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Archiv für Mai, 2015

Sing! Toronto (2) Aaron Jensen Interview

Aaron (with tie) and FSt at LACF 2012

Aaron (with tie) and FSt at LACF 2012

Aaron Jensen, Sing! Toronto Artistic Director Skype-interviewed by Florian Städtler on May 14th, 2015

Hi everybody, this is Florian with Vocal Blog and today I’m talking to the Artistic Director of one of the finest vocal music festivals in the world, Sing!, the Toronto Vocal Arts festival. Welcome, Aaron Jensen!

So the time has come for some of the best vocal music on the planet to perform in Toronto and I’m happy to have you for a quick interview about the festival, its concept and the artists that Aaron selected to be part of the program.


First of all, for those who have not heard about Sing! before, tell me what makes this festival different from other vocal music events.

There are a few things. One is that we have a strong curated element to our shows. So in addition to just having vocal acts performing their regular repertoire, we have a lot of interesting collaborations of all different kinds. We will have Tuvan overtone singers singing alongside Swedish folk groups alongside beatboxers. We are mixing them all together is this beautiful a cappella soup.

We also have a lot of interesting and extraordinary programming, even groups who are not nessecarily known for a cappella. One of our concerts for example is a songbook of Canadian songwriters. And so we have selected some of Canada’s best-known songwriters and instead of having them perform with their usual instrumental back-up band, we’re creating these different ensembles, sort of the equivalent to their band and putting them alongside these songwriters. What’s more, we’ve got an interactive sculptural music installation artwork piece that we’re launching this year.


Sounds like it’s a lot about crossing musical and artistic borders. Was that the original purpose of the festival?

I think so. There is recognition that – at least in Canada – there were a lot of disparate festivals that were taking place. There is the barbershop tradition and the choral tradition and the jazz festivals. But all these different things are happening in isolation from each other.

Toronto has such a wealth of fantastic vocal groups and we really just wanted a place to bring people together, an opportunity for us to sing together, to present professionals from the best vocal groups in the world, bring them to us and really to introduce the artform to people who are not necessarily converts to a cappella music.


Obviously, many people will come to see the internationally famous acts, like Take 6, Rajaton. How do you choose the headliners for each year’s festival?

We have an artistic board that discuss things that come from different backgrounds, so people can make recommendations based on who they are most excited about. But ultimately we had a short list that we drew up in our first year and we are very proud that we have seen the Swingle Singers and the Real Group and New York Voices and Rajaton and Take 6 this year like.

We have started to scratch off a lot of the names of the people we are most excited about. But there are so many more, there is such a wealth of exciting new groups they are popping up all the time.


Which make up a really long “short list”.



take_6_color_croppedCan you describe Take 6 in three sentences or less?

Three sentences or less? Well, they were the inspiration of a lot of vocal groups that have come about since they are – I believe – a ten time Grammy award winning six-part male group that – for anyone who has not heard their music – certainly has a foundation in a gospel, spiritual and jazz. They have got a really distinctive sound which has touched a lot of vocal groups in the past 25 years plus.


And what can you say about Rajaton, the Finnish a cappella stars?

Again for people who have not had the pleasure of hearing the music of Rajaton: They have more of a folk background although they cover all kinds of music as well. In Toronto alone, I’ve seen them perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra doing a Beatles spotlight, and an ABBA spotlight and many different things.

So their repertoire covers a wide array of music, but I feel like they reach out to choral audiences -  in addition to many others, but they certainly have a stronghold in a choral scene in Canada at least. They are…sweethearts. I love them to pieces.


All these famous groups can easily be found on the internet, they have impressive discographies and they’ve been touring the world for decades. How about the hidden champions, the newcomers – could you name me your SING! hidden champions 2015?

Yeah, for sure. There’s a lot of groups as you say that are coming out of the woodworks that are new to us during the last few years. There is a really glorious female trio from Toronto called the Au-pairs that have been around for a couple of years and are blowing my mind. There is a one-woman opera being performed, there is a woman coming from Montreal, Canada which is going to be very interesting.

Of the Toronto acts obviously there are groups like Cadence, Retrocity and Countermeasure, who was at LACF this last January. Free Play Duo, the live looping group of Dylan Bell and Suba Sankaran. We also present the university scene. I’m seeing more and more college groups that have been popping up in Toronto and the area in the last two or three years so this is really exciting to see that it seems like it’s a real renaissance of vocal music.


There are great a cappella festivals in many, many countries today. What makes this festival a particularly Canadian festival?

