HomeAll Clinics Great And Small: Why The Best Learning Opportunities Aren’t Always At The Biggest Festivals

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These are the names of many of the events that are considered required attendance for a cappella professionals and enthusiasts alike.  Reports of life-changing experiences emanate from every one of these festivals, where you can go to hear the best groups and to learn from the best of the best in the industry.  They are incredible opportunities for anyone who truly loves a cappella, and I’m glad they’re out there for us.

That said – I haven’t been to one yet.  I want to.  It just hasn’t happened yet.

However, I DID go to a Winter Workshop this past January sponsored by The A Cappella Project – Philadelphia, one of two smaller workshops they have annually.  It wasn’t on the same scale as a SoJam type of festival – only one or two clinicians, a couple classes, then public group consultation sessions – but it was still an incredible learning experience, not just for me, but for the many local groups in attendance that day.

As important as the “mega-festivals” are in the growth of a cappella, we also need these smaller workshops and mini-festivals just as much.  There are many reasons for this, but these three top my list:

1) People have both the ability and the nerve to attend a festival that’s more readily in their own backyard, which allows that festival to reach more of the people that can benefit from it.

Let’s face it – not everyone has the ability, for whatever reason, to devote 3-4 days of their life to experience aca-awesomeness in North Carolina (or Boston, or LA, or…). But an all-day workshop an hour or less from where they live, affordably priced, is a different story altogether. The groups attending the Project Philly event were all high school or newer college groups (with one exception, a professional group just starting out themselves) that might possibly find themselves either overwhelmed or “lost in the shuffle” at a larger festival – if they had the means to attend in the first place. But those groups received VALUABLE feedback from the clinicians, focusing on where they were in their development, and there was a palpable sense of awe and wonder in some of the groups when the suggestions made by the clinicians immediately made an impact.

Sometimes the best festivals that someone new to singing can attend aren’t festivals at all. Very often, your local Barbershop Harmony Society, Sweet Adelines International or Harmony Inc. chorus will give vocal lessons prior to rehearsal for new singers trying it out for the first time, and the rehearsals themselves will have either their musical director or a guest coach giving tips on improving your vocal skills as a part of the rehearsal.  (Before you say barbershop isn’t contemporary enough for you, read what Deke Sharon has to say about that…)

2) You’ll often see the same names you see at the big festivals – in a more intimate setting.

The workshop I went to in April featured two clinicians: Tom Anderson, who ran both arranging and vocal percussion classes, and Barry Carl, who ran sessions on stage presence and being aware of yourself when performing.  Both will also be teaching at VoCALNation in July.

What I liked about seeing them in January was the fact that there weren’t a bunch of other clinics and classes competing with them, which both allowed the attendees to interact more easily with them and allowed them more time to work with the attendees.  As fantastic as all of the different larger festival experiences can be, there’s something to be said for the intimacy of having just one or two clinicians working with the attendees for a more extended period of time.  It’s also a chance for people who are getting into a cappella but might not be quite ready for a CASA-festival overload to get quality instruction focused on where they are at musically at this point in their life.

3) Hosting or organizing a “local” festival is easier than you think.

Many people that are “known” in the a cappella industry are very accommodating in terms of working with your timeframe, your limited budgets, etc.   A little research can tell you who some of these industry people are within a 2-3 state radius, and many of them can teach a number of a cappella related subjects to your target audience.   Understood, there’s space consideration and other logistics to consider, but in terms of the “talent”, there are a number of options in getting relevant instructors and clinicians to participate in your local workshop/festival.  You just need to be willing to ASK, to put in the legwork and find out what the logistics will entail.  Sometimes, it’s a lot easier than you think.  In fact, two groups that have a “ready to go” clinical program just waiting for singers to benefit from it are Snowday and Transit.

I was very glad I made that January trip; it was an incredible learning experience as well as an opportunity to meet people in the a cappella industry that I admire and respect.  And I didn’t have to go to North Carolina or Los Angeles to do it.   There are many examples of this out there, from music education in the public schools initiatives like Smart Mouth and Voices Of The (603) to simply offer free singing lessons to your community.  Quality time on Google will likely unearth many more opportunities to learn a cappella in your backyard that don’t involve a road trip.

It’s proven that the larger festivals literally change lives and better our community, and that is critical.  That said, I feel that more “grass roots” opportunities like those listed here would greatly benefit a cappella performers and fans at all levels.  It would bridge the gap between “here” and “there”, so that once they experience “here”, they’re more driven to get “there”. 

Makes sense to me.

About the author:
Shawn Pearce will, in fact, be attending his first major festival this summer as an instructor for VoCALnation, as well as the pickup group coordinator for Project Philly's Summer Workshop. He is currently both the CASA Ambassador for Western Pennsylvania, a reviewer for RARB, and the owner of Value Vocals, an a cappella arranging and consultation service. He was active in the Penn State University a cappella scene for several years after college, founding two groups and directing two others while there.  Through that time, he was also CASA’s first PA Ambassador and a producer for the ICCAs.  Today, after spending several years out of a cappella, raising a family and dealing with life, he's chasing his passion once again and finding his place in today’s a cappella scene.  Those with feedback or dissenting opinions can contact him via Twitter, Facebook, or through CASA. Grace and Peace.