Vocal Rush continues to impress the nation on The Sing-Off this season. Having said that, we decided to sit down with Lisa again to talk to her in depth about how she runs her group. There’s no doubt that you will enjoy and learn from her invaluable insight.
1. Wow, congratulations to you and the kids in Vocal Rush on making it to the finale of the show! Were you able to make it to every episode/filming of the show?
Thank you!! We are all so proud of these young people! And yes, I was able to make it to all of the show tapings. I am SO grateful for that, being able to cheer them on in person. Special thanks to my co-faculty in the School of Vocal Music for covering for me — some of those tapings fell on school days and I could not have done it without their support.
2. Can you talk about the support that you’ve received from your school?
Well as I mentioned, they allowed me to fly to L.A. for all the tapings, even once school was in session. OSA’s Executive and Artistic Director, Donn Harris, has been incredibly supportive in a number of ways, including putting someone on staff to serve as the group’s booking manager — a job that had previously fell on my plate as director. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also shout out the School of Vocal Music’s chair, Cava Menzies. Without her, there would be no Vocal Rush; she supported my idea to start the group back in ’11 when I was brand new on faculty, and her support has never wavered. She is a total gem at OSA, and one of the school’s founding faculty.
3. What’s next for Vocal Rush after the show?
You know, I always wonder when things will slow down for Vocal Rush, and I’m starting to realize the answer is “never!” — and I mean that in a good way. We just submitted our audition video for the L.A. A Cappella Festival’s Scholastic competition and are hopeful we”ll be selected again. Last year the kids had such an amazing time networking with a cappella folks, taking in workshops, performances and of course, competing. These kids LOVE to compete, if you haven’t noticed In May, we go back into the studio to record our first FULL-LENGTH album that we are very excited about. We also have some exciting collaborations with other TSO groups in the works…
4. Did you ever imagine that they would advance this far? Beating professional groups, college groups, etc?
Yes and no. The word I frequently use to describe Vocal Rush is “unstoppable.” They are very critical of themselves, always pushing each other and the group at large to be the best it can be. I am also guilty of this as their director, striving to make the group work at the highest possible level. So in that way, no, I’m not surprised. They are constantly raising the bar. I knew they could go very far in the show. On the other hand, every success of theirs still feels amazing and surreal like I never dreamed it could happen, and I know the kids always react with the same shock and awe. It’s what you get when you combine ambition with humility — you go for the gold and are then surprised when you get it! I also encouraged them to aim for staying on as long as possible, but to also be prepared for going home early on, knowing they are the youngest in the competition. That idea just fuels their fire!
5. Can you talk a little bit about your kids. They come across on TV as professional and great kids/people. And I know they are J But for those that don’t know, how are they to work with on a daily basis?
Honestly, what the world is seeing on TV is a very accurate portrayal of these kids. Of course they have their moments because they’re teenagers! But yes, they are incredibly professional, humble, hard-working, motivated, always striving to be their best selves. They work very well as a team, and when conflict arises, we always have an open discussion and work through it together. What I think is most impressive is that they were working together as a team without me during the tapings of The Sing-Off, exemplifying an extraordinary level of leadership, if you ask me! It’s one thing to work well as a group with a group leader present to help work through the kinks and keep everyone in line, and it’s another situation entirely to work so successfully without the team leader everyone is so accustomed to having present– it requires that ALL members act as leaders, and that’s what I saw from these kids — young adults really– while they were in L.A. True leadership, true teamwork. For me, visiting L.A. and watching them work was one of my proudest moments as a teacher: all the little catch-phrases, techniques, lessons that I’d drilled all year long, they were employing them and reminding each other in the same way I would during rehearsal. It’s kind of like that old saying about teaching a man to fish instead of just giving him the fish.
6. Do you have a structure for leadership within the group? President, Vice President, Section leaders? Which kids in this group stick out and lead?
Every year I elect an Assistant Music Director who plays starting pitches and leads count-offs on stage. My Assistant MD for the past two years has been Kyana Fanene — she is a great leader. Other leadership roles are assigned for the school year, including a FB announcement person and someone who takes on our daily agenda. For The Sing-Off specifically though, I gave ALL students a leadership role since I would not be with them. Sarah Vela was assigned to lead rehearsals due to her unique position as a returning alum — I know it can be hard to take direction from your peers, and Sarah was the obvious candidate for “least peer-like” as she had only sung with two of the VR members before, Kyana and De’Zhanice who were in VR ’11-’12. Sarah also had a year’s worth of professional group singing experience through working with The Riveters. Isaac was assigned to be on “choreography watch” as he had always been a lead choreographer in the group. Jordan was the liaison to the adults working on the show since I was not there to play that role, Kiana Parker in charge of checking everyone’s stage presence game and Sydney responsible for focusing the group in rehearsal with an attention-getter. Other role/responsibility titles included “hydration,” “voice rest,” “game face,”head count,” and “hype/zen.” They all did wonderfully taking on these roles, though I know some ended up not being necessary after all.
