Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dissecting Pitch Perfect

In honor of the DVD release of Pitch Perfect, I’ve decided to take a closer look at the accuracy of specific scenes in the movie.
First, let me clarify by saying (as if you didn’t already know) that I am a big fan of this movie. I loved every minute of it. I love what it’s doing for a cappella groups. I loved how funny it was. I loved the arrangements. I loved Adam Devine and Anna Kendrick.
But like any good movie geek, I feel I have to over-analyze, dissect, and examine this movie from every angle. (This is the part where you scream NO YOU DON’T!!! LEAVE MY MOVIE ALONE!!!)
Look…if you don’t like that I’m dissecting it, don’t read on. I believe there are things we can learn from the movie, besides the message that “A cappella music is never going away.”
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!! (If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading now…)
1) The ICCA Commentators.
No, the ICCAs do not have commentators, but you probably already knew that. We tend to save our critiques and praises for after the event, in which the RARB explodes with opinions.
There are legal issues with broadcasting a live music competition. Every major singing competition acquires the rights to each song. In fact, I recall an anecdote that no one on the Sing-Off was allowed to sing a Beyonce song, because the rights were not available. I’m not sure if this is true, but it makes sense.
But…couldn’t we find a way? Are you telling me that there is NO legal way to broadcast the ICCAs over television, radio, podcast, or the internet? I live in New York and there is just NO way to attend the west coast ICCA rounds, but I am very interested in seeing them. Maybe one day...
2) The groups hold a joint audition.
I’m not debating whether this is true, because frankly, I don’t know. I have never gone to a school where the a cappella groups held one overall audition instead of individual group auditions. But I’d like to examine this procedure a little more closely, so that if you have never done this, you may decide you want to try it, or if you have already done this, you may notice something about the process you never knew before.
The pros of holding a joint audition:
#1-Time. Let’s say there are seven groups on campus. If each of them holds a three-hour audition, that’s collectively twenty-one hours that a potential auditionee could be waiting and singing. (assuming he/she tries out for all seven groups) A joint, three-hour audition saves everyone a considerable amount of time, and the students who are auditioning only have to sing once, which could either be a positive or a negative.
#2-Consistency. Often, there are debates about which group has the best audition process. Some groups keep you in the room for ten minutes, some for two. Some ask you to sight-read, some don’t. A joint audition would eliminate opinions of which group has the better audition process, and reduce confusion for the auditionees, because they would know exactly what they had to prepare.
#3-Potential singers. Sometimes, a singer, who you desperately need, doesn’t audition for your group, because either they don’t know what time/date your audition is, or because they didn’t even know you existed. This gives all groups the chance to see everyone who is interested in a cappella music and potentially catch the “diamond in the rough.”
The cons of holding a joint audition:
#1-Conflict. Unless the groups decide on specific rules for drafting singers, more than likely two or more groups will want the same singer. A clear and concise set of rules must be agreed upon, and unlike the movie, it should not be dependent on who competes in the ICCAs.
#2-Group interaction. Most groups like to know if this person will not only fit musically, but socially within the group. A joint audition gives you very little time, if none at all, to test this character trait. Also, singers aren’t given the chance to show whether or not they can blend within the group, which is just as important as being able to stay on pitch.
#3-Restrictions. Maybe one group covets sight-reading ability more than others. Maybe one group wants to hear you improvise. Maybe one group wants to hear you sing only ballads from the 80’s. If every group gets their way, the joint audition will last too long, and this will contradict one of the pros of holding joint auditions: time.
#4-Intimidation. It’s scary enough to audition for one cappella group. What if you were auditioning for seven groups at the same time? Some singers don’t want to be soloists, they just want to belong. I feel that forcing someone to sing in front of eighty-plus people might be a little cruel.
3) The Bellas run laps.
Ummm…why? This could only help choreography. Running laps does not help you become a better singer.
4) Chloe gets nodes.
Unfortunately, nodes are very real and very bad. Let’s take a closer look:
A node is actually called a Vocal Nodule. In your throat are two “flaps” called the vocal folds (also known as the vocal cords). These “flaps” move up and down and disrupt the air flow so you can form words and sounds. Because these two folds are made of human tissue, they can develop small masses of tissue, just like a hand can develop calluses due to excessive usage.
