By Brendan Lai-Tong
Today we had the opportunity to interview Brody McDonald author of the wonderfully informative guide for choir: A Cappella Pop – A Contemporary Guide to A Cappella Singing. The book provides insightful information about forming your ensemble, music selection, rehearsal techniques, sound reinforcement, vocal percussion, and much more!
Brody received his Bachelor’s degree in Music Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and went on to complete his Master’s degree in choral conducting. While at BGSU, Brody was the president of the Men’s Chorus and Collegiate Chorale, had several roles in operas, played in the marching and pep bands, and went on two 6-week summer tours of the USA. He even sang baritone in the 1995 International College Quartet Champion!
After leaving BGSU Brody held a position at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio teaching private voice, choir, Italian/French/German diction, conducting, vocal pedagogy and voice class for beginners. It was during this time that he had the opportunity to sing in an International Top 20 quartet (open class), Turning Point, and was filmed in the PBS documentary “Can’t Stop Singing.” Brody currently is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School.
Brody shares the knowledge obtained through years of experience as a choir director in “A Cappella Pop”. Let’s hear a little more about Brody and his book:
What inspired you to start a career in music?
Becoming a music teacher really snuck up on me. It all started when I went to BGSU on an academic scholarship. I signed up for the Men’s Chorus there, and soon I found myself more and more interested in music. I started taking voice lessons and became interested in music theory. The turning point, however, was when the BGSU Men’s Chorus sang at a high school choral festival. I found myself listening to the various participating high schools and thinking, “why is this group better than that group?” and “why are all these choirs better than my high school choir was?” I decided that I would become a choir director and provide for students the program I didn’t have when I grew up.
Who are some of your role models?
RD Mathey (my college director)
Deke Sharon (founder of CASA, vocal producer of The Sing-Off)
Jim Henry (Director of The Ambassadors of Harmony (international champion barbershop chorus), bass of The Gas House Gang and Crossroads (two international champion quartets) and Director of Choral Activities at University of Missouri-St. Louis)
Who are some your favorite singers/choirs?
Westminster Chorus, Pentatonix, SONOS, Firedrill!, Vocal Spectrum, Vocal Majority, Karen Carpenter, Diana Krall, Michael Buble, Renee Fleming
Your group, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school choir to be featured on the NBC show The Sing-Off. What steps did you take to prepare your group for the show?
As I mention in the book, we failed our first audition. We really didn’t know what to expect and how high the stakes were. We thought we’d never make it, so we didn’t. The second time around, we prepared everything. We recreated the experience of the first audition in every possible way, from the size of room to how many people were judging us. We practiced how to walk into and out of rooms, how to interview, how to better visually present in the small space of the vocal audition room – the whole nine yards. Oh… and we practiced singing quite a bit, too.
What are you listening to right now?
Honestly, I’m listening to the mixes of our new CD as they come in from the recording engineer. This time of year is when our recording of last season comes to fruition, so the new mixes are on constant repeat. That way I can catch any errors before the CD is pressed. When I’m not doing that, I’m listening a lot to Pentatonix, SONOS, and Firedrill! I think those three groups have so much to teach young a cappella singers with their unique takes on the art form. Listening to them keeps my ears “calibrated” to the highest level of singing for when I rehearse my group.
What inspired you to write A Cappella Pop?
I was originally asked by the Contemporary A cappella Society of America to write a short handbook for teachers. They wanted something to help teachers feel comfortable getting involved in a cappella. Long story short – it was taking too long to work through CASA. After presenting at OMEA , ACDA Central Division, and several ACDA chapters at local colleges, I was fielding so many individual questions from teachers that I thought “I might as well get this all down so when people ask me questions I can just give them my book.” I didn’t think it would be published. I just wanted to have things written down to help other teachers. It was a lucky accident that I got in the room with Alfred publishing, and the rest is history.
What would you say your biggest challenge was when writing the book?
The biggest challenge was dealing with my collaborators. They are wonderful people, and very talented. However, they all write in different styles and have careers of their own. Because they volunteered their time, I would get material from them in fits and starts – fitting in the cracks of their schedules. Then I had to edit the material to make it sound somewhat uniform for the reader, and then run it back past the original author to make sure I hadn’t eroded their orginal intent. That was a bit of a logistical hurdle, but the book benefits immensely from their content. I’m not the expert on everything, so in cases where someone else could do a better job I brought them on board.
What fundamental concepts are discussed in your book and what benefits will choir directors obtain from reading?
The book covers all the fundamentals of running a contemporary a cappella group, from the audition to music selection into rehearsal techniques, sound reinforcement issues, vocal percussion and then ideas on how to use the group to benefit the overall choral program. I think directors who read this book will become more comfortable about diving into a cappella, will have a “bag of tricks” to draw from for rehearsals, and will have a big-picture road map to creating a self-sustaining culture of excellence for years to come. Many of the techniques I detail in the book are applicable not just to a cappella, but to any choir.
Is the information in the book applicable to choirs of age group?
Absolutely. The book deals in concepts rather than in hard-and-fast exercises or age-specific pointers. The material in the book is relevant to middle school groups up through college or even fledgling semi-pro groups.
What advice do you have for aspiring choir directors?
1) Begin with the end in mind: see what you want to have happen, then work backward from your goal to determine all the steps you must take to make it happen.
2) Be patient : continually invest in your vision. It took Eleventh Hour a decade to become the overnight success everyone saw on national TV.
3) Experiment and fail fast: there’s no magic secret to success. You have to find out what works for you and your group. The only way to do that is to become active and plow through a bunch of mistakes and successes trial-and-error style.
What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in music?
DO MORE SOONER! Don’t wait until student teaching to teach. Volunteer to help at a local school, get a church choir gig, do ANYTHING to get face time as a teacher. You will fail at first, so you might as well fail sooner and learn what your strengths/weaknesses are so you can begin addressing them right away. There is no substitute for DOING.
HAVE HIGH STANDARDS: for yourself and for your students.
FOCUS ON RESULTS: so many teachers do what they think should work without listening to see if it is actually working.
Do you have any plans for a follow-up book?
I do… I think there is a very natural follow-up to this a cappella book, which will be a combination work-book and instructional DVD. We’ll have to see if Alfred agrees, but it has been pitched and currently lives in my mind until such time as it gets the green light. Unfortunately, I can’t say what this project is… because I don’t want someone else to do it before me!
Brendan Lai-Tong is the Assistant Marketing Manager at Sheet Music Plus and holds degrees in trombone performance from University of Miami and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.