask specific questions, to see what it would realistically take to do this. He didn’t offer me the job outright.

The first meeting came in March. I handed the dean a copy of [A cappella Pop]. In May, they came back and said “We want to offer you the job. Let’s talk about it.”

So you accepted right away?

I had to really look at my schedule. It’s important that I maintain balance with my family life.

Of course.

It’s important to remember: I’m giving up a night every week for a year. Still, Hank said I was the guy for the job, and I did really want to do it, so I knew it would be worth the extra effort.

So what is the class officially listed as?

I think it’s called “A cappella Ensemble,” listed under the chamber music category under vocal ensembles.

Why is Wright State the place to do this?

The college is relatively new. It has grown a lot recently; new dorms, new buildings, and a tie in with the Air Force Base which helps strengthen many programs. Hank came in and built a music department with a strong choral emphasis. Hank Dahlman and Randall Paul are visionaries.

The college never had a vocal jazz group, show choir, or a cappella group. In the state of Ohio, most universities have the same basic programs. This group will help differentiate Wright State by showing it is responsive to major trends in vocal music. The entire college actively pursued it and the group falls under the college music department umbrella.

Do you ever envision scheduling conflicts?

No, because the university is supporting it, and our events will be on the university calendar.

That’s different than other colleges, because usually a cappella groups and music ensembles clash over conflicts.

Right. I work for the good of the department.

You currently work with Eleventh Hour. Are they going to help with any part of the process or drop in every now and then?

It is inevitable that these groups will influence each other. I’m trying to build a community of lifelong a cappella learners and musicians. I’m a loyal guy to my students and in turn, they are loyal to me. This network that I’m building is going to influence every other part of said network.

For example, a lot of my arrangements for Eleventh Hour come from Bryan Sharpe. Most likely, arrangements for this college group will come from him. Former students of mine will come and help teach. There will be lots of people dropping in.

Did that answer your question?

Umm…sort of.

Okay. Let me try again. It’s inevitable that [these groups] will be around each other. I’m building a culture of lifelong learners and supporters.

Much better.


Can you tell me about rehearsals? I don’t want you to give away your playbook or anything…

I’m happy to give away my playbook. I believe if you know something, you share it.

It will probably be a lot of what I talked about in my book. The group will follow the same model of Eleventh Hour…rehearsal two days a week, one with me and one on their own. They learn all their music outside of both rehearsals. Every minute of rehearsal is spent on art and technique. I want them to be independent and learn the notes on their own. They should never bang out notes in rehearsal, ever.

In addition, every day they do a quick run. They get together for ten or so minutes and run through a song or two.

The college wants me to train the group to be self-sufficient and as independent as possible.

So essentially they want you to teach yourself out of a job?

No. They want the group to tour as much as possible and be able to run concerts on their own. I work full time, so I can’t go with them. And besides, I don’t believe I’m teaching myself out of a job. Eleventh Hour has been around for twelve years and I’m not out of a job yet.

Anything you’d like to add?

The big thing to take away is that this model can completely work. If the reader is involved in a school of music that has a negative attitude towards college a cappella groups, he or she should extend the olive branch.

Who wins if you have a school of music that has a vocal staff and a bunch of students who will not go near it? We are all on the same side.

It feels like there are bridges that we can build.

Brody McDonald is currently the director of “Eleventh Hour,” which was featured on season 2 of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” He is the author of “A cappella Pop,” a how-to manual for aspiring a cappella directors. He is the co-owner and co-creator of Camp A cappella, a week-long a cappella summer intensive for students and directors. His annual a cappella festival, The Kettering Ohio A cappella Festival is currently open for registry, and this year features headlining acts Pentatonix and ARORA. You can view the details at He is also part of the team working on the A cappella Education Association (AEA). Visit their website and donate here:

Interview by Marc Silverberg.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Creative People Are Crazy

