Deke Sharon: A Little Bit Of Magic

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!”

Ha. No.

“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.

“Single Ladies”, by request

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!

Diana Galeano: Why I moved to Boston After BOSS 2012

If you asked me three years ago, “Diana, where do you see yourself in three years?”, one of the last places I would have said was Boston. Up until October of last year, I had not stepped foot in Massachusetts or anywhere north of New York City. I visited just before the first snow, when the leaves were changing and everyone was in a good mood.

our transplant, second from left, with other aca-ladies

My best friend since high school had recently moved to Somerville, so we decided to have a best friend reunion weekend. We gallivanted through Boston, downtown, the north end, Cambridge, Somerville, etc all weekend. Sunday morning a group of us went out to brunch and I remember clear as day, the first description of something called BOSS. It was its first stage of inception, but I already felt I drawn to it. I expressed my interest in contributing, but seeing as I lived in Florida, it didn’t seem plausible. Oh yeah, I lived in Florida. At the end of my 4 day trip, leaving felt so unnatural. As cliché as it sounds, part of me had fallen in love with Boston and I didn’t want to leave.

Just a week and a half later I went to SoJam for the first time since 2008 and volunteered the entire weekend. I got a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes and truthfully speaking, though stressful at times, I was fascinated by the whole thing. A few weeks after leaving North Carolina, I found myself shooting out of bed at 4:30am saying to myself, “I have to go to LAAF“. I bought my plane ticket on a whim and just two months later, found myself on the other side of the country. I volunteered at LAAF, met some incredible people, reconnected with old friends, heard some amazing a cappella, and found myself even more enthralled with the festival scene.

Back in Florida, I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t at home, like something was missing, like I needed a change. Every time I leave a place I make a connection with, I feel as if I leave a  part of myself. I started wondering, “Where am I supposed to be? Where will I feel at home? Where have I felt most alive?”. The answer hasn’t come to me, but just a few weeks into February, still buzzed off the LAAF high, I bought my plane ticket to BOSS and shortly thereafter I was there.

I arrived on a Thursday night to a house filled with Boston natives and transplants. The air was abuzz with excitement about BOSS, the first ever live CARA Award ceremony, and everything in between. Just like the past two festivals, I decided to volunteer in Boston as well. I did everything from set up and tear down to driving around and picking things up.

Every moment I spent in Boston I felt as if I was the happiest person on earth. Not only was I surrounded by some of the most incredible people in the a cappella world, I was in one of the most beautiful, fun, and historical cities I’d ever been in.

BOSS was unlike any festival I’d been to. From the collegiate competition and its structure, to the workshops and out-of-this-world performances, I found it to be nothing short of magical. What truly struck me was despite it being a brand new festival, it was put together so well; it felt like it had been around for years. I was truly inspired by the collegiate groups that competed, respected and admired a new musical and aesthetic perspective I was submersed in, and knew this was something I needed to be a part of on a regular basis. Upon leaving BOSS, I left with a heavy heart. This particular festival weekend changed my life and came to the striking realization that would’ve frightened anyone in their right mind– I needed to move to Boston.

In July, I packed up my tiny little life (I’m 4’10”) and shoved it all into my Honda Civic (I told you it was small). I endured a month at home in South Florida, and finally drove through ten states over the course of three days. Since September, I’ve been nestled in Somerville making coffee in Cambridge, arranging for & directing a co-ed collegiate group in Boston, mentoring a cappella groups in the Greater Boston area/Rhode Island as CASA Ambassador, and reaching out to a cappella groups in the Northeast in hopes that they’ll come to BOSS this year.

2011-2012 was a year filled with personal and musical challenges, a year of growth, of loss, and of newfound & rekindled relationships. I took a chance, I made a move (1500 miles is quite the move), and I ended in Boston. Everyone has wings but they have to find the courage to fly. BOSS just so happened to be the wind beneath my wings 😉

Diana Galeano is the BOSS Outreach Director

Amy Malkoff Gettin’ List-y: Why Come To BOSS?

Everybody likes a list. Just ask Buzzfeed.  Or Thought Catalog.

