William Alzaher is the choir director at Green Brook Middle School in New Jersey; you can listen to his group, “Alzapella,” here. Mr. Alzaher graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in Music Education.
Ian Sanchez can remember making music since his pre-school years, when he was fascinated by the sound of Key 1 and 10 sounding together on his grandma’s old electric organ (a major 10th!). Since then, he has immersed himself in music, eventually earning two degrees from the University of Rochester (BA Music 1996, MA Music Ed from the Eastman School of Music 2003) and teaching music at various K-12 levels for the last 25 years. And since he caught the vocal harmony bug in high school, he has sung in, directed, and arranged for a large variety of middle school, high school, and collegiate vocal groups. He has been the choral director at Tamanend Middle School in Warrington, PA since 2010. In addition, he co-founded and directs both the Central Bucks A Cappella Festival and the Central Bucks A Cappella Camp and started a middle-school a cappella competition called AcaTamaJam. Listen to his extracurricular group, Gold’n Blues here, and listen to his curricular choir singing here!
What are your favorite things about teaching a cappella at the Junior High/Middle School level?
Alzaher: I love seeing my students really work together with the realization that we can’t be successful unless we’re all successful. That it takes all of us committing 100% to achieve our goals. I also love the bonds kids forge in this group. It’s unlike any other music ensemble I run.
Sanchez: Probably similar to any choral singing experience with this age level: the positives are extra positive. When they ‘get’ a certain part–a harmony, a tight groove, a dynamic, a special effect–they hear it, and they get excited about how they sound! In addition to the exciting musical moments above, many of the experiences related to singing cappella at this age are “firsts”: First time singing one-on-a-mic for a concert, first time singing to a screaming auditorium of their peers at an a cappella festival, first time performing the national anthem in front of tens of thousands Phillies fans, etc.
What are some unique challenges about teaching a cappella at the Junior High/Middle School level and how do you address them?
Alzaher: One of the biggest challenges is getting middle schoolers, with all the baggage that they carry due to their age, maturity, hormones, and experience, to perform with the stage presence and confidence of a much older group. To work on this we do a LOT of team building exercises and games, sectional work, studying our past performances and other group’s performances, and I have alumni and other aca-professionals come into the workshop with them a few times each year. We also participate in multiple events like Highlands A Cappella Festival and Jersey Harmony Explosion, where they learn from watching other groups perform and do workshops in various a cappella classes throughout the day.
Sanchez: Voice part balance can be an issue, probably at any age level, but specifically at this age–not having bass voices is definitely a thing some years. It could also be too many sopranos, not enough tenors, or some other imbalance. With range issues, I have just learned to be flexible by adjusting the music/arrangement to fit the group that I have. That may involve changing keys of arrangements, octave-shifting some parts, omitting some parts, re-writing some parts, and custom-arranging songs. Even without those particular issues, I like to train my singers to be flexible, and not be afraid or reluctant to sing a different part than they’re used to, so they know that “being a soprano” doesn’t necessarily mean always singing the soprano voice part. Voices are still changing of course, so what works well during part of the year may not work as well at a later point.
Less-developed voices could probably be seen as a challenge as well, but I don’t think that is necessarily an issue unique to a cappella; for a teacher used to these voices in the choral setting, it’s not a big adjustment to work with similar voices in an a cappella setting. For groups just starting out, the lack of experience singing in harmony without the piano as a crutch can be an issue–my 8th Grade Chorus is currently climbing up this hill for their radio competition song this year. However, it just takes getting used to–the more they practice, the more comfortable and successful they get. That comfort transfers to the next song or situation as well.
What is your advice for teachers wanting to start an a cappella group at their Junior High or Middle School?
Alzaher: Definitely do it! It’s one of those things that you just need to jump right in. I was worried because I never sang in a contemporary a cappella group, I’m not a dancer, and I knew nothing about vocal percussion. But I sought out help from other directors with successful groups and worked on those skill sets myself, and ultimately it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Sanchez: Just Do It! You have to start somewhere. Get a group together – formally or informally – and just sing. The kids may have some ideas to get you started. If you have the resources to find written arrangements, go for it, but if not, there is something powerful and exciting about a simplistic, homegrown arrangement. Start with a well-known melody that the kids will bring energy to naturally. Figure out a bass line–even if not sung by true basses (the tonal and rhythmic nature of a bass line is more important than its range). Add some percussion–either body percussion like stomps, claps, and snaps, or experiment with vocal percussion/beatboxing. Even a basic “boot and cats and” pattern or something similar can make a simple arrangement sound cool. Once you start, you (and the kids) can figure out where to go next–either by expanding the song you started by adding some harmonies or other textures or trying a similar process with another song. Let the students experience the success of singing without instruments. There are also many resources available; The A Cappella Education Association is a great place to start. Have time to read a book? Dive into one from this Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. Feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions or concerns as well. I will be glad to share some free arrangements of my own, and offer advice on finding others.
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?
Alzaher: There’s lots of a cappella arrangements available on JWpepper and other a cappella sites so it’s not too difficult to find SAB or 3 Part arrangements that sound great and aren’t too difficult for a beginner group. It’s incredible how quick you’ll realize that kids will really enjoy themselves while dialing in their intonation, blend, balance, vowel purity, etc. It’s just as worthwhile as your other concert selections and the final product will be one that your group will be proud of and your audience will love!