A node creates a raspy sound, making it difficult to sing with a full voice, and sometimes, painful to talk. I have heard rumors of heavy metal singers actively trying to develop nodes, because they seek that raspy singing quality favored in heavy metal music.
It is possible to remove nodes with surgery and vocal therapy (I have a friend who removed nodes on her voice), but sometimes the damage to your voice is too great and you may never regain full vocal strength. (she didn’t)
If you scream loudly once every now and then, you probably won’t get nodes. If you scream at full voice every day for months, then the chances you'll get nodes will increase dramatically. Make sure that when you sing loudly, you place the majority of your sound in your resonators (nasal passages and forehead) and stop singing if your voice hurts.
Oh, and that scene where Chloe’s voice drops two octaves because of her surgery…that’s movie magic, not reality.
5) The pitch pipe is passed around the group, and at one point falls in the vomit.
Ewww…please, clean your pitch pipes. Don’t share your germs. If your pitch pipe falls in vomit, maybe it’s time to get a new pitch pipe.
6) One group is disqualified, because they have a high school student.
Is this possible? Can this be true? I’ve never seen anything like this, but how do I know for sure?
What about part-time students? Graduates who take continuing education courses? Alumni who still look they are in college? Professors?
This is most likely not the case. There has never been a recorded disqualification so far (that I know of...feel free to contradict me), and I highly doubt there will be one in the future. I simply ask that everyone plays fair. If you think it’s against the rules, don’t try it, even if it’s not.
7) The Bellas win the ICCAs.
Okay. Here’s the one part of the movie I disagreed with, only because I read Pitch Perfect before seeing it.
If there was any group whom the Bellas were modeled after, my guess would have to be Divisi. (not only because they were the only all-female group mentioned in the book, but their story resembles much of the Bellas)
In the book, Divisi, despite the tremendous amount of challenges they overcame, lost the ICCAs, twice. The first time was due to very unfair judging procedures, and according to Rapkin, the judging system of ICCAs was forever altered because of this event.
I’m a believer that the journey is more important than the goal. I was happy when “New Directions” from Glee lost the competition their first two years, because it proves that, despite losing a competition, it does not mean your group is worthless. This is a lesson that I believe every group competing in the ICCAs needs to know.
I know, I know. The movie had a happy ending, because it’s a movie. But I’ve seen other movies where the hero didn’t always win (remember Rocky?) and the payoff was so much sweeter, because he/she became a better person.
Despite my nitpicking, Pitch Perfect is an excellent movie. Buy it on DVD now and help support the rise of a cappella.
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest for the A cappella Major

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…)

Friday, December 14, 2012


Musical Acappellamas Everyone!
Here are some photos of me enjoying Acappellamas.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Acappellamas Wish List

Dear Santa,
Hi. My name is Marc. Technically, I shouldn’t even be writing to you, because I’m Jewish. However, since I have found no evidence of anyone writing a letter to “Hanukkah Harry,” I have instead decided to address my wish list to you.
As you probably know, I’m really into this new kind of music. It’s called “A cappella.” Unfortunately, most people still believe this is some sort of Italian side dish, best served over pasta.
I would love it ever so much if you could bring me all the things on my wish list. I know that each of these items is technically not a “thing” but more of an “idea.” That’s okay. If you could just remind people to bring these ideas to life, I would really appreciate it.
These ideas I have are not just some sort of gobbledygook nonsense that I randomly invented. These ideas have been around for thousands…ummm…hundreds…wait…dozens of years. But they could evolve, with your help and a little bit of “santa magic.” (which...contrary to popular not a new form of drug.)
So please, help a small, bright-eyed, thirty-year-old youngster get his holiday wish.
To aid your quest, I have written everything down in a numbered list.
10) Live Looping
Please Santa, make live loopers more famous than they are now. They are very talented, and nobody really understands this yet. Also, please make me a better live looper than I am, because right now I suck.
