Ask the Experts: Contemporary A cappella in Professional Contemporary Vocal Ensembles

Meet the Experts:

Highline Vocal Jazz Highline is an award-winning vocal jazz quintet comprised of five friendly friends who really like singing. They were founded in December 2017 and have been creating music videos for original, tight 5-part arrangements ever since. Based in New York City, they perform and teach all over the United States. Just recently, Highline was named national champions of the 2022 Harmony Sweepstakes.

They are committed to continuing the vocal jazz tradition established by groups like The Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, The Real Group, and Take 6, as well as honoring the many influential instrumentalists that have pioneered jazz language. Highline believes in modernizing and reshaping the art form these musicians championed while making it fun and accessible for all audiences. At the center of their philosophy is education of the next generation of singers through workshops and masterclasses in jazz singing and arranging. Most of all, Highline thinks singing and vocal music should be fun! We want our audiences to experience joy from our music, and we especially hope you do. Listen to their original: “Skyway Driftin’!” here! 

Describe your average rehearsal.  What rehearsal techniques do you use to make your group shine?

Highline: Our rehearsal techniques depend on how well we know the piece we’re rehearsing–if we’re just learning it, then we’ll be focusing on learning notes, rhythms, and words/syllables. Once we’ve gotten past that stage, we focus on making sure we’re matching the way we sing it: matching vowel shapes, dip-thongs, tone qualities, etc. For this, it’s often helpful to work on sections with a subset of the group; singing just a duet or a trio can make it easier to hear what’s working and what isn’t. Lastly, we’ll work on musicality and interpretation. Things like microdynamics, phrasing, groove, rubato, and more. This phase is all about making sure our musical performance serves the song, evokes the kind of response we want from the audience, and tells the right story.

What is your advice for directors wanting to do contemporary a cappella or vocal jazz with their ensembles? 

Highline: It’s important that the singers in your ensemble are excited about the rep they’re singing, so a great place to start would be to play (audio or video) some great examples of the genre you’re introducing them to. This can get them excited about a new sort of music, and can also model for them what they’re aspiring to sound like.

What advice would you give to a singer or director wanting to start their own a cappella or vocal jazz ensemble?

Highline: The challenges and factors here can be pretty different depending on whether you’re a student trying to start a group, a choral director, a post-grad, etc. That being said, it will always be important to figure out what message you want to deliver with your music & why you want to create a group. It could be simply for the joy of making music together, it could be to create a specific type of music, etc. – it’s just important that you know the purpose of the group & that everyone’s on the same page.

In what ways do you feel that this genre of music can connect to today’s audiences?

Highline: One of Highline’s goals is to help make jazz music more accessible to modern audiences. We take a lot of inspiration from vocal groups like New York Voices, The Real Group, Take 6, and more–as well as the many influential instrumentalists that pioneered the language of jazz music. By combining the rich tradition of jazz music with elements of modern vocal music & contemporary a cappella, we hope to continue to further the genre and make it fun and accessible for all audiences.

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

Highline: We recently competed in (and won!) the 2022 National Harmony Sweepstakes. It was a great experience: we loved having the opportunity to travel, meet other great singers, and be recognized for our musicianship.

What advice would you give in regards to using social media in coordination with your ensemble?

Highline: Learn some TikTok dances and get to work! Just kidding. Social media can be a great way to reach new audiences, promote your music, and connect with other artists and groups. One way Highline has used social media is by posting music videos & live videos on platforms (YT, FB, Insta, TikTok)–this has helped us grow our audience and has been a great source for inbound bookings.

What are some unique challenges about being in a self directed professional ensemble and how do you address them?

Highline: Whenever there isn’t an assigned director, everyone in the group has to share the job of ensuring rehearsals are effective and use time efficiently. That can often mean finding the balance between making sure everyone is able to share feedback and give input, but also making sure there aren’t too many cooks in the kitchen. For Highline, it helps that all of us have directed groups in the past, and that we all trust each other’s musical decisions.

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

Highline: Almost all of the music Highline sings is arranged by us. That being said, we’ve really enjoyed singing some classic arrangements by some of the great vocal jazz groups. A few that come to mind are:

-Almost Like Being In Love by New York Voices

-A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square by The Manhattan Transfer

-Pass Me the Jazz by The Real Group

Anything else you would like to add that you think is important for directors to know about a cappella/vocal jazz? 

Highline: Don’t take yourself too seriously; have fun with it! Look at the great Ella Fitzgerald singing Lady Be Good–she’s singing without limits or bounds, quoting other songs, imitating other instruments, singing unexpected notes and rhythms. And, she’s having a great time with it and bringing the audience along on an exciting ride. You often find the most interesting things when you go beyond the limits of what you’re used to.