HomeThe Nor'easters Innovate Their Way To A SoJam Win

Florian Städtler's picture

Interviewer: Florian Städtler, Vocal Blog founder
Interviewees: Shams Ahmed (Musical Director), David Crozier (President)

My second trip to Raleigh, NC was no less spectacular than my first SoJam trip: fantastic live a cappella music, great workshops and panels and too many interesting people to meet in only three days (and nights). Was this year’s professional showcase better than last year’s? Can you compare the blast we had with The Boxettes and Naturally7 with the unbelievable shows by The Edge Effect, Pentatonix and FORK? Yes, you can…well, no you can’t. And why should you? – the only way to do it right is to be present at both nights and marvel about it whenever you meet a poor soul who missed one or both.

To use my favourite hashtag of SoJamX: #WTFork!? Because: The true surprise was the difference between former US collegiate a cappella and SoJam’s Collegiate A Cappella Competition. Although I - coming from a country where there’s a) no collegiate a cappella at all and b) not that kind of competitive musical spirit – still have to get used to the seriousness and sheer will of US vocal music competitors, I have to say: the level of singing and performing, the dedication and the musical results were simply astounding.

And so it was a great privilege to meet two of the movers and shakers of this year’s winners, Northeastern's Nor’easters. Here’s what we talked about on the NCSU campus:

FS: First of all: Congratulations for winning the SoJam Collegiate A Cappella Competition. One probably doesn’t end up being the winner of that kind of competition without making some extra efforts. How did your work change after you were invited to the event?

NE: We definitely had to schedule more rehearsals, we definitely had to increase the duration of our rehearsals. We focused a lot more on things we know were important in competitions, for example choreography which we normally don’t do a lot of. We normally do the ICCA each year, which takes place in spring, but SoJam came so quickly in the fall, so we had to get on top of our game very fast.

FS: What does this mean in terms of time invested in rehearsals?

NE: When not in competition season, we typically rehearse on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays, about two hours a day. As we got closer to the competition, we had to feel how prepared we were and when we had to add extra time for whatever reason. For SoJam we ended up rehearsing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, probably for two-and-a-half to five hours a day. So this was a big, big commitment.

FS: …it seemed to have paid off. Wow, five rehearsals a week, that’s amazing. Let’s talk a bit about repertoire. Tell our readers about the process of choosing songs, especially for a rather short competition performance.

NE: The funny thing is, SoJam didn’t let us know that we were joining the competition for quite a while, we didn’t know what the competition was all about on behalf of the video submissions. We had no clue as whether we would be chosen at all. But we still wanted to be prepared in the event that we were chosen. So our musical team selected a set to gauge what the group felt about it. We presented it to the group, the group more or less enjoyed the selections we made, but after a bit of sleeping on it, the group asked for a new song selection process. So we actually chose a couple of different songs here and there. We decided to go for a few songs from last year’s ICCA, which we thought were strong and suited for the elimination format. We ended up sitting in a room for five and a half hours and just wrote down a bunch of songs on the board. Everybody came up with three to seven ideas they had, we wrote them all up on the board, listened to all of the songs on YouTube and did a quick vote to see what the group thought about this particular song.

FS: What were the practical criteria for choosing a song, regarding the special situation at a competition?

NE: There are pretty specific targets at the four SoJam rounds. The first one was “Come as You Are”, which means bringing everything you’re good at…so we’re good at being large and loud and innovative, yes, bombastic, that’s why we wanted to pick a song that had a really powerful chorus and something where we could manipulate the bridge and really make sure people were feeling what we were doing. So we had a blending on “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris.

The second round was the visual round and for that we thought, “choreo requires some time to learn”, and since we already had choreography learned for “Cold War” from our ICCA season last year we decided to bring that in and revamp it. In the innovation round we decided to go with Justin Bieber’s “As Long as You Love Me”. Well, the Nor’easters generally love songs that are heavy on the emotional side, that’s something we really enjoy doing. We like singing songs that make the audience feel in a very direct way. Justin Bieber is not necessarily an artist that we would typically cover, because it’s pure pop, it’s very mainstream and so that was probably a bold choice on our part. But we were really glad that we made that choice. Because we thought, “if any round’s gonna have a Justin Bieber song it’s the innovation round”, and so I thought about it for a while, I ran through a bunch of ideas. My first idea was to do a choral thing, but I said no, too
many other groups tend to do this. So, I thought about an Afro-tribal way of doing it. But finally I got a call from my Mum and we were talking about my trip to Bangladesh in the winter break and I ended up on a Bollywood take on it.

FS: Apart from the competition repertoire – there’s a lot of discussion in the community about doing covers and/or originals. What’s your perspective on that?

NE: It would be amazing to do an original song. We just haven’t – at this point – had the opportunity and nobody in our group has come up with an a cappella original...yet!
I think, if we were presented with the opportunity, we would definitely jump on it. On the other hand, when Shams does our arrangements, it’s so stripped down and different, it almost feels like original pieces.

FS: Competitions have become very popular, not only in America, but everywhere in the world. Some people say that music should rather be done together than against each other. What’s your opinion on that?

