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.
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?
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.
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 www.ketteringmusic.org. He is also part of the team working on the A cappella Education Association (AEA). Visit their website and donate here: http://www.acappellaeducators.com.