Monday, April 27, 2015

What I Learned at the National A cappella Convention

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending, and teaching at, the first every National A cappella Convention (NACC), hosted by the A cappella Educator’s Association (AEA).

This festival, among its many other strengths, was a welcome change from the typical format of other a cappella festivals, for many reasons; the main reason is that the festival was modeled after the American Choral Director’s Association, the largest organization for choral ensembles and choral music. (Incidentally, the ACDA was one of the sponsors of the event.)

If you were unable to attend this year’s event, then I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, you missed an incredible experience with out-of-the-box workshops only found here. The good news…tickets are already available for next year.

Here is what I learned from attending the festival:

1) Building the Grid

In Brody McDonald and Ben Spalding’s rehearsal technique class, the instructors were eager to emphasize the necessity for technical mastery. Each instructor gave the audience several new rehearsal techniques they use with Eleventh Hour and Forte, respectively, that was intended to structure each piece of music dynamically and emotionally.

It is important to understand that neither of these ensembles rehearse notes. Rehearsals are not for “note plunking.” Note plunking is done outside of rehearsal. Rehearsals are for vocal techniques, mapping out the song, rehearsing as a group, etc.

Did you know that Brody makes a grid, mapping out each section of the music like a chart, so that each section of the song has its own dynamic markings, mood, percussion beat, etc.? It is this attention to detail that makes both these directors successful.

2) The Recording Roundtable

One of my favorite aspects of the NACC was the roundtable discussions. It is important to understand the difference between panels, roundtables, and lectures. A lecture is one or two instructors, instructing the class and teaching them tools they can use. A panel is several experts, who typically sit at the front of the space, and answer questions about topics. A roundtable is something much different.

One of the key differences you notice, walking into a roundtable, is the obvious shape of the room. The tables are placed in a circle, so that no one leads, everyone is equal and bring something to the table. Another key difference is the level of expertise. Roundtables are not for amateurs- no one is going to teach you the basics in a roundtable discussion. Roundtable discussions are for pros to debate topics that shape the industry. If you are an amateur, like I was in the recording roundtable discussion, your role is to listen and absorb, and then ask questions that are specific in nature.

For example, I wanted to know if the professional a cappella engineers had a “formula” for every mix they start. Is there a set of parameters that engineers use on every mix, and what are the effects they add to each voice?

The formula for mixing an a cappella song is to focus on the big three: Percussion, Bass, and Lead. If you get those right, the harmonies and background vocals will then be measured against what you have done to the big three.

I also asked about the trend I had noticed, where a cappella businesses are moving over to Venmo, over Paypal. I did not know that Paypal actually owns Venmo, but Venmo is a combination social site and money transfer site. It allows people to talk to each other, post comments, and also transfer money without cost.

3) The Director Roundtable

The other roundtable I found very engaging was led by Dr. Erin Hackel, director of  MIX and Lark, from University of Colorado-Denver. In this workshop, we debated the need for group identity, and how all male groups, once the most dominant force in a cappella, have taken a backseat to the mixed groups. Dr. Hackel suggested that for male groups to survive in the new a cappella format, male groups need to find an identity above the “silly, goofy, sexual” persona that so many male groups take.

I attended the roundtable because I wanted to ask specific questions about her group, MIX. I had started thinking about forming a version of MIX at my school, with a small number of singers and with a more theatrical element. This round table gave me a chance to ask those detailed questions, in a small setting, with plenty of face time. Do yourself a favor and attend roundtables in the future.

4) Reading Sessions

Free music? An hour of singing with no breaks? “Impossible!” you say. Nope. It was the reading session. Every attendee got a free packet of music, and they just sat there and read through it. ACDA has several of these at every festival, but I had never seen an all pop a cappella version until now.

For more information about next year’s festival, go to

Marc Silverberg

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

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