HomeLessons Learned: A CAL Retrospective

2011 marks the 5th anniversary of Euphonism, the CAL group, that I helped start with Amanda Aldag and 3 other aca-ficionados in the basement of a member's home in DC.

It's been a journey that has provided invaluable experiences and lessons that have helped to shape and mold me into the person that I am today.

My foray into a cappella as a passion began with this group. You can read about how this group formed in the CAL feature in which Amanda was interviewed awhile back. Personally, I had almost no experience singing in an ensemble, arranging, singing in bass clef, percussing vocally, rehearsing regularly, and last but not least performing in this style of music for an audience.  My singing experience was mostly limited to karaoke, talent shows, and church. I had no idea what I was signing up for.

I’d like to take you on a historical journey of Euphonism’s development from DC Craigslist ad to vocal band that has had the privilege to open for amazing groups like Sonos, Duwende, and the Swingle Singers, and the lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

Lessons Learned:

Year 1: Inception - Not the movie, but the official creation of this group.

1. Forming a group from scratch is exhilarating but also very demanding if you want to keep it alive. Be prepared to spend countless hours on determining the vision/mission/goals of the group, the name, rehearsal schedule to accommodate everyone’s lives, and creating a repertoire out of thin air that everyone can agree to.

2. Dream BIG and even bigger things may land in your lap. Our first public performance just happened to be in front of 20,000 hockey fans (go CAPS!) to sing the "Star Spangled Banner". Did we ever dream of doing something as big/huge as this? No. We dreamt of getting gigs in the DMV area in cool music venues that would support a cappella, and one day being able to be well known enough to be a "regular" at a venue.

3. Work hard and set expectations, but never lose sight of why you're doing this. Having FUN. We entered the Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes on a whim, just to see what we could do, and to use it as a measuring stick against some of the more established groups out there. We worked hard for about two weeks to change our 3-song set into a performance. It was hard work, but a lot of fun at the same time and we ended up placing, which was totally unexpected.

Year 2: Growing Pains

1. Never assume everyone in the group will get along right away because you share a common passion. Not all aca-people are wired the same way when it comes to how they act in person, on stage, or in rehearsal. Some groups will go through a storming phase a bit longer if there are differing visions/goals and multiple strong opinions, before reaching, ahem, harmony.

2. Being in a CAL group is not the same as being in a college group when it comes to continuity, especially when it's a group with less than 10 members.  It seemed as if we had a revolving door for the first couple of years because members would leave every six months for a variety of different circumstances.

Year 3: Two steps forward, one step back

1. Always look to upgrade when you are holding auditions for new members. Whenever a member leaves a group, you need to not only bring in someone that can sing their parts (sop, alto, tenor, bass, vp, etc.), but also will be just as GREAT (talented, dedicated, cooperative, and etc.) to have in the group. My group has been extremely fortunate that in each audition (pretty much once every year), the talent level and awesome personalities have increased. We seriously upgraded our talent level in year 3 by adding 3 superstars as three former members moved on.

2. Recording an album is a LABOR of Love. How much thought and work you put into it will ultimately determine the quality of the album that comes out. Our first album was made over a weekend. Based on the amount of $ and time spent on it, it was cool and a lot of fun as it was many of our first times being in a recording studio. However, after I heard some pro albums, I’ve been inspired to get our group to reach for those standards.

3. If you're in a group that you've founded, it’s always good to have a charter where you can write out specifics about expectations for being in the group. Not everyone in the group will have the same level of passion and dedication as you, but having a charter that specifically outlines the minimum expectations will save you a lot of drama in the end.

Year 4: Let's make some NOISE!!!

1. The a cappella network can be quite amazing. By being plugged into the CAL and CASA networks, and with the DC aca-community, we started to get some acclaim for our music from folks other than our friends and family. We had a regular gig in downtown DC, sang the national anthem a few times, and eventually got some mentions for CARAs and on Mouth Off for some of our new recordings! But the best part was meeting people from all over the world that shared our passion for this style of music and building new friendships.