9) A Universal Directory
Santa, please ask all the popular a cappella businesses and recording studios to come up with a universal directory that will make them more noticeable to groups outside of the contemporary a cappella crowd. Also, build me my own recording studio, so I can play in it all day long.
8) A cappella Festivals
Santa, it would be super-neato of you to help us create more a cappella festivals. I really miss seeing my a cappella friends in other states. Also, please give me ten thousand dollars so I can start a festival in Long Island.
7) A New Form of A cappella
Santa, please-oh-please inspire a cappella groups to write original songs, because I am really tired of hearing Adele covers. Also, please ask Ke$ha to go away.
6) Mainstream Success
Santa, it would be swell if you gave the professional a cappella groups more mainstream success. Their success helps spread a cappella music to all corners of the globe. Also, please make me the president of NBC, so I can renew the Sing-Off.
5) More Books
Santa, I love what you’ve done to my bookshelf. There are so many new a cappella books that I can barely keep up with reading them all. But I’m a hoarder, so I need more. Please make more books about a cappella. Also, please invent a new type of book that you can read and will sing to you.
4) A cappella Specific Microphones
Santa, I BEG you to invent a new type of microphone, one that automatically adjusts its volume when a singer pulls it away, for some unknown, and possibly incorrect, reason. Also, please give me a new set of wireless microphones.
3) A cappella Videogames/Apps
Santa, sorry to trouble you again, but would you please inspire someone to invent a videogame, Smartphone app, or computer program whose sole purpose is to enhance our a cappella experience? Also, please give me a new Wii U.
2) A New Understanding of A cappella Music
Santa, this one is tough, but would you please help choral directors understand the educational value of contemporary a cappella music? Or at the very least, make them tolerant to any group who does not sing classical choral music? Also, please make me the president of ACDA, so I can force a cappella music down their throats.
1) An a cappella major
Santa, this last one is the biggie. In fact, you can ignore all the others, if you just make this one happen. Okay. Here it goes…
Santa, pretty, pretty, please create a college major that teaches students the educational value of contemporary a cappella music. Let there be a degree which one can earn, with a focus in contemporary a cappella music. Let there be a fully trained faculty equipped to teach a cappella practices. Let the school be heavily populated with new and fresh a cappella faces, who will one day grow up to be the next big a cappella “thing.” Also, please give me a million dollars, so I can build this school myself.
Thank you and Musical Acappellamas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A cappella Pop Quiz #3

In case you missed them, here are quizzes one and two.
Class is in session!
Today, we'll talk about some musical elements you may not be familiar with. As always, you should encourage your entire a cappella group to take this quiz, and compare the results. knowing the answers might very well help your group reach greater heights.
Pop Quiz #3- Some Elements of Music
1) What is Solfege and how was it developed?
2) What are Overtones?
3) When a piece of music is called a “standard,” what does that mean?
4) What is the “Blues Progression?”
5) What is Dubstep and who are some dubstep artists?
6) What is Audiation?
7) What is the difference between perfect pitch and relative pitch?
8) Define one of the following terms: Ostinato, Riff, Loop
9) What is a metronome?
10) What is “Extended Technique?”
Answers: (Don't peek!)
1) Solfege is the musical language used to describe notes on a staff, even before the musical staff had been invented yet. You probably know it better as: “DO RE MI FA SOL LA TI DO.”
Those are not the only syllables in the solfege system. The syllables you are familiar with only apply to the major scale. (or the natural minor scale if you start on LA) Some other syllables include: “ME FI SI TE LI RA.”
The solfege system is the most popular classification of musical language, but it is not the only one in existence. Choral directors sometimes substitute the solfege syllables with numbers, hand signs, or even letter names.
Solfege began as the first way to read music, even before the musical staff was invented. The director would point to spots on his hand and, depending on where he pointed, the choir would sing a specific note. This practice dates all the way back to the medieval ages.
The first solfege syllables were not as we know them today. “DO” was called “UT.” It was changed to “DO” after the latin word for God, Dominus.
