HomeThe A Cappella Project: Project-Philly

Six years ago, while grieving the death of a family member, Jennifer Steinberg found comfort and healing in a cappella music.

A few short months before her 17-year-old cousin, Andrea Fiordimondo, passed away from illness, Steinberg had attended a concert of her high school a cappella group, Ace Harmony. “Ani,” as she was known by her peers, had performed a solo, “Fall from Grace,” by Amanda Marshall.

At the hospital, dozens of singers gathered to say their goodbyes to Ani. Wanting to hear her cousin’s beautiful voice again, Steinberg asked where she could get a CD of the spring concert and they pointed her in the direction of Joshua Hunnex, the group’s leader and a music teacher at Lower Merion High School in the Philadelphia suburbs.

A partnership and a friendship were born.

The two spoke several times over the next few months, both sharing their love of a cappella and a desire to form a post-collegiate group. Hunnex, a music education major, had been a member of the Pennharmonics at Penn State. Steinberg, a theater major, had formed her own a cappella group at Oberlin College.

“Ever since leaving college, I’d missed singing a cappella, and the idea for a group of adults had always been in the back of my head,” Hunnex said. “I realized that between friends of mine who were a cappella veterans and some students of mine that had graduated within the past couple years, I could probably put together a full group.”

The A Cappella Project-Philadelphia, also known as Project-Philly, began in the summer of 2006. The group was composed of some of the recent high school grads and post-collegiate singers the first year. Together, they put on a benefit concert with proceeds benefiting the Ani Fiordimondo Performing Arts Scholarship Fund .

“Since then we’ve used her [Ani’s] memory as an inspiration and it has helped us mold and focus our organizational goals,” Hunnex said.

Today, Project-Philly is a registered charitable organization dedicated to “spreading the fun of contemporary a cappella and supporting arts education in the Philadelphia area.” Project sponsors two full-sized coed a cappella groups each summer. The groups rehearse in June and July and present a benefit concert in August. The groups are made up of college students home for the summer and young adults who have graduated from college. The concert is used as a showcase for the summer’s work, as well as a fundraiser for the scholarship fund for the Walnut Street Theater. Ani had spent her summers participating in the summer program there.

When Project-Philly singers return to college each fall, the adults come together to form a single coed group called “Reverb.” It gives them an opportunity to sing throughout the academic year, just like their collegiate counterparts. Reverb runs from October to April, with a break in December-January. Instead of live performances, Reverb focuses on recording their repertoire, which this year included current hits like Cee Lo’s “F*** You” song to the more obscure, such as Aslyn’s “Wally.” Members are encouraged to arrange music so that they can then teach and direct songs.

Project-Philly also offers workshops and other tools to succeed in a contemporary a cappella group, including arranging styles and techniques, sight-reading, vocal percussion and group management.

“Project fills an important void. It provides an outlet for a cappella singers post-college and fills a need for an ensemble that is really accessible to the community,” Hunnex said. “We try to be as inclusive as possible, rather than sticking rigidly to an ideal format and leaving everybody else high and dry.”

Membership in Reverb is done by audition. This year, demand was so high that Reverb formed two separate groups. Steinberg credits the popularity to strong word of mouth and the wonders of Google (“we come up first if you type in Philadelphia a cappella.”)

Hunnex goes a step further: A cappella groups are lacking outside of the collegiate setting, both for people older and younger than traditional college age. Project-Philly fills a void.

“Younger students are increasingly being exposed to a cappella, but there are few opportunities for post-collegiate singers in the traditional a cappella format,” he said.  “Over the past 20 years there has been a drive towards professionalism in so-called ‘community’ ensembles that leaves behind the hobbyist musician. Project-Philly strives for excellence, but we're not looking to be the next professional hotshot group. “ 

Caitlin Liston, one of the original Ace Harmony and Project-Philly members, said the experience of singing in both Project and Reverb has been an incredible one.

“I went to a university that did not have a coed a cappella group so being able to sing during the summer really helped fill that spot,” she said. “When I graduated and was asked if I wanted to sing in Reverb, I knew that I wanted more a cappella in my life. I immediately said yes.”

As membership coordinator, Steinberg said her goal is to get as many people involved in the enjoyment of singing, because ultimately, that’s what matters.

“The group was founded not only on passion for a cappella and singing, but the driving force was finding something amazing and positive in a devastating tragedy,” Steinberg said. “The nuts and bolts of the organization are emotionally tied to the group. The newer people that come in may not know the backstory and that’s ok. But the bottom line is – we want everyone to love it as much as we do.”

This year’s A Cappella Project Philadelphia Benefit Concert will be held on Friday, August 12, 2011 at 7:30 pm at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, PA. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.projectphilly.org

-Michele Besso Cohen

About the author:
Michele Besso Cohen is Assistant Director of Communications at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. Prior to that, she worked at the Delaware College of Art & Design and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter. Michele sang in The Golden Blues, the oldest coed a cappella group at the University of Delaware and in a post-collegiate all female group, Nothing But Treble, in Delaware. She currently sings alto in the City Line Singers, a coed a cappella group in Philadelphia, and in The A Cappella Project - Project Philly. She lives in Philadelphia.