Although a cappella is technically defined as singing without instrumental accompaniment, many a cappella singers use their voices to create instrumental textures when they rehearse and perform to create a multilayered musical experience for themselves and their audiences.
Once everyone in a group learns their part, individually, the next level of work begins, that of weaving these individual parts together into an evolving blended, balanced, dynamic tapestry of sound. Though each member of an a cappella group can learn and practice their parts on their own, the aforementioned weaving has to be done together.
That’s the challenge that’s faced `Til Dawn, Youth in Arts’ award-winning a cappella group. Though the 15-member ensemble typically meets twice a week to practice, they last rehearsed together in person on March 11.
When the shelter in place order resulting from the coronavirus pandemic was issued, the members of `Til Dawn, like everyone else in the Bay Area, have been stranded at home, forcing the cancellation of all of their spring shows, auditions for new members and the cancellation of their annual spring concert.
Suffice it to say, there’s simply no way to do a lot of what the group had been doing.
“There is no way to rehearse that allows us to sing together, real-time, and hear each other,” said longtime Director Austin Willacy. “Variations in wifi access and speed create lags that make it impossible to sing together through Zoom. Truth be told, though we’re a singing group, we spend as much of our time listening as we do singing. Learning to listen to each other while singing, to navigate our individual voice’s proper place as we’re performing, is the most important part of what we do at rehearsal. It’s an ongoing dance of stepping forward and stepping back,” he said.
When they first met online, because of time lags, Willacy was only able to work with one singer at a time – which was very inefficient as it left the other members of the group waiting for their turn. At in-person rehearsals, although individual support is available as needed, the group typically learns new music by voice part; the sopranos all learn the soprano part together, etc.
Recognizing how draining that amount of waiting while glued to a screen could be, Willacy quickly adjusted, shortening rehearsal time by 30 minutes and splitting the group into four songwriting groups based on their self-assessed comfort/experience with songwriting. The check-ins, which are a longstanding attuning process at the beginning of rehearsal, have continued to allow the group to stay connected with each other as much as possible. The music-focused time in `Til Dawn rehearsals is now evenly split between rehearsal and review of existing repertoire and songwriting.
The members of `Til Dawn have been nimble and creative in finding ways to use technology to support their songwriting. One member sang her melody to a friend over the phone (he recorded a track with instruments and sent it back). Another downloaded free beats from a website. Several members play the ukulele, saxophone, guitar and other instruments and have been using those while composing.
Willacy said exploring songwriting has been an unexpected benefit for `Til Dawn members confined to home.
“I’ve been deeply struck by the level of songwriting talent in this group,” he said “I’ve also been inspired by the level of creativity, trust, and willingness to try on something new.”
For the Youth in Arts’ COVID relief fund, `Til Dawn has prepared a special video and song. To make it possible, Willacy laid down a basic piano part to a click track and received an iPhone-recorded guide vocal. After combining them, he sent an MP3 to the group members so they could listen to it in earbuds while recording their respective parts. They recorded themselves (singing mostly on their phones) and sent their audio files back to Willacy, who painstakingly edited them all together, then providing that recording to the song’s lead vocalist, Anna McShea, who was able to perform and record her own vocal in Ableton, a music recording app.
The teens also furnished video of themselves singing along to the track to Youth in Arts Program Director Kelsey Rieger, who is compiling the individual video into a video of the whole group. Watch this wonderful performance here!
Willacy, a renowned performer who travels worldwide as a solo artist and with the pioneering a cappella group, The House Jacks, said he’s been able to stay in the creative flow despite the quarantine. He’s written or co-written at least four songs and mixed and edited several more.
“I’m really lucky to have a studio at home,” he said. “It’s a huge privilege that feels even bigger right now. Being creative helps me stay present.”
The teachers and students at Laurel Dell Elementary School in San Rafael have spent the spring season immersed in the strength and beauty of flamenco music and dance. Over the past 12 weeks every class, from TK to 5th grade, has had the opportunity to learn about the relationship between musicians and dancers, different palos or rhythms of flamenco, discuss and try different flamenco accessories or “tools” such as the bata de cola – the long train skirt – and also explore the role of cultural dance as a way of preserving traditions and sharing diverse cultures with community.
On top of it all, it has been an amazing time working with each class on their dancing and each class is getting ready to share their new flamenco skills in a full school performance for friends and family celebrating the end of their school year! Ole´!
#youthinarts #flamencodance #kidsdance
This activity is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.
Youth in Arts Mentor Artist Katie Issel Pitre reports on her experience at Harding Elementary School in El Cerrito
I’m happy to report a job well done by all my students and their teachers at Harding Elementary School. We have just finished a huge endeavor–10 classes performing original songs in one evening!!! We pulled it off with the help of amazing PTA support and parent volunteers, help from former students at the theater at El Cerrito High, from Principal Takimoto of Harding Elementary School…and of course from students and teachers!
Through Youth in Arts ‘Arts Unite Us’ program, I was able to work with Harding students for 24 weeks leading up to our big performance. ‘Arts Unite Us’ aims to bring children of all abilities together through shared creative arts experiences.
The first half of the year, we developed our ensemble, learning about music, rhythm, working together, and rhythm notation and instruments. The second half of the year we selected a favorite song, used its melody to create original lyrics, and then went through the editing and revision process to create our own song. For most students this was their first exposure to song writing! We utilized the support of composer Aaron Pike, who created beautiful piano tracks to accompany our original songs. We rehearsed in our classrooms to prepare for our show. Here are two examples of what our in-classroom rehearsals sounded like:
Teacher Helen’s Kindergarten class rehearsal of “Mrs. Wishy Washy”
Mrs. Silkworth’s 3rd Grade class rehearsal of “America walk with the rest of the world”
After our performance I visited once more for an in-school sharing session, giving students one last chance to see and appreciate each others work. We reflected on our work and created songs that summarized our experience in music class. Here is one of my favorite songs created on our reflection day from Mrs. Tamura’s 2nd Grade class:
I thank Youth In Arts of the opportunity they gave me to grow and develop as an artist and an educator, to work with this special school and make sweet music with these intelligent students A big nod to you all.
