Monday, December 17, 2012

The world will end...and other myths

On December 21st, the world will end.
This is indeed a sad day for all of us.
Of course, there is the possibility that the world won’t end…that…maybe…we…made…a…mistake?
No. It can’t be. We are human beings and we NEVER make mistakes. Nowhere in our 200+ history as a country have we ever made ONE mistake. Ever.
And if you believe that, then you are probably reading this blog in a doomsday bunker. In that case, enjoy your canned peaches and freeze-dried beef!
I began to think…are there some beliefs we hold true in a cappella music that could possibly be [gasp!] incorrect?
Hmm…let’s examine these.
1) Our audience only cares what we sing, not how we sing.
“Yep. The simple fact that we are singing Taylor Swift qualifies us as “the coolest a cappella group on campus. It doesn’t matter that our arrangement is boring and pedantic. It doesn’t matter that we never worked on blend, or vowels, or rhythm.
At least we aren’t that ‘other’ group. You know the one…they sing ‘original songs’ that nobody knows. They sing vocal jazz, which is stale and outdated. They might sound great, but the audience prefers to hear songs they know.”
In my humble opinion, the excitement of “Ooh…what song is this???” lasts for about three seconds. After I recognize the song (assuming that I do), my next, immediate thought is:
“Okay. Good song choice. Now let’s see if they do anything interesting with it.”
Far too many a cappella groups still don’t understand the difference between a good song and a good arrangement. If your group thinks “this next song is going to blow them away because it’s the most popular song on the radio right now, even though the arrangement is simple and boring” then you’ll NEVER win the ICCAs, let alone standout in the world of a cappella.
2) Warming up our voices doesn’t matter.
Warm-ups are essential to the singing process, just like stretching is essential to athletes, sketching is essential to artists, outlining is essential to writers, research is essential to scientists, lesson-planning is essential to teachers…you get the idea.
Do you want to know how your group can progressively get better? The answer is so simple that it’s staring you in the face…start your rehearsal with warm-ups.
3) The individuals in our group are just drones designed to carry out the will of the music director.
The revolving door membership of collegiate and high school a cappella groups can make it difficult for individuals, who aren’t an officer or music director, to find their unique identity, especially because the best a cappella groups are the ones that blend together seamlessly on stage.
But for us mere mortals who aren’t arrangers, vocal percussionists, officers, music directors, or superstar soloists, we crave attention as well. Make sure that everyone in the group has a voice and everyone knows they are appreciated.
4) The way you sound on a recording and the way you sound live are exactly the same thing.
Have you ever gone to a rock concert and thought “Huh…that band doesn’t sound the same live as they do on their album…”
That’s because an album is produced, refined, polished, mixed, mastered, tuned, equalized, packaged, and recorded in rooms that are designed to capture as much sound as possible. Singing live requires a completely different set of skills to capture and refine the sound, because you only get one chance to do it.
The groups who sound the same on both do so because they have worked towards that goal. They have sound engineers as part of their team who are masters of their craft. They spend hours practicing blend, and vowels, and vocal technique. They sing arrangements that sound as good live as they do on albums.
5) Hosting an a cappella event is easy and takes absolutely no preparation.
HA! Not a chance.
If you are planning on hosting an a cappella event/festival/day, you better be prepared. You better predict everything that is going to go wrong. You better have three back-up plans ready. You better be prepared for the inevitable discovery that despite how well you plan, there will always be something you forget. And you better have a team, because you can’t do it alone, and even if you could…you don’t want to. Trust me.
6) It does not matter how you enter, exit, or act on stage in between songs.
Ah…one of the oldest debates in a cappella. Do we look relaxed or professional? Should we engage the crowd between songs or let one person do it? Should we memorize our set list or have it taped to the floor? Should we enter in a line or as one big jumble of people? Does it matter how we leave since no one is judging us on our exit strategy? Do we bow or just wave?
So many questions, so little time. With everything your group has to worry about, we often forget to acknowledge stage manners like bowing, talking, entering, exiting, blowing pitches, introducing songs, designing set lists, organizing the standing formations, counting off the tempo, taking water breaks, wearing appropriate costumes…
I can tell you that choral directors are guilty of this as well. We care so much about the music that we forget to inform our choirs of how they should move and act on stage, because we assume they already know.
Let me clear this up for you now. Unless your group has specifically discussed these ideas, then they don’t know. Nobody does. You need to come up with a game plan.
7) Any singer can sing anything.
Oh how I wish this were true. But it’s not. I wish I had the vocal agility of Bobby McFerrin, the range of Steven Tyler, the vocal quality of Michael Buble, and the power of Luciano Pavarotti. But I don’t. And, most likely, neither do you.
This is a harsh truth to face in the music business. But the sooner you accept it, the faster you will learn how to be original and creative.
