ccThis article was written by J.D. Frizzell, president of the A Cappella Education Association. Learn more at jdfrizzell.com.
Over the years, I have developed my own unique way to rehearse contemporary a cappella groups. As the director of OneVoice from Briarcrest Christian School, I have had the privilege of working with some incredibly talented and dedicated singers. During this time, I honed a process to introduce new pieces, rehearse them, stage them, and get them performance-ready.
Since I started sharing this method in 2015, hundreds of scholastic groups around the country have adopted it. It has been featured in The Heart of Vocal Harmony by Deke Sharon, A Cappella by Deke, Brody McDonald, and Ben Spalding, So You Want To Sing A Cappella by Deke, The Head/Voice podcast, The Recording A Cappella podcast, and Choral Director Magazine, along with presentations at dozens of conferences.
My method is based on 5 rehearsals of about 45 minutes each. Therefore, I break it up here into 5 steps. However, there are ways to reorganize the steps into less, longer rehearsals.
Without further ado, the Frizzell Method (cue the trumpets, all rights reserved, etc. etc.– clearly I don’t care about copyright as I’m freely sharing this on the internet and I just want people to make the best music possible!):
Step 1: Assign Voice Parts, Choose Solos, Begin Learning Parts
Ideally the solos are chosen before the first rehearsal and parts already assigned. Parts are learned individually with tracks- either sung or MIDI. I try to always have sung tracks, and I use Melodyne Studio to make them or have my arranger make them. Of course, the singers also have sheet music they are reading. I’m convinced that it is no different than note-banging at the piano, and in some ways, more musical in that they are modeling proper tone, vowel, articulation, etc. from the tracks.
Does this always take just one rehearsal? Usually, yes. On a rare occasion, a more difficult piece requires 2 or 3 days. In my opinion, if a piece takes more time than this to just learn notes and rhythms, it is likely too difficult for a contemporary a cappella group. Spending weeks or months on notes and rhythms erodes individual confidence and impedes group momentum. (Note that this is not my view of a choral rehearsal cycle, during which I may spend many weeks on a difficult piece.)
You CANNOT GO ON TO STEP 2 until all singers know all of their notes and rhythms well. No excuses. If you let things slide now, you will pay for it in EVERYONE’S time later on in the rehearsal process. You’ll have the whole group standing around while you correct people’s notes. It stinks, don’t do it.
Step 2: Work in Sectionals
Students add micro dynamics, articulations, phrasing, vowels, etc. in the piece in sections. These sections are usually assigned by homophony. If the tenor 1 and alto 2 are both “horn” parts most of the song, I’ll pair them together, etc. I rotate between the sectionals to work with them. In the example below, I would combine sopranos and altos in one group, bass, baritones, and tenors in the other.
In step 2, I bring each group to me to make sure they are doing well. That evening after rehearsal, they record themselves singing their part. They upload this individual file to a Dropbox, text it to me, or e-mail it to me. This allows me to double check what they are doing that night just to make sure there’s nothing I missed. Singers can use a cell phone, tablet, or other recording device for this.
Step 3: Group Rehearsal
By step 3 (usually day 3 since we meet 5x/week), there should be no pitch or rhythmic issues. Sometimes in step 3 I will have to fix rhythmically intricate passages like fast bell tones. Step 3 is the first full group rehearsal as we know it. I work macro dynamics, articulation, solo delivery, groove, balance, phrasing, and other musicality. This is when your music director’s toolbox comes in and is the first time they get to sing the whole piece together as an ensemble. Step 3 separates the great groups from the good groups.
Step 4: Emotional Connection and Visual Planning
Step 4 is all about the staging and emotional connection. It separates the transformative groups from the great groups. What is this song about? I usually try to get them to agree on one single emotion that best describes the song. This emotion needs to be specific. For example, “unfettered joy” or “angry determination” are better than “happy” or “sad”. Then, the singers tell a story about something in their own lives that has made them feel that particular way. Not all singers have to participate every time, but it is important to create a safe, trusting environment in which they know they can. For staging, I will usually involve the singers in the decision making process. What visual elements would best highlight what is happening in the music? Unless the piece is very homophonic, there is usually a better formation than the semicircle. Also, I never do anything that risks the quality of the music— so if choreography creates issues with rhythm or breath support, it’s too much. Many times now, I will separate out choreography and do it on its own evening rehearsal.
Step 5: Informal Performance
Step 5 is informal, safe, and friendly performance. This is usually either us singing for a couple of classes or singing in a public area of the school during the last 5-10 minutes of school. It has become a fun tradition and teachers who are done for the week (5 minutes left on Friday— taking them to hear some a cappella is usually a desirable option for teachers!). This step is huge, as it forces some performance pressure without too much public risk. It has a fringe benefit of connecting singers to new audiences.
Many groups rehearse 2 times a week for longer periods of time. For those groups, I suggest splitting steps 1 and 2 on the first rehearsal and 3,4, and 5 into the second. If you only have one rehearsal per week, you can facilitate step 1 outside of rehearsal, do steps 2-3 in rehearsal, then do steps 4 and 5 at another time.
AEA members can download this free one-page handout outlining the Frizzell Method for use in their classrooms and groups!
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