In this high school blog, I’m going to start out by saying that I love high school a cappella! Interviewing Brody McDonald, a good friend and colleague of mine was a lot of fun. In fact, we became friends because of a cappella music. I first met him at one of his yearly high school a cappella festivals. I can attribute much of my and my students’ excitement for a cappella music to Brody and his festivals. By giving unselfishly to the crafts that we love as people like Brody does, we are sometimes unaware of the positive affects that we have on that field. This year marks the 4th year that my students will have attended the Kettering Fairmont A cappella festival and I can say that I’ve seen it grow from just a small number of groups to close to 30 this year. Of course, we all know that Brody and Kettering Fairmont are known throughout the country now due to Eleventh Hour competing on Season 2 of “The Sing-Off”. So I’ll stop right there and I hope you enjoy!
1. How long has Eleventh Hour been in existence?
This is our eleventh year together... how cute.
2. Can you talk about the beginning stages of starting Eleventh Hour?
Eleventh Hour was created in direct response to a conflict we were having between the community’s desire to hire school entertainment and the constraints that were presented by having a show choir. 40 kids who sing and dance, on a stage with a backup band simply did not fit in some of the local banquet halls.
I decided to audition an octet that was modeled after Disney’s Voices of Liberty. We were going to sing some light choral music like Derric Johnson, King’s Singers, etc. I only had 11 kids show up to audition. They were all about the same ability level, so I let them all in. I didn’t have the heart to cut just three. One of the students suggested the name Eleventh Hour because 11 of them got in at the last minute.
We quickly realized that we wanted to branch into pop a cappella, but at the time there weren’t many resources around. I bought the Deke Sharon books and downloaded charts from the CASA.org library (before it was deemed illegal). We just fought through our ignorance until we figured out a formula that worked for us, but it took a while.
3. Are their some things that you can pinpoint that helped with Eleventh Hour's massive success?
There was a specific version of EH that really started a chain reaction for us. After years of growing in quality, we had so many kids auditioning that EH turned into 8 seniors each year. I felt like I was always starting from scratch, so I started a feeder group, Fusion. They were mostly self-directed (I just dropped in to help occasionally). Those kids were really musical and fun. When they got into EH, I decided to try the (now-defunct) NCHSA. Having a show choir, those kids really understood competition. We got our first-ever custom chart from Deke Sharon and started rehearsing more (6 hours a week, up from 1.5). Although our small size didn’t work well at NCHSA, we were better than we had ever been.
That uptick in quality coincided with the construction levy in Kettering. The school district built a new basketball arena and planned to use it as a concert venue as well as for extra revenue. The first ever concert in the arena was LeAnn Rimes, with proceeds to benefit the Kettering Education Foundation. EH was asked to open the show to represent the school. We got to sing in front of 2,500 people, and it was a big hit.
After LeAnn Rimes, the parents almost demanded we record a CD. That was a big deal at the time. It’s really not a great CD by today’s standards. It was done in 2 days in a basement with no real tuning or effects. Still, the kids felt like rockstars.
SO… the combination of NCHSA + LeAnn Rimes + CD = EH becomes a local phenomenon. Auditions went up, and kids were fighting to raise the bar each year. Our second CD had a larger budget, and won the 2008 CARA for Best HS Album.
After that, it was pretty much “lather, rinse, repeat.” We were on a great path. Soon we were singing regularly on our state music education conference and touring around Ohio. Things just kept spiraling up and up until finally we were on “The Sing-Off”.
4. What's next after being on Season 2 of “The Sing-Off”?
Good question! At a recent ACDA retreat where I was the keynote speaker, one of the students asked me, “After being on “The Sing-Off”, did you ever consider just disbanding the group? Like, why bother after that?”
The first thing we did after “The Sing-Off” was to perform at ACDA National 2011. We consider that to be an honor that equals the television exposure. We will appear on the Christmas edition of Extreme Makeover Home Edition this year as carolers. Don’t expect pop a cappella… just really out-of-place Dickens carolers on a construction site. We do a lot more gigs now, and recently bought recording gear to turn our annual CD into an educational process for our students. It might be impossible to top being on “The Sing-Off”, but we’ll always look for what’s next. Right now, we’re exploring more use of pedals. We currently strive to be the “Muppet Baby” version of SONOS ☺
5. What advice would you give to anyone trying to start an a cappella group?
1. Be fearless
2. Think outside the box
3. Try anything; see if it works
4. Get help from everywhere you can, then filter it to keep what works for you
5. Be patient – you have to establish a culture before your group will get really good
6. Study professionals. If you aim high and model yourself after professionals, you’ll move farther faster than if you shoot to be a good high school group.
