Steal From The Best

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2013-11-19

Perhaps you've just taken on a leadership role within your collegiate a cappella group, or you just founded one (congrats!). You want to be great, but you're not exactly sure what that means or how to do that. Stravinsky said "great musicians steal", so why not steal the best practices from some of collegiate a cappella's best groups?

Best Tradition: Yale Whiffenpoofs

The first, and still in some ways the best, with a group comprised entirely of the best male singers from all the other groups on campus who (almost) all take the year off and spend it touring the world.

No, you can't just set up a world tour, but you can see the value in tradition, and reinforce it as much as possible. Work closely with your admissions and alumni departments, performing both on campus and off. Create a network of contacts around the region, the nation, and eventually the world, which will create touring possibilities. Choose a school song that your group becomes known for and you can sing at events around the world.

Develop a look, a sound, a style, a tradition. It won't happen over night, but it will ensure your group has a long, prosperous future.

Best Alumni Organization: Tufts Beelzebubs

The Bubs (my former group) just celebrated its 50th anniversary and over 80% of all Bubs, past and present, were there. How could there be such an amazing turnout?

Strong ties with the alumni have been a the core of the Bubs since it was first founded. Bub alums are invited to meet the new guys as soon as they're sung into the group (yes, at 4am), there is an annual event (Staag Nite) which is the BAA (Beelzebub Alumni Association) annual meeting, followed by a big dinner, concert by the current group and woodshedding til the wee hours. Alums are also invited to drop by rehearsals, given free tickets and great seats to all shows, contacted when the group will be performing in town, and generally revered by the current group.

Plus the BAA is a strong organization, keeping tabs on all former members, organizing events (like 5 year reunions, where alums get to see and sing with their old buddies), scholarships, music programs for teens, donations to the university, and so on. With a constant presence around the undergrads, the alums are able to help with music coaching, album production, arrangements, and advice, ensuring the undergraduate group maximizes their potential, and upon graduation, past members remain a Bub for life.

Best Transition to Professional Group: Indiana University Straight No Chaser/Another Round

It is now stuff of legend: Tape a concert, a decade later post some clips from your concert, have one clip go viral, get contacted by Atlantic Records, pull the old group back together, and become a national sensation. The original members of Straight No Chaser had no reason to expect their fate, but they did earn it by making the most of each opportunity and building on a strong musical and interpersonal foundation.

Plus SNC founder Dan Ponce recently created another professional group, called "Gentlemen's Rule", so now the group boasts two 10 member ensembles who record, tour, make videos, inspire others. The undergraduate group recently changed their name to "Another Round" to eliminate confusion with the professional group, and continue to make great music as undergrads.

If you're looking for a career in a cappella after college, you would do well to study this group's path and best practices.

Best Trendsetters: University of Oregon Divisi

When Lisa Forkish and Evynne Hollens first started Divisi less than a decade ago, I would have been impossible for them to have anticipated the wild ride they were about to take, with a trip to the ICCA finals and a trophy that many feel should have been theirs, all documented in the first major book about collegiate a cappella, which was then optioned for a movie, which then became an international sensation.

How did such a young group at a college that was new to a cappella end up inspiring Pitch Perfect? First they had to inspire the collegiate a cappella world, which they did by creating a new sound, style and attitude within the female collegiate style, with lockstep precision, powerful and captivating performances that were strong and feminine but in no way "girly." Hair up, black collared shirts with red ties, lockstep choreography, and arrangements that demanded a deep rich vocal delivery may now seem almost cliche, but when they came on the scene it was both fresh and electrifying.

No, you can't copy them and expect to make major waves, but what you can do is develop a sound and style that sets your group apart.

... and there are many other bests to be found in the annals of recent collegiate a cappella history. Best Spirit? Stanford Talisman in the mid-90's, with an effortless delivery that captured a room immediately. Best Mixed Group Tradition? For almost fifteen years, U Penn Off The Beat was untouchable, with their own singing and recording style that landed them on BOCA more than any other. I could go on and on, as there has been something special about many collegiate groups over the past  two decades.

And this perspective doesn't start and end with collegiate groups. Want your high school group to be great? Take a peek at what's been happening in Ohio with Eleventh Hour and Forte, or out West with Lisa Forkish's Vocal Rush. Same goes for professional groups, casual amateur groups, etc.

Learn your history, and steal from the best.



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