Sanchez: This is totally possible, and I do this often. In many ways, songs that would work with a smaller extra-curricular group can work in larger groups as well. There are a few things to think about when thinking about an effective arrangement for a larger group: 1) The bass part: Many contemporary a cappella groups use a mic to amplify one bass singer. If this is not the approach you want to take with a larger ensemble, look for a bass part that doesn’t have an extreme range and has more words or open vowel sounds (so it can be heard effectively). 2) Who has the melody? This only makes a difference because most students at this age seem to like the opportunity to sing the melody in a song – if I’m programming something for a large group, I’m more conscious of spreading the melody around – I love arrangements that give multiple voice parts the melody, not just a soloist or the sopranos! 3) Percussion – you can certainly have a dedicated vocal percussionist perform, but body percussion can also be very effective with a larger group.
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?
Alzaher: Doing a cappella well would require students to have impeccable intonation, matching vowels, tight rhythmic accuracy, a mature understanding of dynamics and phrasing, energetic stage presence, nonverbal communication skills, heightened listening skills, and so much more. It’s a great opportunity to get your choirs moving to the music in a genuine/non-cheesy way as well!
Sanchez: You really have to listen harder when you sing unaccompanied (contemporary or not); tuning to and blending with only other singers is a different skill than singing with a piano or other instrument(s). Similarly, keeping a rhythm and/or groove steady without an accompanist is also a skill they don’t learn as much in a traditional choral setting. Contemporary A Cappella performances tend to rely less on the teacher, and more on student leadership in directing. I extend that to rehearsals as well. I rely on student-led sectionals frequently, for instance. And when a song is at the point of repetition in preparation for a performance, I’ll often let students direct themselves and critique their own performances.
Do you teach beatboxing/have a beatboxer? How do you go about teaching that?
Alzaher: This is one of the most common questions I get and one I had myself when I first started. Yes we have a beatboxer (usually more than one) and if we don’t, I’ll ask an alumni to come perform with us. I can beatbox a little, but learning VP is just like learning any instrument and requires a lot of practice. I teach them basic kit sounds and then send them links to different videos and YouTube playlists to hone their skills. Along the way, they send me weekly videos (especially at the beginning) demonstrating their mastery of each new sound. YouTube is a great resource for this and, when possible, bringing in a beatboxer to do a workshop.
Sanchez: In my extracurricular group, younger or aspiring vocal percussionists often learn from the older more experienced ones. And/or they will find some youtube tutorials and experiment on their own. In my curricular classes, I take a more direct approach (starting with everyone repeating “Boots and Cats and”) and try to create very basic kick drum (put the lips together and let them explode out while making a vowel-less “B” sound), snare (a strong “K” sound, that can change with the shape of your mouth), and hi-hat cymbal (a long or short ‘ts’) sounds. A few will always show more interest and will continue to work on their technique. This new book by Rob Dietz (and some of the others linked above) offers some instructions on teaching vocal percussion as well. One quick word of caution: sometimes kids with the best sounds aren’t the best at keeping a steady tempo. In the case of accompanying an a cappella performance, steady tempo beats great sounds!
Where do you find your arrangements/sheet music? What are some of your “go to” arrangements you could recommend to other teachers?
Alzaher: I arrange most of my group’s songs however I also use arrangements from other directors I’ve worked with over the years (Tom Paster, Justin Glodich, Joe Cataffa all have charts I’ve used before). There are some easier arrangements available now on JWPepper. Best Day of My Life is an easy one. Deke Sharon has a bunch published for every voicing on his website. And of course, there are hundreds of talented arrangers out there willing to custom write one for your group for a reasonable price.
Sanchez: I’ve arranged my own over the years, and would be willing to share (email me at email@example.com to explore some possibilities). There are some traditionally published arrangements -JWpepper has a filter for contemporary a cappella to help you search, for example. A good starting point in this category would be Bryan Sharpe’s arrangements, published by Alfred. Beyond traditional publications, there is a large contemporary a cappella self-publishing community. Using the “Arrange Me” service, anyone can sell their arrangements at Sheet Music Plus, Sheet Music Direct, and Noteflight Marketplace. It may take a little ‘sifting’ to find what you need, but it is worth it, especially if you’re looking for a specific song. Another resource is Contemporary A Cappella Publishing, which features arrangements from Deke Sharon, who is known as the “father of contemporary a cappella.” Pro tip: Many of his SATB arrangements are designed with a solo (sometimes written into one of the voice parts), a bass line, and two harmony parts–definitely an accessible format for this age level.
Anything else you would like to add that you think is important middle school teachers know about a cappella?
Alzaher: I direct the play and musical at my school, have a select women’s choir, men’s chorus, multiple grade level groups, and 3 orchestras. My a cappella group is the one kids love being part of the most. I run it on Friday afternoons and when other teachers are running out the door to start their weekend, I look forward to coaching this group and the kids look forward to being there. We do retreats twice a year on the weekends, and my students can’t wait to get in the building to get to work. It’s something that’s truly magical in our lives and we don’t take it for granted. It’s scary to jump into something new. And it’s time consuming. But it is SO worth it! You can Google my presentation on Middle School A Cappella from the ACDA summer session a few years ago for some resources or you can reach out to me directly any time. There’s no more welcoming community than the a cappella community!
Sanchez: Contemporary a cappella is an excellent way to get kids excited about your choral program. Not only does it provide a great challenge that motivates your current students, but performing more well-known, accessible music captures the attention of future students, parents, and the larger school community as well. This is not a bad thing, nor does it lessen the performance of more “traditional” choral music. On the contrary, in my program there is a great deal of overlap between my students who excel in “traditional” choral music and contemporary a cappella music