Honestly, if anyone needs help with anything – we’re here for you. Email us at email@example.com. We at Eleventh Hour have the expansion of High School a cappella in our mission statement, so don’t be afraid to call on us. We’ve done educational tours and benefit concerts to help groups get started. If we can help you, we will.
6. I've gained huge momentum in my program because of your a cappella festival. Can you talk about your festival and what opportunities it provides?
The Kettering Fairmont A cappella Festival has grown in just four years from hosting five Ohio groups to this year’s record of 26 groups from four states. Each year we hire a great headliner and several top clinicians to provide an awesome day for our visiting schools. Past headliners have included Rockapella, The Fault Line, and Firedrill! This year, we are proud to host SONOS. Also on staff this year is Mister Tim and Ly Tartell.
During the day, each visiting group will get a 35-minute performance clinic with either Ly, Tim, or members of SONOS. All groups will attend masterclasses on vocal percussion, solo singing, Mister Tim’s “Vocal Magic,” and a pedal workshop by SONOS. Directors will attend a reading session with sample charts from several arrangers, all available at a discount purchase price for attending the festival.
At night, we all pile into the auditorium for a huge a cappella show featuring Fusion, Eleventh Hour, Mister Tim and SONOS.
The best part of the day is lunch and dinner, where all the groups sing for each other. The camaraderie of this event is off the charts. This year, 400 students will come together and bond through singing. We’re so thrilled to make this happen.
Our festival takes place on Nov. 12, 2011. Tickets are on sale now for the evening show. We do still have slots available for more groups (only a few) to clinic, but definitely have seats for the concert. You can get tickets at www.ketteringmusic.org. This is a show worth a drive, for sure.
7. There's word of a book coming out. What can you tell me about that? (I realize you may not be able to answer this question)
I am currently working with a publisher on an a cappella handbook that will be released for the summer of 2012. The book is written primarily for teachers who are interested in contemporary a cappella, but there will be many components that are applicable to any a cappella group. I wrote a majority of the book, but there are great contributions by some esteemed members of the a cappella community. These include Jake Moulton of mosaic, Christopher Harrison of SONOS, Trist Curless of m-pact, Nate Altimari of Firedrill!, Freddie Feldman from VOCOMOTION Studios and also a foreword by Deke Sharon.
8. Anything else you would like to share with the a cappella world?
I’d really like to emphasize to the readers how important it is to support high school a cappella. High schools are the breeding ground of a cappella’s future. Any time you can go see a show, volunteer your time as a clinician or arranger, or just purchase some of their music, you’re investing in your a cappella community. Here’s a few easy ways to help.
Buying Recordings: Imagine you are a high school who risks a ton of money to record a CD. There are only so many friends and parents who will buy a copy. Thanks to iTunes and amazonmp3.com that music is now available nationwide. Considering that most groups will see $.50 of a $.99 purchase, the a cappella community can easily make a huge impact on a school program. If 3,000 CASA readers each buy ONE track from a group, they will inject $1,500 into their bottom line. That kind of money means everything to a high school. You’ll feel great about helping, and while many high school albums aren’t top-to-bottom awesome for obvious reasons, every group has at least one song that’s worth a dollar.
Clinic time: any good collegiate a cappella singer has the experience to help a local high school. Directors do a lot, but they always want outside input. College kids are just cooler than directors, so their help is welcome. You can also help run sectionals or teach choreography.
Arranging: If you arrange music, consider giving high schools a break in price. Every little bit helps.
Benefit concert: Volunteer your group to do a 50/50 gate-split concert to raise money for a local high school.
When high schools get these little “edges” along the way, they take their extra money and reinvest in the program. That’s what we have done. The net result is not that we are rolling in dough, but rather that we have helped expand high school a cappella. When we perform at OMEA conference, when our CDs go back to other high schools, when we can afford to hire top acts for a festival… other directors are inspired and new groups are formed. Now there are more groups in Ohio, more who are recording and some who are starting their own festivals. This means more exposure for a cappella and more jobs for professional groups. It’s all a positive cycle.
Now that you’ve read this whole interview, please consider doing just one thing for a high school group. The easiest one can be done before you get up from your computer. Go to iTunes now and buy one track each from 5 different high schools. For the price of a latte, you can hear some new music and feel great all at the same time.
About the author:
Ben Spalding is the head Choral Director at Centerville High School in Dayton, Ohio. At Centerville, Ben directs all of the choirs and the a cappella group Forte. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from the University of Kentucky. Ben’s a cappella roots go back to college, when he was a member of the University of Kentucky AcoUstiKats and a semi-professional group called 5 by Tuesday. His love for music goes as far back as elementary school and music has and always will be a major driving force in his life.