Ask the Experts: Contemporary A cappella in High School

Meet the Experts: 

Matthew Wolf began his teaching career at Skyline HS in Dallas, TX before serving 6 years as the Choral Director and Visual & Performing Arts Chair at St. Augustine Preparatory School. He is now in his third year as the Choral director at Ramsey High School where he also teaches AP Music Theory and Digital Music Production and directs the award-winning Ram Jams (listen to them here). Matthew holds a dual BM in Music Education and Vocal Performance from West Chester University and an M.S. Ed in School Leadership from The University of Pennsylvania. Outside of school, Matthew is a volunteer serving as manager of the NJ All-State Chorus and locally as an EMT.

Heather Lockart teaches vocal music at Cherry Hill East High School, where she conducts several choirs including Vocal Workshop (freshman choir), Concert Choir (select mixed choir), Chansons (select women’s choir), Casual Harmony (male a cappella ensemble), The Key of She (female a cappella ensemble), and Stay Tuned (competitive mixed a cappella ensemble). You can Listen to “Stay Tuned” here and here. Ms. Lockart, a daughter of two professional music educators, has sung in choirs since a young age. She graduated from North Hunterdon High School in Hunterdon County, NJ, during which she performed with the Region II and All-State Choirs. She went on to receive a Bachelor of Music Education – Voice from The College of New Jersey, serving as soloist and student conductor of the Women’s Choir and Chorale, then under the direction of Michael Mendoza. Upon graduation, Ms. Lockart served as Director of Vocal Music at Hackettstown High School, until relocating to the Cherry Hill area. Recently, she has served as the conductor for the 2010-2011 All South Jersey Junior High Choir, and has presented and performed at the 2011 NJMEA conference. Heather is active with MENC and ACDA, served as Coordinator at the 2010 ACDA Eastern Division Conference in Philadelphia, and has served as the Women’s Choir R & S chair for NJACDA.

What are your favorite things about teaching a cappella at the High School level? 

Lockart: My favorite thing about teaching a cappella is the caliber of music, the enthusiastic learning among the group, and the motivation my students have in facing musical challenges head-on with feverish motivation. Every individual must be wildly successful in the music in order for the group as a whole to thrive. The students hold each other accountable, but in the most supportive and beautiful way. 

Wolf: I think it’s a wonderful marriage between teaching students the musical skills we teach them in chorus, and applying them to content and music that’s relevant to them. In a way, teaching A Cappella at the high school has allowed me to meet my students where they are while also meeting their needs as musical students. While proper singing and musical techniques are still the content, contemporary A Cappella music is the vehicle.

What are some unique challenges about teaching a cappella at the high school level and how do you address them?  

Lockart: Contemporary pop a cappella is a style of music that most High School students deeply desire to perform. There are students who audition every year of high school in hopes to have an opportunity to be in Stay Tuned, East’s competitive mixed a cappella group, even if just for a year before graduating. The most challenging part about directing Stay Tuned as well as other choral ensembles is maintaining positive relationships with students in my ensembles after they have felt let down when not making it into the acappella group, sometimes repeatedly. I work hard to be sure to connect with every single student in my choral ensembles so that they do not feel that any special attention is afforded to a member of Stay Tuned with whom I spend an immense amount of time with outside of school hours. I set the expectation that my acappella students allow me the space to make these connections with my other students during choir rehearsals, and also be the role models and leaders in our department. In fact, there is even a contract that each member signs at the start of the year which outlines my expectations of their role in the department. 

Wolf: In general, since A Cappella groups are almost always extracurricular, you’re always up against other activities(sports, homework, etc). Getting students to really buy into the experience and make rehearsals a priority can be challenging. Getting the students to truly bond with each other, as well as providing unique performance opportunities and experiences lends itself well to that “buy in.” I teach them to strike a balance between being competitive while also teaching them competition does not determine success or worthiness. I’ve always told my students that “we’re gonna do our own thing, and if we’re successful in competition–great! But if not, we’re going to make our own fun either way.”