For example, I’m also a fan of musical theatre, and dabble in acting from time to time. I have to acknowledge that there are roles I’ll never play, because I don’t look the part or I don’t have the vocal quality needed. I’ll never be Angel from “Rent.” I’ll never play Seaweed in “Hairspray.” I’ll never be Jean Valjean in “Les Mis.”
But instead of sulking and getting angry at the “unfairness of it all,” I took a different route and put my efforts into auditioning for roles that I could play, and thankfully, I have been given the opportunity to embody some great roles.
Pop musicians are in the same boat. You may be born with a stunning soprano range, but you are incapable of singing the throaty music of Adele. Instead of wishing you were different, embrace the talents you have and make them work for you.
8) Your group should conform to your arrangement, not the other way around.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I thought that every group could sing every arrangement, as long as you had the voices you needed to cover each part. I thought that I could write arrangements without knowing anything about the group I was writing for.
After spending a year with them, I am much more aware of what my groups are capable of. By writing parts that suit each individual singer, the last few arrangements I’ve written have worked tremendously well.
9) Every single audience is exactly the same.
No. The nursing home crowd is not the same as your legion of on-campus fans. Your legion of on-campus fans are not the same as the tense, bloodthirsty audiences who watch the ICCAs. The tense, bloodthirsty ICCA audiences are not the same as a festival audience who appreciates a cappella music as much as you do.
Alter your set to fit your performance or be forgotten.
10) Every single room sounds exactly the same.
Not a chance. Ward Swingle, creator of the Swingle Singers, has even gone on record, in his autobiography Swingle Singing, as saying that “There are some rooms in which you will never sing in tune.”
No two rooms sound the same, just like no two people are exactly the same. Armed with this knowledge, you can now plan accordingly to adjust your sound to the room.
11) A cappella blogs are useless to read, because they are written by people who don’t have any credentials.
Ummm…this might be a biased answer, but I disagree. Half of what I know and what I write about comes from sources like a cappella blogs. Do these bloggers have any credentials? Probably not. Some do, some don’t. But you need to understand the purpose of an a cappella blog before you dismiss its usefulness.
Let’s compare a cappella blogs with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is, according to their home page, the fifth most visited website on the internet today. This is both good and bad.
As a teacher, I constantly have to monitor my students’ use of Wikipedia, because many students don’t understand why it’s useful. Wikipedia is NOT the be-all-end-all of research. Keep in mind that ANYONE can post on there, and though the site does have fact checkers, they neither have the time nor the resources to check every entry that comes in. In fact, as a rule I try never to quote Wikipedia as a source, if I can.
That does NOT mean I never visit the site. Wikipedia’s usefulness comes in the way they point you in the right direction. Wikipedia is a useful source, if you want some idea of how to frame your research. The structure of each article, the organization of the information, and the general statements made are starting points in which you can investigate further. The resource list at the end can also point you in the right direction, provided you examine these sources yourself.
A cappella blogs are the same. If you take every word they say as gospel, then the mistake is yours, because you failed to understand how blogs should be used. Blogs do nothing more than point you in the right direction, so you can figure this stuff out on your own. They are opinionated, generalized, and user-friendly…the complete opposite of a “scholarly source.”
This is not saying they are useless. Blogs offer first-person perspectives from people who were at the event, in the audience, on the stage, or listening to the album. Bloggers share what they think “is cool.” They do all the investigating and locating so you don’t have to. They are the closest thing to organization in the a cappella world that we have today.
So please, give these blogs some love: (which lists all these blogs and more)
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest for the A cappella Major (another blog…)


  1. Not to sound overly snarky (despite the overly snarky tone of this article), but does anyone honestly think any of these things? I can't say I know anyone involved in a cappella in any way who has ever said any of these things. As correct as you may be in your points (although #11 is still debatable and wholly dependent on the individual merits of the blogger), this piece just sounds like a lot of snark for the sake of being snarky.

  2. The debate rages on. You may agree or disagree with these ideas (or REALLY disagree), but as long as you are opening a dialogue and discussing these things, then the point was made. In my experience, which is entirely different from yours, I have run into many people who believe each of these things.

    And yes, all my posts are snarky. I like snarky.

  3. I completely agree that the a cappella pros don't believe any of these things. But just as there are two (or more) sides to politics, there are two sides to beliefs. I come from a world where a cappella is still relatively unknown. These suggestions are for the groups that are not familiar with recording at Next Level, competing in the ICCAs, and so on.