“Great emotional singing isn't a destination, it's a journey, one to be taken time and again to different places with different moods and different audiences.” ― Deke Sharon
A Vocal Journey
Many of you know that I spent most of my 10 years in Japan working on myself. That included therapy, getting sober, bodywork, and finding my voice. By the time I arrived in Tokyo, I’d spent so much time comparing myself to others that I’d lost the ability to tap into my own creative voice. The moment I picked up a pen or a paintbrush I would feel what I called the “Judge and Jury” settle on my shoulder. “You know you can never be that good, right,” the voices would whisper. “What makes you think you’re so special?”
Then in early 1991, I took a class with a professional singer named Susan Osborn. She was in Japan recording “Wabi: The Soul of Japan,” and offered a couple of workshops on the side. A friend convinced me to sign up and I did so without having any idea what I was getting myself into.
There were 40 people in the group, and the first thing Susan asked us to do was to vocalize with her. There were no words, no melody, no moment to start or stop. She said she would start and we should feel free to jump in whenever and with whatever sounds “felt right.” Then she opened her mouth and sang a single, breathtaking note. Moments later someone else joined in an octave below her. Then another voice added harmony. As more and more of us joined, the notes rose and fell, rippled and danced around the room until we realized the entire group was singing in harmony.
This went on for a good 10 minutes as we enjoyed playing with sounds and rhythms. Then abruptly, we stopped. There was no signal from Susan, no directions, no cues. Everyone but one young woman simply stopped. The young woman’s voice - plaintive and shrill - trailed gradually away until we were all standing silent around Susan. It was at once magical and deeply humbling. Who knew that human beings had this capacity? Who knew that our voices could unite us like that?
There were several other exercises over the next three days. We were asked to sing our names, make up a song, and most challenging of all to stand in the middle of the room and vocalize our truth. No songs were allowed. This was singing from your guts. Even the idea terrified me. But I also knew that I would regret not taking the opportunity to be heard if I elected not to sing. I was one of the last to claim my spot in the center of the room, but I did it!
All of the above was to prepare you for the work of a cappella musicians who have perfected the art of making music with just their voices - who sing with both their voices and hearts - daring to take themselves and their listeners on emotional journeys.
We start with probably the best known form of a cappella singing, the barbershop quartet. As you listen to these 10 finalists, see which ones impress you with both their musical skill and emotional vulnerability.
Barbershop Quartets: 2016 Barbershop Quartet International Finalists
Next, I chose an eclectic mix of a cappella groups that range from the holy to the mundane. See which ones call to you.
I have always loved this song by Leonard Cohen, especially the K.D. Lang version. However, this rendition by Pentatonix transcends every other cover in my humble opinion. See what you think.
Ysaye M. Barnwell: Wanting Memories
The Filharmoinc: Treasure
Naturally 7: Fix You
The vocals are beautiful, but the instrumentals - all produced via the human voice - are stunning. I am always left wondering how in the world do they do that?
Sweet Honey and the Rock: A Motherless Child
Home Free: Man of Constant Sorrow
Anonymous 4: Live on Soundcheck
Anonymous 4 was an American female a cappella quartet, founded in 1986 and based in New York City. Their main performance genre was medieval music. Their voices were often compared to angels.
The Choral Scholars of Unversity of Dublin: Mo Ghille Mear (My Gallant Hero)
Citizen Queen: The Evolution of Girl Groups
Okay, I know I’ve thrown a lot at you, so take your time exploring and responding. But I’d love to know:
Why do you think a cappella singing has been enjoying such a resurgance?
Do you think of yourself as a musician?
What kind of music do you make?
How do you make music?
Have you ever done any a cappella singing?
Which were your favorite groups?
Do you have any groups to add?
Let the discussion begin!
Copyright 2021 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.