Oh sorry, I got distracted by this list of Wes Anderson’s 8 Best Soundtrack Choices*

So I thought for my BOSS blog post, I’d give you a list. Specifically, a list of

THINGS TO DO, SEE or KNOW ABOUT BOSS/BOSTON:

1.) BOSS will be held at Northeastern University, home to our fabulous hosts, the Nor’easters. But it’s truly right in the heart of it all in Boston’s Back Bay. It’s one block away from the New England Conservatory, where Deke Sharon, Ed Boyer, and myself did Graduate School Things (20th Century Composition, anyone?)

2.) It’s also close to the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music. Do the names Hannah Juliano (“The Sing-Off”, Musae, Delilah, Pitch Slapped), Mario Jose (“The Sing-Off”, Pitch Slapped), Lisa Forkish (Divisi, Women’s A Cappella Association) or Wes Carroll (House Jacks, Five O’Clock Shadow) ring a bell… I mean, strike a chord?

3.) Northeastern is also right down the street from 5 Napkin Burger, a Swingle Singers-(and other aca-folks)-approved eatery. Highly recommended!

4.) April in Boston means: it could be snowing (please no), or it could be spring-like and lovely (mmm, maybe). For you gamblers, it’s weather roulette!

5.) You’ll be right near the Prudential Center. Fun fact: the Foursquare mayor of the Pru’s Dunkin Donuts is (BOSS host and member of Five O’Clock Shadow and Overboard) Scott Cobban. Check out this article on him and his iced tea habit (one we share). Head over there and tell ‘em (their) mayor sent ya!

6.) You won’t have to go to Cheers to be somewhere where “everybody knows your name” because we’re one aca-big family, but if you want to do that uber-touristy thing (which I encourage), it’s here. Oh, and here.

7.) Did you forget your red carpet gown/tux, or are you a local looking for the same? Nearby Newbury Street and environs boasts everything from H&M to Armani. Guys with $1400 burning a hole in their pockets, I suggest this one. Hot.

8.) BOSS 2013 features (among others) Danish group Postyr Project, a new-ish group doing groundbreaking things with electronics, as well as Five O’Clock Shadow, a Boston group founded in 1991, who were some of the earliest adopters of live effects. Now that’s pretty cool. Don’t you want to see that??

9.) You’ll also be right in the vicinity of the beautiful Christian Science compound, home to the famous Mapparium. The Mapparium, because of its spherical glass surface, boasts some unique acoustical effects. I’ve always wondered what it would sound like if a group sang in there….hmmm…

Excited yet? Go get your tickets, and we’ll see you there!

*unapologetic Wes Anderson movie and soundtrack fan

[Thanks to Mal Zuckerman for her animated gif search!]

Amy Malkoff is the Web Content Director at CASA, is on the BOSS production team, and does other music-type things.

Amanda Aldag: Be Revolutionary

CASA Events. Indescribable… Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It!

If you’ve been paying attention, the events program for the CASA has exploded over the past 2 years, now offering 5 full weekend events – Los Angeles A Cappella Festival. VoCAL Nation. SoJam. ACappellaFest. BOSS. Then we went and added a brand new one-day festival, the Texas A Cappella Celebration in San Antonio this March. Are you in a cappella overload yet? I sure hope not.

Because we’re just not done yet.

CASA’s not just adding more weekends to the schedule – we’re packing more into each weekend. BOSS is no exception.

For our regular festival goers, you’ve come to expect the best from our festivals…

Life-changing scholastic competitions. World-class seminars. Jaw-dropping headliners. Epic afterparties.

BOSS 2013 will bring you all of this – and more. In one weekend, we’ll have you dressed to the nines for the CARA Red Carpet and Awards Ceremony, reaching into the depths of your soul during your group’s masterclass, rubbing elbows with some of the most legendary people in the a cappella world and learning what’s next for the art form.

If you’re new to CASA, the only thing I can say to you is: prepare to be blown away.

A Cappella enthusiasts, fans, hobbyists, and professionals should expect something new. You won’t walk away simply having enjoyed a nice weekend. Instead you’ll be armed and ready to cut your own path and claim new ground. BOSS is all about the revolution.

22 years ago The House Jacks made an indelible mark on contemporary a cappella. Rock music. With just their mouths. WHAT?! In 1991 that was simply crazy talk.  But this community is built on pioneers and revolutionaries and The House Jacks are still leading the charge. Once you’ve experienced them live during the CARA Awards, you might just believe that they are immortal.

