Here’s a story that will warm the soul – one man’s bold and inspiring vision for boosting a cappella singing inside and outside of the classroom. Drop us a line if you have stories to share of how a cappella is growing in your schools and communities.
In September 2011 I joined The Queen Katherine School in Kendal as a teacher of music and then was fortunate to become Head of Department in September 2012. One of my aims for the department was to develop the extra curricular programme and try and encourage more lads to get involved with singing. The department already had a strong singing culture but there was a lack of guys singing in the choirs on offer.
I already had a strong interest in a cappella singing; I had been fortunate enough to see the Swingle Singers and The Real Group in concert and had attended a workshop with the Swingle Singers. I am also a big fan of American male a cappella group Straight No Chaser. Therefore, I planned to start a new group in September 2012 that would be a male a cappella group. As for a name, the only thing that I could think of was Man Band! I did envisage this name to be changed by the lads in the future but it seems as if the name has been a hit and it has stuck!
I started by bringing the ‘classics’ to rehearsals; Lion Sleeps Tonight, In The Still of the Night etc. Things were going well but there wasn’t really a spark or buzz that I wanted. I then decided to scrap these songs and start making my own arrangements. The charts that I had been bringing were quite challenging and I had brought with me a lot of sheet music that I had bought. However, over half the lads involved can’t actually read music all too well and so sheet music actually became an obstacle. Also, I wanted the lads to get their heads out of the music in front of them and perform and focus on listening to what they are producing rather than seeing if they are singing the correct note on paper. Therefore, I started with an arrangement of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz. As I had to take into account that more than half of the group could not read music too well, I had to make the parts accessible for all, challenging for those more accomplished singers and yet at the same time, when put together, sound like the entire piece was the most complicated and refined a cappella piece of music there was! As soon as I brought this song to the group and as the lads began learning the individual parts, the buzz that I wanted grew and suddenly it clicked. Soon enough the lads were performing in their first concert in October and they were a hit!
Moving on from this first performance we have now worked on arrangements of Fix You by Coldplay and a mash up of Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars and Stand By Me by Ben E. King. As always, the arrangements are ones that I create with the lads in mind; in effect, the music we sing is differentiated for all abilities in the group! We have performed in all school music concerts and have performed on two occasions for the Kendal Town Mayor. We are booked for another Mayor’s event in July and we are also planning a flash mob at our local shopping centre. I am working on two new arrangements, Wonderwall by Oasis and I Need a Dollar by Aloe Blacc. I am also now using software like Sibelius when writing these arrangements so that in rehearsals, using a projector and speaker the lads can sing along with their part and the more advanced musicians can actually read the music.
Man Band has been a real success and a tad selfishly, a dream come true for me. We now have 26 lads in the group, three members of staff and even the head teacher who comes down every now and then. I am fortunate to have Kevin Bell (a DT teacher and member of Man Band) who manages publicity and bookings and having this manager and director ‘kind-of’ system gives the group a little more professional feeling, which the lads like as it makes the group feel more than just a ‘school group’.
What is next for Man Band? Well, the lads can now sing together and they can sing well with expression. It is now about turning the group into a visual delight as well as auditory delight! We do a lot of standing and clicking at the moment and so some movements are planned for next year. Kevin Bell is going to help the band get involved in more performances and a cappella festivals and we are hopefully going to simply spread the name of Man Band.
My overall goal is to make singing fun, engaging and accessible to all. I knew this group was a success when in one of my year 9 music lessons when doing arrangements of the Alton Towers Theme Tune, one of the Man Band members rallied up a group of his friends to create an a cappella arrangement. Yes it was a little silly and rough around the edges, but I could not believe my eyes to see a group of lads who had nothing really to do with singing, trying to create bass lines, drum parts, pitch correctly and sing in front of their class! If this is what comes from Man Band then I am happy!
Rob Shillitoe Head of Music The Queen Katherine School