After originating in churches, a cappella music has found mainstream popularity thanks to films like Pitch Perfect and groups like Pentatonix giving pop songs a makeover.
Singing without instruments is becoming more popular in Hong Kong. This year, the sixth International A Capella Festival was held here, bringing in groups from around the world, like Naturally 7 from the US, France’s Ommm and Japan’s Hamojin.
As part of the festival, the Hong Kong Melody Makers will perform on April 30 at the Hong Kong City Hall. We caught up with band manager Gabriel Lee, who also organises the festival, and other members Patrick Chiu (artistic director), Wendy Lam (soprano and vocal percussion), Jeffry Mok (bass), Anita Leung (mezzo soprano), Samuel Cheng (tenor), and Charlene Wong (mezzo soprano):
How did you first learn about a capella?
Wendy: I saw an a cappella video on YouTube – We Are Young from Glee. I couldn’t believe everything I heard was made using just human voices! I felt inspired to try it. That’s how I ended up joining this group. It’s a challenge.
How do you arrange a song?
Patrick: We do it with a computer programme. We type out the melody, then the lyrics, and then we decide what feeling we want. Sometimes we dictate all the notes from the original song – especially the bass and percussion. Then we make up some nonsensical lyrics, like the “dums” and “ahs” and “ohs” to make it special. However, if we want a different feeling, we need to think more about the groove and tempo.
What’s the hardest part when arranging?
Anita: Fitting in the best voice of a person into the arrangement. As each person has a very different tone, we need to work out how to bring out the best in each voice.
How do you pick a song to cover?
Patrick: We sometimes choose songs based on popularity. The location of the show also influences our set list. For the theatre show, we’ll play songs from Schumann, a composer from the romantic period, to boost the theatrical elements.
One-man a capella star Kessay Chan
With so many members in the group, how do you choose who leads?
Patrick: After choosing a song, we think about what kind of style we want; whether we want to create a new feeling, or stick to the original style. Then we think about whether we want a male or female lead, and which member would best bring out the feeling of the song, in terms of range, tone colour, and personality. Or we design a song around a member who has a special sparkle in them.
What’s the hardest instrument to mimic?
Gabriel: Piano. I haven’t seen anyone do it. It’s not quite possible. A piano involves hitting multiple strings to create vibrations, so it’s really hard for humans to imitate.
What about embarrassing moments on stage?
Wendy: Sometimes, when doing vocal percussion, I want to swallow or take a breath but I can’t because it’d break the pattern. I have to hide it as much as possible. It’s also embarrassing when your voice cracks on stage, especially for sopranos with lots of high notes.
What’s your favourite a cappella group?
Jeffrey: I like a European a cappella group called Club for Five because it has a really great bass.
Wendy: Pentatonix covers are really good and I really like the energy they have when they are on stage.
Anita: I like jazz, and listen to The Idea of North. Their arrangements seem simple, but are actually really complicated.
Do you have any tips for aspiring a cappella singers?
Gabriel: Don’t sing songs that are too difficult for you. Performed well, the simplest songs can sound full and rich.
Anita: Make sure your partners are also your friends, so you trust each other. It’s important to be relaxed and happy.
Wendy: No matter how difficult the piece or how complicated the arrangement, you need to trust each other.
Patrick: Practice can be divided into two parts: singing and breathing. But we also focus on getting into the right headspace. We block out any distractions, like phones, and focus on the rehearsal.
What do you look for in new singers?
Gabriel: We don’t just want excellent singers; we want people who are sensitive to others. So we pair up auditionees to see how they react to each other and blend in the voices.
Jeffrey: We talk to them to hear about their goals. During the conversation, we can tell if they’re responsible and disciplined. We need to make sure they can adapt into the team easily.
Anita: They must be music lovers. They must have passion for music and singing because a capella takes a lot of practice. As well as singing, they should also be willing to be involved in arranging the music. A good attitude is key, as the other aspects can be trained.