Flash-forward to 2013 and the a cappella community is being exposed to numerous groups who are mixing voices with technology to create a whole new sound. Coming all the way from Denmark, POSTYR Project is at the forefront of the technology movement. You are going to hear things you’ve never imagined. Not in your wildest dreams.

photo courtesy Michael Eldredge

So go ahead. Clear out your other plans for April 5-7, book your plane, train or automobile. Perhaps even get a check up with your doctor to ensure you don’t have a heart condition.

Be prepared to be absorbed.

Amanda Aldag, CASA’s Director of Festivals and Events, was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Amanda started her a cappella career as musical director of Special K at Hamilton College. After graduation she moved to rural Japan for 4 years where she founded, trained and performed with an international a cappella group called the Amigos. Since moving the the DC area in 2005, Amanda founded and performs with Euphonism (CAL) and Snowday, a group that primarily provides a cappella educational programs in the Mid-Atlantic. She is the managing partner of Clear Harmonies Productions, has served as a CARA nominator and judge since 2009 and written numerous arrangements for groups around the world. @acaldag

Shams Ahmed: A festival? Like with clowns?

This time last year I was flying back to Boston from my social development stint in Bangladesh. Mulling over set ideas, choreography, a possible costume change, and arrangements during the trip, I was obsessed with a cappella and my group’s success. Upon arriving in Boston, The Nor’easters and I were knee-deep in preparations for what would be our most competitive ICCA season yet. Unified in our goal to excel in the tournament, we did not let anything get in our way.

Shams w/Kari Francis and Diana Galeano
Shams w/Kari Francis and Diana Galeano

Some friends in the a cappella community mentioned a possible a cappella festival in Boston during the fall semester. A cappella festival. At first I thought “carnival”. Like a cappella clowns and balloon animals of Peter Hollens. No, too weird.  Then, I thought “festival of lights”. Like a totally non-denominational celebration of a cappella that took place around a huge campfire with candle ceremonies. No, too spiritual. Not really knowing (or caring) what that meant at the time, I glossed over it – “cool. ICCAICCAICCAICCAICCAICCAICCAICCA.”

Get what I mean?

As the fall semester progressed, so did we. With a quarterfinal championship under our belt and a new song to bring to the semifinals stage, it was time to really bring out the big guns. We rehearsed pretty much daily to perfect choreography, dynamics, vowels, emotions, faces; you name it, we did it.

During a recording session, Alex Green mentioned that submitting a video for BOSS might be a good idea for our group. “What’s BOSS?”, I asked. “Boston Sings, an a cappella festival”, he replied.

Festival. Okay, let’s actually think about this now. I had only really heard of SoJam, which at that point was a nebulous rodeo show in the south that our friends in Pitch Slapped had won earlier in the school year. While I do love a good rodeo, I had my reservations about taking our focus off ICCAs to record a submission video. After talking it over with the group, we came to the decision that this might be a fun, possibly worthwhile experience. With a video recorded and tickets purchased, we waited to see what the outcome of the collegiate competition would be. But not for long, because we had to go to rehearsal for ICCAs.

And so ICCA preparations progressed: our sound was slick, our belting was high, and our bass was booming. The sheer number of hours we clocked in was impressive. We spent so much time with each other that the only thing we really knew about a cappella was ourselves.

By attending and competing in BOSS, we opened up a world of connections that we had not previously known existed. Meeting other groups and people who care about what we do was priceless. Don’t get me wrong – I love to compete. I love spending countless hours with my group honing our art. I also love knowing and talking to like-minded people. BOSS provided me with a venue to meet numerous people like me. It was just as comforting as it was surreal to find out that other people in the world were just as obsessed with a cappella as I was. The competition kicked off the weekend, and was naturally a huge component for us at the outset, but by the end of the festival, other very important moments overshadowed it. The moment when I finally shook off the importance of the competition was the pinnacle of my experience. No longer did I feel isolated by exclusively focusing on my own group, spending hours prepping for competition. I appreciated the aca-bombs and the workshops and the people that ran them. It allowed me to see the work of the community in motion. I met the engineers that produced albums, their clients, and gained insight into their relationships. I met with people who made arranging music their full-time job and people who wanted to bring contemporary a cappella to high schools. Watching professional groups perform with the consistency and zeal that I always dreamed to achieve was inspiring. While the value of competition still resounds, I can now say that I truly enjoy watching other groups, because I know how similar we really are.

