When Pentatonix burst onto the a cappella scene in 2011, their members already had powerhouse vocals; it was arranger and producer Ben Bram who helped shape them into a powerhouse group. Ben is one of the most recognizable names in contemporary a cappella, and we were excited to pick his brain about high school a cappella and their keys to success. From our conversation, one particular statement stood out.

AEA: Are there any limitations on what a high school group can achieve versus a collegiate, semi-pro, or professional group?
Ben: Musically, no limitations. The only limitations come from resources such as time and money. Of course the more serious the group is, the more of these resources they’re going to be willing to put into it.”

Any musician can attest that building a reputation/skillset/fanbase/style/anything takes time and dedication. Even in a high school a cappella group, where resources often appear to be limited, time and dedication make all the difference. Just ask any of the 204 a cappella groups on this list.

Ben’s insights kept coming back to this theme. For crafting a high school group’s style, he recommends trying “all the craziest stuff they want to in rehearsal, and keep[ing] only what works well!” The arrangements that your group creates and performs will define their identity when you maintain a consistent style over the semesters – and that style stems from experimenting with ideas, even ridiculous ones. If you direct a high school a cappella group, you can develop that style with your students. This kind of development takes time, but it is well worth it when your students have contributed to something that they can be proud of – a legacy. (Or an ICHSA victory. Or both!)

Two ways to define and streamline your group’s sound are to jam on a song and to open doors for your students. First, jamming. Build a song from the ground up – “start with a bassline, add rhythmic and melodic motifs over it, harmonize those motifs, and develop it, taking parts in and out”. Developing these parts gives each section the chance to be creative and bring out ideas that you, the director, never thought of. You can jam on an existing song or just create short motifs to spark ideas!

Check out some resources on Bobby McFerrin’s circle singing technique being used in schools here and here!

Outside of the classroom, students can explore arranging on their own. If you’re a student, and you want to arrange, do it! Ben says that students interested in arranging should “[t]alk to their instructor (who should be very encouraging) and go for it! They shouldn’t wait for anything!” Use free software like GarageBand or Audacity, or looping apps like Loopy or Jam Looper or VoiceJam or Loopr, to flesh out ideas by recording your voice on top of itself. Even if you can’t notate music or understand complex music theory, it’s your “natural and intuitive vocal choices” that will result in the best arrangements.

So much of what Ben told us resonated with J.D. Frizzell’s 5 essentials of high school arranging – vocal groups that don’t put limits on themselves can break new ground and craft an incredible identity and sound. That goes for all vocal groups, high school included.

You can find Ben at his website, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

Coming soon to the AEA blog – arranger Robert Dietz!

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