A Cappella Fever: A Primer for Parents of Hopeful Vocalists

Ever since the movie Pitch Perfect came out, a cappella fever has been sweeping the nation. Varsity Vocals, an organization that hosts the annual International Championship of High School A Cappella, has seen an explosion of growth with over 150 groups participating from eight regions nationwide for their title. And what high school singer wouldn’t want to participate in a group that makes performing look so fun and effortless?

The concept of a cappella is cool: making beautiful music without using instruments. Singers create sound using only vocalizations, which seems easy and effortless but is actually neither. A cappella performed well requires hours of focused work and repetition. Therefore, the primary goal of a cappella is working together. However, singing a cappella is not going to be a match for every high school singer and parents may want to understand why.

Selecting appropriate voices for an a cappella group is challenging for the musical director. You must have a variety of voices to create a range of sound. While some students may wish to participate in a cappella, the best possible vocal blend is less about what individuals want and more about what the group requires. Voices can be broken down into six parts: soprano, mezzo soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. Each group also has at least one vocal percussionist, sometimes more.

Reality television shows that spotlight the discovery of pop stars don’t do a cappella directors any favors. Students who try to imitate this type of singing in hopes that it will pay off at high school a cappella auditions are often in for disappointment. Spotlight seekers are the last type of person any cooperation-focused group needs. Soloists are ultimately selected from the ranks of more seasoned group members and new members should be prepared to pay their dues. Think of the voice as an instrument you learn to play, similar to the way an instrumentalist contributes to a band or orchestra. Directors are not looking for divas: they are looking for team players.

What are some unexpected skills necessary for a cappella success? Listening is one. Paying attention to the other vocal parts while singing is crucial. The success of the group is never all about any one performer. Each singer must be in the moment, totally committed to shaping the sound for the audience, knowing when their part comes in and goes out, blending with the other voices, remembering song dynamics, and knowing when to crescendo or decrescendo.

Elementary school choir is a good place to gauge a student’s interest in group singing. Starting in middle school, those who hope to sing high school a cappella should commit to weekly voice lessons, regular sight-reading practice and work on their ability to harmonize. These skills pay off in the high school a cappella audition, as well as in any type of choir or musical theater audition. Singers who do not possess these skills are quickly eliminated from consideration.

Other important qualities for high school a cappella include a track record of demonstrated character and an ability to get along with others. A cappella singers represent their schools in public and are usually expected to keep their grades up. Participating in a cappella can help high schoolers learn responsibility because each vocal part is crucial to the success of the overall sound. Students can’t be tardy or skip practice, because one or two missing members will affect the overall performance of the group. All the voices blend together to make the one voice, and this cannot be achieved unless all members are present.

Singing for an hour a day throughout the school year is a pretty big time commitment, and what a great way for kids to learn that consistency and commitment pay off. At my daughter’s school, a cappella is a class that meets in the extra period before the regular school day starts. By coming to school early, members can still participate in after-school activities or sports. This makes for a long school day, but high school students have copious amounts of energy, usually much more than their parents.

High school a cappella students must make time in their schedules for workshops, retreats, performing and competing. Any opportunity for the group to learn or perform helps them prepare for competition. Having deadlines facilitates skill building. Groups can sing for their school, their district, community organizations, retirement homes, fundraisers, regional competitions and national competitions. Local gigs can be donated for a good cause, or the group can be paid to fund future learning and travel.

A cappella is just as popular in college as it is in high school. More opportunities to participate may be available in college thanks to the popularity of student-governed club activities. When is it too late to start singing a cappella? Probably never, but skilled singers enjoy performing with other skilled singers and are not likely to offer free training to the inexperienced. So if you have an aspiring a cappella singer practicing vocal runs in the shower while imagining a performance that brings the audience to their feet, encourage her to commit to several hours a week of musical and vocal practice. This is the best way to fend off disappointment on the fateful day of high school a cappella auditions, where spaces in the group are usually coveted and competitive.

Students with an eye toward vocalizing in the future – whether via singing, performing, teaching, politics or public speaking – can definitely benefit from regular vocal cord workouts doing a cappella, choir or musical theater. Students can pick and choose. They don’t have to do all three to reap immediate and long-term benefits.

In a world with a 24-hour news cycle continuously brimming with strife, it’s easy to understand why teens enjoy being a part of a group that revolves around creating harmony with their voices. Last year, my daughter’s group won their regional competition and performed in nationals at Lincoln Center in New York City with high school groups from all over the country. Sure, it was a thrill for everyone involved, but I suspect that in the years to come she will treasure her memories of the group’s camaraderie, mutual respect and musical growth more than anything else.

A Cappella Skills Students Can Cultivate

  • Vocal projection
  • Vocal range
  • Breath work
  • Reading music
  • Holding notes
  • Harmonizing
  • Surrendering ego
  • Being present
  • Memorizing vocal parts and choreography
  • Valuing contributions of self and others
  • Respecting the process and the director

A Cappella Bonus Points for

  • Playing an instrument
  • Choir experience
  • Performance experience
  • Dance experience
  • A good ear
  • Perfect pitch
  • Understanding music theory
  • Broad musical tastes
  • Arranging music

Don’t Overlook

  • Tact
  • Humility
  • Cooperativeness
  • Solid academic track record
  • Positive character
  • Demonstrated self-esteem
  • Good work ethic
  • Leadership skills