What I look for in an a cappella ensemble

Like you, I’ve been on many a YouTube, Spotify or Apple Music journey, particularly these past 12 months. I never know where I’ll end up but once I’ve started I can easily be lost for hours. Sometimes I’m ready to click next before the song’s even got going. Other times I find I need to press replay as soon as it’s finished because I just need to hear it again. This got me thinking, what grabs my attention and makes me want to hit replay? What is it that I look for in an ensemble?

The very best performers have something about them that is immediately engaging. We all have our favourite artists in many mediums. It’s not for me to say why some are better than others. A lot comes down to taste. My music tastes differ from even my wife which I think is a good thing. We also have lots in common and are constantly introducing each other to new music. My love of folk music is largely influenced by her. 

What I would like to proffer is that whilst the characters might differ we can hopefully agree that there are certain elements that we all look for. If I had to drill down to the key concepts of what I think is fundamentally important for any ensemble to have, I think it would include the following: uniqueness, excellence, performance, repertoire and programming.

1. Uniqueness

As singers, our voice is central to who we are. It’s unique. Importantly, we have to be able to stand on stage with self-confidence that we deserve to be there. It’s our job to convince the audience of that in a way that makes them feel at ease and that the money they spent was well worth it. We have to be comfortable in our own skin and we have to love what we do. Otherwise, it’s a lonely existence being on a stage in front of a lot of people, most of whom you’ve never met or built a relationship with. You have to have 100% determination that what you’re about to do is genuine, meaningful and worthwhile. Everything about you as a person infuses your performance. Having a balanced state of mind is critical and that’s why we are all affected by what goes on off-stage.

Over the past year, we have all been challenged to figure out how to survive (some may have even thrived) during a pandemic. Once all the dust has settled, it will be fascinating to witness how we use these experiences to shape our on-stage personas. Will we suffer from any nerves about performing again? Or will we feel like nothing is as bad as what we’ve endured so bring it on?! I’m just itching to get back in front of an audience so I plan on channeling any negative energy into a positive state of mind, one filled with relief at being able to sing to people, to share in the mix of emotions that audiences and performers alike will display. I encourage anyone out there who may feel vulnerable to share that with those listening and watching. It’s honest. It shows us who you really are and we’ll warm to you all the more. It’s critical that we are open and honest and bring that into the performance. Our uniqueness is our greatest strength and having a clear sense of identity is all-important for any performer.

2. Excellence 

Whenever we part with money, we place a value on whatever it is we are spending that money on. Sometimes we are looking for a bargain, sometimes we’re happy paying more than we’d ideally like to, because the intrinsic value we receive justifies the expenditure. Nowadays I admit that I’m so used to streaming and the convenience of clicking next is rather handy compared with going to the machine and pressing eject, taking out the CD and loading another. Back in the day, I almost felt obliged to listen to an entire CD from start to finish if I’d bought it. Now there is little guilt, if any, in moving on to the next thing in the playlist!

In the age of online streaming, I think there is a challenge in reaching a common agreement for what something is worth. I used to love buying CDs because I would read the booklets from cover to cover, and almost felt obliged to listen to the entire CD from start to finish if I’d bought it. Now there is little guilt, if any, in moving on to the next thing in the playlist!

When it comes to live music I have different expectations. To my knowledge I’ve never left a performance of something I have paid money for. I’ll stay till the end and give the performers every chance to show me every part of their craft. Whether amateur or professional, I want to be entertained. As an audience member I am influenced by the venue, the sense of occasion, the programme notes, the first impression when they take the stage, the first chord or sound, any spoken announcements, stylistic interpretation, authenticity as a performer, how engaged the audience is, the structure and content of the programme, their classiness as a performer, the list goes on. Achieving excellence is something we all have the ability to do. Maintaining it is harder. Consistently delivering performances that move and excite people is the ultimate goal.

3. Performance

I’ll never forget seeing the Welsh operatic legend Bryn Terfel live in concert at the Christchurch Town Hall. He walked on-stage with a camcorder and a bottle of wine. On his first ever tour of NZ, he wanted to record all the crowd responses wherever he went and as soon as he told us we were his best response so far (I’ve no doubt he said that in each city), we cheered him even more! As an avid rugby follower, the bottle of French wine was a reference to the match the All Blacks were playing against the French that very night. He went out after every set of songs and came back to tell us the score! It was an exhibition of how to have the audience in the palm of your hand from start to finish. We also heard the most powerful singing and the most sensitive singing within the same programme. Alongside him was his great friend and collaborator Malcolm Martineau. It was high art. I was entranced and when I met him afterwards to get his autograph he couldn’t have been more charming, down-to-earth and warm towards me. I was a huge fan before and a superfan thereafter!

As a former teacher, humour was one of my most deployed techniques for engaging the students. It has just as much effect on behavioural management as it does with imparting knowledge. I think the same is true for any performer. Audiences love to break down that barrier between them and whoever’s up front. It’s our responsibility as artists to be relevant and what is more relevant than being yourself? Dark humour has been a coping mechanism throughout the past 12 months and I suspect it’ll be good material for some time to come!

4. Repertoire & Programming

I was reading a review of The King’s Singers Kennedy Center debut on a very snowy Valentine’s Day in 1983. ‘The Colombia Flier’ said:

“If you wanted to put together the perfect concert, what elements would you want to include? For me, it would include at least a couple of moments when the sheer beauty of sound would transport me out of my seat. A few more moments would raise goose pimples all over; others would literally take my breath away. The performers would have such technical command that I’d feel they could have done the music any way they’d wanted to…There would be some old favorites…The performers would speak a bit with the audience to relax both sides…It would be alternately exhilarating, breathtaking, enlightening, amazing, and fun. I’d wish it would go on forever, and any audience, no matter what its supposed erudition, could feel the same way. In short, it would be like the concert recently given at the Kennedy Center by the King’s Singers. Let me put it simply: this may well have been the best concert I’ve ever heard.”

I wasn’t born when this performance happened but from concerts I’ve been to I totally relate to that sentiment. I know I speak on behalf of the guys when I say that we take programming very seriously and spend countless hours discussing how best to fit a collection of music together to send the audience away with these same feelings that the reviewer at the Kennedy Center clearly felt. A good programme is one that has the audience front and centre of any decision that’s made. How do I want the audience to feel after hearing / seeing this performance? Is it clear to anyone watching and listening that there’s been sufficient research into the performance practices, understanding of any stylistic requirements or language considerations? Do we always get it right? Perhaps not but we try our best and I’d like to think we get it right most of the time.

As we look to the coming months and years when our musical lives resume, some slowly, some with a hiss and a bang, many with bounded optimism, I encourage all my colleagues and friends in the world of music, whatever level you aspire to, to remember that being true to your individual sound — your point of difference — and having the courage to be brave in your programming and genuine in your engagement with audiences and fans, both in person and online, will serve you well. It’ll also restore people’s faith in an industry that we’ve all missed dearly and need in order to fill ourselves with soul music. What I look for in an ensemble may differ to you or it may not. Let’s just focus on getting back out there and doing what we all love: making music to the best of our abilities and connecting with people in a meaningful way.


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