2) Overtones are frequencies produced whenever a sound occurs, that are both higher and lower than the fundamental sound. Every time we sing, we produce overtones. These are very difficult to hear, and require training to listen specifically for them.
Overtones are important for three primary reasons in choral singing. The first is that they fill out the sound. A choir who achieves a perfect blend can strengthen the sound of the overtones, thereby creating a fuller chord without having to sing extra notes. The most common genre to practice overtone singing is a barbershop quartet, who relies on locking in and amplifying the overtone series to sound like a bigger ensemble than they really are.
The second reason overtones are important are with sound engineers. The overtone series must be understood, if you want to perfect a recording. Sound engineers can amplify these overtones by increasing the volume of our high, middle, and low frequencies. To ignore the overtones we naturally produce is to miscalculate the levels at which you should record.
The third reason is that we, as singers, produce overtones with every sound we make, so it is a natural part of our singing process, and therefore, should be understood. If you want to hear overtones right away, try the following exercise:
Hum any note and close both your ears so you can hear yourself better. While humming that same note, open and close your mouth by making different vowel shapes, fairly quickly. In addition to the note you are humming, you should be able to detect an extra sound that moves up and down, in accordance with your vowel shapes. These are the overtones you produce.
3) A “standard” is any tune, in any style, that is considered “common knowledge” by musicians who specialize in that genre. By “common knowledge,” I mean that you should know how to play or sing the tune off the top of your head, without needing music.
Barbershop has standards, known as the “Polecat Songs.” These are twelve songs that all “serious” barbershop musicians should know by heart. Bands have standards such as “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Classical Choirs have standards such as “The Hallelujah Chorus” and several Christmas carols.
The most common genre to include “standards” is jazz music. Because the evolution of jazz music was developed primarily by ear, standards are tunes that were shared by bands all across the country. As the history of jazz progressed, the list of tunes grew. Today, there are over 1,000 songs considered to be jazz standards. These include “All The Things You Are,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” and “Birdland.”
Does contemporary a cappella have standards? I believe so. Doesn’t everyone know “The Lion Sleeps Tonight?” “For the Longest Time?” “It’s So Hard To say Goodbye to Yesterday?”
4) The “blues progression” is a progression, or sequence, of twelve chords that form the backbone of thousands of songs. It is more commonly referred to as the “Twelve-Bar Blues.” It looks like this:
The “I” stands for the “I” (roman numeral ONE) chord. The “IV” is the four chord. The V7 is the five chord with an added seventh note.
Why are blues progressions important? Because they can be the easiest progression to improvise over, especially with voices. See:
5) Dubstep is a sub-genre of techno music, or electronic dance music. Dubstep recordings rely heavily on a louder, more rhythmic bass line, and a half-time feeling of percussion, as well as samples from other recordings. As the evolution of Dubstep progressed, the more popular percussive rhythms evolved into a “four to the floor” style, where the accent would distribute evenly over four beats without syncopation. The most popular dubstep artists today is Skrillex, though I’m sure someone will comment and argue that Skrillex is not a dubstep artist.
The reason Dubstep is important to understand is because the popular a cappella group, Pentatonix, has gone on record as saying Dubstep, in addition to other genres of electronic music, was the main influence in their arranging style. If you want to be more like Pentatonix, you have to understand the underlying musical factors behind their inspiration.
6) Audiation is a term coined by popular music educator and psychologist Edwin Gordon, whose educational method, the Music Learning Theory, is considered to be one of the five most important music education methods in elementary music classrooms today. (The other four are Kodaly, Orff, Dalcroze, and Suzuki)
Audiation refers to the concept of “inner hearing,” or, in simpler terms, being able to know whether you are on pitch, how far away from the tonic note you are, and internalizing the beat.
