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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

How Ohio Became An Epicenter for A Capella

Camp A Capella, Wright State University
courtesy of Brody McDonald
Camp A Capella, Wright State University

Many people here know the high school pop a capella group 11th Hour—their appearance on NBC’s The Sing Off and their success at competitions.  At their peak, choral director Brody McDonald chose a different road for this group that paved the way for the national Camp A Capella at Wright State this week.  Culture Couch producer David Seitz looks into how Brody McDonald helped make Ohio an epicenter for pop a capella.

When singers in 11th Hour pitch a new song to Brody McDonald, it’s gotta grab him.
“It has to survive my dog walk test,” McDonald says with a smile. “I put the song on my iPod on repeat and if I can make it through a whole 20 minute dog walk and listen to the same song and not get tired of it, then it can go in the set.”  

According to McDonald, pop a capella requires the same musical chops needed for the best composers of madrigals from way back in the 1500s. Madrigals were the pop music of their time.  After all, MacDonald asks, “Why is an eight part arrangement of “Jaywalk,” which is a song you hear on the radio today, for some reason is musically less valid than an 8 part Lotti piece or an 8 part Orlando Gibbons setting? They’re equally difficult.”

11th Hour of Kettering Fairmount High School 2015-16
Credit courtesy of Fairmont High School
11th Hour of Kettering Fairmont High School 2015-16

To make it more difficult, there’s only seven people, and each one sings a different part. Joe Schlangen sings bass and is student director. He led the group without McDonald once a week.  At these rehearsals, they would talk about what the songs meant to them. They had one of those conversations over John Mayer’s ballad, “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” one of Joe’s solos. Joe recalls this rehearsal. “I remember we decided it’s about when something is falling apart, but you can’t really do anything about it. People would talk about past relationships.  Your friends with someone, but you know things are kind of taking a different turn, so it’s kind of like acceptance of something you can’t really change.
Deke Sharon, vocal producer for NBC’s The Sing Off and the Pitch Perfect movies appreciates when a young group finds the emotional connection to a song.  “So many times groups don’t get it,” Sharon claims, “or high schoolers have their hands in their pockets and they’re too cool for school.   Brody’s students do not have that problem. They are fully engaged musicians who understand the technical aspects of music but more importantly the emotional connection to the song and how to convey that to an audience.”
At the top of their game, Brody McDonald and his group Eleventh Hour could have kept competing and competing. Instead, they chose to share pop acapella in high schools throughout Ohio and beyond.   
“We give away all the secrets,” McDonald says, “we’re like magicians on TV saying, this is how this trick is done.”

Ohio Acapella Festival 2014
Credit courtesy of Brody McDonald
Ohio A Capella Festival 2014

Then McDonald founded the Ohio A Capella festival which has grown to 70 groups in 10 years.
“We have that friendly rivalry with other groups.” McDonald acknowledges, “We love them like brothers and sisters, but you know, we’re like, hey, you know these guys are coming to our festival. They’re going to sing well. We gotta sing well.”
In this spirit, Brody McDonald and Deke Sharon recently created Camp A Capella at Wright State. The camp welcomes middle schoolers to age 100, and singers of all abilities from all over the country.
Sharon says the motto of the camp is “harmony through harmony”. “We’re trying to spark a love of music and an interest in vocal harmony that will last their entire lives. But when you’re working with people one on one, you really are able to change their lives.”
McDonald knows the power of these small moments at the camp. One day, he turned the corner and came upon a group who had left the classroom to sing in the atrium.  “Here’s these people standing in a circle,” McDonald remembers. They were “fixated on each other, some of them eyes closed, singing something incredibly gorgeous, and then it was over, it was just, group hug, right? And that feeling that hey, we made that.”

David Seitz learned his basic audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. He is deeply grateful that most of my stories bring out social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.