Q&A: A Cappella’s New Note

March 31, 2020 Samantha Nash Leave a Comment

A Cappella’s New Note, a new PBS Wisconsin original documentary, follows students from three Wisconsin high school vocal groups as they practice and prepare for the Port Washington Acapocalypse A Cappella festival. This yearly event draws performers from around the country, and is the centerpiece of a growing A Cappella music scene in the state.

The music documentary also tells the stories of the directors behind some of the best vocal programs in Wisconsin. Dennis Gephart, founder of Port Washington High School’s Limited Edition group, also started the Acapocalypse festival. He is joined by Raymond Roberts, director of the Milwaukee High School of the Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau (G-E-T) High School’s Ryan Stuempges, who started G-E-T’s Vocal Point group.

PBS Wisconsin’s Samantha Nash sat down with Dennis, Raymond and Ryan (remotely, practicing good social distancing) to learn more about the vocal directors who made the Acapocalypse festival possible.

Tune in 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 31, or watch the full documentary and more online and on the PBS app of your Roku, Apple TV, other Digital TV device and most Smart TVs!

Read on to learn more about the documentary from the music directors featured in the program!

How did you get involved with Acapocalypse?

Dennis Gephart, Port Washington High School: My students and I at the time were looking for ways to promote this concept of Contemporary A Cappella to other groups in Wisconsin. I kept hearing people asking how to build interest into their choral program, but unless they saw it on stage it was hard to describe.  So we thought, let’s bring in some of the best groups and educators in the nation and just invite these groups to see for themselves. The name just came out of one of the students’ mouths and it instantly stuck.

Raymond Roberts, Milwaukee High School of the Arts: My friend and colleague, Dennis Gephart, contacted me and told me about the project and asked if we would be interested in being part of it. His kindness and thoughtfulness never cease to amaze me.

Ryan Stuempges, G-E-T: I first got involved in  Acapocalypse when I met Dennis Gephart, the festival’s host and director of Limited Edition, about seven or eight years ago. I started to investigate what other directors were doing and if there were any big opportunities for my students to work toward one common goal. So I did what we all do when we have questions: I asked Google. I simply typed in “top A Cappella groups in Wisconsin,” and sure enough Limited Edition showed up along with Dennis Gephart. I Facebook messaged Dennis about how excited my kids were with this new style of vocal singing and he pointed me to lots of different events, resources and competitions. From there it was history. Dennis and I soon became really close friends and together we made it our mission to share our passion with others in the Midwest.

Ryan Stuempges with GET’s Vocal Point group.

What was it like to have the PBS Wisconsin crew in your classroom while you were teaching and rehearsing? 

Raymond: Do you know how hard it is to explain to your students that we are going to have a normal class, but there will be cameras doing close-ups of your face? All kidding aside, it was worth the pressure and nerves because I knew it would afford us an opportunity to share with a much wider audience why we do what we do, and why we dedicate so much time, energy, and effort to the pursuit of musical excellence. We also love to share with the rest of the state the great things that happen in MPS every day, contrary to the general public’s perception.

How are your students keeping busy while schools are closed? Are they still singing?

Dennis: Right now students have part tracks for several songs that they are learning in Limited Edition and in Concert Choir. We are using flipgrid which is an app that they can sing sections of the song to me and I can access them from my home. In addition we use sight reading software which we will be starting up once our spring break week is over on  March 30. We have also started a google document up where students can suggest songs for next year as well.

What do you want people to know about A Cappella music?

Raymond: I want people to know that there is nothing more personal than the human voice. And, when people explore the limitless potential of the human voice through a cappella music, the result is transformational and transporting a gift to the world, especially now.

Raymond Roberts, director of the Milwaukee High School of the Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble.

Which musician or musical most inspires you and why?

Ryan: Because we are talking about A Cappella I can’t help but give a huge shout out to the “Godfather of A Cappella” Deke Sharon for being my main motivation for getting this type of vocal music out there. His love, energy and huge personality are infectious. Deke has been a mentor and a pioneer for this revolution of A Cappella music. He’s the mastermind behind NBC’s The Sing Off, the Pitch Perfect movies and countless other projects to round out an amazing resume. His message is “Harmony through Harmony” and that’s the message I use within my classroom.

Do you have any music recommendations for our readers – any links to videos you think they should check out?

Dennis: Limited EditionA Cappella HowA Cappella Education Association.Youtube groups such as  So Cal Vocals, Nor’easters, One Voice, Forte to name a few. There are new great groups popping up every day so just keep searching, or just type in ICCA or ICCA (International High School A Cappella Championships and Collegiate Championships).

Raymond: My students always inspire me. [They performed] my favorite a cappella jazz arrangement of all time. 

Ryan: I would for sure check out more content from [the show’s webpage] as there are lots of other videos and tutorials we put together for our views. Besides the groups in this program please check out Forte A Cappella from Centerville, OH, Briarcrest’s One Voice from Memphis, TN, Unstramental from LA, Knight Club from Milwaukee and Highlands Voices from New Jersey. Those are just a few of some of the best groups in the country. 

How does your school community feel about the documentary?

Dennis: It has been very positive. We are lucky to live in a community and school district that is supportive of the arts in education. I can only assume that it will only get larger once it is released. 

Raymond: Everyone is so excited to see the show. They are proud of the students and their dedication to their art and how they represent the city to the state, at large.

Ryan: Our community is super excited to see their little school on their TV’s! The support we’ve had from this community has been unreal, not only with Vocal Point, but our entire music program. In fact we just passed a referendum to build a state of the art Performing Arts Center.  Never has our district had a space like this and I thank our community for backing this project and being so heavily involved in supporting our program.

How do you choose the music you perform?

Raymond: I have several filters through which I place my repertoire selection. They are (not necessarily in order): what is the value added component for my students- if it is a song they already ‘know’ how can I add to the value of their musical knowledge by programming a piece? What is the overall theme or poetic message sent by the song? Is it a universally human theme to which my students can relate and will they be able to bring a personal connection to the piece, which will make the performance meaningful for both the performer and the audience? How will the study and performance of this piece add to their understanding of the wide world of music and its role in culture and society throughout the world?

What is your favorite song from last year’s performance and why?

Dennis: Last year we did a song called Old Friends. The students in last year’s group were all seniors but three and they had grown up together. I watched everyone of them grow up and develop into some amazing young adults. Every time we sang it you could see in every students faces that they were one step closer to having to graduate, and with that would say goodbye to their oldest and longest friends. It was feelings of sadness as well as happiness all in one. That song had an impact on everyone who was able to see it performed. Like the song said “You can grow up, make new ones but the truth is… there’s nothing like old friends.” That really hit you every time they sang it. 

Dennis Gephart and Port Washington High School’s Limited Edition group.

Final thoughts?

Dennis: If you’re an educator or singer interested in performing or starting up a group, please reach out to any of us. This is a network of people who love to share their knowledge.

Raymond: I just want people to know how music is such a wonderful vehicle to help us recognize all that connects us as humans. We are so much more alike than different. And, think about how much, in isolation, we have been yearning for the musical outlets that afford us an opportunity to express the depths of our emotions in a way that nothing else can. Please continue to support students in their pursuit of music. It makes the world a far better and more beautiful place.