Downbeat advances to Varsity Vocals a cappella semifinals


Kathy Fang

Downbeat senior Joel Morel solos during a performance of the song “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” at a performance on Dec. 6 in The Patil Theater. This performance was a part of Downbeat’s tour, which takes the choral group around the Bay Area every year.

by Kathy Fang, Editor-in-Chief

The upper school’s vocal ensemble, Downbeat, placed third in Varsity Vocals’ International Championship of High School Acapella (ICHSA) regional quarterfinals this weekend, earning the ensemble a spot in the semifinals for the first time in the Conservatory’s history

After placing fourth in last year’s ICHSA quarterfinals, Downbeat took their a cappella repertoire to Portland, Oregon, to participate in this year’s competition. ICHSA is a global high school a cappella tournament that gives each participating ensemble 12 minutes to perform a collection of choreographed songs without instrumental support.

This year, Downbeat performed “Lovely” by Billie Eilish and Khalid and arranged by Downbeat senior Max Lee; “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” an African American spiritual song arranged by music teacher Paul Woodruff and “Na Na Na” by Pentatonix.

Comprised of 18 students and directed by performing arts director Laura Lang-Ree and music teacher Jennifer Sandusky, Downbeat was recognized for their work as an ensemble, and Max was individually recognized for his arrangement of “Lovely,” winning the Outstanding Arrangement award. The top three ensembles at each ICHSA regional quarterfinal competition advances to the semifinals in March, and the semifinal champions will advance to the national finals in New York.

Downbeat has been rehearing their three pieces since the start of the school year, building these pieces into their performance repertoire and perfecting them in preparation for this competition.

For Max, who made his first venture into arranging music for this competition, Downbeat’s experiences at ICHSA taught him not only more about the art of vocal music but also about the larger community of a cappella singers.

“There were all these like-minded people that were really passionate about music, and I just had no idea that they were all out there. I made friends with all of them. They inspired me to write music myself and inspired me to keep learning how to sing better and keep pushing myself,” Max said. “It created a sort of community — kind of like, I found my people.”

Throughout this trip, Downbeat students also developed that sense community among themselves, strengthening their bonds with one another as an ensemble.

“We were able to grow as a family,” said senior Kenya Aridomi, who led the choreography for “Lovely.” “I think that would help connect us — being together more technically but also emotionally, being connected with each other, which is pretty important in a choir because with distant people, you wouldn’t really be able to produce music together.”

Provided by Katelyn Chen
Members of Downbeat pose for a photo at the regional quarterfinals of this year’s International Championship of High School A Cappella, held in Portland, Oregon. Eighteen students and ensemble directors Laura Lang-Ree and Jennifer Sandusky traveled to participate in this competition over the past weekend, placing third and advancing to the semifinals.

As a part of the competition, Downbeat received both a numerical score as well as written evaluation from the judges, which offers students and teachers alike a chance to further hone their a cappella skills. Lang-Ree and Sandusky recall that the night of the competition, students stayed up to work through the written notes, going over each detail and comment with the two directors.

“The main reason we love it is that this particular competition is heavy on the education and the learning,” Lang-Ree said. “You see it by watching other groups and meeting them and seeing how other directors work, but then the feedback that we get and students get is intense.”

As rewarding as last weekend’s competition was, both in terms of Downbeat’s success and the lessons they learned, the ensemble continues to perfect their craft as they move forward.

“I didn’t realize how invested the kids were in it,” Sandusky said. “The constructive comments and the new ideas that the kids took even after [the competition] and started coming up to us with — it’s like, they’re not over with this journey, and that’s super gratifying.”