Charlie Beale

This is the website of Dr Charles W. Beale, international choral director, jazz musician, clinician and speaker.

A cappella with hipster beards

I recently adjudicated my first A Cappella Festival in New York, and have been a fan since school days, from the early ' 70s Kings Singers, Les Double Six and Take Six on down. Call me jaded, but I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that whole evenings of bouncy, 'Pitch Perfect'-style a cappella with the obligatory beatboxer can become tired quite quickly. I love the post-Glee enthusiasm and often the technical expertise, but the emotional range and expressive potential in the songs chosen often seems limited, and of its late '00s time. The Swingles also have 50 years of history to contend with. They were there at the very start.

So the video below is a very refreshing change - a totally different vision, yet just enough the same. Not a trace of Bach 'dah-vuh-dah-vuh' in sight, and the sound feels contemporary but still keeps the vocal refinement and technical perfection of earlier generations.

A cappella thoughts ...

A couple of weeks back, I had a great evening adjudicating at the New York Regional heat of the Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival. The panel were, from left to right: Debbi Burdett, Jimmy Hayes (one of the original 'Persuasions), Dave Revels (of the 'Drifters'), singer/actor Emily Borromeo, me, screenwriter Gerard Brown III and Garth Kravits, of San Francisco's 'The House Jacks':

The style and age of singer was very mixed, and included teenagers right through to school teachers. The level was generally incredibly high, and the winners were especially inspiring, a teen group called 'Quintessential Five', who did an especially original set which combined classical music , jazz and music from the Republic of Georgia. Here they are in Leipzig last year:

Good luck to them!

And speaking of talent, I just discovered the UK's Jacob Collier, who manages to be the ultimate triple threat as a pro-level singer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist at age 19. I found this Youtube video on Facebook, and, aside from being awestruck by the skills on show, am now convinced that the future of music and indeed a cappella singing is in safe hands. Enjoy!



... Tons of experience and preparation, all in the service of making something new, in the moment, every time.

I am putting a lot of thought at the moment into my relationship with jazz. I've done next to no playing in the last 5 years, as my creative spirit and my current role as a very full time choral director) has taken me elsewhere. But i still feel like a jazz musician in my core. So, I ask myself, in what sense do I use a jazz approach in the music I currently make?

Today, i was reading the front page of Mike Walker's website, which I incidentally think is really amazing and useful. I wish stuff like this had been around when I was teaching jazz full time. The comment about Mike, without doubt one of the UK's top jazz educators and musicians, put into words something I learnt playing jazz that I believe very passionately about all music and indeed life. Steve Rodby says of Mike:

"… his teaching is just like his playing: tons of experience and preparation, all in the service of making something new, in the moment, every time."

Then it clicked. For me, all the preparation in the world is no use at all if the performance is not 'new, in the moment, every time.' Music, improvised or not, is an 'in the moment' medium. Even classical or pop musicians, who do not see themselves as improvising, are taking thousands of interactive decisions in the moment during their performances: about tempo, tone, balance, sound, feel, emotion, and so on. Every live performance is necessarily different in that sense, and an ensemble in any style needs to be flexible enough to take new decisions in the moment - to adapt to a new acoustic, a new audience, and new vibe, if a performance is to work. Flexibility, risk-taking and passion are what make a performance work for me.

On the flip side, all of that flexibility comes from incredibly careful preparation. If we see all musical performance as containing 'something fixed and something free', then an unprepared musician, who is not utterly comfortable with the fixed, is much less likely to be able to deal with the free.

I know I drive people crazy at times, by setting up moments of freedom in shows, where something may happen, but I am not going to prescribe what it is before we get there. In those moments, we should, however, be especially well prepared, so that when a musical decision that fits the moment comes upon us, we can seize it whole-heartedly, and take it where the spirit moves us. Only then will we really connect with an audience.

Moving people ...

This Guardian article about Pete Seeger struck a chord with me last week. Here is an extract:

Why did Pete Seeger, who has died aged 94, matter? Because for over 75 years he stood true to his original vision, he never wavered. Even when his beliefs had a huge impact on his life and career: he never sold out. He wasn't just a folk singer, or an activist: he was both.

Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he'd only be making music – but he believed that while music didn't have agency, it did have the power to make a difference.

I spend a lot of my time arguing to singers, to audiences and to donors that singing makes a difference.  It's my job, but it's also what I believe.

Most recently, for example, NYCGMC has offered to do a Big Gay Sing in Dublin this June as a fundraiser for 'Marriage  Equality', an organization that campaigns in Ireland for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. We will help raise thousands of Euro to help fund a political campaign.  Likewise, last May, we sang a song called 'Home' at the annual 'AIDS WALK' in Central Park front of 10,000 people, two days after the brutal and highly intentional murder of Mark Carson, a gay man out for a drink in the Village on a Friday night. I found myself making a speech about how NYC was our home too. When we sang the song, you could feel the resonance, as we sang what the community was feeling, expressed their fears, allowed their grief and left them with hope.

In fact every time we sing, on the streets, in big concert halls, at gay weddings and fundraisers, our singing breaks down barriers, entertains people, draws them in, makes them think and crucially makes them feel. It happens person by person, as individuals start to tap their feet, sing along with us, or a solitary tear trickles down a cheek. They are moved: physically; psychologically; and ideologically.

Because music is non-verbal, it has that special power. It can transform three dry bullet points about how African American straight women in New York City are the most at risk of new HIV infection into art, into something moving hat hits you at a visceral level and makes you cry before it makes you count. We never know who we affect. The parent who is challenged by having a gay teen might perhaps see our shows and feel only 5% more tolerant than before. But we know from the many stories and emails that it happens.

The language we use is important. For me, many artists and organizations overstate their case. The majority of people come and see a show, enjoy a story, cry, laugh and go home, but their lives are exactly the same as they were before. So to say that we 'change lives through song' is at best hyperbole, and at worst a lie.

But Pete Seeger was right,  I know we make a difference. Even better, we move people.