Gordon explains the concept of Audiation like this:
“Although music is not a language, the process is the same for audiating and giving meaning to music as for thinking and giving meaning to speech. When you are listening to speech, you are giving meaning to what was just said by recalling and making connections with what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you will be hearing next, based on your experience and understanding. Similarly, when you are listening to music, you are giving meaning to what you just heard by recalling what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you are hearing next, based on your musical achievement. In other words, when you are audiating as you are listening to music, you are summarizing and generalizing from the specific music patterns you have just heard as a way to anticipate or predict what will follow. Every action becomes an interaction. What you are audiating depends on what you have already audiated. As audiation develops, the broader and deeper it becomes and thus the more it is able to reflect on itself. Members of an audience who are not audiating usually do not know when a piece of unfamiliar, or even familiar, music is nearing its end. They may applaud at any time, or not at all, unless they receive clues from others in the audience who are audiating. Through the process of audiation, we sing and move in our minds, without ever having to sing and move physically.” (Gordon, 5-6)
6) Perfect pitch is a cognitive process in which the musician can hear, and replicate, a perfect frequency, most commonly 440Hz, which is an “A.” Though scientists are not entirely sure how it works or why some of us have it, one thing is clear: Perfect pitch is something you are born with. If you don’t have it, you never will.
Relative pitch is similar to perfect pitch, in that the musician can recall any given pitch at will. However, the process of obtaining the pitch is different. Musicians with perfect pitch can replicate the exact frequency the sound produces. Musicians with relative pitch can replicate the note by either internal memory or muscle memory. Relative pitch is something you can train yourself to have. It is a skill, not a talent.
18) They are ALL THE SAME THING!!! All three terms describe a musical phrase, repeated over and over again, and outline a harmonic progression. Classical musicians call this an “ostinato.” Rock and Jazz musicians call it a “riff.” Techno musicians call this a “loop.”
19) This should be an easy one. A metronome is an electronic device that keeps perfect time. Why did I include this in the quiz? Simple. If your group isn’t practicing with a metronome every rehearsal, then your group will never achieve perfect time.
20) Extended technique refers to the musical practice of making sounds that are uncommon for your instrument. For a piano player, extended technique can be as simple as banging on the piano for percussion, or brushing the strings inside the piano. (Ben Folds Five does this on their track, “Smoke.”) For a vocalist, extended technique refers to anything other than singing normally, with good vocal technique. This includes making weird sounds with your mouth, or using weird syllables to imitate instruments.
Extended technique should expand the scope of your sound production. I believe that vocalists are sometimes too concerned with sounding perfect that they ignore the possibilities of what the human voice can really do. I urge every group to experiment with extended technique in one of their arrangements to create something unexpected and new.
Berhard, E. Calculations of harmonics from fundamental frequency. Retrieved from, on December 11, 2012.
Gordon, E. (1997). Learning sequences in music. Chicago: GIA
McNaught, W. (1893). The history and uses of the sol-fa syllables. London, England: Novello
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Goofus, Gallant, and the ICCAs

Are you familiar with Highlights magazine? Sure you are. You must be, unless you had a very unhappy childhood. Besides the hidden object cover (which was awesome), there was always one other segment I loved as a kid. It was called “Goofus and Gallant.”
Goofus and Gallant were twin boys who taught you moral life lessons and manners. Goofus would always do wrong and Gallant would always do right. For example:
“Goofus starts eating before others are seated at the table. Gallant waits for everyone to come to the table before taking any food.”
The “Goofus and Gallant” comic strip has been a model for several online blogs to define what is right and what is wrong. Political parties have used it. Comedians have parodied it. (most notably, MAD Magazine)
You’re probably thinking…”Where is he going with this? Is there a way to apply the “Goofus and Gallant” comic strip to a cappella music?”
OF COURSE THERE IS! (Silly you…)
After all, it’s competition season! (Hooray!) Groups are gearing up for their preliminary battles in the ICCA, ICHSA, and Harmony Sweepstakes. It just so happens that Goofus and Gallant are both part of groups who were accepted into this year’s ICCA. Let’s see what they are up to and if they can teach us something about succeeding in competitions…
1) "Goofus’ a cappella group is going to sing “Some Nights.” Gallant’s group is going to try to avoid popular songs on the radio, because he knows that inexperienced groups will probably sing these same numbers."
Listen…I’m friends with a fair few number of important and influential a cappella people. I’m not bragging. I’m just setting up an anecdote. The day after the quarter-final groups were announced, my facebook update notified me that ten (10!) different a cappella enthusiasts were predicting that multiple groups would be singing “Some Nights,” and that a few of them would even close their set with it.