7. Did you get to talk to the kids and actually see them when you went to watch the filming of the episodes or would they not let you physically see them?
I wasn’t allowed at the Sony studios at all (well, except for sitting in the audience), and could only be in limited rehearsals at the hotel. When school started, I was pretty much just flying in and out, but I always stayed at the same hotel so I could see them after the taping and briefly the next morning at the very least. The first visit was wonderful because they actually got a day off and I was able to take them to the beach with some of the parents. We did some team-building by the ocean and had a little award ceremony at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles (the kids favorite!) It was totally heart-breaking having to leave after each taping, but I did my best to make the most of the hours I did get to spend with them, supporting them in whatever ways were needed at the time.
8. How often did you talk to the kids?
In the first couple of days, we talked on the phone, texted and did “facetime” regularly. After they adjusted to the new environment it was less frequent, mostly because their schedule was so jam-packed! I tried to make myself available if a kid needed someone to talk to, which happened from time to time. All of the minors had a parent chaperone there at all times, so they had built-in support from an adult. And I know the parents ended up caring for the non-minors too! It was definitely a “takes a village” kind of situation.
9. As stressful as it must have been for the kids on the show can you talk about what you were going through as their director? Most groups don’t have a director that’s not a part of the actual group. This makes for a unique experience for you.
Oh boy, this question makes me tear up. Truthfully, it was really tough. I haven’t really talked about what it was like for me, because… well, it’s just not about me! But since you asked, I’ll say a few things: One of the rewarding aspects of teaching is watching your students learn and grow, watching them overcome struggle, and getting to huddle up with them backstage, assembling as a team before the BIG MOMENT. It’s up close and personal. And as teachers, we devote so much of ourselves — time, energy, emotion, etc. — so we become very connected to our group. I think most high school directors probably feel this way too, that even though you don’t walk onstage with your students, you are a part of the group. Leading up to TSO, every major performance, competition, rehearsal etc… I was there too. For The Sing-Off, I had to momentarily let go of the idea of “being a part of Vocal Rush.” It is a unique position because as you mentioned, the majority of collegiate and professional groups have a director that is also a singer in the group. My truth is that I did feel left out and it was painful to be so far away, not able to be in the trenches with my kiddos throughout the whole experience. But as I said in my previous interview it was also an opportunity to let them “spread their wings,” and I think in some ways, their experience may have been richer and more full of growth than it would have been if I had been present because, well, I refer back to question #5. They had to fish without their fishing teacher!
10. Can you talk about what you do to promote and get kids interested in auditioning and being a part of Vocal Rush? More so how you did this in the beginning. I would assume after being on a TV show, winning the ICHSA 2 years in a row that it’s not much of a problem getting kids to audition anymore. But how did you get all of this started? How did you develop this culture of success?
The very first year, I did a presentation on Contemporary A Cappella for my students and encouraged them all to audition in order to learn a new skill and have fun singing with friends. At that time, I was a brand new teacher at Oakland School for the Arts and was coming in mid-year to direct the advanced Concert Choir. Needless to say, I was not received very well at first. As tends to be the case with new teachers, the students were ready to put me through the wringer. I was also a young teacher which didn’t help matters. Very few students were interested in the group at that first audition, but the 10 students who were admitted really set the bar high. We rehearsed once a week after school from March through June, and the group made tremendous strides in that time — I remember the first time the rest of our Vocal students saw VR and seeing some of them go, “okay, a cappella is pretty cool.” The following fall, we had more interest at auditions, I think in part because students saw first-hand what an a cappella group looked and sounded like and how much fun it could be! Also, my sneaky scheme to gain students’ respect through my work with Vocal Rush worked, and I think more students started to audition because they realized I had something to offer as a teacher, despite my age and “newness.”
11. What advice would you give to other high school directors that have a group?
I think it’s really important as a director to have a clear vision of what you want your group to look like, and set goals for your group. It’s important to include your students in that conversation, especially the setting of goals. If your group wants to make music for fun, I would give different advice than if your group is aiming to win competitions. So, the first thing is to have that vision and communicate it not only to your students, but to your parent body as well, creating a larger community of support. If you have a group and you want your students to strive for excellence, here are a few things I stand for and believe have played a role in Vocal Rush’s success:
1. An audition is an audition. It shouldn’t be about filling a certain quota of basses or sopranos (case in point, VR is all-female this year), reaching a specific number of members (we’ve ranged from 10-14 and as few as seven if you count the number of singers we took to ICHSA in 2012), or even (if you really want to go hard) “giving” a student an opportunity to sing in your group. The audition is where your students work to earn their spot. If it’s not earned based on whatever standard you’ve set for your group, then it’s not earned.This may sound harsh, but if you’re looking to have a winning group, it’s a philosophy I recommend sticking to. And if that is the case, It’s important that your program also include other (possibly larger) advanced ensembles so that a kid with a talent, but not necessarily the required skill-set to sing in a small, tight a cappella ensemble, can still be challenged and have a place to flourish.
