If You Build It, They Will Come…

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember/December 2017The Practical Conductor • December 1, 2017

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By Brody McDonald

By the time you read this, my festival will be over. As I type this, I’m gearing up with a great team of people to host the Kettering National A Cappella Festival. This is our 10th anniversary, and it has become a lynch-pin to our program. I’m going to tell you why we started it, what benefits it brings to the program, and how you could have success with your own festival.

The reason we started our festival is simple – there weren’t any near us. Ten years ago, I had a show choir and an a cappella group. Show choir competitions were all over the place. Through years, show choirs created their own system of events so they had things to do, places to perform, trophies to win. You know – external motivators. I had an a cappella group and almost nowhere to go! There was one festival in our state, but I knew from watching my show choir kids that I needed something else on which to focus to help get them motivated. It was one of my show choir parents who actually said, “You know those show choir invitationals? We should do that for a cappella!” And so, it began. Year one we had Rockapella perform and five other groups came to join us for the day. Ten years later, we have 75 groups and around 1,200 singers present. What has this done for our program?

It gives us a mission: The festival is in November and gives us a focal point that is early in the year. If you’ve ever had that feeling like your house has never been cleaner than before you host a party, you’ll know what I mean.

It makes us money: Ticket sales, concessions, and registrations are dollars in your program’s coffers. We all need money, and I’d rather sell music than candles any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

It builds community: I have a lot of teacher friends in Ohio, and it’s great to see them every year. In addition, my singers getting to hang with other singers reinforces that singing is indeed cool, and yes, we have a lot of folks in the singing tribe. It’s just fun.

It involves parents: And thus, they are more invested in your program.

It builds pride: Hosting something cool is a source of pride for students, parents, and administrators alike.

It means doing cool things without traveling: We used to load up a bus and drive hours to see top-rate a cappella groups. Now they come to us. And we get to open for them. #winwin

I fully understand — not every school can or should start a festival. But maybe it’s right for you. After all, someone has to get the ball rolling. If you build it, they will come. AND – festivals come in all shapes and sizes. You could host a show choir invitational, an a cappella festival, a barbershop day with a local chorus, a concert choir holiday bonanza, or a pre-contest concert choir “mock judging” day. Your festival can be big or small. Here’s how to start something without getting overwhelmed.

Consider what you want to do: What type of event do you WISH existed? After all, this is for you, right? Create something you wish you had nearby to attend.

Start with friends: Before you even announce, poll some friends nearby: “If I hosted X, would you be interested in coming?”

Start safe: Finding some friends to pitch in helps, so you know you have attendees. If you are hiring a guest artist, start modestly. You can even share the risk with other entities. When we started our first a cappella festival, we got the band and orchestra boosters to share the investment, and all the profits went to a fund that offers lessons scholarships to all district music students. Didn’t matter we made no money – we had clients, and proof of concept. Next year, we were on our own.

Serve your clients well: We survey our clients every year twice: once when the event ends, to see what we could do better, what they liked, didn’t like, etc. In preparing for the next year, we survey them to see who we should hire as guest artists. This keeps them invested, happy, and returning.

While I know we all don’t need “one more thing to do,” I can attest that hosting a great event is one of the most satisfying, galvanizing, unifying things you can do for your program. AND — you are helping others as you do so. So, don’t be scared — give it a try!

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of a cappella studies. For more information, please visit brodymcdonald.com.

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