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From Boston to Philly – Reflections on the Value of CASA Festivals

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Boston Sings 2013 was my second time at a CASA festival. Before attending, I was excited about getting to meet even more people in person that I had already collected as Facebook friends. I had looked over the workshop list and saw a few I was interested in, but wasn’t too jazzed about that. I looked over the list of competing collegiate groups and was excited about seeing Voices In Your Head in particular. I was impressed by the tracks I had heard by POSTYR Project and was intrigued to see how they would do it live. Just before the festival began, CASA Director of Education Ben Stevens stated on Facebook “Boston Sings – You should come, because if you do, I will change your life. I promise.” My thought was, “That’s a rather lofty claim.”

He was right.

Boston’s Impactful Educational Sessions

In my case, BOSS was life-changing for a few reasons. I had a half-hour discussion with Bill Hare (who, by the way, is one of the nicest people on planet Earth) about recording, arranging, and the ability to let go of your pre-conceived notions and let art happen.

Also, I watched The House Jacks’ Austin Willacy pull out a guitar (that’s right, a real one) and demonstrate his latest original song, explaining the story of how it came about and how a song (which is only the lyrics, a melody, and chords) becomes an arrangement for a vocal band.

I saw how LivingFiction’s Michael Eldredge sees a cappella through the eyes of a professional photographer, better understanding how the simple positioning of your own posture changes your communication to the audience.

But, most importantly, I was reminded why I chose music as my career in the first place.

CASA Festivals Are About the Music

As a public school music educator, I am immersed in music every day. Sometimes, when you are immersed in it as a profession, you are so busy with the hard work that goes into it that you forget the reason that music is so integral to your existence – how it can touch you to your very core. I was reminded of that power twice at BOSS. Surprisingly, it was not at the collegiate competition or professional showcase that this occurred (although there were select performances at those events that were mind-broadening and meaningful). It was the informal performances that were featured as part of two of the workshops that communicated to me.

In Michael Eldredge’s “Seeing Music” session, he ended by taking us through the lyrics of “Top of the World”, then had Musae get up and sing their CARA-winning arrangement for us. I was captivated by their performance, even without the set-up of the lyrics. Later, Ben Stevens had a special guest in his ever-popular “Essential Listening” session: BOSS’s host group, the Nor’Easters of Northeastern University. They performed Rihanna’s “Diamonds in the Sky” with a level of artistry and expression that the original artist could never portray. This was my tears-in-the-eyes moment of the weekend.

Those kind of performances are the reason I got into music as a career. That magical moment of synergy when an ensemble of performers acts as a conduit for the musical expression of the composer, arranger, and performers themselves, connecting directly to the audience on an energetic level are the kind of performances that brings everyone in the room who is really paying attention into the present moment in a way few other things can.

As a music educator, I need those kind of reminders every once in a while.

What Makes VoCALnation Unique Among CASA Festivals

And now, with BOSS over and the a cappella faithful finding their way back to their respective points of origin a little bit wiser and richer of heart, we find ourselves on the forefront of preparations for VoCALnation. Can we expect the same kind of life-changing moments in Philadelphia in July? Certainly. But what makes VCN different?

VoCALnation is a festival that was founded to address the unique needs of post-collegiate a cappella singers – those of us who sang in college, loved every moment of it, and want to continue that activity into full adulthood. As last year’s Friday night CAL showcase quite effectively proved, there is not only “aca-life” after college, but mature, experienced adult performers can bring a level of sophistication and depth to a cappella performance bred from their years of experience in college (and they can still melt faces with the best of them).

CASA’s Contemporary A Cappella League has doubled in size within the last two years due in part to the success of The Sing-Off. With an estimated 5,000 collegiate singers graduating each year, there is no end to the possibilities of groups forming all over America. There is also no question that the groups who have chosen to tap into the resources and camaraderie available in CAL have flourished over the past seven years while other adult groups have formed and disbanded time and time again.

At BOSS, I sat in on the Post-Collegiate A Cappella session, where directors and business managers for Cut-Off, Fermata Town, Cognitive Resonance, Euphonism, and Redline led a panel discussion on the best practices of currently successful CAL groups. Even at BOSS, where many of the performers and attendees are still going through their collegiate singing days, there was still a room of about thirty adults or soon-to-be-graduates in the room asking some very real and very specific questions about starting, managing, and maintaining an a cappella group populated by working adults.

There Is Aca-Life After College

The reality of the situation is that it is really difficult to start and grow an a cappella group of adults. The Contemporary A Cappella League is a fantastic resource for singers to make an adult group happen, and VoCALnation is a festival that helps post-collegiate singers (and anyone else, for that matter) of all levels and abilities grow in their knowledge and skill sets to take back to their groups and keep the music going. There is room in a busy adult life of career and family for a cappella, especially when that passion and enthusiasm is nurtured by like-minded adults who are making it happen in their own communities.

I am looking forward to the opportunity of changing a few more lives in July. I invite you all to join us and experience the passion and skill of the many amazing people associated with the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America.


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