2. It’s not just about the music. Your students have to connect to the song itself and learn how to deliver that connection along with the particular message of the song. Fortunately for me, this is a major area of focus in the School of Vocal Music at large, so my students typically come in with strong stage presence already. But we ALWAYS continue our work on presence and song delivery. You never stop learning how to connect to the music you sing, it should be an ongoing learning process. Oh and please note, I’m not talking about choreography here! This is more important, it’s the intent and purpose behind singing a song in the first place.
3. Get to know your students and create a space for them to get to know each other. All the groups I’ve sung in myself have been most successful when we were all connected as people before going onstage. You can go onstage as polished as can be, but if you don’t trust and admire the people you share that stage with, the performance can fall short. Vocal Rush has always called themselves a “family” and it’s always been true — they work together as a team but love each other like family. Note that your students don’t have to *like* each other in order to have trust and respect for one another. Realistically, getting a group of teenagers to consistently like being around each other is nearly impossible, so making the distinction with them is important. And you knowing them as well will help you better understand the group dynamic, and will help you know in what areas you students need to be pushed and challenged so they can become the best versions of themselves.
12. What advice would you give to high school directors that are starting a group?
Once again, I recommend determining what kind of group you’d like to have before getting started. A clear vision of what you want is so important! For those about to get a group up and running (and potentially even if you’ve already started a group!) here are a few additional thoughts:
1. Go small. I recommend between 10 and 16 members. Especially if you want it to be a true advanced ensemble, this allows you to set the bar high and admit only those who are ready.
2. Your audition should include an ensemble-singing portion! In addition to hearing them sing a solo, sight-read, etc. make sure you do a callback (or it can be Part 1 of the audition, that’s how we do it) in which the students have to learn a piece and sing it one-on-a-part to demonstrate their musicianship and part-holding skills.
3. Arrangement and repertoire are everything. Be mindful of song choice (include students if you want but maintain veto power) and get ahold of great arrangements! If you don’t arrange yourself, buy from the pros. If you don’t have a budget, learn to become a great arranger
4. Require that your students and parents sign a contract. Set your expectations (musically, academically, behaviorally — what do you think it takes from your students to make a great group?), write it out, and have teacher, student and parent agree to those expectations in a formal contract.
13. Can you pinpoint a moment or two that put Vocal Rush on the map? Prior to winning the ICHSA and being on The Sing-Off, was there a point in time where you knew this was going to be special group? A time that it clicked with the group?
The first song that I arranged for Vocal Rush was “Something’s Missing” by Brandy. I made a video of the group singing during rehearsal one day and put it up on YouTube. I must have posted it somewhere on Facebook, sort of as a “look what’s in the works” introduction to the group / what I’m up to after a five-year hiatus from a cappella, and folks just started re-posting and commenting. As rough and unpolished as this video is, you still get to see the kids really feeling it! And this was after only a couple months singing together. I think the other moving thing about this video, at least for me, is that these were the pioneers of Vocal Rush, the founding members who helped determine what Vocal Rush was going to be — note that only one of the students you see in this video is still in the group now. It shows that once you set the bar, every kid who comes into the group will rise to it. Last fall, Vocal Rush was all new members except for two, coming into the “National Champion” group and worried they wouldn’t live up to the group’s already thriving reputation. And it was that same group that won LAAF four months later, ICHSA Finals for the second time two months after that, and then went to compete on The Sing-Off. It’s just crazy to see how the group’s legacy really precedes all current and future members. I tell the students, “this group is bigger than you” and I think that’s an important lesson to learn as far as keeping individual egos out of the equation and simply doing the work. Here’s a link to that video, where you’ll see a 16-year-old Sarah Vela and a 14-year-old Kyana Fanene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kJgFWmEvpw
14. What drives you as a person to do all that you do for Vocal Rush? Do you have any musical influences? People or moments that were influential in making you who you are?
