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

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