What is your advice for teachers wanting to start an a cappella group at their high school? 

Lockart: Please do it. It will feed your program in the best of ways. A cappella music will strengthen your students’ musical skills quickly, and in ways that other repertoire does not. It is OK to be intimidated by the style of contemporary a cappella music, but I urge you to embrace the challenge! When I first started directing a cappella groups, I brought in as many people with experience as I could to not only educate my students, but to educate me as well. Bring in local college groups to workshop your students. Bring in directors of other local HS a cappella groups. Knowledge is power, and if not for so many friends and colleagues in the acappella world, Stay Tuned simply would not have become the amazing group they are now.  (Shout out to Deke Sharon, Shams Ahmed, Steve Weber, David Rabizadeh, Nicholas Wright, J.D. Frizzell, Rob Dietz, Tom Paster). 

Wolf: Start small, build up a small group of core students that are dedicated and will elevate the group. As the “buy in” increases, the program will grow and will always attract those students looking to dedicate themselves to the program.

What is your advice for teachers who may not have the resources to start an extracurricular a cappella group but want to do contemporary a cappella music in their ensembles?

Lockart: There are so many good and accessible contemporary a cappella arrangements available for choirs nowadays. It will not diminish the importance of standard choral repertoire by programming a contemporary a cappella piece. I know many choral directors may feel that they are “giving in” or “lowering their standards” should they choose something contemporary.  At the risk of sounding crass, this is a dated mentality. Embrace change, embrace challenge, and just give it a try and watch your students light up with the opportunity.  

Wolf: I think there are some wonderful arrangements out there that can help you accomplish this task. I would pick music that doesn’t go crazy on the divisi parts, as they are usually only meant to be sung by a small group of students instead of a whole Alto 2 section. There are plenty of SATB arrangements that come in a wide variety of skill levels that can all exceed this task.

What are some things you feel that singing pop a cappella can teach your students that they may not get by singing exclusively other genres?

Lockart: Pop a capella arrangements often have upwards of 8+ voice parts rather than your standard 4 part choral repertoire. Stay Tuned is currently learning an arrangement where all 18 singers have their own voice part. Every singer must be independently successful and confident executing their part in order for the piece as a whole to be successful. This fosters independence, confidence, and motivation. Voices have to create the accompaniment, so there are very intricate rhythms and typically sung syllables which serve a very specific purpose. On top of all of this comes the craft of choreography and telling the story of each song through purposeful movement. And finally, the addition of microphones–each singer on their own mic–comes with a whole learning curve, but makes a cappella arrangements really come to life!

Wolf: I certainly think contemporary A Cappella emphasizes expression, listening, and blend. While these are certainly things they can get in other genres, I believe these skills are expressed frequently in contemporary A Cappella. 

Do you teach beatboxing/have a beatboxer? How do you go about teaching that?

Lockart: I have always been blessed with having a beatboxer in our choral department.  That said, I have had amateur beatboxers who absolutely need guidance. I will be the first to admit that I am the LAST person who should try instructing a beatboxer! In these situations, I always defer to former students who have VP’d for Stay Tuned and bring in good beatboxers to workshop with them. Again, don’t pretend to know what you don’t know–seek help!

Wolf: I do not teach beatboxing! But I do have several beatboxers in my group. I direct students to online resources like Youtube to learn to build their “kit.” I’ve been very fortunate that so far, several students have taken an interest and I find they kind of go down a rabbit hole learning new sounds and techniques. I’ve also found it’s typically my most skilled musicians that assume this role in the ensemble. As much as I hate taking them off their voice part, it’s usually the best musical decision!

Do you compete with your group? What do you see as some of the advantages (and disadvantages if you feel comfortable) with that? 

Lockart: We absolutely compete as often as we are able. This drives and motivates students like nothing else, and also provides them the opportunity to perform for/with other high school a cappella groups. The connections made during these events are truly special. I have had many former a cappella students join college a cappella groups just to be reunited with people they met during their high school a cappella experiences. I am of the belief that competition is healthy, and there are so many valuable lessons to be learned through the competition process.

