I’m guessing it has been a good fifteen years or so since I received a call from the Royal Ontario Museum to stage something with the human voice during a weekly open Friday night series in the round. From the downbeat I had but one person in mind: vocal coach to the stars, Elaine Overholt.
Elaine and I took to the stage in front of six hundred hungry – eager, aspiring singers. As we witness the room fill to capacity, we hadn’t a clue word spread across the GTA and this would be a happening.
The next ninety minutes Elaine coached and conducted the room as if waving a magic wand. Near the end of the riveting session, Elaine’ asks for a few volunteers to come to the stage. How about six hundred?
I’ve thought about that night on several occasions and the power of the voice, that hidden desire in all of us to be Whitney Houston for a moment, a Keith Urban, an Etta James, a Freddie Mercury and how conversation-words are dry, yet when coated with tonal color and laced with passion resonate louder than the cacophony of competing dissonance that swirls around our heads most hours of the day.
This year, Elaine Overholt is deservedly honoured with the Slaight Music Sing! Toronto Legacy Award and the city of Toronto gets a full-scale a cappella festival – May 11 – 28. I caught up with festival co-executive director Pat Silver for a better understanding and insight into the growing popularity of the event. Here’s that conversation.
What was the inspiration behind starting an a cappella festival?
Countermeasure wanted to create an a cappella festival in Canada. There were several in the U.S. and many in Europe but nothing here. At the same time, Paul Ryan suggested that The Nylons had always wanted to start an a cappella festival. It was the confluence of the icons and the emerging artists that laid the groundwork
What is it about the human voice that gives it an edge over man-made instruments?
Deke Sharon, vocal producer for the TV Show "Sing Off" and "Pitch Perfect" explains: " a cappella has experienced a renaissance because people respond to the human voice and the connection that people feel when they hear someone singing from the heart." There is nothing as exciting or as exhilarating as watching dynamic singers in motion and listening to voices create all of the sounds, from drums to guitars and trombones, in full harmony. It is the most basic of all music making, and everyone can do it.
Why do we sing?
We express emotion through singing – joy, sadness, excitement, passion, anticipation, disappointment.It is a more thorough communication than speaking because you add the dynamics of the music; the timbre created by major and minor keys and the richness of harmony to create a full experience.
What is the best setting to listen and appreciate a cappella music?
I think a quiet space, whether it is a concert hall, a church, or a nightclub, creates an environment where the audience can hear the subtleties of the vocal presentations.
Looking back in music history what cappella groups most influenced and impressed you?
I grew up on harmony groups like The Temptations and The Supremes, and even the harmonies of the folk era Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Once I heard Singers Unlimited and the Swingle Singers, I was hooked on vocal harmony.
Singing competitions seem to be the thing currently with a number of events around the globe. Does a cappella fit into this category?
There are many cappella competitions, especially at the collegiate level in the U.S. ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella) competitions have been feeders for TV shows like the Sing Off.
Keeping the festival fresh and finding key talent to fill seats can be a challenge. How have you confronted that?
There is a small list of top tier cappella headliners. We made our “dream list” when we started and realized this year that we had checked every box! This year we are bringing back New York Voices, who have thirty years of touring success and are leaders in a cappella masterclasses and camps.
The one thing that sets us apart from other a cappella festivals is our model of collaborative productions. Most music festivals present individual artists, one at a time, either in singular concerts or on shared billings. We have always created concept pieces that stretch the imagination of the listeners and challenge the skills of the artists. We have regularly worked with the National Film Board to set their short films to live music with our a cappella ensembles. We presented a concert of Shakespeare in song, and a concert of all Beatles but sung from different perspectives.
Last year we had a dance event where we presented a cappella groups accompanying dancers in many styles, all live and improvised. This year we are teaming up with Art Battle, a live competitive painting event, to have three a cappella groups (Countermeasure, Beatsync, and Element Choir) inspire the painters while they are creating their masterpieces.
Money is always a concern. How have you been able to attract sponsors and other funding?
Many of our sponsors have been with us since inception. Those who are connected to the music industry see the value in associating with a cutting-edge festival that reaches their target market – the singers. Other institutions want to be associated with quality live music. And we have significant in-kind support from suppliers, from wine to printing. Like many arts institutions, we write a lot of grant applications and are always hopeful for successful results. The more we can raise, the more we can underwrite free events and keep our ticket prices low so the festival is accessible to all. Of course, ticket sales are critical to our success and sustainability.
Supporting new talent is always a prerogative for most festivals. Have you been able to export groups the festival has found to be a cut above?
Countermeasure, a founding artist of the festival, has grown from a start-up to mounting major international tours. They’ve been able to share the stage with giants like Naturally 7 and Swingle Singers, leading to an invitation to perform at the prestigious London A Cappella Festival and two full UK tours.That is one way we help talent develop. Some groups even formed because we have a festival.
