HomeHow the US Caught Swingle Fever

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Over the past year, The Swingle Singers just may have given the phrase “British Invasion” a whole new meaning. Sign in to Twitter and one of them is Tweeting about life on their latest tour. On the “telly,” their take on several classical songs are woven throughout the soundtrack of Fox’s hit show, “Glee.” A certain Facebook group boasts a number of photos of various Swingles bedecked in remarkable (and entertaining) “garbs of joy”. And after most of their performances, you can find them at the after-party rubbing elbows with the rest of the commoners. This multiple Grammy award-winning, eight (though they just announced they're going down to 7) member, mixed group now in its fifth decade is certainly not your parents’ Swingles.

Thanks, in no small part, to social media and technology that founder Ward Swingle’s generation could have never dreamed possible, The Swingle Singers have been able to connect with a whole new fan base an ocean away while making major inroads into the U.S. contemporary a cappella community.

On this phenomenon, Dave Sperandio, CASA’s Director of Festivals and Events, comments, “We’re a relatively small community, as these things go, and we’re spread out all over the world. We share a really focused interest in music – not just music, not just a cappella music, but contemporary a cappella music – the geekiest of the geeky possibilities there. But we love it and I think social media has given us an opportunity to share our love of that.”

“Libertango,” the group’s first, ever, music video has logged almost 160,000 views on YouTube. Over 8,000 people “like” their Facebook page and almost 2,200 people follow them on Twitter. With the hits they were getting, the group knew the audience was out there, so soprano, Jo Eteson and alto, Clare Wheeler acted quickly to further harness the power of social media. 

“We made a deliberate push about a year ago to work out who was who, what was going on, and what we should be paying attention to. I felt like, stylistically, the Swingle Singers were sort of a different beast than the other a cappella groups I knew. We don’t often perform at the same types of events or have the chance to hang out with our peers in the community. By getting involved online, that becomes less of a hindrance in connecting with other groups, especially with the US scene, as a high proportion of groups use social media,” Wheeler remarks.

Clare explains how she views social media as a glorified, high-tech word-of-mouth. “Someone tweets a YouTube video, then twenty other people re-tweet it. It’s much easier than remembering to tell someone, next time you see them, that they ought to watch it, and you’re not sure what it’s called, but search under…(snore). It’s also easy to see what people are saying about the group, and easy to get involved in conversations. For example, it’s nice when someone Tweets about some embarrassing video that resurfaced from the mid-70’s, to be able to send them a link to our ‘Libertango’ video.”

Amanda Aldag, Vice President of CASA, believes that The Swingle Singers’ social networking efforts have helped increase the U.S. a cappella community’s online presence as well. “They have had a lot of interaction with people on Twitter and started all kinds of Facebook groups that have really upped our virtual friendship to the a cappella community at large. It’s been pretty amazing and they are definitely leading the charge.”

Sperandio affirms the impact of social media on the U.S. a cappella community. “With social media, you’re just a link or a couple of clicks away from something that could potentially change your life. For events like SoJam, and LA/AF (Los Angeles A Cappella Festival,) and VoCALNation that not everybody can go to, it kind of gives us a way to carry that buzz out to the world. In that respect it certainly extends our reach.”

Aldag even goes a step further in confessing that VoCALNation (VCN), the Contemporary A Cappella League’s (CAL) first designated festival held in New York City in March of this year, came to be because of the online networking of the Swingles. “I heard Bill Hare speak very highly of Clare Wheeler and she came up as a ‘person you may know’ on Facebook. So I sent her a friend request and we started talking and had a lot of interaction on Twitter and Facebook,” Amanda recalls. “After a while I started Skyping with her, and because of the time difference and the fact that I work from home I’d be Skyping with Clare at 6am in my pajamas. In the beginning, I’d try not to giggle like a little fan girl, but I’d hang up and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, did that just happen?’”

Those informal Skype conversations, Aldag attests, are what eventually led to the Swingles’ attendance at VCN where they met and befriended a huge portion of the aca-community (which they now maintain relationships with through various social media platforms.)

“For a lot of us, when we hear the traditional style of The Swingles, it’s almost as if they are untouchable.  When they started to put themselves out there, we got to know them as people. That’s really exciting for all of us to find out that not only are they amazing musicians, but they’re also amazing people,” Amanda muses.

