Grow program through Vocal Jazz or A Cappella?
Date: November 2, 2013
After a strong concert choir, I'm interested to know if more directors are adding vocal jazz choirs or pop a cappella choirs, and I'm especially interested to know if anyone is succesfully growing both types of programs simultaneously.
I'm in my third year at a high school of 850. There are currently about 170 students in band/choir/orchestra - 55 in my concert choirs. I run two pop a cappella choirs that rehearse one evening/one morning per week for a total of two hours. When I came the extra-curricular a cappella group was inconsistent and the students didn't feel great about it. My first year I had 12 students who started to feel succesful, the next year a full mixed choir of 16 and a fledgling women's group of 8, and now this year a mixed choir of 16 and women's choir of 16. To join these students have to be in band, choir, or orchestra.
The vocal jazz choir bounces off gym in the schedule, and enrollments have gone slightly down in my 3 years. That could be because of an increased gym requirement, or because I'm pulling more kids to a cappella now that would have done vocal jazz in the past. The group does material in the tradition of Lambert-Hendricks-Ross, New York Voices, Bobby McFerrin... I see some "jazz choirs" out there that tend more toward show choir or pop a cappella, but these kids are trying thier best to sing compex harmony with chord extensions and learn improvisation. Tricky stuff!
So my question is rooted in the fact that when I look at other high school programs as models, I look at what activities they are offering as the 'add-ons' after strong concert choir groups. I see some strong vocal jazz groups, some strong pop a cappella groups, and some groups nebelously labeled as vocal jazz that seem to tilt more towards what I would consider pop or show choir. I have yet to find a school with a strong, teacher-directed presence in both vocal jazz and pop a cappella!
My observations in three years are that the students love the pop a cappella groups, although I'm still surprised how much time and repetition it takes to sing material that is mostly diatonic in nature. The pop a cappella groups are helping me to get men singing (only 10 in my concert choir now, 8 additional guys in my a cappella groups) by creating a low time-commitment choir where some of the men in band and orchestra can try singing. I occasionally "borrow" these guys for my concert choir performances on a few songs each year, to try and turn around the school culture and get more men singing. We visited the middle school last year with the a cappella groups, and I won over a few 8th graders who otherwise might not have signed up for choir. The community loves the groups and they get whoops and hollers from the crowd in a way that none of our other "serious" groups do. On the flip side, my observations about teaching real vocal jazz are that it is HARD and even with the grade 3/4-ish material I program, getting students to sing really in-tune one on a mic is a constant struggle. The logistics of working with the sound system are time consuming but vital to the group. Without a collegiate level sight-singing backround that addresses chromaticism, the students struggle to really understand their parts - so rehearsal involves a lot of repetition and drill. Harmonically, those stacked fourths and #9's are not really in the students aural vocabulary in the beginning of the year. In an ensemble of 12 singers on mic, you really need supported, resonanant, and a forward sounds from every singer, and my singers are all somewhere on the spectrum but some are further along than others. I'm glad I get in-school time to work with these singers, but I probaby need more out-of-school time to run sectionals, give individualized voice instruction, and work on intonation to the degree that this music requires. Right now that out-of-school time is mostly taken up by my a cappella groups. But I love jazz, and love teaching the rich jazz tradition of our country!
So, what do others think? Anybody out there with a passion for both these art forms, and sufficient student interest/time to get both really happening? Which is more valuable, the high level musicianship skills vocal jazz teaches, or the accesibility & feel-good vibes that the a cappella groups foster? And, since I have a handful of students trying to sing in all three of these ensembles, is that just too many disparate elements for a high school student or a vocal program at large to juggle? Thanks and look forward to responses.