By Emily Snyder
Long regarded as a predominantly (and, ahem, less-than-cool) Northeastern, Ivy League pastime, a cappella is quickly expanding its reach into the Southwest. From high schools to universities to post-grad professional groups, a cappella is undeniably taking off in Texas.
Pearce Illmer has played no small role in garnering notoriety for the Texas a cappella community as an arranger, recording engineer, and a recent graduate of a collegiate group.
In addition to his day job as a marketer in the oil and gas industry and his position as a Southwest producer for International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA), Illmer works as a freelance recording engineer and arranger for a cappella groups around the country. He spends most of his weekends traveling around Texas to record groups through his own contacts and as a contractor for larger production companies.
A couple of times a year, Illmer also teaches a class called "What can you learn from your favorite a cappella groups" at Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA) festivals.
"I lead a class with aspiring competitors, groups that want to become powerhouses, and look at successful sets from well-known groups in the community," Illmer said. "We talk about tips you can pull from other groups from daily rehearsal to winning competition. I also sit on music director round tables, talking with aspiring MDs about how to shape group culture to be successful -- accountability, collaboration, healthy group dynamics."
As far as recording goes, Illmer said its impact on groups and on the community is twofold.
"It serves as a yearbook for groups that want to have their best performances put on a pedestal to keep and remember. It also can be used to gain notoriety in the community and around campus," Illmer said. "Compilations like Best of College A Cappella (BOCA) and Voices Only put together the best recordings from groups around the country, which is great publicity."
Illmer's own college a cappella group, the University of Texas' One Note Stand, got a track he recorded onto a BOCA album, a rare accomplishment for a group from Texas.
"Up until recently it hasn't been easy to get a cappella engineers to come to Texas from the Northeast, which is a major barrier to entry," he said.
Now, Illmer records both college and high school groups in the Southwest at a reasonable price.
Illmer served as music director for One Note Stand (leading ONS to become the first Texas group to compete at both the Boston Sings and SoJam a cappella festivals) before going on to become the Southwest producer for the ICHSA. While the ICHSA already held one semifinal competition in Texas, Illmer's involvement has since spawned three ICHSA quarterfinals in Texas and Colorado as well as two quarterfinals for the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) with nearly 20 competing groups.
"Given the opportunity I really think the Southwest region is going to be the next big explosion for a capella, especially for the high school circuit," Illmer said. "Fusion from Marcos High School and PFC from MacArthur both made huge impressions in New York at the ICHSA finals."
One takeaway from this rise in popularity and notoriety of high school (and even college) a cappella is that singers are getting a younger and younger start.
Exposure to this kind of musical group at a young age means that people entering college may already have a cappella experience, thereby jump-starting collegiate groups. Illmer himself started his vocal career as a child in his church choir, then fell in love with singing all over again when he joined his high school's vocal jazz group, which followed an a cappella model.
"People who got really into a cappella in college will go on as music educators and start contemporary groups in high schools," Illmer said. "From there, kids are getting inspired and pushing their collegiate groups to new heights, pushing boundaries. It's becoming more and more self-powering."