HomeHigh School Spotlight: How A Cappella Transformed My High School Choral Program...

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By: Brody McDonald – Director of Eleventh Hour, Kettering Fairmont High School

This is my first column for CASA, so I thought I would start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). My name is Brody McDonald, director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School in southwest Ohio. My duties include 7th and 8th grade chorus at one of the two feeder schools, three high school choirs, an after-school show-choir, and the spring musical. But you didn’t come here to hear about any of that. I’m here because I also direct Eleventh Hour, a pop-a cappella group. A vocal band. CASA material.

Eleventh Hour began as many projects do – accidentally. I was hired at Kettering Fairmont to revive a flagging program. I’ll spare you those details, but the upshot is this: show choir was the only game in town. My challenge – to install a traditional curricular choir component and balance the program, while maintaining the show choir.

People would invite the show choir to sing at their church dinner or other community events, but only had a 20’x30’ room (our risers were 32’ wide), or they would want us to bring the whole show choir out to do a show for $75. We’d have to get two buses, an equipment trailer, 40 dancers, 8 band members and 4 chaperones for $75. The buses alone cost the school $150 to run, so we were losing money to go sing!

So in the spirit of “find the need and meet it,” I decided to form a small group – something mobile; something light. At first, I tried barbershop quartets.  At the time, I was doing a lot of this style of singing, and I thought the kids would like it. Not so much. 

My second attempt was something else more reminiscent of The Voices of Liberty. I thought there was great potential in having a group like Voices who could sing pop-ish choral lit – Derric Johnson, King’s Singers, or even some Moses Hogan. I auditioned for an octet, and had 11 kids show up. They were really decent singers, and it was hard to make a cut that wasn’t arbitrary, so I took them all at the last minute – hence Eleventh Hour.

We spent a year doing that light choral stuff. It was okay, but it wasn’t gathering speed. I thought maybe the kids just needed some exposure to different styles, so I started passing my CD case around the bus on show choir trips.

One of my CDs was the “Voices Only” sampler from Primarily A Cappella. One of my show choir boys was a drummer and was really intrigued by all the “odd” sounds on the recording. He put together a male group who sang “Johnny” by 17th Avenue All-Stars on our variety show. It brought down the house! That was it. The switch was on.

I told the kids we would work on more contemporary acappella material for the next year of Eleventh Hour, which led me to find and purchase the Deke Sharon CASA books. The first two volumes had lots of material within reach for our skill level, and I still recommend them every time someone asks me where to start.

The next surge of momentum we owe to a freak accident. Tiffin University’s Up In the Air (www.upintheair.us) cold-called me for an assembly gig. After my kids saw UITA live, it was a done deal. My kids were all ga-ga: “These guys are cool. They sing songs we know.” This is who we wanted to be.

The coolness factor went up yet again with that addition of vocal percussion to our program (“Here, Tim – watch this Wes Carroll video.”) I was a drummer in college and always made weird mouth sounds. Beatboxing was already in me. When we put it in the group, we began to find our stride.

We were rehearsing 90 minutes once a week. It was enough to be entertaining, but not enough to really make much happen.  I heard about the NCHSA, and we entered. We decided to take extra time: two nights a week for three hours each. Kids who were doubled in show choir were excused from that show cycle to focus on NCHSA. We spent more time on microphones and got a custom chart from Deke Sharon (we were moving up in the world). Then we got the best news of all… We were invited to open for LeAnn Rimes as part of a fundraiser for the Kettering Education Foundation. We not only needed 15 minutes for NCHSA – we needed 20 minutes for an arena full of people! Nothing says “get ready” like performing for a crowd of 3,000. The group, in effect, got serious about this stuff.

These events led to the parents bankrolling our first CD. It’s not the best thing walking. It is basically what RARB says it is – two days in a basement doing a “yearbook” CD – but it paved the way for more excitement, more talent coming to auditions, more everything.

That yearbook CD helped us land an opportunity to open for the Beach Boys, backup duty for Kenny Loggins, and more money for our second CD, “How Sweet It Is.” This time, we took our time and went the studio route. It was much better, and won 2008 CARA awards Best High School Album and Best High School Song. One of the songs was even selected for BOHSA 2008.

We sent that CD in to the Ohio Music Education Association, and we were accepted to sing on their 2008 State Conference. Imagine a room full of 250 music teachers who have little idea what high school kids can do with contemporary a cappella. It was offensive to a few, intriguing to some, and completely spectacular to most. One of the coolest things was doing a demonstration of Freddie Feldman’s “Thumper” throat mic for the teachers, as well as our bass octave pedal (we stole that idea from The Fault Line). We love our toys.

So why the “life story?” To illustrate not only that acappella music has tremendous motivational power with high school students, but to let people know that great things can happen. They won't happen overnight – patience is required to move from one goal to the next – but students will develop a positive culture of improvement.

I'm not an a cappella expert, but I have seen first hand how a cappella has impacted my students. Hopefully we can explore what works to improve the condition of the high school a cappella group. I haven’t invented anything and don’t know everything. Still, if I can help, I will. I look forward to talking with you. Shoot me ideas or questions at brody.mcdonald@ketteringschools.org.

Thanks for reading,



That's an awesome story,

That's an awesome story, Brody- thanks for sharing it with us.  Wow- those are amazing opportunities to open for those big acts!

There is so much vocal talent in high schools, and if the students only knew what they could do with a cappella music, it would change their lives.  Hopefully other directors and students will be inspired by your story.

I'm also hoping they take advantage of CASA's Tunes To Teens program, which sends a cappella CDs to choruses for free.  Please let other directors and choral students know about this unique opportunity- http://www.casa.org/ttt


Chris Tess - chris@casa.org Tunes To Teens - http://www.casa.org/ttt A Cappella Mega-Sale - http://www.casa.org/content/cappella-mega-sale

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I only knew a small part of this story, but it's what I've been trumpeting when I tell directors that a contemporary a cappella component to a choral program can work wonders. No doubt, I'll be sending people to this article on a weekly basis.

And a special nod to Brody, who captained his choral program through several changes - your commitment to your students is highly commendable. We need many more people like you. 

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

Very Educational

Thanks for sharing this, Brody. I'm currently getting my master's degree in Ireland in music technology at the University of Limerick in Ireland and I've started to introduce contemporary a cappella music out here to people in the department and my programme (UK spelling). I wish I would be here long enough to start a rave of a cappella out here, but alas, I'll be back in the states in August. I've taught middle school music for a couple of years myself and I can't wait to go back to teaching. I KNOW I'm going to start an a cappella group at the next school that I teach at and this is very inspiring to read in confirmation about its educational prospects. There is something about contemporary a cappella that starts a fire in people to want to be more educated about music in general.

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