HomeBlogsbspaldin's blogAn Interview With Michael Meyer of Durham Academy's XIV Hours

One of the best parts about working with CASA is getting the chance to talk to all of the high school directors out there. It’s so awesome to see so many directors working tirelessly to help their contemporary a cappella groups get an amazing experience. Michael Meyer with XIV Hours is no exception to this. In the past couple years, they have recorded two CD’s and just recently took first place at Sing Strong. I can tell you without a doubt that one of my favorite high school CD’s of all time is their Acapelican EP. The songs “Ring Ring” and “Earth” set their recordings apart from other high school groups in the field. It’s time to relax and enjoy the following interview with Michael Meyer of XIV Hours. 

Q. Tell me about XIV Hours
A: A few years ago, I started some Lunchtime Music Groups as a way to provide a more casual music-making experience for kids who either couldn't fit a music class into their schedules or for those looking to try something new.  As part of the kick-off for these groups (and as a way to encourage music as a lifetime activity in our students), I invited Tar Heel Voices, the group I sang with when I was in college, to come and perform.  A group of adults that I was singing with at the time performed as well.

More than any other Lunchtime Groups, the a cappella group really took off in popularity.  My largest ensemble since I started at Durham Academy in 2003 was 39 kids in my chorus class.  By the beginning of the third year, the a cappella group had over 100 kids signed up -- over 25% of the Upper School's student population!  A number of kids approached me about starting a second, auditioned group for kids who wanted to be more hardcore about this a cappella thing.  And so, XIV Hours was born.

Nowadays, the big group -- which now goes by the name Acapocalypse -- hovers around 70-80 kids (and a few fellow faculty members!) who invade my classroom every Tuesday at lunch.  XIV Hours is now in its third year -- 16 kids, plus my colleague, who is a math teacher singing bass, and me beatboxing.

Q: How long has this group been in existence?
A: Acapocalypse has now been around 5 years.  XIV Hours is in its third year.

Q: Tell me about the success of the group and give me some background history on the group. 
Well, The Acapelican EP got a track selected for Sing 7 ("Earth") and BOHSA 2010-2011 ("Ring Ring" mashup).  The CD was nominated for a Best High School Album CARA, and "Earth" won the CARA for Best High School Song.  As I said, we were blown away.

Last school year was a big one for XIV Hours, as we really expanded our reach in the local community.  A highlight was performing a pre-game 30-minute set and then the National Anthem for a Durham Bulls baseball game.  We also were able to throw together a last-minute trip to Nashville to audition for "The Sing-Off".  We didn't make it onto the show, but the audition (and the set we performed at the Hard Rock Cafe in Nashville afterwards) were fantastic experiences for the kids.

We were doing so well and had learned so much more music in the second year, we went ahead and recorded a second CD (There Is No I In A Cappella), which came out this past August.  One song from that CD ("Follow Me Back Into the Sun") has been nominated for a CARA too -- fingers are crossed!

This year, the SingStrong a cappella festival happened to work out for all of our kids -- which usually is virtually impossible in the spring because so many of the kids play sports and have other things going on.  So we were really happy to attend the conference, and were very excited to have been selected as one of the groups for the High School competition!  This was our first time doing a live competition, so it was really a new experience for us.  We were rehearsing hard as the festival approached.  And on the Sunday of the festival, we got to do a one-hour coaching with Ben Bram -- the kids (and I) were way excited about that!

Q: Is this a class or an extra curricular activity?
Extracurricular.  In its first year, XIV Hours met during lunch on a different day of the week.  By the second year, we realized we needed more time than just lunch would afford.  So Acapocalypse still meets Tuesdays at lunch, and XIV Hours rehearses every Sunday night for an hour and a half.  The XIV Hours kids are required to be part of Acapocalypse as well, so they know when they audition that they are signing up for both groups.

Q: Have you seen your overall choral program grow because of this group? 
My choral program?  No.  My music program?  Yes.  At DA I'm the only music teacher in the Upper School, so my ensembles (whatever their nature) all feed off of each other.  DA's a small school -- only 400 kids in the Upper School -- and I only have one chorus, one band, and no official string program.  Our two top-level ensembles are XIV Hours (an extracurricular a cappella group) and In The Pocket, a jazz/rock band that has the makeup of a sixties soul group.  I think I'm one of the few programs around whose two top-level ensembles specialize in pop music.

As I said before, my chorus has topped out at 39 kids -- this year, there's only 23.  But the numbers in my classes have always ebbed and flowed.  I think of the "success" of my program more in terms of how many kids are involved with music in at least some kind of way at school.  Between my five classes, the two a cappella groups, the other lunchtime groups, and the cast and pit band of our winter musical, that's between 130-150 kids making music at Durham Academy.  We've experienced tremendous growth in the past few years -- and a cappella has been a huge part of that growth.

