HomeMy Day With Vocal Forte

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I had the distinct privilege of spending the day with the very talented members of Vocal Forte of Haddon Heights (NJ) Baptist High School. Vocal Forte is a group I had first seen as a judge at the Mid-Atlantic semi-final round of the 2009 ICHSA’s in Cherry Hill, NJ.

I was so impressed by them after seeing them perform that I became very interested in working with them. I was also fortunate enough to get to see them compete at the ICCA Nationals at Lincoln Center in NYC. Ask anyone who knows me who was in contact with me after the semi’s and they will tell you that I bragged constantly about how impressed I was by Vocal Forte and how I was rooting for them to win at Nationals.

They didn’t end up winning, which I still can’t believe, but in the end it did bring me in contact with their musical director, Steve Weber. Steve emailed me to thank me for some nice things I had to say about them on this website shortly after Nationals. During the exchange, I made him aware of my desire to work with his students. He agreed that it would be a good idea and I then sent him a bunch of arrangements that I thought might be good for them. Steve picked two charts for them to work on and we set a date for me to come in for a visit.

June 2 was the day of my visit. I went into the visit a little nervous as I hadn’t worked with a large group of students of this age before and I didn’t know what to expect from myself or from them. I met with Steve for lunch beforehand and we talked about the ICHSA, the school, his music program and what I would be doing with the students. Part of my hesitance was that sometimes with high school students you just don’t know how they are going to respond. I remember when we had visitors in high school and how we all could really care less about it. I dreaded getting up there and looking into the eyes of a group of students, 19 of which who were graduating in few weeks, and seeing blank stares and rolling eyes.

I am here to tell you that not only was this not the case, but it was the exact opposite. They welcomed me into their space with a feeling of enthusiasm and appreciation that I would take the time to come and work with them. I had fresh, open minds eager to learn and participate. So after a brief introduction and a little background about me and what I hoped to accomplish with them, we were off and running.

They prepared two of my arrangements. One was “Pocket Full of Sunshine” by Natasha Beddingfield and the other was a modernized remix version of “Blue Moon”. It worked out well that they chose these two songs because I wanted to show them two different types of arrangements. One (“Pocket Full of Sunshine”) was a transcription style arrangement, or what I like to call a “sound alike”. Basically, I took what I thought were the best parts of the music from the original song, and created an arrangement using them so that it sounded like the recording, only a cappella. This is not my favorite type of chart, but I think it still has musical value and can be interesting if done effectively. Plus, it’s always good for the “I can’t believe they did that with just voices” effect.

They NAILED IT. They were so easy to direct. too. It seemed like they took every piece of direction I gave them and adjusted with ease. The end result was a very fun and energetic performance that they seemed to really enjoy, and that gave me a total musical high. I was barely touching the floor from all of the adrenaline running through my veins. That was so much fun!

So that period was over and there was a period in between where I got to just hang out with some of the students, talk about ICHSA and their impression of some of the groups they heard at Nationals. I also got to work with the tenor who would be doing the solo line on “Blue Moon”.  This kid has some serious solo chops.

They returned for our second session excited and ready to go. I was actually a little drained from the previous session as the adrenaline had worn off. It didn’t take very long for it to return as we sang through “Blue Moon”. This chart was different in that I tried to take the song in a completely different direction than the traditional doo-wop original. First, it’s up tempo. Second, I added a vocal percussion line complete with a VP solo breakdown in the middle. Their vocal percussionist, Seth, who won best VP at the semi’s I judged, had only been doing VP for about a month prior to the competition. You could have fooled me. He has a natural rhythmic instinct since he also plays drums. His sounds were strong and his ability to mimic what I was showing him was pretty impressive.

It was really exciting to watch a song start at one level and then improve to another in a matter of 20 minutes or so. These kids are very quick studies and, like I said, they made the adjustments I asked for very easily. So by the end we were moving and grooving (snapping fingers included!) to what would normally be considered an overdone standard, but their execution gave it new life.

I had about another 20 minutes or so to work with them and I wanted to do one more song that was a 12-bar blues number with lots of vocal improvisation. It is a chart called “Introduction” that Take 6 used to use at the beginning of a show to introduce each member of the group. I modified it for SATBB for a different group I had sung with and it worked perfectly for this situation.

We (Steve and I) quickly taught them the parts during which I got to see their fantastic sight-reading skills at work. I literally ran through each part one time with them and they had it. Keep in mind this is a modified Take 6 chart with some pretty complex jazz chords and a tricky walking bass line. Did I mention how talented they are? With 5 minutes to spare we did a run through where we looped the 12-bar blues and then over top of that I demonstrated some scat singing and vocal guitar solo stuff. Then during the repeating of the song, I had some volunteers come up and try their hand at improvisation. They did great! The energy and fun kept building and building as I went around the room and jokingly urged some of the more inhibited students to give it a go. Even they took an honest stab at it and we all started laughing and singing while I (acting like a total a cappella geek/dork) went around the room to each student, which ultimately lead me to, you guessed it, Steve Weber himself. They went NUTS when he started doing his little scat line. I mean, this is their teacher, their mentor, and he’s going to town with the rest of us. Finally the song broke down into uncontrollable laughter and clapping. It was an absolute blast!

All in all, I have to say that this was one of the most rewarding musical experiences of my life. Yes, my life. To see those kids excited about a cappella the way I was at their age when I first started singing was surreal. It was like my life had made a complete circle. I went from an excited student who happened to have a good ear for harmony who was just catching the a cappella bug, to the experienced a cappella professional who was now presenting a cappella to a new generation of extremely talented and eager young singers.

I have to confess that it is NOT easy living the life of a musician. Choosing to be a musician means doing it the hard way. Some times you’re broke, just barely making it. You’re in debt with no medical benefits. You think you’re in a group that’s got so much potential and then suddenly somebody gets a job offer and has to quit and you never find that replacement. You struggle and toil and for what? Sometimes I view it as a curse having a musical gift, but not today. No, today I got to share that gift with some really great kids who were more than happy to receive it. What they may not realize is that they gave a gift too. It’s the gift of hope. Hope that there is a bright future for not just a cappella, but for society in general. These days it’s easy to look around and get discouraged by how bad things are. Well, if these students of Haddon Heights are any example of where we’re headed, then things are definitely looking up.

Thanks to Steve Weber for having me and being so supportive while I treaded through uncharted territory. He is a bright, young, talented musician and educator. When you spend time with these kids and work with them, it is obvious that they have been well prepared and he is the reason for it.

I look forward to working with Steve and next year’s juniors and seniors in the fall. If it is anything like this visit, I will be a lucky guy to get to experience it.


Wow! Sounds like a great experience.

I love that feeling of working with a group of younger students and watching the light bulb go on.  Somehow with a cappella it's even stronger since there's nothing between them and brilliance but hard work -- they have all the equipment they need.

Meeting Vocal Forte backstage before ICCA Finals was an honor for me, as they were so kind and humble and hardworking just as you described.  It sounds like you had a great experience working with them at the school.  Thanks for sharing!

--Dave Brown

now: Mouth Off host | ICCA & CARA Judge

then: CASA president, CASAcademy director, CASA Bd of Directors | BYU Vocal Point | Noteworthy co-foun

It really was awesome, Dave!

It really was awesome, Dave! I'm very lucky to have had this experience. Hopefully if things work out, I will be back with their new group next year made up of 2 or 3 seniors and the rest sophomores and juniors. New blood!! Gotta love it!

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