A Cappella in the USA

A cappella is a lot bigger in the USA than it is in the UK.  There are numerous groups at each university and they all compete in the many competitions, as well as performing their own events.  It was this competitive nature that meant that I didn’t get into any of the groups that I auditioned for here at Penn State University.

Nevermind, eh.  I’ll just have to start my own.  So, tomorrow, I will be meeting up with another interested student to discuss the possibility of this new club.  At last I might be singing again!

There are a number of issues that you have to think about when setting up a new a cappella group.  When Jimmy and I set up Head Row last year, we came upon those problems and managed to overcome them pretty easily. I perceive our difficulties being:

  1. Music – It’s always best if a group produces its own vocal arrangements for an a cappella group.  It gives the group credibility.  However, the number of people who can do this well are few, and hard to find.  Failing that, you have to look for music elsewhere.  Usually having a good number of contacts is the best method (most of Head Row’s music came from Jimmy’s past musical directors and friends), or failing that, finding stuff on the internet or for sale.  Music can be expensive though, and, being something already performed by other groups, you can lose some of that originality that comes from doing your own individual arrangements.
  2. Rehearsal Space – I doubt that the music department here will be happy with a music group that is completely independent of the department waltz in to one of their practice rooms once or twice a week and just take over without any return.  They’ll probably want money, or at least severely restrict the hours that we can be there.  Other places may be able to offer rooms for free, such as the residence halls, but permission would have to be sought and not guaranteed.
  3. Members – Getting enough members to form a group is not hard.  There are enough people who want to sing around that I don’t see a problem in getting enough people that are interested.  The problem is getting people who are good enough, dedicated enough and who blend well as a group.  This can be very challenging indeed, especially when you have to turn away competant singers.  One method is audition, but often an audition is too short a time to judge someone’s full capability.  The other method is recommendation and invitation, but for this, you or someone you trust has to have sung with those people before.  There is also recommendation and audition, but at some stage you may run out of recommendees.  Head Row was basically by recommendation, but this process meant that the members were only brought together once the group had formed, and therefore the blend wasn’t perfect.  The number of members is a big issue too.  Four members is more manageable but limited to four part music.  A 20 strong choir is versatile and can perform various types of music but is harder to manage as a group.  I am looking at eight to ten for this group.
  4. Directing – Its a difficult job, and the hardest part from my experience last year was keeping up attention and concentration within the group.  The director really needs to know the music beforehand to be able to effectively teach it and the members need to be ready to follow what the director says. If you are selecting a director, they need to have the relevant experience in the type of music and a broad enough musical knowledge to explain how the music ought to be performed.

So, I hope this group goes well, and that we get good performers, a place to rehearse in and good music to sing!

UPDATE 2012: I did end up setting up an a cappella group, which became “Blue in the FACE”. Here’s their webpage, their YouTube channel and their Facebook.