First of all, singing the same tune as another group on the same stage is bad enough. You definitely don’t want to be in this position, because, even if you do it better, the audience has already heard it, and nobody wins. Secondly, as a regular audience member of competitions and concerts, the first thing I think when I hear the same number twice is “Man…these groups are totally uncreative.”
“Some Nights” is a GREAT song. That’s why it should be avoided at all costs, because everyone and their mother wants to sing it. something original, do something unexpected, sing something that was never a radio single, and make sure the arrangement is spectacular. Speaking of which…
2) "Goofus arranges his competition set without thinking about choreography first. Gallant arranges his competition set with easy to sing lines and uncomplicated rhythms, because he knows the choreography will probably be very difficult and the singers will run out of breath quickly."
If you are going to include choreography, you MUST MUST MUST consider the choreography as an element of the performance. Here’s what happens usually:
A group receives a fantastic, complicated, and harmonically interesting arrangement. They rehearse it to perfection, adding all sorts of articulations and dynamics that would make any music theory professor proud. Then…[cue dramatic music] somebody adds complicated and visually stunning choreography to compliment the awesome sound. Suddenly, your singers are out of breath and can’t hold the harmonies in tune, the rhythms of the arrangement don’t match the rhythms of the choreography and your singers are confused which is which, and worst of all, the competition stage is hot, sweaty, and not suited for the amount of space you need, which means you have to adjust everything on performance night.
Think ahead, plan accordingly, and maximize your potential without sacrificing musicality.
3) "Goofus doesn’t care about sound check. He thinks it is a waste of 15 minutes that he could be using to rehearse. Gallant thinks the sound check is the most important part of any competition day and plans ahead to ensure that everything goes smoothly and no time is wasted."
Sound check is the MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ANY COMPETITION DAY. In fact, this is so important, I’m going to yell it again:
Your sound check needs to go flawlessly. Your group needs to know exactly how they are going to spend their 15 minutes, and they need to be prepared ahead of time for any situation that may occur. One (ONE) person leads the sound check, and for the next 15 minutes, that person is God and should be followed with a rigid, army-like obedience.
Here’s another helpful hint. If you are the music director who also sings with the group, DON’T go out into the audience and listen. You’ll never truly hear what the group sounds like, because the group is one person short. Bring with you a trusted friend who will sit there and listen, so you don’t have to juggle two jobs at once.
And finally, please treat your sound operators with respect. Regardless of how stressed you are, how angry or frustrated you might be with your group, or the fact that you think all sound operators are mindless space chimps whose only goal in life is to piss you off, they really are intelligent, helpful people and your last line of defense between winning and losing.
4) "Goofus thinks his group will win without preparation, because everything will fall into place at showtime. Gallant knows that the groups that win are the ones who play the hardest, and train the best."
Oh, how I wish the philosophy held by Goofus was not shared by others, but sadly...
Assume that as hard as you're working, some other group is working twice as hard. Just take a look at last year’s winner, the SoCal VoCals. Look at their precision and timing. Listen to their arrangements. They worked hard and it shows.
5) "Goofus refuses to take a look at the competition to get inspired and motivated. Gallant realizes that he does not know everything about a cappella and, even if he did, he would still try to watch and listen to other groups for inspiration."
You may not know who you are competing against. You may know exactly who you are competing against. It doesn’t matter. If you want to win, you have to study the competition, or at least, study groups who have competed before.
There isn’t a football coach on Earth who doesn’t watch film reels of old games and studies the other teams. It’s not cheating. It’s “being educated.”
6) "Goofus assumes everyone in his group knows how to hold and operate a microphone. Gallant realizes that microphone technique is an essential skill to learn and to have, and that live sound is an art form."
Mouth to the metal. That’s all you really need to know. The more sound you give your sound board operator, the more options they have to raise or lower you. There’s even a special way to hold the microphone if you are the vocal percussionist. Cup the microphone head with your fist, so that only a small amount of sound can get through. This will increase the impact your bass drum and kick will have.
