Home"5 Questions With..." Jeff Swearingen, co-executive producer of AcappellaFest

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1. Tell us how AcappellaFest got started. Where did you get the idea, who else did you collaborate with, how long did it take to fully come to fruition?

Once upon a time in April 2007 I responded to a newsgroup post by Greg Vaden from then Detroit-based elmoTHUMM. He wanted to partner with someone locally to bring a show to Chicago. I was confident that I had the energy, creativity and resources to make it happen. We immediately began planning the event and brainstorming ideas for the show structure and performers. Greg worked with his connections in the Midwest to generate interest from fans and artists and and I along with my group Vocal Chaos worked to market the event and find a venue. Together we all hashed out the logistics of what would happen and when. In four short months the inaugural AcappellaFest took place on September 23, 2007, at a rented PAC just 45 minutes northwest of Chicago. The show featured Home Free, Almost Recess, elmoTHUMM and Vocal Chaos. We were also lucky enough to have Scott Leonard make a special appearance at the end of the show to sing lead on Stand By Me along with the groups on stage. In 2008 we repeated the same formula and brought Scott back. In 2009 we kept AF to a single day but took a leap of faith and expanded the format to include workshops and multiple performances. That year also marked the first time AcappellaFest was sponsored by the venue. We brought in Blue Jupiter to sing and teach and had a few local groups perform. We also worked with the venue to have The Bobs perform for the evening show. Feedback we receive from people who attend AcappellaFest tells us that we're doing something right.

2. What makes Acappellafest unqiue? What makes this event different from others like SoJam and the LA A Cappella Festival?

Although most of the fests share common elements, right now AcappellaFest is really a boutique festival. We have a relatively small, hard-working production crew spread across three Midwestern cities. Each location typically features local groups and we bring in national touring acts or individuals when possible. We may not have the a cappella footprint that other festivals have, but we enjoy our niche.

3. I'm actually from the Midwest. Born in Ohio, grew up in Pennsylvania, and now my family lives in Indiana. I didn't really hear about a cappella, however, until I got to college in the Northeast. Do you think this is because the Midwest geographical/demographic climate has a harder time marketing its a cappella scene, or because a cappella hasn't really taken off in the Midwest yet like it has in New England and California?

The Midwest is a tough because it is very spread out and because there are major markets like Chicago that are saturated with mainstream music. I grew up in Denver, Colorado and I was familiar with a cappella there before relocating to Chicago. Once I got here, it took a while to acclimated to the local aca community (and the lower elevation) since there was no true a cappella scene at DePaul (my school) at the time.

There are certainly well-known pro and collegiate groups from Chicago and surrounding Midwestern cities, but most do not have the history and long-standing success of many groups on the coasts. Schools like Northwestern (Purple Haze), University of Illinois (Xtension Chords, RipChords) and Millikin (Chapter 6, 5 One) certainly have their share of well-known groups. However outside of the competition circles like the ICCAs and Harmony Sweeps, or even the CARAs, I don't think their notoriety exceeds that of the Whiffenpoofs, the Bubs, the ClefHangers, Noteworthy, Divisi, the Harmonics, Fermata Nowhere or the SoCal VoCals, to name just a few. (Please forgive me for not mentioning other worthy groups!) Of course the now-pro group Chapter 6 received screen time when bandmate Luke Menard made it to the Top 16 of American Idol Season 7. And Purple Haze was featured briefly on AI Season 9 when the Top 20 included John Park. Another big boost happened when Straight No Chaser's (Indiana University) long lost video was put on YouTube. It was a huge hit and members of the original group were signed by Atlantic Records.

A cappella in the Midwest is like the indie music scene, often fending for itself amongst its surroundings. There is also a strong choral tradition throughout the Midwest which lends itself to singers thinking quality first style second -- which could play into the lack of attention they receive. In broader terms, a cappella is a grassroots movement and, well, you know in the Midwest we, um, have lots of grass, so.... In all seriousness, I think there are many factors that could affect Midwest a cappella. This is just my take on it.

4. There is definitely a difference in the styles of East coast vs. West Coast a cappella, especially in CD production. Perhaps this is an overgeneralization, but to me the East has sounded very clean and crisp while the West has sounded very full and in your face. Where do you think Midwest a cappella fits into this potentially overgeneralized bracket, or do you think it brings something new to the table?

Like the region's namesake, Midwest a cappella tends to be in the middle of the two coasts incorporating different aspects of each style.

5. Tell us about this year's AcappellaFest. Why should everyone come to this event, who are some of the performers and workshop teachers, and how can we buy tickets?

AcappellaFest is a tremendous opportunity to celebrate the human voice and the community we all share. It's open to everyone -- music fans, singers, groups, students, educators and families. To continue making AcappellaFest possible, we need the support of not just the aca community but also the regular concert-going, music-loving patrons. And that's why we try to offer a variety of events.

At our flagship event near Chicago, we have workshops on improving group performance (taught by Chapter 6) as well as song arranging (taught by Amy "Bob" Engelhardt).

The matinée concert features:
- Chicago Voice Exchange, 3-time winner of Chicago Harmony Sweeps
- An Octave Above, multiple-year runner-up and award winner at Chicago Harmony Sweeps
- Voices In Your Head from the University of Chicago, featured on Ben Folds' University A Cappella album

Also, during the matinée high school groups from around the Midwest will compete for a trophy and the opportunity to open for Chapter 6 during the evening show. High school groups of all styles from all Midwest states are welcome to enter online (http://bit.ly/caQffR) or by e-mail (hscontest@acappellafest.com). The deadline is Friday October 1st. Complete details and rules are on the website.

For the 2nd year, AcappellaFest returns to Detroit for a single evening concert featuring:
- Cartoon Johnny, DC-based group and winner and runner-up of Mid-Atlantic Sweeps, winner of New York Harmony Sweeps
- Fish N Chips, all-male group from Central Michigan University, semi-finalist of "So You Think You Can Sing"
- Full Throttle, Michigan-based doo-wop group

For the first time, AcappellaFest Ohio takes place as part of the "Five Nights on Campus" series at The Ohio State University at Marion:
- Doubleshot!, Pittsburgh-based group and winner of Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweeps, finalist and audience favorite of National Harmony Sweeps
- 4 THE RECORD, Ohio-based group, co-producers of AF Ohio
- Up In The Air, Tiffin University
- Higher Ground, Tiffin University

Tickets are sold by the festival venue in each state. You can find out ticket information on our website (www.acappellafest.com) or buy tickets immediately by calling the relevant venue box office:

- AF Chicago, Prairie Center for the Arts: 847.895.3600
- AF Detroit, Village Theater at Cherry Hill: 734.394.5300
- AF Ohio, Morrill Hall Auditorium: 740.725.6341

AcappellaFest has something for everyone no matter what location is nearest to you. But can you really ever get too much a cappella? You never know, there could be more workshops and artists announced as we get closer to the festival. Please stay tuned.

About the author:
Doug Friedman is attending NYU in the fall to pursue a Masters of Music Business with an expected concentration in Music Technology. He just graduated from Brandeis University last May, where he received a B.A. in Theatre Arts. For his senior thesis, he wrote, composed, and directed an original musical: “Super Mario Brothers, The Musical!” At Brandeis, Doug was the President of Brandeis VoiceMale, which he loves and misses very much. This summer, he sang as an intern for the semi-professional group, Overboard, and would very much like to continue singing at that level in New York City (anybody know of groups that are auditioning?). Doug can be reached at 317-402-6023, dfresh@nyu.edu, or through his website, www.difmusic.com.