What’s all the buzz about high school a cappella?

High school a cappella is all the rage right now. It has enormous buzz. Why is that? Why is there such an explosion of a cappella in high schools? And, after we explore that phenomenon, what do we do with all the recent hub-bub centered around this question: “How is it that many high school groups manage to outperform college groups?”

Let’s take a look first at why a cappella is blowing up in high schools. Then we’ll get to the core differences between HS and Collegiate a cappella.



The kids love…

-music that is familiar: students have always asked “can we sing insert song from radio here?” That song might not be appropriate for a freshman mixed choir, but it certainly will work for an a cappella group.

-the social aspect of singing together: a cappella is the new chamber music. It follows in the footsteps of doo-wop and barbershop all the way back to madrigal singing. It is the epitome of recreational singing.

-making funny mouth sounds: yeah, young people like that. They also like the cinnamon challenge. In a cappella, those funny mouth sounds can translate into great performances. Watching someone choke on cinnamon is funny once, twice tops.

-singing anywhere, any time at the drop of a hat: high school kids like to show off, entertain each other, etc. They’ll sing spontaneously in public no matter what, but there’s a better chance of having their a cappella group together than having a balanced set of parts from their 40-voice chamber choir. Plus, it seems natural to sing something in public that gets radio airplay. Forcing an Eric Whitacre piece on the patrons of Wendy’s just doesn’t feel right.

-the challenge of singing without a net: of course this isn’t exclusive to contemporary a cappella – the challenge and joy of singing without a backing track or piano accompaniment to prop up the choir – but with a cappella it’s always present.

-singing on microphones and possibly with “toys” (pedals, throat mics, etc.): young people like technology, ergo young singers like all the gear that goes with a cappella singing.


Directors love…

-groups that can be any size or configuration (male, female, mixed): choir programs come in a variety of sizes and ability levels. A cappella groups can be tailored to fit the program more easily than other options (gospel choir, vocal jazz, barbershop, show choir).

-feeding the tigers: this means giving the best singers of the program a little extra red meat to chew on. A cappella music is challenging. Pop music often has simple solo lines, but duplicating the instrumental backs and the drum kit? That requires musical ability.

-the growth that comes from student empowerment: a cappella groups typically have internal leadership opportunities: section leaders, student music director, merchandise manager, sound technicians, etc. In addition, a cappella groups are typically add-ons to an existing choir program and require the singers to do extra practice outside rehearsal to make things go smoothly.

-the chop-building that comes from small ensemble work: in addition to the challenge of recreating a band only with the human voice, there’s the added benefit that most a cappella groups are 16-20 members or less. Whenever singers have to function with 4 or less on a part, they’ll get stronger.

-having a portable group for community PR: this is the very reason I started an a cappella group – I couldn’t take my 40-person show choir to every community performance request. Issues of size and transportation are much less with a cappella groups than show choirs or standard concert choirs.

-recruitment when younger singers hear “music they know”: meeting new singers where they are is helpful. Thanks to a cappella, singing can indeed look cool. Consider the average middle school students that directors are trying to persuade to join choir. Sing them some Moses Hogan and they might like it. Bust out a vocal percussion solo that transitions into an a cappella rendition of “Gangnam Style” and it’s game over.



-directors fear “bad pop singing”: some directors don’t yet understand that good technique is required in any vocal genre. YES, there are a cappella groups that sing badly. There are also gospel choirs, concert choirs, musical theater productions, etc. that are all riddled with bad singing. However, in every genre there are performers who use great technique. The genre and the level of technique are not linked, thankfully.

-tail wags the dog: YES, this happens. It happens with show choirs, a cappella groups, vocal jazz ensembles and more. The only way the tail will wag the dog in a program is if the director allows it. Directors must remember that they set the vision of their program and must keep their singers “eating a balanced diet.” All my Eleventh Hour singers are members of my AA-level Symphonic Chorale.

-directors have little experience with it as a genre: I didn’t have any experience with a cappella, and that was scary. We all fear the unknown a little bit and fear our own potential incompetence even more. However, there are many resources available now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Directors: you should start by dipping a toe in the water and learn as you go. You can do this. Many, many people are willing to support you on your journey.

-directors might not know how to deal with sound gear: you don’t have to know everything all at once. You can start without sound gear and add it in as you learn (or don’t add it in…). There are many resources for learning about live sound reinforcement and also contractors in every market who will come appraise your situation, advise you on purchases, and train you on equipment.

-directors are lost as to how to find music: to be fair, there isn’t a lot of music available off the rack. However, there’s more coming every year, and websites like betteracappella.com will help you connect with arrangers who will customize charts for your group.

-in short, it just seems like a risk: and… it can be a risk. Isn’t everything new inherently a risk? Some people will avoid change, but I think it’s intoxicating. Learning is my drug.



