It doesn’t make sense, at least on paper.
A cappella is at its best when precise, when clean and rich; an impressive, well balanced array of sounds akin to popular music with instruments.
Why then would I get up on stage and perform music I haven’t rehearsed? Music I perhaps don’t even know?
Well, it all started a decade ago in a town called Bremerhaven in Northern Germany. The House Jacks were performing for a packed club (“Pumpwerk,” a former waterworks of some kind), at which we were told a couple hundred of the attendees were all from the same company.
Northern Germans speak English better than most Americans (!), so we conduct our entire show in English, joking with the crowd between songs, and I recall the banter that night was particularly cheeky, probably due to the audiences obvious inebriation. Garth, our tenor at the time, stepped forward and said “our next song will be” and someone from the audience yelled “Great Balls of FIre!”
“It will be…” and the song requests kept coming. Couldn’t finish the sentence. So, when someone yelled out “James Brown I Feel Good” we said “Fine!”, playing along with the joke.
And you know what? It was pretty good. So we took another request. And another. And the audience went WILD.
After the show, we were all a bit stunned, and in the debrief we realized we had lightning in a jar. If we could replicate that experience for every audience, we’d have something special. Mind you, the conservatory-educated music-snob-centers in my brain screamed for me to stop, but I’ve learned to ignore them when the audience is happy, and I’m glad I did.
It wasn’t easy at first, but we learned. We learned that pacing is essential, that fearlessness is perhaps the single most important component, that the audience doesn’t know the words to most songs, that short is sweet, and oddly that if the requests are too good too often the audience stops enjoying it as much because they think it’s all a set up.
That’s right, they want to see and hear our mistakes. In fact, they need to, to confirm that it’s actually happening. Much as some of the funniest moments in an improv comedy show are when the cast starts laughing or the sketch falls apart. There’s a strong bond between performer and audience member when you’re creating something unique for them… it’s hard to explain.
I realize the bar has now been raised, thanks to the “riff off” scene in “Pitch Perfect”, wherein we made it seem as though college groups could turn on a dime and quickly battle back and forth on musical themes. I did my best behind the scenes to make it sound and seem natural and perhaps even possible, when of course it’s completely impossible for groups to cut each other off on a single word and start a new song on that word… But it is certainly possible to pick a song and just dive in.
And to make it clear we’ll do anything in the House Jacks, we put no limitations on it: any song, any artist, any style.
How do we do it?
Well, first you have to come see a show to see how it works. Perhaps at BOSS, this April in Boston. Yell out your request and hopefully we’ll get to it.
And then after the show or sometime that weekend I’ll walk you through it: how we use body language to start songs, how we arrange by ear, how we know where to go in a song and when to stop. There’s a little music theory, and a little improvisational experience, and maybe a little magic.
Actually there’s no magic, but you know what they say: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
We’re happy to teach you a little magic.
See you at BOSS!