BOSS had ultimately opened a new side of a cappella that I hadn’t known before.

So as I sit on the plane on my way back from Bangladesh this year, I will still be obsessively checking arrangements, devising blocking, and pondering costume changes. The difference now is that I will be able to appreciate the art form, not the competition.

Shams Ahmed is a 5th year Finance and Chinese student at Northeastern University. He is also the Music Director of The Nor’easters. His involvement with the creative direction of the group started his freshman year and he is proud to have contributed to the group’s success over recent years. Under his direction, the Nor’easters have place 2nd at the 2011 and 2012 ICCA Northeast Semifinals as well as 2nd in the Wildcard Rounds for both years. He has also been presented with numerous Outstanding Arrangement awards since 2010 and led the group to 2nd place at BOSS 2012 and 1st place at SoJamX this past year. His biggest a cappella love is arranging and he is the primary arranger for his group. Additionally, Shams arranges music for other collegiate groups. He is enthralled by the sheer talent surrounding him and will continue being heavily involved in the a cappella world after graduating!

Executive Producer Blog: Alexander Koutzoukis

Welcome to 2013! One of my privileges as Executive Producer of Boston Sings this year is to open the year by also opening our series of (mostly) weekly blog posts where you’ll hear from producers, performers, CARA presenters, and other distinguished individuals connected to BOSS. We’ll cover all manner of topics in both written and video form, from the inner workings of the festival to the minds of the performers and why this festival has (and will continue to) change people for the better. So let’s get to it…

When I initially sat down to write this, I was coming off the high (read: coma) of three days in a row of family Christmas meals. All I could focus on were pizzelle, ham, and baklava (and my new food processor and stand mixer — we like food over here, okay?). So I let it simmer for a bit (more food puns?) and realized that if nothing else got you champing at the bit — not the outstanding headliners from around the country and world, the red carpet, the boundary-pushing live competition, the hands-on classes with an array of instructors you couldn’t get together anyplace but here — then come for the food. Boston loves food. And hey, once you’ve walked the red carpet, you can chow down guilt-free.

But Boston and BOSS aren’t just about the culinary experiences. The mission of the festival is to revolutionize the art form of a cappella from top to bottom. That’s why we have Postyr, who are consistently pushing the boundaries of where voices meet electronics, and the House Jacks, who’ve thrown out the hackneyed cover formula in favor of original music and off-the-cuff audience requests. We’ll have classes on sound (pedals, even!) and stage presence, advertising, traveling, growing, doing things new and better. There are so many groups in the country, and even a growing number of festivals, but now is the time for thinking a little differently.

As you may have seen on Facebook and Twitter, we’ve been talking about joining our New Year’s Revolution. To me, this is all about what you’re going to do to make yourself and your group and by extension everyone you come in contact with better this year. Forget about the status quo, forget about self-imposed limitations, muscle memory, and current trends, and just do something amazing. So whether you’re coming to Boston to share the next big thing or get inspired by it, just get to BOSS. We promise there will be many delicious experiences waiting.

CARA Presenters: Jon Pilat

[This is the last of a series of profiles on our CARA award ceremony presenters]

WHO: Jon Pilat
AWARD: Best Pop/Rock Song

Hello.  I’m Jon Pilat.  I arrange, sing bass, and beatbox for Hookslide.  Two of those three things tend to happen at the same time.  But enough about me–let’s talk about the CARAs.

About eight years ago, I received a phone call from Bill Hare asking if, since I already listened to more a cappella music than was probably healthy, I would be interested in joining the CASA board and running the CARA program.  I had been singing a cappella for almost ten years at that point, first with the Stanford Harmonics and then with Hookslide, but hadn’t really considered becoming involved with the a cappella community as more than a fan and a singer.  The CARA awards had always been something special to me–I had been nominated for work with both of my groups, mostly as an arranger.  This seemed like a great opportunity to hear everything that was going on in a cappella music and help promote the music I love.

I accepted, and over the years Julia Hoffman (partner in CARA-related crime) and I have helped the CARAs evolve to stay relevant with what recorded a cappella music is today.  We’ve added and changed awards to compliment the creativity that’s happening throughout the a cappella community.  The change that’s had the biggest impact is getting the broader community more involved with the awards as nominators and judges.  Every year we’re looking for new folks to join our group of CARA nominators–any CASA member with significant a cappella experience is eligible.  If that’s you, please consider helping make sure these awards continue to recognize the very best in recorded a cappella music.

