This year, with just one hour of rehearsals a week and a 4-minute pre-recorded video set, the groups still managed to stand out from the pack of 193 groups in the ICHSAs. The Crescendos, an all-treble (higher voices) a cappella group, and The Thursdays, a mixed-gender a cappella group, swept the livestreamed quarterfinal.
At the livestreamed semifinal on April 10, The Thursdays placed first in the Northeast division, and will perform at the national-level final round on May 8 with nine of the best high school a cappella groups in the country. Josh Timmins, a senior, and Jackie Pottle, a junior, won individual awards at semifinals for their vocal percussion and solo, respectively.
Timmins, a co-president of The Thursdays along with Pottle, noted the passion each member has for the group.
“Everybody is just so devoted to being in the moment with each other,” he said. “In a typical year, when we would make a 12-minute set, we rehearse that set from like, December to April, like 12 minutes of music for like five months. And it’s incredible being with a group of people that are so happy and devoted to what they’re doing.”
The groups faced other challenges getting to this point. For one, the groups normally hold auditions in June to acclimate new members to the group over the summer. This year, they conducted auditions via video in the fall. At rehearsals, members had to sing 10 feet apart outside, facing the same direction and masked, which Timmins said “is not conducive in any way to forming any sort of cohesive group sound.”
Recently loosened requirements allow members to rehearse indoors, albeit with many of the same restrictions in place. Still, he said it’s difficult to “feel that group connection.” Group members also rehearse on their own.
The groups had to pivot their performances to a condensed video format and a prerecorded rendition of their set, both unfamiliar territory. Zoe Adoniou, a senior and a co-president of The Crescendos, said video has become “a bigger aspect in all of our lives,” and found the planning, shooting and editing of the video to be “a really fun part of the process.”
Sachi Badola, a junior and the other co-president of The Crescendos, said the video format is “liberating,” and allowed the groups to take creative risks. If they don’t like something, she said, they can simply re-record it.
The Crescendos performed a mashup of two songs: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 and soloed by junior Lily Daigle, and “Otherside” by Perfume Genius and soloed by sophomore Nhyira Nkansah. Adoniou and Badola arranged the U2 song themselves, a first for both of them, which Badola said was “very challenging.” Amanda Roeder, the school’s choral director, assisted them with that arrangement, arranged all other songs for the groups, and edited the members’ audio recordings to accompany the videos.
Badola said the group chose to use two songs to show growth throughout the piece. “Our story was just showing how like, we don’t really know what we’re looking for yet, and we don’t have to, but as long as we have each other and we’re always singing together and making music together, (it’s the) purpose of art to help us find what we’re looking for,” she said.
The video features individually filmed shots of the members singing, footage from past in-person shows, and shots of the group walking together around the center of Chelmsford to reflect “moving toward something,” Badola said. The footage from past years was meant to evoke nostalgia.
The Thursdays performed “Evergreen” by Yebba, which allowed soloist Pottle to showcase her agile vocal runs and large range. Pottle said the song’s title reflects the group’s staying power throughout the pandemic.
“The group is always going to be there, and it’s going to be there like the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s just not something that we can completely have right now,” she said. “But it’s showing that we know that eventually things are going to be OK.”
The video opens with a shot of Pottle in a dark bedroom, reading and listening to media from early in the pandemic as the country shut down, representing the loneliness The Thursdays have felt without music in their lives. The students progress from singing alone in the snow to finding each other in the woods and singing together with masks on by the end of the video. “Throughout the course of the video, it’s showing us coming back together, even though we can’t completely like, sing without masks on or anything like that, we can still make the best out of the situation,” she said.
Despite the challenges wrought by COVID-19, the group presidents said their time in CHS a cappella has been invaluable.
“There’s such a difference coming from middle school where you have a requirement to take a choir course … and coming into a competitive group where everyone is so devoted to making music and puts in the work,” Adoniou said. “We had some really beautiful moments because of that.”
She hopes to continue a cappella in college.
“I’m just in awe of how wonderful it’s been to make such intentional decisions about the music that we do. We really have conversations about every decision that we make, (and) I feel that everyone is included in these conversations,” Badola said. “And I think that being in an a cappella group is more than just the singing and the performance. Being open, hearing other people’s perspectives about music and art has really inspired me to be more intentional and purposeful with everything that I do.”
Pottle, the lone freshman when she entered The Thursdays, said the group represents the strongest friendships she’s formed at CHS.
“The bonds formed in the group are honestly like, incomparable to anything else that I’ve had in my high school career,” she said.
And for Roeder, the groups have represented an “impressive” amount of resilience.
“As an arts educator, my whole professional life centers around music-making, and we haven’t been able to do nearly any of what we used to consider our normal routine. I mean, that … can be a real blow to motivation,” she said.
“As soon as we came back to school this year, (the students) accepted the circumstances that we were dealt and said, ‘Alright, what can we do with this?’ And … rather than focusing on the things that we can’t do this year, there are some cool new opportunities, and we get to get a lot better at recording and learning how to make videos. And that has been pretty exciting.”
Both a cappella groups will be releasing new music as part of their annual “Aca-Pocalypse” event. Head to chelmsfordacappella.org for more information and to see highlighted performances from other local groups.