Who are some of the iconic groups you’ve presented the past few years?
The Nylons, Take 6, Rajaton, The Real Group, New York Voices, Swingle Singers, Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem Alumni Ensemble, Quartette, Elmer Iseler Singers, Elora Festival Singers, plus collaborations with Alan Frew, David Clayton Thomas, Lorraine Segato, Jane Siberry, Dan Hill, and more.
Past Artistic workshops from greats like Heather Bambrick, Micah Barnes, Lizzy Mahashe, Dan Hill, Sylvia Tyson, Cindy Church, Naturally 7, and Swingle Singers. Music Industry Essentials workshops from industry leaders Paul Sanderson (law), Brett Abbott (marketing), Robert Baird (cross-border strategies), Hollywood North (audition strategies), and Melanie Moore Tapson (voice care). This year the workshops are on May 27 with our headliners: New York Voices, musica intima, Blue Jupiter, and celebrity vocal coach Elaine Overholt.
You have several volunteers. How do people get involved?
We recruit volunteers year-round through our website. We welcome people to sign up, tell us their interest areas, and then we’ll do our best to match their strengths with our openings.
What brings you the greatest stress?
Paying for the festival. We are constantly courting sponsors, promoting our events for ticket sales, and writing grant applications.
Are you settled in your current location?
We are very pleased with our two hubs. The Distillery Historic District has been a great presenting partner for the free outdoor concert series (if only they could guarantee rain-free days!). Jane Mallett Theatre provides an intimate concert experience in a lovely hall, and the staff has been welcoming and helpful. Little Trinity Church is a perfect place to present classical concerts and conduct workshops.We’re essentially a downtown festival with a few outreach locations.
How many board members and what are their backgrounds?
We have nineteen on the board from many disciplines. Our chair is a Senior Business Process Management consultant who sings in three cappella groups. We have IT specialists, a publicist, a lawyer and a law student, marketing specialists, musicians both young and old, event planners, director of an arts camp, people with office experience and skills, an investment advisor, and an accountant. It is a very well-rounded team that spans the generations, from 22 to 68 years old.
How is talent chosen?
Dylan Bell and Suba Sankaran are the Artistic Directors of the festival. They source the talent, then submit their ideas to the Board of Directors for final approval. Artists can apply to the festival through our website.
What is the long-term vision?
We want to continue to be the hub for a cappella in Canada. Not only are we staging our main SING! festival in Toronto, but we bring our artists to outreach events under our brand, such as the SING! stage at the Beaches International Jazz Festival. We want to build on these opportunities for our artists in order to nurture and grow the a cappella community in Toronto and in Canada. And we have exported our brand and our festival model to SING! Texas, which now has festivals in multiple cities, and created partnerships with a capella festivals in London and Italy.
What’s this year’s roster look like – and what excites you the most?
That is a tough question because every program is innovative and exciting.I’m really looking forward to the reunion of the Toronto cast of the musical Hair, because that was my generation and a favourite show of mine. But this time they are not singing to a band – it is all a cappella with Retrocity as their backup.
I’m a huge fan of Lorraine Segato, who will be in the festival twice – leading a Guinness World’s Record attempt with “Rise Up” on May 13, and singing in our O Canada! The Golden Age of CanadianPop, with Retrocity on May 25. We loved the New York Voices in our opening year, and we’re thrilled to have them back on an all-New York bill, along with New York pop a cappella sensations Blue Jupiter, and hosted by Micah Barnes, who has a hit with his New York Stories CD and touring show, plus the amazing world music looping artists FreePlay Duo.
We’re bringing the incredible vocal ensemble “musica intima” to headline our Intimate Voices classical night, and pairing them with award-winning local choir Esprit Chamber Choir.The repertoire moves from very classical to lush harmonies on more folk-oriented pieces.
The Art Battle will cap it all off on May 28, with the excitement of a boxing match plus the artistry of great a cappella with Countermeasure (jazz), Beatsync (edgy pop) and Element Choir (totally improvised). I guess I’m the proudest of the Slaight Music SING! Toronto Legacy Award going this year to the very deserving singer/vocal coach Elaine Overholt. We’ve been friends and colleagues for decades. She’s been lauded by Hollywood A-listers and it’s long overdue to get this important award at home.
Singing is something everyone can enjoy. Do you have audience participation?
There is a lot of participation in the workshops, which this year are on May 27 with our headliners: New York Voices, musica intima, Blue Jupiter, and celebrity vocal coach Elaine Overholt.We encourage thousands of people to join our singalongs of O Canada and Rise Up at our Guinness World Record challenge in the Distillery District on May 13.
This year’s dates?
May 11 to 28, 2017