That’s a good question! I ask myself that same thing quite often, especially when I feel disappointed with the amount of time I have to work on my own career as a performer and songwriter. I think the answer lies in my passion for educating young people in the arts combined with my freakish work ethic (not always a good thing — my husband will be the first to tell you that I so rarely actually take time for myself). I also see how hard my students work and I want to work hard for them in return. Or perhaps it happened the other way around where my hard work set the standard for them… who knows? It’s the chicken and the egg! The main thing is that we all work very hard because we care about this group. I don’t think my students really know just how much time and energy I put into the group (and incidentally how much of that time goes well beyond what I’m actually paid for– something they’ll understand down the line when they’re in the work force!) but like I said, I do it because I love it! As for musical influences, the ones who are right in front of me inspire me the most: Cava Menzies, co-faculty and chair truly sets the standard of excellence in the School of Vocal Music — I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for all that woman does and is. We are also both artists ourselves, so we push each other to make time to do our own thing — we even made an album together last year: www.cavalisamusic.com (shameless promotion, I know, but we don’t have any other time to promote it!) My husband Patrick Anseth is also a musician, and so we are able to share stories, goals, dreams and keep each other sane. If this were my Grammy acceptance speech (which I’m going to pretend like it is for a second), I would thank my incredibly supportive family, my devoted music teachers from over the years, Peggy, Darcy, Vicki, Alizon,Donna, all my amazing Divisi sisters from the U of O, the incomparable Berklee College of Music and of course, OSA — those are the people and institutions that have been influential in making me the person I am today.
15. Can you describe why you personally love contemporary a cappella and would you recommend for school choral programs to have an a cappella group?
I have to do this in list format, otherwise I’ll just go on and on. This is my “type A” coming out:
1. The possibilities are endless. “Contemporary a cappella” covers SO much ground! You can sing almost any genre of music and make it fit in this “style.” And then on top of that, you can change things up even more in your arrangement of the songs! It’s incredibly versatile in that the term “Contemporary A Cappella” really only describes the instrumentation (all vocals) and implies non-“choral” a cappella singing. Oh yeah, and implied vocal percussion too, which is fun!
2. A cappella groups are typically smaller than choirs, allowing for more connection among members and a deeper sense of “unit” and “team.” It’s like sports for music people!
3. I’ve sung in bands and that’s plenty fun too. But something about performing onstage with other singers is just so special. There’s a shared experience that you get to in turn share with your audience. I don’t get that same feeling when I perform with a band.
4. It may sound cheesy, but it’s real: you are literally making harmony with other human beings. What could be better?
5. It requires a lot of it’s singers. In this way, it makes for a perfect Advanced Ensemble to build into your program: numerous crucial singer/musician skills required with contemporary repertoire as the “carrot.” You’ll be amazed at how much that “carrot” gets your students motivated! My middle school students can’t wait to practice their (usually dreaded) sight-reading, knowing that it’s a skill required to get into Vocal Rush.
6. Singing a cappella makes you vulnerable: No support from an instrument to ensure you don’t move to another key. No wall of sound from instrumental accompaniment to cover up your mistakes. No option of doing your own thing because you have to maintain cohesion with the other singers. And why is it important to make yourself vulnerable? Because that’s what makes us human. I’ve learned from singing a cappella that it’s okay to make mistakes, that your relationships with the people you make music with are incredibly important, that connecting to music WITH other people is more powerful than connecting to music by yourself, and that crying in front of your peers (or students!) isn’t showing your weakness, it’s showing your humanity, and there is strength in that. I am an emotional person and a cappella is one of the few outlets I’ve had in my life where that is “allowed.” Our society puts so much emphasis on “keeping it all together,” and it ends up breeding people that don’t let themselves go and don’t feel to the extent that we are ALL capable of feeling.
Here’s a great video: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html
16. Is there anything else that you would love for people to know?
Now that I poured my heart out in that last question? No, I think everyone knows plenty about me at this point. Better to leave ’em wanting more (incidentally, also good advice for a cappella groups!)
17. What are your thoughts on the AEA? What makes you the most excited about this organization and what things would you like to see this organization achieve?
I am so thrilled that the AEA exists! Thank you to JD, Brody, Ben, and the whole team for bringing this organization to fruition! I am most excited about all the crazy potential, because schools have better access to resources necessary or helpful in starting a group through the AEA. What’s to stop a high school choral teacher from starting a group now? No more excuses — folks can turn to the AEA. I also think the organization is a wonderful thing because it will help spread the word about WHY starting an a cappella group in your school’s music program is a good idea. As an educator, that’s why I am pleased with the creation of AEA. As an a cappella advocate in general though, I think this means starting kids young in the “genre” so they’ll get to college better equipped to join/start/lead a group with more success, which will lead to more “graduates” of scholastic a cappella, confident and ready to join the professional world of singing. And as we’ve seen, it IS possible to do well for yourself singing in an a cappella group. It’s not going to happen for everybody, but I sleep better at night know there’s yet another viable career choice in the arts, especially as the economy tanks and arts programs get cut. We need a music in the schools, and I believe AEA will have a hand in ensuring the success of music programs around the country!