So I’d like to begin with a story from my childhood. I promise, you should stick with it, because there’s an a cappella-related payoff at the end.
When I was young, maybe about 7…or…8…or…25, my mom took me to the local amusement park.
[Fun Fact: The local amusement park was called Adventureland…the very same Adventureland that the Hollywood film, Adventureland, was based on, starring Jesse Eisenberg.]
ANYWAY…she took me into the local arcade (arcades were something we had back then where people would go and play video games together…crazy talk…I know) and she handed me some quarters and said “Go Nuts!”
[Fun Fact: I’m pretty sure she didn’t say “Go nuts.” She probably said something like “Don’t eat candy from the floor” or “Don’t die…” something motherly like that.]
Now I have a very hyperactive imagination, which often gets me into trouble. For some reason, I’m still not really sure why, I suddenly began to pretend that these quarters were a family of quarters. If I spent one of these quarters on a game, the other quarters would be devastated, because I would have permanently disposed of one of their family.
This scenario began to take hold of my mind, so much so in fact that I spent the entire day wandering around the arcade, too guilty to spend a single quarter.
[Fun Fact: At the end of the day, my mother took the quarters back, assuming I still had some left after a fun filled day of gaming, and promptly took them to a bank where she converted them into dollar bills.]
In case you were wondering, yes, that is a true story.
So where does the relation to a cappella fit in? Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but that hyperactive imagination became the cause, and solution of, many of the problems I face today. My hyperactive imagination stems from the fact that I am a creative person.
I recently began investigating the habits of creative individuals and how their minds work and after some study, I came to one, generally accepted truth about creative people:
Creative people are 100% insane.
Yep. Consider the above story. I let my overactive imagination prevent me from spending one quarter at the arcade because I couldn’t separate fact from fiction. Let’s consider the habits of creative people, and how they relate to a cappella people.
1) Energy
“Creative people tend to be energetic. Though they may have bouts of laziness (like most of us), they do manage to overcome this and get things done. They have a deeply felt need to be productive, because they get a strong emotional boost from creative work.” (Allen, 85)
A cappella people are energetic, and lazy at the same time. They feel a sense of emotional satisfaction when a song is sung through, from beginning to end. They feel happier when a rehearsal is productive and angry when a rehearsal is wasted. And yet, a cappella people tend to procrastinate. They tend to book more rehearsals right before a concert or gig, because one or two songs just haven’t been finished yet.
2) Playfulness
“They are often playful and quite happy to mess about with activities that others might regard as childish. They are not especially bothered about appearing serious or adult.” (Allen, 85)
Have you ever met an a cappella enthusiast who is completely serious all the time? I haven’t. The best a cappella comes from the best music. The best music comes from the best imagination. The best imagination comes from the people who don’t color inside the lines, who think outside the box, who would rather watch Spongebob than Downton Abbey.
3) Focusing On Projects
“As long as the ideas they are using remain sufficiently arresting, creative people are able to remain focused on a project for as long as it takes to bring it to a successful completion. They can be quite obsessive and frequently become deeply involved in a project.” (Allen, 86)
Barring any Doctor Who marathons, this is true for me especially. I can become fixated on something (like the quarter story) so much that it becomes difficult or impossible to shift my attention.
A cappella people who share this trait should use it to their advantage. Group members who recognize this trait in others must give these creative people room to finish their projects in peace. If your top arranger is suddenly charged with also organizing the school a cappella festival, you can bet that his/her next arrangement will not get the attention it needs, and the arranger will become moody and aggravated. Please…give creative people time to be creative.
4) The Link Between Introversion and Extroversion
-Creative people showed tremendous interest in activities, but also required significant “alone time.”
-Creative people tend to overthink situations and be hypercritical.
-Creative people, to strangers, tend to be hard to approach. To friends, creative people are warm, friendly, and pleasant.
-Creative people tend to manipulate their appearances to various circles of friends.
Know someone like this? Perhaps in your group? They might be a creative person. Give them a chance to be creative, to shine, or to be left alone, and you might see them become more active and friendly.
5) Openness and Sensitivity
“Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment…Being along at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable.”
Creative people are basically walking paradoxes. They can be both open and shy, depressed and exuberant, happy to be the center of attention while simultaneously wishing to be invisible.
The key to getting along with your a cappella group is understanding and recognizing these creative individuals. In most cases, I’d wager that everyone has some tendencies to be creative individuals, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.
Striking the right balance between understanding your group as a whole and understanding your group as individuals is the key to working in harmony. Creative individuals must forgive others for misunderstanding them and be more open and honest.
Allen, R. (2011) How to be a genius. NY: Collins & Brown.
Kaufman, S. (2011) After the show: The many faces of the performer. Posted on March 6 at
Marc Silverberg
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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How To Be A Good Auditioner