DO NOT assume everyone in your group knows how to sing into a microphone. That “pulling the microphone away when you are singing loud technique” that you see pop stars do is technically correct, but it shouldn’t happen for every note you sing. Stop trying to emulate Lady Gaga before you understand how Lady Gaga does what she does.
7) "Goofus does not perform his a cappella set before the competition. Gallant lets several audiences critique his a cappella group before they go on stage, because he knows that audiences see and hear things that he can’t."
You should hold open dress rehearsals before your competition set. Even better, you should perform for another a cappella group on your campus. Even better, you should ask one of the hundreds of a cappella experts to give you a masterclass. Even better, you should videotape yourself performing and critique it immediately after.
8) "Goofus chooses to rap even though he’s the dorkiest guy on the planet. Gallant chooses music that he can truthfully perform."
Look, I get it. Every girl in the world wants to be Katy Perry and every guy wants to be Usher. But if you don’t have the chest voice range or the sharp, vibrato-less quality that they have, you have two options: Either train really hard to achieve it, or sing a different song.
I believe that there is such a thing as an “untruthful” performance. This is a group, let’s say a group of older men, who attempt to sing Maroon 5, because they think it will win them points in a competition. I completely disagree. I think you should play to your group’s strengths, sing repertoire that is suited to your main audience, and stop caring what others think about you.
I’m a huge Eminem fan, but I’m also a fat, white, Jewish geek. So, as much as I love his music, I will probably stay away from rap.
9) "Goofus chooses not to use his best soloists. Gallant picks the competition set with soloists in mind, so he can utilize his group's best assets."
A good soloist can make or break your set. Forget about fairness, forget about drama, and forget about seniority. Your best singers should get the solos. You already know who they are. Stop pretending you don’t, and give them the solos. Remember the a cappella philosophy of group singing- If you are really that crushed that you aren’t the soloist, maybe singing in an a cappella group isn’t for you.
10) "Goofus assumes his gimmicky jokes and energy will beat the more musical groups. Gallant appreciates senses of humor, but knows the best jokes are ones that don’t try to be funny."
Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. The best comedians don’t even think they are funny. If you think you’re funny, you’re probably not.
And besides, this isn’t a comedy competition. It’s a music competition. Stop trying to be funny and be musical. ICCA judges and crowds are some of the toughest audiences in the world. Even if your joke is hilarious, expect that it won’t get a laugh.
11) "Goofus does not know how groups are scored. Gallant understands exactly how groups win these competitions, because he has researched it."
The scoring system of the ICCA is much like the Olympics. Mickey Rapkin, author of “Pitch Perfect” even quotes this in his book. Basically, each group is scored on a variety of show elements, from musical attributes, to showmanship, to originality, to choreography. The judges convene and present their overall scores. The highest score and the lowest score are dropped, to prevent one judge from sabotaging the competition, or unfairly helping one group win. The group with the highest remaining total wins.
Have you ever been to an ICCA competition and wondered “How the hell did that group win?!!!” This is how. And besides, the judges are often selected because of their a cappella or choral knowledge, so they might see something you don’t.
12) "Goofus assumes that because he has the best group on campus, that his group is the best in the country. Gallant realizes that there are over 1,200 collegiate a cappella groups in the country and even more all over the world, and doesn’t let his ego get the better of him."
Okay. Great. You’ve achieved superstar status on campus. No group could possibly hold a candle to your shows, which always sell-out. Groups from around the area beg you to allow them a chance to perform on your stage as a guest group or beg you to visit their stage.
Guess what? Every other group competing is probably thinking the same thing. This gives you an advantage. Instead of thinking you’re awesome, what if you assumed your group was the underdog? What if you assumed every group was ten times better than you? Would that motivate you to work harder?
Don’t let your ego get in the way. Especially because egos are often crushed at the ICCAs. As an avid audience member, it’s very obvious to me who wants to win because they have something to prove, and who thinks they can coast by with good looks and charm.
Don’t be a Goofus. Be Gallant. Good luck in the competitions.
Marc Silverberg
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