Sing has actually branched out, there is now a Sing festival taking place in Texas and so there is representation from Texas who are coming to the Toronto Vocal Arts Festival.

From Out Of Town is coming in from the States, Cut Off is coming in from the States so there is a strong CASA foundation as well.


SING! logoBesides from concerts and post-show meet-and-greet – will there be opportunities for choir and a cappella singers to meet their idols during the festival?

There absolutely will. In addition to post-concert meet-and-greets, both Take 6 and Rajaton are offering workshops at the festival. And so you have the opportunity to sing with them in very close proximity to the singers. And in a very unique and personal way.


How important is vocal music education in general – and how do you promote it during and maybe also outside the festival?

Education has always been an important, foundational piece to Sing. During the festival itself we have a very strong workshop masterclass component to it. But we also have an educational outreach program and so we bring school kids in and we give them the opportunity to work hand in hand with some really first-tier performer.

But on the individual level we have vocal health experts, so that a single singer can come in and work with the technician. We’ve got opportunities to sing with one of our professionals on site for a very intense 30-minutes session. And then of course the groups giving their workshops themselves on various subjects – that’s very important.


So what do people who want to come to the festival, need to know? Are there still tickets left? Any special offers or events that you can particularly recommend?

The most important thing is the website There you’ll get the entire line-up of workshops, of concerts, of ticket purchases there. I think any promotions are also listed through there. If you get on our mailing list at, you can keep up-to-date on any new promotions and ticket offers in the next week or two.

Aaron, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Vocal Blog, I wish you all the best for the upcoming festival, Aaron Jensen, Artistic Director of SING!, the Toronto Vocal Arts Festival. An if you’re as excited as I am and not too far from Toronto, go to and get your tickets for this fantastic event.

Thanks, Aaron and speak soon.

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SING! Toronto – An interview with Take 6′s Claude McKnight

by Florian Städtler, Vocal Blog founder on May 8th, 2015

They are pioneers of contemporary vocal music. They won ten Grammies. They have collaborated with other artists such as Ray Charles, Gordon Goodwin, Don Henley, Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, k.d. lang, Queen Latifah, Brian McKnight, Luis Miguel, Marcus Miller, Joe Sample, Ben Tankard, CeCe Winans, and Stevie Wonder. And they keep on touring the world without any signs of fatigue. When I saw Take 6‘s in Lörrach, Germany in December 2014, it was the best mix of vocal virtuosity and perfect showmanship one can imagine.

One country that the group hasn’t toured so much, is Canada. On May 29th, though, all Canadians and especially those living close to Toronto can look forward to a Take 6 show. Hosted by SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival they will star amongst Rajaton, Cadence, Countermeasure and a whole lot of incredibly diverse vocal music acts from barbershop to beatbox.

11150675_663011487164003_8150099329608898133_nClaude McKnight, one of the Take 6 founding members gave us the opportunity to look behind the scenes of the group that was founded 35 years ago on a college campus in Huntsville, Alabama.


Your group Take 6  has toured almost everywhere in the world. How do audience reactions differ between countries and continents?

That depends on a couple of things.  Probably the major thing is whether people understand or speak English where we go, that’s the first thing. The second thing is depending on what the culture of the people we are singing for, is. Some cultures are a little bit more reserved in the way they respond. So you can’t really tell sometimes if they are really into it until after the song or after the show. And as an a cappella group a lot of times you get your energy from that exchange that is happening between the group and the audience. So sometimes that’s hard to figure out and then you just have to really bring the energy from within yourself and hope that it’s going well.

Do you take these national, regional and cultural differences into consideration when putting together the set list for a particular concert?

I think the biggest thing that we’ve taken into consideration is: We have to always bring as much energy as we can no matter where we go. Because even within certain regions, there are different ways of people react. Let me give you an example: Even in United States, people from the East Coast are very different people from people from the West Coast or people from the South. It’s very different as far as regions are concerned.

So we have to understand that no matter what it is that an audience is maybe giving back to us, we within ourselves always have to be energized. And a lot of times you can bring people out of their shell, depending on what you’re doing on stage. But to answer your question a bit more fully: Sometimes we do make sure that we change the set list a bit depending on where we are doing the show. An example of that will be: If we are in a church setting doing a church program or show that maybe a little bit different for us as far as the set list is concerned as opposed when we are doing a jazz festival or something of that nature.

One reason we’re talking today is your upcoming show at the SING! Toronto Vocal Arts Festival on May 29th, 2015. Anything particular coming to your mind when you think of your Northern neighbour, Canada?

