Vocal Delights

Published on 26 May 2015

Why are a cappella groups all the rage now? Pitch-perfect professionals in the Singapore scene share their views.

TEXT BY DAPHNE ONG

There may have been a time when a cappella was considered the domain of old-fashioned, nerdy choristers. But with groups like Grammy-winning American quintet Pentatonix shooting to superstardom and filling venues with sold-out concerts around the world, it sounds like a cappella has struck a chord with today’s mainstream audiences.

Translated from the Italian, a cappella refers to “the style of the church/chapel” as this form of vocal music — sans instrumental accompaniment — had its origins in Jewish and Christian sacred music. Think Gregorian chants.

From its monophonic (single-melody) beginnings to harmonies (multiple voices singing different parts together) to using voices to emulate instruments, a cappella has worked its way into many genres of music. In modern times, the most recognisable forms of a cappella are gospel choirs, doo-wop and barbershop quartets. Who hasn’t heard the cheerfully infectious 1950s hit ‘Mr Sandman’ given the a cappella treatment?

Today, pop, jazz and R&B have all been infused with a cappella singing, with more adventurous use of voice such as beatboxing and vocal percussion layering the harmonies. Singers are also experimenting with more sounds and ways to better emulate the sound of instruments.

Pitch-perfect Pentatonix The US group has a huge fan base worldwide (over 900 million cumulative YouTube views and counting), and helped raised the profile of a cappella by winning a Grammy earlier this year.

BEYOND THE VOICE

Many of us may sing in the shower or wow family and friends at karaoke sessions, but would baulk at singing in an a cappella group. And there’s a good reason why. It takes more than just a good voice and lack of tone-deafness to form a credible a cappella choir. Chua Hui Lian of veteran homegrown a cappella ensemble Key Elements elaborates, “It also takes good hearing and knowledge of keys, scales and chords, which translates to the ability to harmonise.” There can’t be any divas in the group either. “Another important skill is the ability to adjust the timbre of your voice so it blends with the other members in the ensemble,” says Chua.

Moreover, other more specialised skills are called for. “A good arranger makes a great difference, and vocal percussion is a whole different skill set,” says Simone Khoo of local six-member  a cappella outfit Vocaluptuous. For the uninitiated, a vocal percussionist uses his/her voice to approximate the sounds of a percussion instrument.

FROM NICHE TO NOW

In Singapore, as in other parts of the world, there are many collegiate a cappella groups, but like many other budding musicians, few make it to performing professionally after their student days. The high skill-set and time commitment required for rehearsals are common barriers to entry.

Difficulties aside, there has been a steady rise in the popularity of a cappella groups here. Vocaluptuous and Key Elements have been gaining visibility over the years, so have newcomers, the energetic MICappella, who have gone full-time. Typically, a successful a cappella group in Singapore will release an album (or albums), perform to appreciative audiences at venues like The Esplanade and Botanic Gardens, and be engaged for private events like singing at corporate functions or weddings and anniversaries.

What has nudged a cappella into the spotlight? The biggest influence is the media. The success of American high-school TV series Glee has exposed this generation of audiences to alternatives beyond the more common pop and rap styles of vocal performance. Moreover, US talent show The Sing-Off has helped to hugely popularise a cappella.

Social media is certainly another major player. YouTube alone has made the careers of numerous artists, including Pentatonix. The Internet has made a cappella accessible to an ever-growing number of people, and with the jaw-dropping singing chops of talents visible on cyberspace, it’s inevitable that fan bases would grow exponentially.

On their part, the a cappella groups are also adapting to the tastes of today’s audiences. Covers of popular pop and rock songs range from convincing to clever to transformational, and audiences can hear their favourite tunes reinvented in delightful new ways. Think you and your harmony-loving buddies can be the next top voices in a cappella? Set up that webcam and get started already!

Pentatonix perform 1 June at The Star Theatre. If you want to win tickets to catch them live, head over to our contest page

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