Wolf: Yes. I can’t deny that competition has been a great motivator for my students. Their success in competition has definitely led to serious “buy in.” But if students gauge their success or failure on the results of competition, it can be a disappointing experience too. Furthermore, I believe students need to learn to pick themselves up after failure to learn resilience, which in turn makes them better human beings. It’s a constant balancing act, and careful consideration needs to be given when preparing students to compete. I still go back to telling my students that no matter what, we are going to do our own thing. Making sure you have something ready to go if their competitive season runs short can ensure the students stay enthusiastic about the ensemble and what you’re doing.

What are your thoughts on “teacher run” vs. “student run” groups?

Lockart: For me personally, I have found the greatest success when providing leadership opportunities to seasoned members of the group, but directing the group myself. Each year, the returning members of the group elect officers who take care of making announcements, sending reminders, running rehearsals in my absence, leading sectionals, etc. Their role is vital to the group, and very helpful overall. There is a skill set to getting the most out of your rehearsal that comes with a degree and years of experience that the group recognizes as being vital to their success, so they trust the process the most under my guidance, and therefore it is preferred that I run the group.  Again, this is just my preference with my students. I have seen some fantastic students run High School groups, and am always amazed by their work! 

Wolf: I like to give my students leadership of the program, and I often refer to it as “their group.” I also tell them that the success or failure of the group hinges on their individual day to day decisions and how they want the year to go. I don’t have any fully student run groups here, but I do offer the students a lot of opportunities to display emergent leadership skills throughout the year. I do not give them official leadership positions but let them emerge in an authentic way and so far every year individuals have stepped up into roles and balanced themselves well. I find they still need a guiding hand in the musical process; but I also give them the chance to step up.

Where do you find your arrangements/sheet music? What are some of your “go-to” arrangements you could recommend to other teachers?

Wolf: Actually, we start our year singing mostly small ensemble chamber music, so most of it I get on JWpepper. For competition we get our music arranged by a professional arranger. For the Spring I usually throw in a few jazz charts, a range of music from other cultures, and possibly one other contemporary A Cappella piece. Most of which I get on JWpepper, sheetmusicplus, or purchase directly from an arranger I like. For my younger group I usually start with the Deke Sharon, Roger Emerson, Kirby Shaw arrangements as I find them quite accessible for newer students.

Anything else you would like to add that you think is important for high school teachers to know about a cappella? 

Lockart: When I first started directing a cappella groups, I had no experience. I started going to ICCA and ICHSA competitions, festivals, having former students with experience workshop my current students, and I brought in directors, sound technicians to train my students and I. We didn’t have a single microphone to our name. Over several years, we were able to purchase enough handheld wireless mics for the a cappella group. I tortured myself writing arrangements for a few years, before I started a family and any spare time to arrange quickly went out the window. I spent more hours than I care to admit searching the net for arrangements and arrangers, reaching out to hundreds of people and listening to thousands of samples. It sounds and feels daunting, but I can honestly say that the relationships I have formed and the musical experiences all of that hard work provided have been so worth it and then some. I am happy to be a resource to anyone, and if I don’t have the answer to your questions, I will find you somebody who does! The a cappella community is truly one big family who will welcome you with open arms! 

Wolf: I think it’s important to remember that teaching students to sing in a correct and healthy way needs to be at the core of contemporary A Cappella. I always tell my A Cappella groups that they are a chamber choir first and an A Cappella group second and I am vigilant that they sing with a healthy sound whenever we approach contemporary music. Looking beyond the A Cappella program, they will bring this love of music and singing with them to college and hopefully to a lifelong love of performing. Taking the time to teach them proper vocal technique and holding them accountable for doing so can help your group immensely, as well as benefit your individual singers. This will help your groups manage fatigue, make them better singers in your chorus program, and help ensure they can have a lifetime of music making experiences.