Monday, February 27, 2012

Don't Hurt The Kittens

We’ve all heard it. That one (or many) a cappella group that isn’t quite together.  They clearly haven’t practiced enough. Their arrangements are not up to par with some of your favorite a cappella groups. They let gimmicks, choreography, and showmanship get in the way of the music. They are all sick. They just put on a bad show. Whatever the reason, everyone of us a cappella fans have walked out of a show with the desire to shove an ice pick into our ear canal.

Okay, I’m being graphic. But let’s face it. If every a cappella group was as good as all the others, ICCA wouldn’t exist. BOCA would be a 2,000 track compilation and cost hundreds of dollars. We all have different opinions, and we all want our criticisms to be heard. There are standards that each of us must face and those standards differ depending on who is the person that we are trying to entertain or impress.

There are clearly better groups than others. I am in no position to say which is which. My favorite a cappella group, The Real Group, is what I consider the platinum standard of a cappella, but many would argue that their style of a cappella does not fit with the contemporary style, represented by Rockapella or Pentatonix, that many consider to be mainstream a cappella. My point is, we all have different opinions of who is greater than others. But I ask this philosophical question and I want you to consider the opposing points of view:

Is there such thing as “bad” a cappella?

In short, no. In a longer answer, noooooooooooooooooo.

The next time you cringe at a missed high note, roll your eyes at a “hackneyed” arrangement, or start comparing one group you saw to the next, I ask you to consider the following factors before you officially call them a “bad” group:

1) Singing a cappella is a wholly remarkable and difficult thing to do. Singing without the support of tuned instruments to help you stay in key is difficult enough. Add in the factor that you alone have to hear where every pitch fits in the chord AND you have to do that while everyone is singing something different, is nothing short of remarkable.

2) A cappella groups change lives. Maybe the group you see on stage just got through a difficult period of their lives. Maybe the group has worked their butts off to get as far as they have come now. Maybe the group doesn’t care if they are the greatest group in the world, so long as they enjoy rehearsal time with each other.  Maybe the soloist is singing by him/herself for the first time in her entire life. What if the person everyone was “cringing at” was you?

3) Collegiate and high school groups change rosters every year. Many of us forget this fact. Only professional or semi-professional groups stay together for years, building their overall group blend. But collegiate and high school groups, who I believe make up the majority of what we consider a cappella music to be, change rosters every year. In addition to everything a group has to worry about, adding new members who instantly have to learn a stack of music and blend with a group that’s been together far longer is just added pressure.

4) The performance is not everything.
As an educator, I consider a successful choir to have progressed over a period of time, not a choir who robotically learns music for the purposes of being the best. I would rather choose to teach inexperienced singers with a passion for learning than a choir full of drones. If you were going to brand an a cappella group as “bad,” you are declaring that everything they have done from this point on is not musical, un-educational, and basically a waste of time.

So please. Before you label a group as “bad,” consider what you are actually saying. Stating that a performance was “bad” is much different than calling a group “bad.” Besides, every time you call a group bad, an angel loses its wings…and then falls to Earth on top of a kitten

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Everything I know about A cappella I learned in Kindergarten.

I flunked philosophy when I was in graduate school. It’s not that I don’t think philosophy is a worthwhile practice. I believe philosophy is essential for maintaining a well-rounded education. I was just never able to spend an entire semester thinking and debating, rather than learning how accomplish a goal.

Philosophy is about the “why.” Why do we do what we do? Why does any of this matter? My main argument with philosophers is that they spend too much time thinking about why and not enough time thinking about “how.” In education, we call this praxis.

It is praxis that I am most drawn to as an educator. I am easily swayed, easily sold on ideas, and easily convinced of the why. I don’t need an entire semester spent on the why. Give me fifteen minutes and I will have made up my mind whether I agree or not. Although to keep my opinion consistent, you will have to show me how you plan to accomplish these goals.

Education relies on a triangle- one side is philosophy, one side if praxis, and one side is psychology. In my belief, a good course addresses all three: You explain why you are teaching this (philosophy), you explain the connections this subject makes to others (psychology), and then you show me how to do it (praxis). In my opinion, we spend a lot of time in a cappella blogs focusing on the philosophy of why we study a cappella music. Again, this is not a negative critique- thanks to the tireless efforts of these educators, bloggers, and thinkers, we have taken a long hard look at what we are trying to accomplish and why this music matters.

But I recently looked into finding a “school of a cappella.” I was hoping there was one college that focused on the practice of teaching this music as a legitimate and separate genre. I wasn’t expecting to find an a cappella major- finding one will drastically change my dissertation topic- but I was hoping someone could lead me in the right direction. Alas, the closest I have found were the fine a cappella festivals held around the country, and so I have made it a mission to attend all of them, as often as possible.

