There’s an old Latin proverb, Vox Populi, Vox Dei: ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’.
Being witness to a gathering of 150 voices raised in song together, and those the voices of young people, was indeed a divine experience. The Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center opened its doors early on an otherwise quiet Friday morning to fill the cavernous space with music for the 2015 The Betsy A Cappella Festival. 150 high schoolers traveling from as far as Baltimore, MD, gathered for the experience, where the most experienced in their industry were brought to them for series of masterclasses and vocal intensives on the emerging collegiate a cappella genre.
The Betsy Hotel’s Vice President of Marketing, Philanthropy, and Programs Deborah Briggs is the alchemist who wove community and the arts together yet again, and she and Andrew Goldberg, Vice President of Marketing at the Arsht Center, gave a warm welcome to kick-off the festival.
In the annual event, high school participants need not be serious a cappella singers already, but they travel out of an interest to study the craft and tools necessary to reproduce arrangements and blends back home or later in musical careers. The first workshop was led by Shams Ahmed, an accomplished arranger and musical director, who brought a small female ensemble, the Park School Eightnotes, as vocal guinea pigs. His presentation provided a no-nonsense guide into the necessity of technique and discipline in order to sing a capella healthfully. He then had the larger group warm up as well, showing them how physical gesture can free the sound, and a smile can help the voice focus “like a laser,” to carry farther with less effort. His enthusiasm reverberated among the students, who, reserved at first, began to loosen up and enjoy themselves. Personalities started to materialize and singing grew in confidence and passion, matching Ahmed’s stride.
For the second session, the students were split into groups to work with established a cappella professionals, each of whom could impart some of their own experience. In one of the groups, Lauren France and Holly Kitching, members of the professional group VXN, discussed the strategies and challenges to starting an a cappella group, and how their a cappella careers draw parallels and leave impacts on other endeavors they pursue outside of their musical lives.
In a another presentation, the festival’s scholastic producer Jesse Louise Mark gave a session on arranging a new piece for a cappella ensemble. She used John Legend’s single ‘All of Me’ to demonstrate the breakdown of a piece into parts by identifying meter, transcribing a bass line, arranging three-part harmony, and giving proper attention to the voicing of the parts. During a culminating run of the song, she pulled a volunteer to sing the melody, while the ensemble tuned together, gently oscillating between soft “ooo’s” and open “ah” vowels to produce a warm overtone ring. As the verses looped, the students got to practice the interpolation of leading tones and rhythmic subdivision they’d just workshopped. The session finished with a discussion on the value of music theory in a cappella and the greater music industry.
One of the high points for the weekend’s event was a session led by singer-songwriter India Carney, a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts and YoungArts Winner in Voice & Theater, who pivoted the conversation into a more soul-searching aspect of a singing career. Carney covered the value of breathe and posture, but dug deeper into the role of the singer as storyteller, posing questions about finding your own signature and connecting with the audience. She also pulled a volunteer to the front, having her sing Adele’s hit ‘Someone Like You,’ to demonstrate how breathe can unleash more of the instrument, coloring a piece with emotional range. The demonstration was transformative. The student singer stood taller, sang warmly, and overcame her initial shivers of stage fright with India by her side. The rest of the students were equally mesmerized and supportive, and it became immediately evident how powerful the festival was for these participants.
Saturday morning the sessions continued with a “Mix & Match” master class that broke students down into groups of strangers to sing together for the first time, each group under the direction of a different industry professional, including Vocal Coach and arranger for NBC’s The Sing Off, and Grammy Award-winning arranger Ben Bram of Pentatonix. The exercise best imparts the sense of community choral singing fosters, as young people who never met before raised their voices in harmony to create an experience larger than the individual. This is the first and most relevant achievement of a cappella as a genre, but the master classes made it quite apparent that, even beyond that collaborative power, musical expression through singing touches each of these students individually as well, as they find their own voices and sense of self along the way.
The 2015 Betsy A Cappella Festival ran for two days from Oct. 23-24, and culminated in a final free performance at the Miami Beach Community Church Saturday evening at 7:30 pm. The event was made possible by the Betsy Hotel’s arts programming, and occurs annually. For more information, go to http://www.thebetsyacappella.com