Once Upon a Vision

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by Jeff Swearingen

Everything starts with a plan. Skyscrapers. iPhone apps. Restaurant menus. Fall fashion lines. Grass-roots, community movements. There’s almost always a design, a blueprint, a list of requirements or at least, a wish list. At the core, there is a particular goal, fueled by a void, surrounded by people selected to put pieces of the plan into place. One mark of a plan’s success is the quality of fruit that it bears — the end result — and both the audience’s immediate and long term reactions. Is the new “thing” useful and relevant but also durable? Will it meet the needs of the people now, next year and 10 years from now?

Rewind to the 90′s. Much of the Midwest was in a widespread a cappella drought. We attended or presented the usual recital, concert and gig. Groups like Rockapella, Take 6 and the House Jacks were role models for us. Barbershop was going strong after 50+ years, as was the long-standing tradition of Spring Sing (35+ years at the time). Things like r.m.a-c (Usenet w00t!) and RARB were common online water coolers for promoting and discussing a cappella. Apart from a few TV specials, vocal music as we know it had not yet at the forefront of the mainstream audience. Competitions began to catch on, including ICCA, Harmony Sweepstakes and various barbershop battles. Far in the distant a cappella horizon, were these things called “Summits” — one in the West and another in the East — devoted to showcasing a cappella music and offering in-depth seminars, workshops and master classes. A cappella festivals had a promising future. Unfortunately the Summits went away.

But not all hope was lost.

Fast forward 10 years. Newcomers began to pop up all over the US — SoJam in 2002, A Cappellastock in 2003, ICHSA in 2006 and AcappellaFest in 2007 (hey, that’s us!). A few years later we would see more including LA-AF (2009) and SingStrong (2009). A new plan was surfacing — a clear vision, if you will — to suggest that if you had a proven concept, built up local support and featured the professors and rock stars of a cappella, then people would come enjoy your fruit. What does a cappella fruit taste like, you ask? Please, read on. What was once a diverse, yet loose collection of individual festivals and competitions had begun to transcend into a tightly knit fabric of vocal collaborations — bridging the gap of generations, bringing together not just groups who sing professionally or for fun, but also welcoming singers in high schools and colleges, still honing their skills and learning about life. And I cannot even begin to adequately describe the impact a cappella is currently having around the world with festivals in nearly every region. The global vision is truly catching on.

At their core, people want to participate. We yearn for a sense of purpose, belonging and contribution. We all want to create and share. Believe me, it is a tough lesson to learn that we cannot always do it alone.

Here’s a little ACF history for you. I sang with Vocal Chaos (Chicago) from 2001 through early 2012 and handled much of the group’s PR. In 2007, I partnered with Greg Vaden, who sang with elmoTHUMM (Detroit). We both wanted to see an aca festival thrive in the Midwest. Since it would be based in Chicago, I (along with the guys in Vocal Chaos) was responsible for venue, operations and marketing while Greg and his guys pitched in to help get us off the ground, used connections with talent and advised us along the way. That first year we were fortunate to have Scott Leonard of Rockapella make an appearance. Throughout the next three years we would feature groups like The Bobs, Blue Jupiter, Chapter 6, Home Free and Almost Recess as well the two producing groups, Vocal Chaos and elmoTHUMM. Despite efforts to host ACF in Chicago, the “fest” began as a single show in Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago, and the response was positive (except for the 45 minute city drive). We repeated the formula in 2008, with multiple performances by Scott, and the response was even better. We floated the idea of partnering with CASA in 2009, but with no consensus among decision makers, we tabled it.

We knew SoJam had a better formula — a clearer vision — and we wanted to try stealing borrowing testing some things they were doing. In 2009 we were finally venue-sponsored and we introduced two new features: workshops and a high school competition. Our  vision was starting to grow. Although we didn’t have record numbers, we knew “the show must go on” — eventually our efforts would be rewarded. Even if we pleased just 10 people, it was worth every penny and ounce of sweat (and spit). In 2010 we talked with CASA again, but deferred partnership until 2011. Greg ran AcappellaFest in Detroit in 2009 and 2010 and worked with 4 THE RECORD to try AcappellaFest Ohio. Both were good exercises in extending the brand, but ultimately did not sustain themselves.

What might have been the best outcome of 2009 and 2010 was the high school competition. The amount of energy, passion and talent from the students lit up the stage – some might say they became the festival headliners. They loved the spotlight and their friends and family couldn’t get enough. The groups kicked butt, took home shiny trophies and made lasting memories.

In retrospect, to me, there were two turning points. First, I knew that if AcappellaFest was going to live on, we had to broaden our appeal to students. Seeing jaw-dropping professional groups in your show is awesome.  But seeing students pour out their love for music in front of everyone is a completely vulnerable moment for them and deserves attention. I made the connection with my own musical journey, which started when I was 5 and blossomed in high school where I discovered a cappella. Thank you Ms. Bennie Williams.

The other turning point came in a whirlwind in 2011. I spoke again with Dave Sperandio, founder of SoJam and then-Director of Events for CASA and decided it would be good to proceed with a partnership, but run the fest in Fall 2012 when we had an entire year to plan things the right way. At this time, Greg and I parted ways. My Father’s battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) — the unforgiving and unrelenting motor neuron disease — was showing us he had little time left. My work responsibilities increased significantly. I was faced with a decision to make priorities. Love for family and work vs. my passion for singing and producing. I wanted AF to continue with CASA, but I knew I could not lead that endeavor myself.

The first change I made was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do — step away from Vocal Chaos. Luckily the new Music Director for Vocal Chaos, the fast-spitting Blair Baldwin, was eager (right, Blair?) to take on a co-producing role. She had previous experience with SoJam and company, which I believe has helped her tremendously. I hung around as long as I could, but she thankfully took on the sole Executive Producer role midway through 2012, working closely with the CASA team every day. This could not have come at a better time, as my Father passed away in June.

Here I am talking about my transition from festival co-founder, to co-producer (twice) and peeling away from my role. Folks — Blair deserves a huge credit for making the brand new ACappellaFest Chicago a reality. And she could not have done it without the stellar CASA event production team behind her, lead by Amanda Aldag, Kristin LoBiondo, Meg Alexander, Benjamin Stevens, Shane Ardell and Sean Patrick Riley. Nor could she have coordinated the effort to get ACF hosted at the University of Chicago without the illustrious Brianne Holland (member of Voices in Your Head and Men in Drag, host groups for this year’s smashing weekend). Also deserving credit are the guys in Vocal Chaos (past and present) who stuck with me through the years (thanks guys!) and are undoubtedly, chaotically supporting Blair in this pivotal year.

So where do we stand?

The drought is over. We have an organic vision — one which was cast long ago. The success of it lies in its strength and those that carry it out.

You, my dear aca peeps, are also part of the vision. It and you are what ultimately drive festivals like this. After all, where would SoJam be, if it were not for you and the vision? Certainly not celebrating its 10-year anniversary two weeks after ACappellaFest (Nov 2-4 in Raleigh, NC; www.sojam.net). If you are an observer, a participant or a decision-maker, you can leverage the vision to do what do you better. We all know that this a cappella movement is a uniquely powerful thing. As my fellow team member Ben Stevens said, we “just know that a cappella music, that most human music we love so much, has changed our lives for the better.” This is our hope for everyone who experiences and appreciates a cappella.

If you haven’t already made plans for this weekend, come to the Windy City and experience ACappellaFest 2012. It starts Friday Oct 19 and ends Sunday Oct 21.

But please don’t let the vision stop there. Starting Monday, take that vision and share the fruit with everyone you know.

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