Tom Anderson, arranger extraordinaire and owner of Random Notes LLC, echoes Aldag’s awe as he marvels at his recent collaborative experience with The Swingles and Peter Hollens on their cover of the spiritual “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”  “I'm not sure what was the bigger thrill: getting to write for them or getting to sing with them. Either way, it was a truly spectacular experience,” Anderson remarks. “What I didn't properly appreciate before Poor Wayfaring Stranger was what a complete mastery they have of every aspect of their craft - theory, technique, performance, the whole enchilada. Plenty of groups have great vocalists; the Swingles, in addition to being outstanding singers, are also extremely dedicated students of music in general and vocal music in particular, and spending a couple of days with them in the studio was a profound study in how to step up one's game. (And it doesn't hurt that they're just as much fun AFTER the singing...)”

Sperandio seems to agree with both Anderson and Aldag. “Before I started following Clare Wheeler on Twitter, my perception of the Swingle Singers was like, ‘Woah, this is this super-unapproachable, top tier, classically trained group, and having seen them live I still feel that way, but I now know that they are approachable and they’re human beings and they like to wear crazy clothes on Wednesdays.” He continues, “I’m excited to see what Clare and The Swingles are doing with social media and with the Facebook group – it really humanizes people and I think that’s an interesting phenomenon.”

But The Swingle Singers do not leave their relationships with their “Tweeps” in the online realm. Amanda attributes the U.S. aca-community’s acceptance of the group to its members’ openness and friendliness, and the efforts they make to be contributing members of that same community. “Whenever they go somewhere, if they have someone they’ve become Twitter or Facebook buddies with, they make sure they meet them and that perpetuates the relationship online as well,” she attests.

CASA’s Boston Ambassador and founding member of Musae, Lo Barreiro can attest to this fact. “Clare is amazing at reaching out!. Just amazing.  She’s the one that started following me on Twitter and the first to chat me,” she gushes. “The best thing about The Swingles is that they are actually as genuine and nice and fun as they seem online. The first thing Jo said to me was, ‘Wow, you’re more gorgeous in person!’  I mean, what an impression!”

On this subject, Dave Sperandio adds, “When you finally meet someone that you’ve been Tweeting with for a year or two years, there’s no awkward period usually. You just pick up the conversation as if you were still Tweeting with them.” He continues, “Much like at SoJam, where you’re put into an environment where you can see all these people you’ve put on a pedestal, they’re still on that pedestal but you realize that they’re human beings and also you’re not so different, perhaps – and it’s a little inspirational. I think that’s helpful and empowering and maybe more encouraging for people than they realize.”

The more people connect with The Swingle Singers, the more they realize that, as Sperandio related, they are not so different than the rest of us. Want proof?

-They have go-to travel possessions. For bass Tobias Hug (Tobi), it’s his running shoes. Clare never leaves home without her inflatable pillow. Lucy Bailey [just leaving the group] (alto) swears by her insect repellant and soprano Sara Brimer refuses to go anywhere without her lip gloss, laptop and journal.

-They have a pre-show routine. They stretch. They sing vocal warm-ups. They review the notes from their previous performance. They have a soundcheck. The Swingle ladies enjoy their “hair and makeup” time, between soundcheck and gig, as almost a “psychological ritual,” as Clare reveals. Tobi sets aside time for exercise to assure he is physically awake and in the right frame of mind.

-They love all genres of music. Sara claims to love “literally everything,” from metal to country. Tobi listens to quite a bit of Bach instrumental music, Romantic symphonic music, and jazz, in addition to avant-garde pop, rock and electronica. Clare has a penchant for some North American acts including Beyonce, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and recently, Bon Iver. And proudly admitting to adoring “cheesy pop,” Lucy discloses, “I love Whitney and Mariah! All the stuff most people stop listening to at the age of 14!”

-They are not vocal robots. Each member of the group takes great care with his or her voice. Warm-ups are executed diligently and taken seriously. They understand the merits of proper technique and breath support and work to maintain both. They drink lots of water, avoid orange juice and milk before shows, and get as much rest as possible.

