Lingering voices: Online show celebrates 20 years of The Northamptones

  • Gazette file photoMembers of The Northamptones rehearse with Director Beau Flahive in December 2019 in preparation for an appearance at the Academy of Music for First Night Northampton. Gazette file photo

  • The story of The Northamptones, the a cappella singers from Northampton High School, will be featured in a video that will be streamed Feb. 7 at 2 p.m.  Gazette file photo

  • Image courtesy Northampton Arts CouncilThe cover art from “Quarantones,” The Northamptones’ newest album — the first the singing group has recorded remotely. Image courtesy Northampton Arts Council

  • This year’s Silver Chord Bowl, now in its 37th year, will be a virtual event that celebrates the 20th anniverary of The Northamptones. Image courtesy Northampton Arts Council

Staff Writer
Published: 2/5/2021 5:40:39 PM

When she started a small singing group in Northampton High School some 20 years ago, Beau Flahive felt it was something of an experiment. About 10 students told Flahive, a new music teacher, that they wanted to explore some different musical options, beyond what the school offered. Would she be interested in directing an a cappella group?

Flahive liked the idea, and the fledgling group decided to call themselves The Northamptones.

Looking back now, Flahive says she recalls “how quickly the idea caught on, and this was before ‘Glee’ or the idea of a cappella was really a big thing in schools,” she says, referring to the musical comedy-drama television series that aired on Fox between 2009 and 2015. “(The Northamptones) just became really popular, and now here we are 20 years later.”

The group’s 20th anniversary coincides this month with the 37th anniversary of another musical landmark in the region, the Silver Chord Bowl, the long-running collegiate a cappella competition that’s been produced by the Northampton Arts Council and held at Smith College as part of the organization’s annual “Four Sundays in February” event series.

Given we’re close to marking a third, less appealing anniversary — one year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic— this year’s Silver Chord Bowl has been forced to go virtual. But the Arts Council has used that as an opportunity to focus on The Northamptones’ legacy and the release of their newest album, the first to be recorded remotely: “Quarantones.”

“The Silver Chord Bowl: The Northamptones Edition” takes place Sunday, Feb. 7 at 2 p.m., and can be streamed at via Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and Comcast Channel 12 in Northampton. The video offers a retrospective look at the singing group’s career, with selected performances from the last 20 years, interviews with former members, and songs from the new album.

The show is free, but donations to the Arts Council are encouraged.

Telling a story

“Every year, we kick around Four Sundays and say ‘How do we want to do it this year?’” said Steve Sanderson, the council’s event producer. “So now we have a pandemic, we can’t do a live Silver Chord Bowl — what can we do in its place?”

The answer was to go back and look at lots of video footage Flahive turned over to the Arts Council of past shows by The Northamptones, with concerts from a range of locales: the Academy of Music, where the group has frequently performed during First Night Northampton; John M. Greene Hall at Smith College; the Iron Horse Music Hall; the Christian Science Society in Northampton; and even the lobby of Thornes Market.

Working with Northampton Open Media, the Arts Council has also interwoven interviews with former Northamptones who have gone on to careers in music, such as Susan Dillard, who has taught voice at Oklahoma City University and musical theater at the Academy of Music’s summer programs for teens and children.

Another is Jamie Kent, the rootsy singer-songwriter who’s become involved in a number of areas in the music business in Nashville, Tennessee since moving there in 2014.

Interviews with Flahive are also part of the video.

“We’re basically telling the story of The Northamptones,” said Sanderson, who referred to the video as “as a sort of mini-documentary.”

One thing it’s designed to demonstrate is the range of music the group has tackled over the years. Flahive says most college a cappella groups tend to stick to a tried-and-true repertoire, with only periodic updates, but The Northamptones “learn new songs every year. It’s always a challenge, but it’s one the kids always want to take on.”

The Zoom era

The challenge was even bigger this year once the pandemic arrived and live rehearsals could no longer take place. Flahive said the 16-member group continued working regularly via Zoom, even though they were handicapped, like other vocal and instrumental ensembles, by the slight lag time between when different musicians can hear music via a computer; it means performing together is almost impossible.

Instead, the group members would meet on Zoom to discuss the basics of a new song, with Flahive assigning vocal parts to the students; students could practice their parts one by one as others muted the sound on their computers.

When it came time to record the eight songs on the new album, Flahive said students “went into a closet or other quiet place in their homes” and sang their parts to the songs right into their cellphones; then they sent those takes to Andrew Zucchino, the group’s live sound engineer, who stitched the tracks together on his computer into a whole song.

Zucchino, a NHS graduate himself who lives in Florence, said he and Flahive then spent “probably 200 hours” working on the material, trying to balance the voices.

“It was a lot of work, but it was all worth it,” he said. “As a sound engineer, there were things I could have done to make the kids sound better, but that seemed like it would be a disservice to them, and the idea of music education.”

Flahive, who arranges all the songs, would have the whole group meet on Zoom to listen to what Zucchino had put together and then discuss it; students would then rerecord their parts as needed. She says a number of them were nervous at first about the remote recording process, but “they gained a lot of confidence as we kept working on” the album.

Like past albums the group has made — all in regular recording studios in the region — “Quarantones” has a mix of music, from pop to folk to bluegrass. Among the cuts are “Yesterday” by The Beatles, “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton, “We Find Love” by Daniel Caesar, “Daydreamer” by Adele and “I’ve Got This Friend” by The Civil Wars.

Completing the album feels like a “real accomplishment” given the weirdness of the past year and the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, Flahive said. “It’s been hard on all of us not to be together. There are (newer) students in the group I still haven’t met in person.”

Yet she sees the resiliency the students have shown as a testament to the long-term appeal of The Northamptones. She estimates she’s worked with hundreds of students since the group was formed and says she’s especially proud of “all the people who have gone on to have a career in music and the arts.”

“We’ve kept the program going all these years, so kudos to the kids,” she said.

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