2. When times are tough financially, look for other venues and methods to get your name out there. Once the economy tanked, some venues in DC that hosted us before couldn't afford to do so anymore. Thankfully, we were still able to get our name out there and perform by doing local festivals, high school concerts, a cappella conferences (i.e., VoCAL Nation, SoJam, SingStrong, etc.), and best of all, get our feet in the wedding circuit!

Year 5: A Cappella Zen

1. One day you may find the right combination of people that will be all on the same page (goals/mission/ego/dedication) and everything will be just about perfect. If that day ever occurs, remember that day as a milestone. From that day forward, your group has the power to achieve as much as you want without the chains of intergroup drama. For the first time since the group's inception, I can say that this group is all on the same page. There are NO inner power struggles, differing commitment levels, or divas. Every single rehearsal is just exploding with great music, fun, and a ton of laughter. Every single one. Amanda and I have been through and seen quite a bit during our tenure, and we're overjoyed at the interpersonal nirvana that we've stumbled into.

2. Shoot for the moon and you just may land among the stars. With some valuable coaching that we received from Dave Brown at SoJam 2010, we transformed our entire performance by really focusing on our showmanship. At that point we had our sound all tweaked and figured out, but our showmanship, staging, and connection with the audience was sorely lacking. So for the next four months, we focused directly on that area and it paid off in a huge way. We won a video contest for VoCAL Nation and got to share the stage with Duwende and Grammy winners, The Swingle Singers! We still haven't seen a video playback of that performance, but the rave reviews we received from the aca community in attendance were unbelievable. It truly helped us feel that we had improved quite noticeably since our last public aca-community performance at SoJam.

3. Continue to build upon what you've done so far and take the time to really ENJOY what you do. We are now focusing our energies on putting together our first official studio album together while spending time learning new music, and also generating revenue via several wedding gigs that we've booked. We are also looking into performance opportunities with our friends from the DC area and beyond in the near future. We really love what we've been able to accomplish this past year and can only imagine the fun and rewarding experiences that the future will bring.

Thank you for taking a trip down memory lane with me. I hope you enjoyed the inside look at the various stages of development of this group, and that you may be able to use some of the lessons that I’ve learned to help build and develop your own groups.

About the author:
Joe Kang is a multi-faceted musician with over 20 years of experience in violin, guitar, bass guitar, songwriting, and vocal performance.  He learned to play the violin at the age of 8 and still continues to play today utilizing it in melodic improvisations on his original songs and for freelancing purposes for other artists. He picked up another string instrument a few years down the road. He loves playing his Taylor CE guitar whenever he can. Furthermore, he has a true passion for singing and songwriting. He began doing both as hobbies during his college years at Duke. His original song, Eternal Sunshine (inspired by the movie) was chosen to be the first track on Quickstar Productions's Chill Out, East Coast Edition, Vol. 5. When he's not performing as a solo artist, he performs regularly with Euphonism, a local, award-winning co-ed DC a cappella group, and serves as an adjunct faculty (violinist) for a local band, Black Max.


Great run down

You guys are an inspiration to me and my group. Your story tells a tale of patience and persistence and how they pay off...makes the early struggles that much easier to bear!

Complete agreement

Excellent timeline, Joe, and it mirrors my experience in DeltaCappella almost exactly, from "storm" to "zen."

Members of young CAL groups should come back to this post time and again in order to get a glimpse of your zen-like aca-future. It will provide inspiration to weather the storms.

Jay A. Mednikow Harvard Din & Tonics 1985-86 Duke Pitchforks 1989-90 DeltaCappella, 2007- http://www.deltacappella.com http://www.mednikow.com (my day job)


Congratulations to Euphonism's 5 year anniversary!  Just like Jay's comment above saying that it mirrors his experience with DeltaCappella, the same rings true for mine with the Red States... this is a great article, Joe, and congratulations again on all your guys' successes :)

Jim Diego
New York City Metro Area CASA Ambassador
http://www.facebook.com/acanewyork // http://www.facebook.com/groups/acanewyork
The Red States 2007-present // http://www.redacappella.com

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