When I started managing the CARAs, a live ceremony to honor the folks receiving the awards seemed about as likely as winning the lottery.  I am very proud to be a part of the first ever live CARA event, and incredibly grateful to all the folks with BOSS and CASA for helping put this together.

Cara Presenters: Samantha Schultz

[This is one of a series of profiles on our CARA award ceremony presenters]

WHO: Samantha Schultz
AWARD: Best High School Album

Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Samantha Schultz is 21 years old. She began singing and playing acoustic guitar at a young age. Samantha writes her own lyrics and music, and having been influenced by the likes of Jonny Lang, India Arie, Sheryl Crow and Justin Nozuka, Schultz has created her own unique sound, which appeals to ages of all types. Samantha has performed at numerous music festivals across Canada. She adds to her credits opening for such artists as Ryan Cabrera, Livingston Taylor, Kyle Riabko, Gaye Delorme, and Jennifer Warnes. In February 2009, Samantha opened for Schuyler Fisk and Ben Taylor at the famed El Mocambo club in Toronto, Canada.

Samantha has been nominated for multiple awards, such as the “Young Performer of the Year” at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in November 2006, and the Stantec Youth Award in 2007 and 2009. In July 2011, Samantha released her sophomore album, Ink To Paper: a follow-up CD to her 2006 debut release, Both Sides. In January of 2012, Schultz was a featured artist in the Close Encounters: Helsinki and St. Petersburg Music Festival, where she took part in the international songwriting/collaboration band. Schultz performed her original music at multiple venues in Helsinki, Finland, and in St. Petersburg, Russia. Samantha has almost completed her junior year at Berklee College of Music in Boston, on the generous Gary Slaight Family Scholarship: a full-ride scholarship. Samantha has performed at Cafe 939′s The Red Room, the Berklee Performance Centre in various Berklee College of Music productions, and has taken part in many other on-campus performances.

In 2009, Samantha was one of four students chosen to be a part of Berklee’s premiere, award-winning, co-ed a cappella group, Pitch Slapped. Since her acceptance into Pitch Slapped, Schultz has become one of the pillar arrangers in the group, and was elected as the Assistant Musical Director in the fall of 2011. Samantha has taken part in the 2010 ICCA Finals, where they placed 2nd, the 2011 ICCA Finals, where the group placed first, and can also be heard on the group’s first self-titled EP, as a soloist and background vocalist. Pitch Slapped’s most recent accomplishments are placing first in the SoJam 2011 Competition, and their first tour in down the California coast. Currently, Schultz is heavily involved in the recording of Pitch Slapped’s highly anticipated, full-length album. Samantha will be continuing into next year as Pitch Slapped’s Musical Director, and has huge hopes and goals for the group in her senior year of college. Samantha is very excited to be attending her first CARA Awards as a presenter, and as a representative of Pitch Slapped. She is looking forward to sharing this special event with her a cappella colleagues, and hoping to gain more knowledge of a world that she loves very dearly. She wishes good luck to the BOSS competitors, and to the CARA nominees.

CARA Presenters: Jeff Thacher

[This is one of a series of profiles on our CARA award ceremony presenters]

WHO: Jeff Thacher
AWARD: Best CAL Album

Jeff Thacher is best known as a member of the notorious Rockapella (www.rockapella.com), where for nearly 20 years, he’s served as the fab five’s full-time vocal percussionist.  He’s widely recognized as a pioneer in the field.  When not touring the globe with Rockapella, Jeff has applied his talents as a professional producer and recording engineer on dozens of a cappella albums, as well as for a variety of other independent artists.  Jeff is a co-founder of Boston’s own legendary group, the mighty FOCS (Five O’Clock Shadow), and holds a music degree from Berklee College of Music.  He’s given many lectures & workshops on the music industry and careers in music, as well as his colorful life in the studio and with Rockapella, and is delighted to return to beautiful Boston for the mighty BOSS!

Rockapella was CARA-nominated for Best Pop Album last year, and this year is nominated for Best Holiday Album.

About BOSS, Jeff says: “I started out in Boston, and quickly grew to love her. Boston is a city of music, and has nurtured and propagated so much a cappella.  The city has long deserved its own successful yearly event.  I hope it continues for many years to come!”