Mentor Artist Eddie Madril reports on his latest residency in San Rafael:
In a beautiful surrounding, the children at Glenwood Elementary School in San Rafael got the opportunity to experience learning, trying, and “honing their craft” at various American Indian dance styles. The teachers encouraged their exploration and learning of Native culture, history, and world views while challenging themselves at Grass Dance, Fancy Dance, Fancy Shawl Dance, and Hoop Dance. These are all dances that can be seen at powwows across the U.S. Of course, the teachers also engaged in trying the dances themselves as any good teacher would do in order to lead by example. They worked so hard at their dancing that one day we had to try a few traditional Native games, and they did great!
Last week, the students and faculty of Ross School joined Youth in Arts Mentor Artists on a colorful world journey through the performing arts! We “traveled” through North America, Asia, South America and Europe, participating in art forms from each region. The school was set up with a “station” for each region and students traveled from place to place in their class groups.
In North America, Eddie Madril and Sara Moncada shared traditions and dances of the Plains Indians. Sara performed a Fancy Shawl dance for women and Eddie shared the Hoop Dance and even gave students a chance to work a little with the Hoop themselves! The program was a unique opportunity to learn about the cultural contexts in which these dances are performed and the significance of Plains Indian ceremonial practices and intricately made regalia.
During our time in Asia, William Rossel and Jim Santi Owen gave a stunning demonstration of Indian tablas and how the rhythms are connected to language. Students learned about the special way that tablas are made, in order to produce multiple tones, but also discovered that most drums can produce a “high” or “low” tone. They then had an opportunity to play a variety of drums, learning traditional rhythmic patterns.
Arriving in Europe, students were introduced to traditional characters from Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Theater artists Keiko Shimosato Carreiro and Ed Holmes took on the roles of Columbina, the clever kitchen maid; Arlecchino, the comic clown; Pulcinella, the gluttonous dullard; and Capitano, the cowardly braggart, as they demonstrated Commedia elements such as a lazzi (a comic “bit” that a company would build into all its shows) or the slapstick (a noisemaker used in mock fights and the origin of the term “slapstick comedy”). Students practiced becoming characters like the know-it-all Dottore and the treacherous Brighella.
In South America, dance artist Stephanie Bastos taught students the joyful samba reggae dance from Brazil accompanied by percussionist Jules Hilson. As a mid-day treat, Stephanie, Jules and fellow artists from Aguas da Bahia dance company transported the whole school to the streets of Brazil during Carnival with a lively assembly performance. Led by Artistic Director Tania Santiago, the group showed off swirling skirts, rhythm sticks and more as they performed maculele and other beautiful dances. The audience was stunned by a beautiful samba dancer on stilts, and then joined in for a final samba reggae dance-along.
On behalf of Youth in Arts, we would like to thank all of our friends at Ross school for traveling the world with us. We look forward to our next adventure!
by Mentor Artist Hannah Dworkin
Most of the work I do in “Arts Unite Us” classrooms is process based, meaning that the experience of music or movement activities is the goal of the session. There are of course many other ways that the students benefit including language, social and pre reading development. Creating a show is almost never part of the conversation, but there are times when students, even autistic preschoolers want to share what they have learned. Sometimes organizing a small show for their parents is the best way to give them this opportunity. Jessical Leaper’s preschool students at Marindale Special Day School were one such group.
The question that arose for me was: How does one put on a show with a group of students who are often afraid of social interactions and may not be able to retain enough information to put on a traditional performance? The conclusion I came to was that we needed to develp a delicate relationship between routine and flexibility.
If possible I think shows like this should take place in a setting in which the students are comfortable. In the case of Jessica’s class I chose to have the students share their work in their “circle time spots.” We held all of our class sessions in this space, and the students were accustomed to heading straight for their chairs as soon as I walked in the room. The songs and activities we shared were also in the order we I taught them each session, and I used the visual aids that were present in each class session. The order is listed below along with a description of the visual aids:
Good Morning Song (Picture of the morning with the words “Good Morning” imbedded)
Hello Song (Choice board with options for dance movements to perform with each round of the song)
Pepperoni Pizzas (Pictures of Rhythmic notation with pictures of foods-Pepperoni is paired with four 16th notes, Pizza is paired with two eighth notes, Pie is paired with one quarter note, Cheese is paired with one half note)
Singing Songs (Picture of singing to remind students to sing along)
Dance (Picture of dancing to remind students to dance)
Penny Game (Picture of Penny and a real penny to help participation)
Goodbye Song (Picture of students waving “Goodbye”)
There are three aspects of flexibility that were important to this experience. First, I started to introduce small changes to my routine halfway through the residency to acclimate the students to the possibility of changes in the class order. The parents in the audience were also asked to be flexible. They started sitting behind the students, and then we slowly moved them forward. Eventually many were sitting in front of the students in traditional audience seating. I as a teaching artist also needed to be flexible. I needed to understand that some students would need to sit on their parents laps. I needed to remember that this production was not going broadway, so following the students in this way was just fine. I did pull those parents into the dance portion, and the parents seemed to enjoy the experience.
Ultimately this untraditional show was successful for everyone involved. The students shared their work. I was given an opportunity to introduce parents to our work, and Jessica was able to bring parents into the classroom, some of whom had not visited all year. We plan to try it again next year!