-it’s been happening for many years, but no one bothered to notice: I’ll just say this… I’ve spent 12 years studying a cappella, and not everyone has been super-awesome to my groups or me in the process. There have been many wonderful people who helped us in that time, but there were also others who barely spared a glance down their nose at the “outsiders” and then turned away. I’m glad to see things are changing positively now 🙂  #grenade

-this happens already everywhere else: there are football teams, baseball teams, musical theater productions, concert choirs, jazz bands, etc. that all have high school versions that can whomp up on some colleges. This part is not new. The top of the HS world in anything will trump a certain segment of the college world.

-there are a few things that are simply foreign concepts to collegiate a cappella: For one thing – DIRECTORS. I know that every collegiate a cappella group has a music director. That’s not what I mean. I mean that HS groups have DIRECTORS in the sense that there is a person involved who is:

(A) highly trained in music and how to teach musical skills to other people

(B) not ever part of the group, and so therefore is always assessing rather than doing.If the music director is a singer in the group, then never can it be that the director is assessing a live performance of the entire ensemble.

(C) part of the program always – a HS director is there every single year. Unless the school district is in the position where directors are hired and then leave every few years, the director is there for a long time. What’s the record on longest tenure as a collegiate a cappella music director? 3 years? 4? I’ve been directing Eleventh Hour now for 12 years. That helps.

(D) predisposed to constantly learn – let’s go back to point C. I’ve been directing for 12 years and continue to improve every year because I constantly learn. If I had to stop after 3-4 years and hand my group off to another person coming in at ground zero, Eleventh Hour just wouldn’t be where they are today.

-let’s not forget the power of reverse engineering and open source: You know how sometimes one company will make a product that’s revolutionary, and then another company will basically copy it and then mass-produce and/or improve it? That’s what HS teachers have been doing. The a cappella culture that was born on college campuses is something that grew slowly and organically, not based in pedagogy. Then HS teachers came along, learned about it, analyzed it, broke it down, reverse engineered it, and used their teaching skills to efficiently pump it out to young people. I didn’t know squat about a cappella, but made it my mission to learn. Once I learned things I presented that knowledge at my state educational conference. People called and asked me questions. If I knew the answers I’d share them, and one more HS director got smarter. If I didn’t know the answers, I tracked them down and passed them along. Two HS directors just got smarter.

And what do HS directors do almost constantly? Talk with other directors. About what works. What doesn’t. What they wish would happen. How to manage and inspire kids. How often is that happening among collegiate music directors? Every year in Ohio, teachers can attend OMEA state conference, ACDA Central Division/National (alternates) and then OCDA Summer Clinic. That’s up to three conferences a year. How often do collegiate music directors head off to a three-day conference to do nothing but watch, listen, learn, present, and talk with other directors? I know some of them go to SoJam or BOSS, but in what numbers I can’t say. To be fair, I haven’t attended one of those festivals yet and don’t know if they are similar in nature to something like an OMEA conference.

and what about all those young singers? Yep… young singers are great, aren’t they? Imagine that you have singers who are almost as old and almost as good as college-aged singers, but then also imagine that they have very little personal responsibility.They have to get good grades and maybe work a part-time job, but they don’t have to deal with paying rent, utility bills, dorm life, college-style independent study, etc. They just have to wake up every day in Mom & Dad’s house, put on clothes, and get cracking. Oh, yes… and for many of them, things like voice lessons, group outfits, etc. are all on the parents’ dime.

-and who is paying for all this stuff? Well, in many high schools, the school district pays for some of it. They at least pay for the director to dedicate a portion of his/her life to running the group. The district might also pay for sound gear and music. There could also be a choir booster group pitching in, too. And don’t forget Mom & Dad. They pay for stuff, too.


When you stop to look at all these things, it shouldn’t surprise ANYONE that HS groups are in a great position to just tear things up. Remember, in both HS and Collegiate a cappella, groups will range from the “best of the best” to “you should take up bowling instead,” but HS groups have a lot great things going for them. Those bees are not going back in the hive any time soon.


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One comment to What’s all the buzz about high school a cappella?

  • David Marshall  says:

    Hello I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and also my director, Mr. Whatley reading them to us in vega rehearsal. This one was interesting because I never thought about how much more privelaged I am than a college person. I went to the national college competition this past year and was awestruck by how good they sounded. I then made the promise to myself that I would be in a college group too and be on that stage singing. This page convinced me that I could probably be in a college level group maybe even right now. It made me appreciate what I have more. What you said about high schoolers liking a capella for those reasons, I thought was all correct, but I don’t know what you meant by “The tail wags the dog”. Oh and I am David Marshall from Vega and I am reading your pages

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