Well yeah, for sure: Me and my family, we used to live in Buffalo, New York, so we used to go to Toronto quite a bit. So I remember when I was a child going across the border, seeing Toronto and loving how large and how clean the city was. Also I remember the very diverse cultures.

We have only been to Canada a few times in Take 6’s professional life so this is a really great time to go and see some people we haven’t seen in a while. So that is what we are looking forward to doing.

In general, after so many years, what do you do to keep performing and touring fresh?

For me personally to keep things fresh, I try to take to the stage each night as it’s my last time – and my first time. Otherwise, it’s very easy to find yourself daydreaming during the show or going kind of robotic because you are used to doing certain things. When I can find a place within my own self that is telling me: Wow, this may be the last time or this is the first time, you find that energy or even that little bit of nervousness that keeps it fresh for me.

take_6_color_croppedThat’s a great approach. Looking at Take 6’s creative process: Has it ever been difficult to find musical ideas for the next album, the next tour?

It is difficult, because there are so many of us and we are all very, very creative. And so what we try to do – because we are true democracy – is to make sure that everybody’s ideas are heard. I am generally the person that corrals or brings our ideas together and tries to fashion out the overall show which makes sure that everybody is heard and been listened to. That’s what makes for the good energy when anybody feels like they are a part of it instead of just doing what one person wants them to do.

You worked with the greatest stars in the jazz and pop business. What do collaborations mean for the group?

Oh wow, is been incredible for us, because just about all of the collaborations that we have done have been with artists we have either been growing up listening to and really loving or somewhere during our career have really enjoyed what they do. And so it’s a mutual admiration thing, where everybody gets the best from them and they get the best from us. It brings that level of creativity even higher and that’s a wonderful thing for us.

Take 6 on stage is both a fantastic musical experience and a great show, able to entertain a broad audience. How do you keep the right balance between high-level singing and showmanship?

That’s a really great question. What I’ve tried to do it to put myself in the audience’s shoes. I think we as a group have always been able to sing the music we wanted.  But I’ve tried to make sure and I think we all have tried to think about it like that: If I’m sitting in the audience, what is it I want to see from these people on stage. Because you want your eye to be diverted.

Especially with an a cappella group singing some sophisticated arrangements, even the most ardent a cappella fans can get tired of just listening. So it’s important that we do things differently or break things up. When I say to break things up, sometimes it can be just a trio singing or just a little bit of piano or guitars or there is a soloist or whatever. And I think that all of those things become the entire entertainment package that someone who is sitting in the audience can digest and feel good about being there.

A cappella singing has become much more popular with TV shows like The Sing-off and the success of Pitch Perfect. With Pentatonix there’s now a vocal group in the charts. What do you think of this development?

Oh, I think it’s wonderful. I think that anything that draws attention to what it is that we do, is a wonderful thing. And of course we have always thought that a cappella has been a very viable entertainment source and has always been with us. And now the mainstream is getting a chance to embrace this music and I think it allows all of us now to actually have renewed careers and renewed interest. I think it’s wonderful: Pentatonix and Naturally 7 and Take 6 and the Pitch Perfect movie –I think it all helps each other.

Did this development change anything particular for Take 6?

I think the biggest change for us is – quite honestly – that we realize now that as far as mainstream is concerned, 25 years ago, when we first came out, a lot of people thought that we were the only ones. Now there are so many out there, that now we have to understand that we have to raise our level of creativity and our level of entertainment, just because there are some really great groups out there. So we are actually somewhat in competition with all of them now. And that’s a good thing.

If you compare the group that started out many years ago to the one today, what has changed compared to the early days?

I think, interestingly enough, when you have been doing this as long as we have, you have learned so much from the business side of things. When we first started out, we were doing it solely, because we enjoyed the music. And we still enjoy the music, but we know so much more about the business aspect of it. We are also better singers and I think we are better friends. All of those things make for an overall better experience as far as the group is concerned.

SING! logoTell me a bit about your current program and what the people of Toronto can expect on May 29th.

Oh absolutely! We are going to do a mixture of our old songs and some brand new ones. When I say brand new, I mean brand new for us. This kind of goes back to one of your earlier questions.  What we are doing now is something that we hadn’t really thought about before: Doing some of these popular songs of today and giving a Take 6 arrangement to them.
I just think that’s what people expect and that’s what they want to hear. They want to hear some songs that they love and hear them a cappella now. That’s what a lot of the groups do and we do a few of those. So come, listen and check us out, we are going to do a couple of things that you absolutely know and we will do them in the Take 6 way. And we are all going to have a great time.

For more information check out:

Tickets for the SING! show on May 29th can be booked here.