And…we’re back. Again!
Ahhhh, the fall year is upon us. The birds are chirping, the air is cooler, and Miley Cyrus is twerking. All is normal.
This is probably the time when most a cappella groups are auditioning new members or have already finished auditioning new members.
There are a lot of articles online about how to audition for an a cappella ensemble. The CASAcademy has a lesson, The A cappella Blog has it’s own post, and you can probably find something on Acatribe, Acageeks, or any of the major a cappella production sites.
But there is one group that has a major part of the audition process, who has not been addressed by the blog-o-shpere…The auditioner.
Now I have been rejected by several a cappella groups in the past. When I think about those times, the rejection isn’t what hurt the most…it was being so close. (Catch that reference did you?)
My memories of rejection came from either thinking that my audition went really well and getting the shock of a lifetime, or feeling so out of place that I basically humiliated myself in front of a group of unknowns. So for the a cappella groups out there holding auditions, please…give us, the fragile, shattered, confidence-lacking a cappella geeks, a break and follow these simple steps to a better audition:
1) No Inside Jokes…Please
Inside jokes are great for building rapport, but they don’t belong in front of complete strangers who only want in on the fun. Make the audition all about them, and not all about you. Don’t throw an obscure movie quote at an auditionee, and then get mad when he or she has no idea you just referenced the out-of-print 1989 movie “Assault of the Party Nerds.” (Starring the Doppelganger Marc Silverberg) Don’t snicker when someone uses a phrase that reminds you of the time your bass singer spilled chicken noodle soup on his pants, and a stray dog came up off the street and started licking it.
2) Have A Plan
Here’s an all too common scenario…
An auditionee walks into the room and all of you are talking at once and giving directions and reminding each other of what they forgot to say and suddenly the singer is totally lost and has no idea what the first lyric to the song he’s been practicing for a week straight is and then his audition doesn’t go exactly as planned which throws off the sight reading section which isn’t really a sight reading section so he’s even more confused because sight reading implies that you have a score to look at but really you just want him to follow along with his ear and copy what you sing so he starts looking around for a score and everyone is staring at him like he’s mentally unstable and they’ve already dismissed him as a bad fit. [takes a deep breath]
Have a plan. Know who is going to give directions. Don’t call an exercise sight reading when it is actually ear training. Put yourself in the auditionee’s shoes and make sure the directions are clear.
3) Don’t Be Overly Bubbly
Being nice is awesome. Being friendly is great. Being way too friendly, laughing at all of their jokes, and then rejecting them when they thought they nailed the audition, thus giving them the proverbial kick in the groin is not good.
Find a good balance between friendly and business-like. Try to run every audition the same way, and don’t give anyone a false sense of hope.
4) Don’t Waste Their Time
Don’t make the audition overly long and complicated, when all you really needed to know is if they can do vocal percussion. The professional world, especially Broadway, doesn’t ask the same thing of every auditionee to be fair. They get what they need done and they move on.
I find that the number one cause of running late in auditions is that the group wants to ask everyone the same thing, and then gives extra time to people who ask for it.
You need to have a clear idea of how many times they can re-start their solo. How many listenings do they get before they have to sing their part? How much time do they get to look at the music before they sight read? Know what you are going to do and stick with it for everyone.
5) The “Range Exercise” Sucks.
Here is my biggest pet peeve of a cappella auditions. Someone will go to a piano and ask the auditionee to sing up and down in half steps, and then use that basis as the classification of their range and voice part.
I’m a tenor who can sing down to an E-flat below the bass clef. Using this exercise in the audition is not the problem…using this audition as the be-all-end-all of classifying someone as a particular voice part is what drives me crazy.
Really, if someone wants to be in a cappella group that badly, they should know what voice part they are, or at least their most comfortable range, so you don’t even need to do this exercise.
Most likely, you will ask the auditionee to sing a solo, a cappella. This solo should give you a good indication of their range, because they are the ones choosing to start in a particular range, a good indication of their timbre (resonant and chesty, breathy, dark and spacious, etc.), and a good indication of their comfort level, depending on how high and low the melody goes.
Don’t be fooled. Someone who sounds like a fantastic singer might sound fantastic in a three note range. Pay special attention to anyone who chooses a song with a large range, because they are giving you a lot more information than you think.
And don’t use a piano during an a cappella audition. You don’t need one. Period.
6) Be Kind. Rewind.
My main point is this: Auditioning for an a cappella ensemble, especially today when a cappella has exploded into the mainstream, is stressful and challenging. Think back to when you had to audition…treat them like you would want to be treated when you were in the same position.
Marc Silverberg
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