CAL Group Highlight: DeltaCappella
Jay Mednikow is the founder of CAL group DeltaCappella in Memphis, TN. DeltaCappella hosted the CAL Symposium in 2009, an event which was the predecessor for VoCALnation.
How was your group formed?
I had a dream to sing collegiate-style a cappella again, long after graduating college. As recently as 2006, there were very few post-collegiate groups that sang in the collegiate style anywhere, and none in Memphis. Post-collegiate a cappella groups at the time were generally composed of four to six singers, one mic per singer, and invariably in those circumstances, only the best singers would pursue a cappella after college. I’m not the best voice in DeltaCappella, and I didn’t think I could hold my own under such “exposed” circumstances, but I really wanted to sing and to enjoy the camaraderie of a larger group. So I felt compelled to start my own group.
In researching where a cappella had gone between my graduation from business school in 1990 and 2006, I kept stumbling across Deke Sharon’s name, and being a businessman, I called him and hired him as a consultant. The idea of CAL had been floating around in his head, and when he came to Memphis, and we held auditions and started a 12-man group from scratch, he realized there was a need, and it was time start CAL. Although there were a handful of other collegiate-style groups in existence, I’m happy to think that DeltaCappella was the catalyst for the formation of CAL and the prototype group.
What style of music does your group perform?
DeltaCappella sings an eclectic variety of music. When I started it, I intended to recreate my collegiate a cappella experience, which was vocal jazz. I pulled out my arrangements from the Harvard Din & Tonics (my college group) and the Duke Pitchforks (from when I was in business school). But DeltaCappella quickly took on a life of its own, with all members bringing song ideas to the table. We just wanted to have fun, so we ended up singing all sorts of styles, including classical, jazz, spirtuals, doo-wop, and of course contemporary music from recent decades. We have enough songs in our repertoire now that we can tailor a concert to the specific needs of any audience. If we were a professional group, I’d recommend being focused in the style of music you sing, but as a group of hobbyists, I recommend simply singing whatever you want to sing.
Give us an update on what you’ve been working on.
In 2009, we got involved in an original a cappella opera that had a four-week run in Memphis in early 2010. The project was enormous; it had a 495 page score and was over two hours long. It was so successful that we decided to record it, and the recording process has taken the past two years. That album is forthcoming.
Now, we’re working on a full-length album of contemporary a cappella, including an original piece that a Nashville songwriter offered to us after hearing us sing.
Our biggest constraint is that we’re not professional musicians. We all have day jobs that we don’t intend to quit. So, we can’t go on the road, and in fact, we can only take on about one concert per month, because we don’t want our families to object to our time away from home. (Some of us are not married, and this doesn’t apply to them.)
We generally do three concerts a year in Memphis and sell tickets to the public. And we get hired for one or two regional performances per year in performing arts venues, and eight or ten corporate parties per year. And every once in a while, we get lucky and get flown to some remote area by a corporation who wants unique entertainment for an event. We’ve been to Phoenix and Las Vegas in the past, and it’s been a great time for all of us.
How has your group benefitted from CAL?
CAL has been a great support group. We’ve benefitted from the extended camaraderie of other like-minded singers. Doing a cappella in the post-collegiate world presents a host of different challenges and opportunities that don’t exist in the collegiate world, and it helps to have other post-collegiate CAL members to discuss things with. As the number of CAL groups grows, we’re reaching a critical mass where even individuals can confidently travel to a cappella conferences like VoCALnation in Philadelphia, and know they will find people to sing with. It’s hard to get a group of employed individuals to take time off at the same time and pay for a trip to a remote conference just to sing, so it’s important that individuals can attend these events.
At the first meeting of CAL directors, which took place at Deke Sharon’s house in San Francisco during the summer of 2008, we chose six simple songs that were easily translated to any mix of voices, and we agreed it would be a good idea to learn them as part of the “CAL Songbook,” so that an individual would always know at least six songs that he or she could sing anywhere, whenever four or more CAL members got together, particularly at conferences. I don’t think we ever brought this idea to fruition, but we ought to.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking about either joining or starting a CAL group?
There is room for one or more CAL group in any city. It’s always easier to join an existing group, but if one doesn’t exist, then start one. Lean heavily on the CAL community, because we will support you with good, time-tested advice.
Or if none of the groups in your area is to your liking, either because of their choice of music, or because you don’t feel a kinship with the type of singers already in the group, or even if you audition and don’t get in, then start your own group. It’s hard work to start a group, but the rewards are huge. DeltaCappella has become a huge part of my life and of the lives of 11 other guys in Memphis, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.