-They don’t just roll out of bed looking that good. Some members swear by exercising and spending time in the sun. Lucy depends on good foundation makeup and Clare needs her under-eye concealer. One member was even spotted in the bathroom at VCN, between workshops, curling her hair for the evening’s performance while she had a few spare moments. And one of the best perks of all their travel? Excellent shopping opportunities to supplement their onstage wardrobes!

-They yearn to connect to the audience through their music. Tobi remembers his favorite performance at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, in front of 2800 people, for a charity for children in Haiti. His words cut to the heart of what drives just about every a cappella singer: “The atmosphere was just electric and the way La Scala is built, you are, despite its size, never too far away even from the people in the last row on the top balcony. I felt like we were completely connected to each and every person in the audience…Those moments are a kind of religious experience for me, because when everything is in tune, in harmony, you feel like a vessel that the music flows through. Everything is connected.”

And connected they are. Whether by Twitter or toasting at an after-party, The Swingle Singers have set the standard for not only what it means to excel in the a cappella genre, but also for facilitating the idea of community among its enthusiasts.

As Clare reflects on her childhood, she draws a parallel between her early years in Africa and the U.S. contemporary a cappella community. “As a toddler, I lived in a tiny village in South Sudan. My parents would let me out of the house in the morning and I would roam around wherever I wanted. It didn’t matter whose home I was in – someone would always bring me home. The bishop once told my parents, ‘Do you think she is your child alone? She belongs to all of us.’ I think one of the reasons so many are so committed to a cappella [in the U.S] is the sense of community they reap that is so rare to find in the West.”

The warm feelings the U.S. has for The Swingle Singers are certainly mutual. When asked why she enjoys being a part of the U.S. aca-community, Sara explained, “The U.S. has something special - an AMAZING amount of talent just oozing from everywhere. Also I find people aren’t afraid to sing a cappella in the U.S. It’s a thing to be proud of. We are really happy to be involved in such a happening scene.”

Tobi has an incredible amount of respect for the part CASA has played in the U.S. “The contemporary scene is more active [in the U.S.] than any country on the globe, really open and well-organized. And there are so many genuinely great people involved with running it – from the CASA board and Ambassadors to all the volunteers at the festivals!”

Clare admits she is “still a little baffled” at the level of support The Swingles have had in the U.S. “I can safely declare on behalf of the group that the U.S. is one of our favourite places to tour. It seems that everywhere we go, we meet wonderful people, some of whom I know will be lifelong friends.” She goes on to say, “It has become increasingly evident that CASA has set the tone for groups to be encouraging of one another, rather than competitive in a way I’ve not been so keenly aware of elsewhere. People we barely know have welcomed us into their homes and into their lives – what better way is there to live out the idea of “community”?

Perhaps Lucy puts it best, though, when she ruminates, “I think it all comes down to the fact that everyone in the a cappella community has the same thing in common: we all love to sing, be it professional or just for fun. We are all fans of each other’s work and respect one another as musicians, so when meeting for the first time it’s like we are already friends! That is what I love about it, that it feels like a massive family that we have been welcomed into with open arms.”

The Swingle Singers’ Official Website

About the author:
Jenn Fiduccia, North Carolina’s CASA Ambassador, swears that a cappella music saved her life. Trapped as a political science/pre-law, yuppie-in-the-making at Boston College, she auditioned (on a dare) for the newly-founded BC Dynamics and quickly realized that if she did not pursue a career in music, she would most surely die of heartbreak (Fiduccia also claims a slight flare for the dramatic.) After two colleges and three different majors, Jennifer graduated from New York University as a vocal performance major with a concentration in music business. After college, Ms. Fiduccia spent her time as a professional soloist in the New York metro area singing with a number of vocal and instrumental ensembles, performing in various theatrical productions and appearing on several different recording projects. In addition, she worked for ten years as a Music Minister and Youth Minister in the Catholic Church, where she created and directed two different worship music ensembles. In 2009, Jenn left the great state of New Jersey (*fistpump*) for North Carolina (although she vehemently denies that the move was orchestrated to be closer to the SoJam a cappella festival.) She set up house in Wake Forest with her husband and four children and has since had a hand in founding and directing two different CAL groups in the Raleigh area.  When she is not playing referee or chauffer, she takes pleasure in sipping wine on her front porch, going to Zumba class at the gym, and arranging nursery rhyme remixes for the kids.