NE: I think that overall – while I agree that pitting groups against each other carries that sensibility – competitions allow for groups to have a tangible goal and have a reason why they should be striving to be better and think that overall it’s really good for the a cappella community at large to have competitions. Groups start to create identities for themselves and at the end of the day they can add more to the conversation.

We also try to instil in our new members that it’s important to set a good example for the younger members in the group: Be on time for rehearsals always, be positive at rehearsals and contribute.

One more thing about the competition question: One great fact is that you see and hang out with groups that you have never seen before. Some of best “group friends” are groups that we met through competitions and now we’re exchanging e-mails telling them when we come to their city and vice versa. This might give us opportunities to travel to new places and we will invite other groups to Boston, too. And to know that they are as enthusiastic as we are is just awesome.

FS: Let’s get back to the practical side of Friday’s performance. Was it possible for you to relax during the competition or is that impossible because of the presence of the judges?

NE: We always try to perform like in a rehearsal, with each other, for each other, just having a large audience watching us and we just try to give ourselves to the audience. We consider performing on stage our home and we want to invite people to feel at home and really take them on our journey with us. We try to get ourselves in that mindset as opposed to seeing people assessing us.

Nerves definitely play a part, especially at SoJam with 1500 people watching, there’s such a surge and you try to remember all the things you need to do, on the other hand you just try to enjoy the moment. It’s all about taking in the audience and using their energy as best as you can.

FS: Your victory kicked off the festival. Apart from winning, what were your favourite festival moments here at SoJam?

NE: I think unanimously we can say it was the masterclass with Pentatonix. That was actually a magical experience for us. We started off walking into a giant room with people waiting for us and appreciating the work we put into our competition set. What we did then was actually a rehearsal and we were given feedback by Pentatonix – amazing.
This sparked a lot of news ideas for all of our members and inspired our younger members to do more and want more in the future.

FS: Speaking of Pentatonix, let’s have a look at the stars of the festival. Pentatonix was formed from a trio of collegiate singers. How would you describe their music today?

NE: Pentatonix are tight, pristine, innovative pop. They are extremely fresh, their material is always very cutting-edge, they take music that people know, mainstream music and put a completely different spin on it. We are constantly inspired by them and I think it would be a lie if any collegiate group in the country right now wasn’t saying that they gain some inspiration from Pentatonix. It’s a huge, huge asset for everyone. And: They make me think about songs I normally wouldn’t think about.

FS: You probably all watched “The Sing-Off”. Do you think this has helped contemporary vocal music in the US?

NE: “The Sing-Off” has done wonders for contemporary a cappella moving into the mainstream. We get regular viewers that have not been in the community at large. It helps this genre of music to turn become a more widely accepted thing. I think that “The Sing-Off” has done a lot for the community and I think this has only just begun.

A cappella has the stigma of just being an extension of choral music and “The Sing-Off” proved that wrong. It was a great way to separate the two – they are so different.

FS: Being the winner of the United States’ most prestigious festival competition must be extremely exciting, what does it mean for the future of your group?

NE: We have a few things in the works for the coming year: we compete every year in the Collegiate Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) and we have just submitted for that and hope we will be selected. Preparation for that will take a lot of our time. We also have the next CASA festival in Boston, which is called BOSS and we will be hosting that. We are so excited to work with CASA closely and we’ve been organizing that for the past couple of months now. And of course we have a number of concerts on our campus, the next one is a concert “best of the Northestern region”, where we invite several groups from around the area to just perform with us in a non-competitive, fun environment and we are looking forward to sharing music with each other. In terms of what we see for our group development-wise now that we have that amazing accolade under our belts, there are even more reasons for us do strive to do even better. We’re definitely looking to expand, we would like to travel more, as travelling down to North Carolina was such a positive experience for us in terms of the whole social aspects of our group. We really enjoyed being together on this weekend in a different place and we want to repeat this and learn more. And finally we want to try to be innovative with every new piece we do.

FS: That sounds fantastic, all the best for you and your group and thanks for the interview.

Here is a list of the members in the Nor'easters (along with voice part and office role.) Keep up the good a cappella work!

Meghan Bliss - Soprano
Samantha Creighton - Soprano
Johanna Martendal - Mezzo
Jessie Litwin - Mezzo
Noorjehan Khan - Alto
Jill Gleason - Alto
Emily Shanny - Alto
Robert Oham - Tenor (Assistant Music Director)
Brian Leon - Tenor (Treasurer)
Ty Myers - Tenor (Secretary)
Shams Ahmed - Tenor/Baritone (Music Director)
Tom Fiset - Baritone (Web Master)
Michael Stopa - Baritone
Jimmy George - Bass (Business Manager/Publicity Director)
David Crozier - Bass (President)
Beejul Khatri - Vocal Percussion

[photos courtesy Michael Eldredge]

About the writer:
Florian Städtler, born 1970, is an agent, blogger and event planner based in Freiburg, Germany. He studied music at the Jazz & Rock Schule Freiburg and graduated in electric guitar in 1995.

Florian is founder and owner of SpielPlanVier EventMarketing (www.spielplanvier.com), founder of Vocal Blog (www.vocal-blog.net, his “global vocal music communication baby”), co-founder of the vocal music online shop Acappellazone (www.acappellazone.com) and Chairman of the Board of the European Voices Association (www.europeanvoices.net).