And I think the reason why I haven’t found anything yet is clear- We all have the philosophy, or the “desire to do it.” But we don’t have the curriculum yet. And so as this dissertation progresses, the way to do it needs to become clear.

While I obviously can’t post my exact curriculum online, I can draw attention to the study of jazz in most colleges as a metaphor. The study of jazz requires theory, history, pedagogy, ensemble experience, improvisation, and composition. If you replace the word jazz with the word “a cappella” music, you can see where this curriculum is headed.

This is, of course, assuming that we can convince enough people that “a cappella” music is more than just a style of arranging- it is quickly developing into its own independent genre of music. But that’s for the philosophers to debate.

Marc Silverberg

Friday, February 17, 2012

You say you want a revolution...

I think we toss the word “revolution” around a bit too much in the a cappella community. Exactly what are we revolting against? There are arguments to be made that support contemporary a cappella music as a revolution, but I think even more evidence to support an “evolution.” Let’s take a look at both sides: Revolution vs. Evolution.

A cappella Evolution:
After attending the last two a cappella festivals (LAAF and Amplify), I made an interesting observation. Out of the 20-30 (estimated) groups that performed either on stage or outside, only one (one!) used an actual pitch pipe. Every other group used their smart phone. I’m not condoning this practice…far from it. I’m simply pointing out the natural progression of giving pitches on stage. If this simple act of hearing the first pitch evolved from tuning forks to pitch pipes to smartphones, what other musical elements have a cappella musicians evolved?

In short…many. Our recording process is radically different than recording a traditional choir. Our sheet music is not published and in most cases, not even written out completely. We use nonsense syllables as our own language. The process in which we write original songs differs from an instrumental band.

To be succinct, the last twenty years have seen an explosion of new practices in a cappella music. The A cappella blog is currently posting an exploratory history of the “Apacolypse.” The first chapter of Pitch Perfect gives a brief history of a cappella groups (Who knew Osama bin Laden was in an a cappella group?)  The history is beginning to be traced, giving more credit to educators who argue that a cappella music is becoming its own genre of music. We are following the progression of rock music- we just have a sixty year head start on technology.

What if there was an a cappella smartphone app? What if there was a guitar hero-style video game that was just for voices? What if someone wrote a scripted show about developing an a cappella group (combining the music of the Sing-off with the drama of Glee) much in the vein of Acapolitics?

 Some believe we are in a stagnant period of a cappella development; that we are hearing the same stuff all the time. I disagree. Evolution is a slow steady process and if we trace it back from where we began, the evidence is there.

A cappella Revolution:
Without a targeted enemy or “establishment,” a revolution cannot begin. Please keep in mind, this is not a slight against BOSS (whose tag line is literally “Join the revolution”). I am very excited to attend BOSS.  I fear a developing opinion that a cappella musicians are better than others. It is one of these many reasons that I am not a very big fan of operatic singers or jazz musicians. I fear the day when a cappella musicians accept the widening belief that we need to separate ourselves from other singers- especially when a cappella music draws ninety percent of their inspiration from other music.
So when we use the term revolution, we should consider carefully who the intended target of our revolution is.

Fortunately for proponents of this side of the fence, there is such a target:

The two biggest music organizations that we choral singers should all know are the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME, formerly MENC- Music Educators National Conference). The presence of a cappella music is sorely lacking from both of these organizations, especially during their regional and national conventions. We as a genre have yet to breach the wall and make our presence known.

Why? Because proponents of traditional choral music usually don’t like a cappella music. The reasons are varied and many:

-A cappella groups only perform popular music, which today is shallow and manufactured.
-Singing a cappella does not train singers for all vocal types
-A cappella music has no educational value when it comes to teaching aural skills. It’s just the “fun” music.
-A cappella music usually does not require a conductor, which is not as artistic as conducted music.
-Singing a cappella music hurts your voice- because singing popular music is bad vocal health

I’m not agreeing with any of these. In fact, the whole reason I am on the quest for an a cappella major is to debunk each of the myths. But as a traditionally trained choral conductor, I see where they are coming from. They’re wrong…but I understand where the foundation of those arguments is built.

Through many recent discussions with a cappella educators, we all seem to be in agreement: For a cappella music to be taken seriously, we must educate the masses and enter these conventions with both arms swinging.

In other words…we must revolt.

What side of the fence are you on? Is there really a fence? Are revolution and evolution the same? Feel free to share thoughts and opinions.

Marc Silverberg