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...or Confessions of a Serial Group Starter

I've apparently become a junior grade Mr. Tim.  I start and nurture cappella groups.  In doing this, I've identified a couple of make-or-break factors that might interest others who want to start post-collegiate groups.

Four years ago, Memphis was a wasteland when it came to contemporary a cappella.  I just wanted to relive my collegiate a cappella experience, and I would have much rather joined an existing group, but there were no groups to join, so I had to start my own group to sing the kind of music I wanted.  DeltaCappella is thriving, but I have made some missteps along the way that I hope others can avoid.

Starting an a cappella group is a challenge in general, but starting one in the post-collegiate world has special challenges that you won't encounter in college.  If you're coming out of a college environment, you're likely to make the same mistakes I did.  Here's my list of four important things you should not overlook:

You must be a strong leader and willing to work. 
This is the single most important factor in the success of a post-collegiate contemporary a cappella group.  If you just sang with a group in college but didn't have a leadership role, you may not have any idea about how much effort is involved to keep things running smoothly.  You can't just convene with some friends and start singing for the fun of it.  Your group will not make it.

When I first started DeltaCappella, I just wanted to sing, so I let someone else be music director and arrange gigs.  But no one had the passion or drive that I had for the success of the group, and eventually I had to take over these duties.  I've since delegated certain duties to various other members, and the more established a group is, the more you can divide up the leadership roles--one person can be music director, and another can run the business aspects of the group, while another is the arranger.  But initially, you have to do it all.

Don't try to replicate your college a cappella experience. 
Unless everyone in your post-collegiate group formerly sang in the same collegiate group, there is no way you can replicate the culture and repertoire of your college group.  Let your new group have its own personality and direction.  As the leader, you can shape that personality and direction, but if you try to lead by forcing others to conform to what you want, you'll find yourself singing in a group of one.

For instance, your music choices in a post-collegiate group will almost certainly be different from those of your college group.  As a post-collegiate group, your target audience is much broader than the narrow scope of a college campus.  You need to sing a wider variety of songs to appeal to people of all ages.  Yes, you'll probably have to sing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."  Get over it.  You can learn it in five minutes, no printed music necessary.  It will probably become your most requested song.

Start with easy music. 
When you finished college, you had been singing with many of the same people for a full year and sometimes several years, and you undoubtedly were singing some complex music.  Don't start with this.  Remember how you sounded at the beginning of the year.  Now imagine how you might have sounded at the beginning of the year if there were no returning members in your college group.  That's what you face when you start a group from scratch in the post-collegiate world.

And furthermore, once you've started with some simple songs and can quickly sing them fairly well, don't feel compelled to dive into more complex music.  DeltaCappella sounded halfway decent from the very beginning; we were singing simple four-part songs from the CASA Songbooks.  I thought, "Great, let's try this eight-part piece I did in college."  But our young group got bogged down in the harder music and interest waned.  We lost a few members who decided we were never going to be good enough to sing complex music, when in reality, we simply weren't ready for the complex music yet.

Spouses, families, and significant others are a part of your group. 
Be mindful of people's time.  In college, you can stay up into the wee hours of the morning to brainstorm funny skits, and you can rehearse every night for a week straight if you have a big concert coming up.  In college, you can skip classes.  Not so in the real world.  Jobs and spouses and kids demand attention.  Even girlfriends can exert significant influence on their boyfriends.  Travel time counts too: on college campuses, you can get to a rehearsal in five or ten minutes, but in the real world, people travel 30 minutes or more to get to a rehearsal, and time away from family starts when you leave home, not when rehearsal actually starts.

In the South we have a saying, "If mama ain't happy, ain't no one happy."  In other words, if the wife objects that the husband is spending too much time with the a cappella group, you can be assured that the husband will not be in the a cappella group much longer.

If you start an a cappella group, be prepared to be decisive and work hard and understand that no matter how much you want otherwise, it's going to be different from college.

Since starting DeltaCappella a little over three years ago, I've had at least a dozen people approach me and ask them to help start a group.  Of the people that have taken the next step, I've helped one group successfully start, another one start and fail, and there is one more group being formed.  I never heard back from the other seven people who've approached me; clearly, they weren't ready to do a lot of work...worthwhile work, but work nonetheless.

Because of this newfound interest in a cappella, local venues are starting to book acts such as Take 6, Naturally 7, Sonos, New York Voices, Anonymous 4, and Rockapella, all of whom have performed in Memphis within the past two years. 

It's really great to be on the front end of a trend.  Start something big in your city too.

About the author:
Jay Mednikow runs his family’s 100-year-old jewelry business in Memphis.  He sang with the Harvard Din & Tonics while in college and with the Duke Pitchforks while in business school.  Then he took a 17-year break from a cappella, because in 1990, there were very few avenues available to continue singing a cappella music after school.  But in 2007, Jay’s desire to do it again led him to found DeltaCappella, a twelve-man contemporary a cappella group that was a charter member of the Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL).  He has become an avid proponent of post-collegiate a cappella music.  Jay’s wife and three children, thankfully, support him in his musical endeavors.


Great Points!

Hey, Jay.

Thanks for the wisdom.  May I say, everything you said here is true.  I tried to start a group (in Central Texas) after leaving Deltacappella and found out that, regardless of my passion, my work ethic wasn't what it needed to be for the group.  I just wanted to sing.  I'm going to try again in the next 6 months...this time with a renewed focus and a clearer idea of what my expectations for the group really should be.

Great notes

Having run Frequency for a year now I can say that I agree completely with the wisdom of the advice, even as I don't have a collegiate background.

I will add one thing that I feel has sustained me through many a moment where I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into:  This community at CASA and my local A cappella community.  There are so many resources for support and education from people who have done it before, or are doing it now, and share your passion.  You can't even guarantee that the members of your new group will know what Contemporary A cappella is before they show up to audition, nevermind what's going on in the whole of the community.  This will lead to experiential differences of opinion and can make the strongest leader question their decision-making process when no one else understands what you're looking for, not to mention the simple reality that you might have never had to distribute a group paycheck before or create a press-kit.

So the last item I would add to this list is JOIN CASA, go to Events, meet people, educate yourself using the hard-earned knowledge of those who came before you, ask questions, make friends who do share your level of passion so you don't feel alone or crazy if the people in your new group don't quite rise to that level, and support other people who are trying to do it as well to keep the circle going.

And thank you to all the people here who have helped me write this comment.  :)

We are kin, I swear.

Can you hear me, Jay?  I am giving you a standing o from here :)

Great post Jay!

I love to hear about other post-collegiate groups and this was a great post.  Can I add another "real world" difference?  Everyone in college was pretty much in the same boat - all were obviously at the same point in their lives but also tended to have the same passion and commitment level.  We had no other true responsibilities.

In the real world, everyone has different jobs and life stresses therefore group members are only able to give so much.  It used to frustrate me, as co-director, that I couldn't get some ladies to spend time outside of rehearsal on group related matters, either learning parts or helping with other aspects of the group.  I've really tried to take a step back and accept that everyone is coming from a different place and that I shouldn't expect them to be as obsessed as I am with every detail of the group.  We do strongly suggest that everyone have a role in my group but those roles vary greatly in terms of time commitment so each gives what she can.  That way, hopefully, everyone feels like they are contributing to the well-being of the group (not just to the sound) and always feel tightly connected.  Fingers crossed we'll be around for another 14 years!

- Meredith Strang


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