Q: I have to admit that your EP last year, The Acapelican is one of my favorite high school CD's of all time.  What brought about that project? Who arranged the music on that CD? Who does most of the groups arranging in general?

Many thanks!  It was a lot of fun to do and we were amazed at the reception it got.  XIV Hours had started that October, and in the spring I thought, "It would be really good to get this stuff recorded. We've already got a really good group, we should do this."

I'd been working with Carl Taylor of Liquid 5th Productions since that first kick-off assembly with Tar Heel Voices and my adult group.  We host an A Cappella Jam every January with other high school and college groups in the area and Carl always does the sound for that as well.  So I gave him a call to ask about recording and we were able to work it out!  I think what made it easier and more financially viable was that we were only recording four songs -- they were the only four songs that we knew!

The music on the CD, and just about all the music that both groups do, is arranged by me.  There have been a few exceptions where I have pulled out an old THV arrangement that a friend of mine had done, but for the most part I arrange things as we go.  A few of my students have started taking on arranging themselves -- both a cappella and for our other auditioned ensemble at DA, a jazz/rock group -- so on our second CD, one of the songs is arranged by a student and myself collaboratively.

Q: How often do you plan on recording a CD?
Once every few years is probably tops.  We recorded the first CD on a whim.  We recorded the second only a year later because we had learned a lot and because 13 of the 16 members (most of whom were founding members) were going to be graduating.  It seemed like a good idea to get those tracks down while they were still around.

But if you want to do it well, recording is an expensive process -- between the tracking, the editing and mixing, the reproduction, the licensing -- and we even took care of a number of steps (like graphic design) ourselves to save money.  I can't see us doing that with too much frequency.  At the end of the day, we're still a school, and I have to be honest about whether we're making recordings for educational reasons, or just for vanity. I really like the idea of raising XIV Hours' profile in the a cappella world, but that comes at a price.

Q: What advice would you give to anyone starting an a cappella group?
1. Take who you can get.  Don't be picky -- an interested person is always better than a more talented, but less interested, person.

2. Musically, start small -- pre-published arrangements, block chords in the block -- things that are relatively easy to get and sound great right away.  You want your members to feel successful from the start.

The two best things I did, at least in my high school setting, were: 

(1) having the performances by Tar Heel Voices and my adult group at the kick-off. Honestly, THV knocked it out of the park that morning -- all the students saw and heard was good music and young people having fun.  Despite the rich college a cappella tradition at UNC and NC State and (literally two miles down the road) at Duke, the vast majority of DA's students at the time had no idea what a cappella was.

(2) following my own advice in the second point above.  By the end of the first lunchtime meeting -- 40 minutes with 40 or 50 kids -- they were already singing through the block parts of most of a song.  They were tittering as they walked out.

Q:What advice would you give to anyone recording a CD?
Follow your heart, and make the CD you want to make.  If you are only interested in capturing what that year's group sounds like for yearbook-type purposes, then just do that and don't even bother putting it out to the public beyond your own parents and school community.

For our first CD, I knew I wanted to capture what we were doing, but I didn't want to do it unless we were going to do it "right."  That's why I hired Carl and Liquid 5th.  We didn't really know what we were doing so Carl helped us through the process and it worked out really well.

For our second CD, we had started paying too much attention to RARB reviews and our CARA nominations and were so focused with making a CD that was better than the first. We were thinking about what we thought people wanted to hear, or what song or arrangement or soloist would get picked by CASA this time around, etc.  And I think we did make a better CD, but RARB didn't agree and we didn't get as many accolades.  I was disappointed with that at first, but after more thought I realized we were going about it all wrong.  We shouldn't have been so focused on what we thought other people wanted, as opposed to making decisions because WE thought they were the right ones.  And as I said before, in the high school setting particularly it's not worth it if what you're doing isn't actually a learning experience or educationally appropriate for the kids.  So I'm not sure I'm as focused on recording in the future as I was these past few years.  But who knows? I'll probably end up making one every other year anyway.

Q: Anything else that you would like for CASA and the high school a cappella world to know?
Earlier in my career I used to go back and forth a lot on the idea of popular music in a music education setting.  I was good at doing pop music, but was filled with doubt about whether I was doing right by my students.  What I've realized is that "it's all good" -- as long as what you're doing is quality music, provided in context, pedagogically sound, and educationally viable in some way (and there's many ways to define that) -- then any music that you can perform well and that kids will enjoy provides them a valuable learning experience.

I'm still always working to make my teaching more effective, my reach into the student population go further, my approach to repertoire throughout my program more contextualized.  But I don't regret for a second bringing a cappella into that mix.

It's a big topic on the various CASA sites and forums -- are you done with a cappella once you graduate out of your college group?  My answer for a long time (I graduated UNC in 1996, for crying out loud) was "yeah, probably."  But my experience over the past five years has definitely changed that answer.  I never dreamed my 37-year-old self would still be on stage beatboxing with a bunch of teenagers -- but I love every minute of it.

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.