Meet Your Instructor: Chris Rishel

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by Chris Rishel

I can’t tell you how excited I am to have a major CASA festival taking place at my academic home, just a short walk from my apartment, let alone be teaching at and (as a member of Voices in Your Head) hosting it. I had hoped that one day a festival of this magnitude might take place in the Midwest, but I had no idea it would happen so soon. But before I get into the “meet your instructor” part of this post, I want to directly address those readers who are currently in a Midwest group.

This is a huge opportunity. In just one very action-packed weekend, you can learn how to make a great album, succeed in live competitions, run your group better, get a ton of exposure to some great a cappella that normally only happens far from your home campus, and bring all of that new expertise back to your group to reach your full potential. And being totally honest, the Midwest could use the help. While we have a very large and active community (last year, the number of competing groups in the ICCA Midwest region had 25% more groups than any other), we have fallen a bit behind our friends on the coasts. It’s been almost a decade since a Midwest group won ICCA finals. And just last year, the major open-submission compilation albums (BOCA, SING, Voices Only, Voices Only Forte) released 94 tracks, of which Midwest groups claimed only 4. That’s 4.3%. Not ideal. I could go on with other factoids about CARA nominations, RARB scores, etc., but I think you probably get my point. We, collectively as the Midwest a cappella community, need to step up our game and start making more great music if we want to be a competitive force in the national community!

I also realize that a festival like this is uncharted territory for many groups (while we’re about to have our very first large festival, the east coast has been doing this now for a decade — they know how great it is and keep coming back for more). It may seem like a risk, or just not really worth the time and money, but making the most of a festival like this is without a doubt a game-changer for you and your group. You’ll definitely see the most benefit if everyone in your group can come. It is a great group bonding experience, and it gets everyone involved in thinking bigger picture about the group and its goals. However, if this is financially or practically not possible, you will do yourself a huge favor if you can send at least a couple of members (preferably a current leader, and a younger future leader so the experience will span more than just one generation).

Alright, I’ll get off my soap box now. The class I’m teaching is called “Zero to Hero”. What I hope to convey in just 50 minutes is that with persistence, dedication, and a smart, calculated, and honest strategy, you can do amazing things starting from the most humble of beginnings. You might have heard of some of the recent successes that Voices in Your Head has achieved (see here), but it definitely wasn’t always that way. The same could be said for me personally, so I thought I’d give a quick background on how I got to where I am now (this is “meet your instructor” after all) and how Voices got the ball rolling a few years ago.

When I started my undergrad at the University of Illinois, my only exposure to a cappella was the world of barbershop. As you might imagine, I was in for a surprise the first time I saw the Xtension Chords perform. While I was a bit skeptical at first, I eventually decided to audition for a couple of groups, and looked forward to trying out a new style of singing. The only problem was, all of the groups rejected me. So instead I joined a choir, started a barbershop quartet on campus and carried on with what I already knew. I still went to almost all of the groups’ concerts and ICCA quarterfinals held on campus though. Compared to (most) barbershop, modern a cappella was really fun and exciting.

However, during my junior year, one of my high school friends who sang with the Duke Pitchforks sent me a copy of their latest album, Bring It Back. I was totally blown away. For the first time, I realized that modern a cappella could be more than just fun and kitschy. It could be artistic, subtle, and beautiful. While I thought the whole album was excellent, the standout track for me was “Nevermind”, an original (written by Joseph Bates and Andrew Booth) that created a soundscape so atypical, nuanced, unconstrained, and lush, I’d never heard anything like it before. I decided I really wanted to explore this style, so my senior year I tried out for several groups again. And again, I was rejected by all of them (but at least I got called back this time!). While I was disappointed, I accepted that, even though I had some redeeming qualities (I was fairly skilled at piano and had experience composing and arranging), I just wasn’t a good enough singer to be in these groups when the talent pool at a school with ~30,000 undergrads had such depth. Over the course of the year, I submitted my MD/PhD applications, went to interviews, figured out I would be going to the University of Chicago, and thought any possibility of singing with a collegiate a cappella group was behind me.

Turns out I thought wrong. To my surprise, I discovered that there were as many groups at the University of Chicago (a school with only ~5,000 undergrads) as there were at the University of Illinois, and not only that, one of the groups (Voices in Your Head) was willing to let a graduate student audition. I decided to give it one more try, and much to my delight, I got in! However, a cappella at UChicago couldn’t have been more different from what I was used to at UIUC. Instead of singing to thousands of undergrads at various events during the first week of school, the “A Cappella Showcase Concert” consisted of all the groups singing (or talking — a couple of the groups didn’t have enough members to perform) in a small lobby to an audience of about 30 people sitting on some nearby steps that lead into a dining commons. Similarly, while the end of term concerts for the most popular groups at UIUC filled 1,000+ person auditoriums, my first major concert with Voices in Your Head was held in a dance room with one mic and a crowd of about 60 people.

I honestly wasn’t sure if the group was really what I wanted, and seriously considered leaving after my first year. However, for the remainder of the year, I decided to make the most of it. The group was planning on releasing an album that spring, and I knew enough to know that who you hire to work on your album has a tremendous impact on the quality of the end product. I also had some experience working on non-a cappella albums before, so I offered to head up the internal aspects of producing the album. When I saw the engineering techniques that our producers used (recording one person at a time rather than the group all at once), I realized that if you’re willing to put in the time, you can do almost anything on an album. I was inspired and decided I couldn’t leave the group just yet.

As I thought about what more I could do for the group, I remembered that few years beforehand, my friend in the Pitchforks also told me about this epic a cappella festival in North Carolina called SoJam. I decided to go by myself, and came back with a ton of ideas. The next fall, all of Voices in Your Head ended up going to SoJam, and everyone from our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first years to our creaky old grad students had a new found energy and passion for what we did, and unified together to see how far we could go. Less than 2 years later, Voices in Your Head attended another CASA festival, the inaugural year of BOSS in Boston. However, this time the group competed in and won the collegiate competition, won a CARA at a live ceremony, and inspired the next generation of our members to push the group even further in the future.

In my class, I’ll talk in more detail about exactly what choices helped Voices in Your Head succeed, and also examine how (and why) other groups have risen to glory and either sustained it, or fallen off the map. Without a doubt, Voices in Your Head going to SoJam was a turning point for my group. Your group coming to ACappellaFest could be yours. Don’t miss it!

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