HomeHigh School Competition Blues: Chaos, Creativity and Conformity

Tom Burlin's picture

The competitive season for high school a cappella is well underway.  Groups from across the country have spent many hours rehearsing with a focus on advancing through ICHSA.  Competition undoubtedly can raise the level of performance and visibility of a cappella singing.  However, competition also can breed conformity and myopia.  As ICHSA grows, those at the helm must somehow maintain the integrity of a cappella as an art and the appearance of objectivity while judging something inherently subjective.

Like any young competition, there will undoubtedly be changes to ICHSA as it grows and high school a cappella matures.  As more groups opt in to the ICHSA experience, there will be calls for greater transparency and objective measures in judging.  When these calls are addressed, we must keep in mind that any rule changes to competition affect every aspect of how a high school a cappella group operates. 

In my opinion, precise measures and rubrics decrease the authenticity of high school a cappella by moving it further away from the collegiate model.  Although subjective judging will always leave some feeling mistreated, it allows groups to explore different roads to excellence and allows the audience to celebrate the differences between groups rather than compare them to some standard of excellence.  To illustrate the issue at hand, I have turned to the stories of former Midwest show choir directors who have moved into a cappella in part because of their experiences with show choir competitions.

Why Midwest show choir directors turned to a cappella

Conducting research for my dissertation on high school a cappella, I traveled to Kettering, Ohio, to spend a day with Brody McDonald, director of the 11 year-old Eleventh Hour on 11/11/11, as he prepared for his annual high school a cappella festival. I was particularly interested in learning more about his decision to move out of the world of competitive show choirs (See Brody’s 2009 article titled High School Spotlight: How A Cappella Transformed My High School Choral Program) and whether other area high school a cappella directors had similar negative experiences.  As I interviewed directors at the festival, it became apparent that most of them turned to a cappella for comparable reasons.  Above all other concerns, directors pointed to the competitive nature of show choir in the Midwest and the commitment of time and money necessary to remain competitive.

Show choir has long been a proving ground for young singers in the Midwest and elsewhere. In the April 1986 issue of the Music Educators Journal, David Itkin raised issues about the merits of show choir and heated debate has continued ever since. Discussion has focused on the expense and time commitment, competition and exclusion, and the focus on dance and healthy vocal production among other considerations. For many directors at the Kettering festival, a cappella offered an alternative that addressed many of these issues and pleased students, parents and the community.

Vanessa Painter (Alliance, OH): “I see a trend to get away from show choir.  It’s an expensive thing and with a cappella you can focus on the voice [instead of] dancing.”  Vanessa noticed that she could focus more on signing with a cappella and “the quality is a lot better because the dancing affected the singing”.  Brittany Gableman (Elkhart, IN) disliked the focus on choreography in competitive show choir as well: 

“We were spending so much time doing that, and when I looked at my philosophy of music education, it wasn’t ‘the student can move their body to the music’…Specific choreography that gives clear visuals score better at show choir competitions…I think a cappella is more beneficial for the students’ musical education.  With show choir, I felt that there wasn’t a lot of long term basis for that knowledge: moving the body on the right counts so we could do well at a competition.”

Kristen Snyder (Granville, OH) found that the focus on visual affect added to the cost of show choir programs.  She has noticed that a cappella is “a lot cheaper because there’s not a lot of choreography involved and costumes are minimal.”  The expense of show choir seemed to be an issue for many choir directors in the region. Brody disclosed that “the expense difference is enormous” between show choir and a cappella.  His show choir needed “$25,000 a year for costumes and sets… some groups would spend $100,000 each season.”  

These stories illustrate the fact that pure interest in the genre of a cappella was not the key motivator for directors to change their programs.  Reasons for leaving show choir behind had little do with the music itself.  The show choir competition, the expectation to compete at a high level, and the rules and protocols of the competition dictated to directors an inflexible mode of operation.  Brody explained that his program needed to remain true to a specific tradition:

 “They were a full-blown competition show choir in the great Midwestern tradition just like Vocal Adrenaline on Glee—you would see forty kids performing with a live back-up band and a stage crew…so you’re really managing around 60 kids to put on a 15 minute competition show.” 

Each time Brody’s group would perform they needed a large (regulation size) stage, two busses, and a host of volunteers.  The inflexible competition model made it impossible to perform in most community venues or with little notice. Although a modified version of the show choir’s show could certainly fit any venue, directors could be hesitant to make any changes to their set.  After all, consistency leads to precision and precision is crucial to a good score.

The Future of Contemporary High School A Cappella

High school a cappella looked and sounded different at the Kettering festival where a timed set of choreographed entertainment was not the norm.  Negative experiences with show choir has helped directors bring into question elements of competitive a cappella that at all resembles show choir.  It would be easy to paint a picture here of The Kettering Fairmount A Cappella Festival as the last holdout of non-competitive art for art’s sake if it were not for the inescapable fact that Eleventh Hour was the first high school group to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off.  And though Eleventh Hour does not tend to compete in ICHSA, McDonald admits that this has more to do with the format of the competition rather than a disdain for competition all together.  Nevertheless, my experience has been that McDonald’s festival is a more supportive and less stress-filled environment than an ICHSA event or any other similar event I have attended.

High school a cappella across the country is similar in many ways. Directors have begun to notice more boys wanting to join their ensembles, high levels of commitment, and greater interest in attending college.  Students tend to have more input into the direction of ensembles, learn relevant music and skills, and enjoy more opportunities to use individualized skills and talents in creative interpretation.  But will students still have these opportunities if competition becomes the sole focus of high school programs?

High school a cappella is still in its infant stage.  Those who are invested in it now will decide what it will look like in the future.  We may wish to think about what happened with show choirs in the Midwest as we move forward.  I would suggest that show choirs are what they are because of teaching to the test.  Just as standardized testing has narrowed learning in classrooms to only tested material, show choir competitions have encouraged teachers to focus exclusively on whatever will increase scores. 

Thankfully, the good people at ICHSA have made it a point to leave some flexibility in their competition, and it is nice to see diverse groups have found success.  But how long until one group figures out the winning formula, or until trends start to appear and directors take notice?  How long until directors demand that all judged aspects of a performance be quantified?

If high school a cappella spreads the way collegiate a cappella has we will soon have 20,000 high school directors looking to start programs.  The first place they will turn to is YouTube where they will find the most recent ICHSA finals.  Hopefully they will find many ideas of what an a cappella group can look like and not a formula. 

So what is contemporary a cappella anyway?  To me it has less to do with the music and more to do with how the group operates.  The cooperation and individual efforts, the mentoring and friendships, and self-direction make a cappella what it is.  Sure, some of the best high school a cappella groups have a director making most of the decisions and running most rehearsals - but best is not the point.  There is nothing better than reviewing your performance and knowing that it was truly your own creation.  Competition teaches life-lessons and is an excellent external motivator, but competition does not always breed creativity.  Just as important in life is the ability to work with others on a common goal, utilizing individual differences and expertise.  Just maybe, if we don’t mess it up, new high school groups will not look at YouTube for inspiration but each other instead.

About the author:
Tom Burlin is a choral music educator teaching at the University of North Texas.  He specializes in the sociology of music and democratic and informal music learning.  His dissertation is on the phenomenon of contemporary a cappella in high schools across the United States.

[photo: Douglas MacArthur High School PFC]