Downbeat’s journey to the International Championship of High School A cappella


Provided by Laura Lang-Ree

Juniors Katelyn Chen, Joel Morel, Max Lee and seniors Kelsey Wu and Aryana Far strike poses in their a cappella performance. Downbeat members started a cappella training as early as a year ago.

by Nicole Tian and Emily Tan

“[Downbeat does] so many different things, and we don’t fit a music education niche, if you will, outside of Harker—we’re our own thing,” vocal teacher Jennifer Sandusky said. “This [a cappella competition] was what I felt like would be a really great opportunity for our students based on size of the group, the skill set that they have, to really go get that opportunity and also be stretched and have a new challenge.”

On the weekend of Jan. 18 to 20, 14 Downbeat members traveled to the International Championship of High School Acapella at Sunset High School in Oregon and performed three pieces: “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, “Wings” by Little Mix and “Evergreen” by Yebba. The event was comprised of students from nine high schools across the country. While Downbeat usually specializes in show choir, a combination of singing and dancing to a track or instrument, they relied on their voices and teamwork to take on a new genre of music: a cappella.

“Especially when there’s no track in the background, people can hear everything, so you really had to get that stamina, so you weren’t huffing and puffing,” Downbeat member Neha Premkumar (12) said. “So [we] just drilled until we get that stamina, and we’d be ready to perform it multiple times without getting too tired or too exhausted, and our voices, too.”

While performing without a track or instrument playing the background was initially daunting, the process of confronting this challenge turned out to be especially rewarding.

“It’s a really complicated and difficult form of music, highly sophisticated, and it takes such nuance to do well. For me, for the choreography, it was a completely different genre, too,” Lang-Ree said. “It’s fully choreographed, just different, not what we think necessarily as dance, but it’s a whole different genre too. It was super challenging, but I think one of the things that we both loved about that is the challenge.”

Though the trip lasted for three days, Downbeat members started rehearsing well ahead in order to prepare, starting a cappella training as early as a year ago. As they approached the dates of the competition, practices became more intense, and the week before, members would hold choreography boot camps during office hours.

Provided by Laura Lang-Ree
Max Lee (12) sings at the International Championship of High School A cappella. Downbeat performed three pieces: “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, “Wings” by Little Mix and “Evergreen” by Yebba.

“We had to learn where to stand, where to spot and all of the formations. This was all in a hectic schedule, because it was right after tour, and we were sort of tight on schedule,” Kenya Aridomi (11) said.

In addition to the challenges with choreography, multiple members were sick due to the flu season. However, the entire group managed to overcome all these setbacks and performed successfully, placing fourth at the competition even as a choir new to a cappella.

“It didn’t matter that the other groups were competing against each other,” Sandusky said. “You’d get off stage and you’d see one group and they would just rush over and say, ‘Oh, you were amazing!’ and the groups were equally supportive back and forth.”

Neha shared similar sentiments, adding that traveling as a group along with having dinner together at Sweet Tomatoes led to closer bonds within Downbeat.

“It’s so new to us; it’s so different from what we’re used to doing, and I just think we all learned so much,” she said. “I just come back and I go to class; everyone just seems so much more of a unit than just individuals. It’s just one big, happy, sweet family, and I love them so much.”