Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How to win competitions...from the grumpy muppets

“Hey Waldorf?”
“What is it Statler?”
“What do you call an a cappella group that sings together?
“I don’t know. What do you call an a cappella group that sings together?
“A minor second.”
“Ohhhh ho ho ho ho ho ho”

Much like the grumpy Muppets that sit on the balcony and only have negative things to say to the performing acts, a cappella audiences secretly judge and critique your every action, especially when you are in a competition set. Okay, not really. But let’s face it, some people think that way. I refer back to a blog post I recently wrote about how a cappella groups should never be called “bad” and how coming to a quick judgment only hurts you and baby kittens. See link below:

But in all honesty, I have attended a large number of a cappella competitions, ranging from ICCA’s, to ICHSA’s, to festival specific competitions. And in my quest to establish a core curriculum on a cappella music, I have noticed similarities between groups who get critiqued and groups who fail to learn from their mistakes. Speaking as a humble audience member, I would like to list the most common things I have heard/witnessed from attending these many concerts.

The question that enters my mind first when a group walks on the stage is whether they are in it to win it. Some groups (probably most) claim that they would really like to win, but are deep down unsure of what that really means. Before you compete, make sure you understand the common threads that connect all groups who have yet to win that shiny plastic trophy.

1) Why are you competing?
            Are your group members experts at performing and you think you have what it takes? Maybe your group has never competed before and are just in it for the thrill. Maybe your group has every intention of winning some competition down the line, but this particular one is just a practice round? My suggestion- make sure everyone in the group has the same goal and works towards it. Sitting in the audience show after show makes it easy to tell who wants it and who doesn’t.

2) If you want to win, then you have to play harder.
            This is a competition. COMP. ET. IT. ION. If you want to win, assume that some group wants it more. Forget about your philosophy of which sounds better- acoustic a cappella or mass produced sound. Forget about the current drama plaguing your first tenor and second soprano. Band together and get the job done.

3) Microphone Etiquette- Never taught, but very important.
            There are two schools of thought. Much like the gangs in West Side Story, both sides think the other is wrong and will dance battle each other if necessary. One side believes in the simple phrase “Mouth to the metal.“ This involves putting the microphone right up to your mouth, because it is the sound engineers job to control your volume, not yours. The other side believes in distance-keeping the microphone 2-3 inches away from the face, or adjusting the placement of the microphone depending on how loud you are singing. Whichever side you are on, EVERYONE in your group needs to pick one and go with it. This is one of the primary reasons why the Vocal Percussionist (who usually has the mouth to the metal) is always louder than the soloist (who usually has kept some distance from the microphone).

4) Judges scoring systems are not what you think they are…
            From some highly trusted sources who judge ICCA’s and ICHSA’s for a living, I found out that the scoring systems for judging competitions are set up so that the group who gets the best overall score wins. This might sound to you like “Oh well clearly the best group will get the most points” but in fact, it isn’t. If one judge does not like a group and ranks them lower, it doesn’t matter if every other judge and the audience think they are the bomb. That group will probably not win- the second most favored group will be bumped up in points and take the top prize. This is why you sit in the audience and think “How in the hell did they win when (insert favorite group here) was so much better?” Well, it’s not about being the best, it’s about scoring the most overall points.

5) Choreography= sweating and panting
            Ever wonder why your soloist is running out of breath right after your big choreography dance number? It’s because dancing is physical activity and makes your body need more oxygen. Plan ahead. If the soloist is going to run out of breath, give them easier choreography, or don’t let them dance.

6) Perform before you perform.
            If you really want to win, you need to perfect your set to the best of your ability. I suggest an open dress rehearsal, or pre-competition concert with an audience. The audience will always catch something you missed and give you invaluable tips on how to be better. Don’t assume they don’t know anything- you can’t see what you look like on stage. Or better yet, get another a cappella group to critique you.

7) Devise a competition ready set
            Devise a 3-4 song set that obeys the rules. Even if the greatest number your group sings is the one you really want to show off, it may involve choreography that makes you all run out of breath, it may not sound good with the competition’s microphone settings, or it may not translate well to this particular set of judges. If you want to win, you have to prepare to win- and that means devising a separate, competition ready set. Don’t think this is unfair- barbershop groups do it ALL THE TIME. In fact, they are encouraged to do it. Barbershop groups cannot sing any song they want at competition. They are heavily restricted to certain repertoire and arrangements. Have your a cappella group follow the restrictions of barbershop and watch your competition set change dramatically.

8) SOUND CHECK- Stop ignoring me. I love you…why don’t you love me back?
            The single most heard comment of every night- “There was trouble with your mics and we couldn’t hear you.” Guess what…that’s your fault, not the stage or the host school. You need a plan for your sound checks. You need to know exactly what sections of what songs to run, you need someone who will sit in the audience and tell the sound engineer what to do (preferably someone who’s NOT in the group) and you need to make good use of your time, cause you usually only get 10-15 minutes. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT AND MOST OVERLOOKED PART OF COMPETITIONS. Unless your group is planning to go 100% acoustic and stand in front of the stage away from all microphones, you need your sound check. Oh and speaking of acoustic sounds…

9) Know how to project if you are not using microphones.
            Another widely heard comment “You guys are not loud enough because your mouths are not open.” We all love percussive sounds that use lots of consonants, but consonants are NEVER louder than bright resonant vowels. If you know in advance that you are going to opt out of handheld mics, your arrangements need to include lots of oh’s and ahh’s and you need to learn how to project your voice.

10) Expect another group to sing your song.
            Oh you know this one…you’re standing backstage, psyched to go on and…what’s that?? Mother $%^#$@!!!!!! The group before you did your song. Your heart sinks and you know all hope is lost.

            Well….no. Think before you freak out. The chances of another group doing your song- 50%. The chances of another group doing your arrangement of that same song- 0%. It’s not about the song choice, it’s about the way the arrangement sounds. If your group thinks that singing a recognizable song is enough to get the judges and audience on your side, it’s not. The audience does not care about your repertoire choice. They care what your arrangement sounds like. Don’t set yourself up for that crushing feeling of someone taking your “super secret song choice weapon” and it won’t happen to you.

11) Play to your group strengths- Maroon 5 is not always the best choice
            There are a lot of older groups who wish to “connect” to their young audience by singing the hip new radio hit. Unless the arrangement is the most incredible thing ever, don’t do it. If your group is a bunch of dorks, sing dorky songs. If your group has Indian/asian influences, sing Indian/asian songs. If your group has been singing for 20+ years, don’t sing Lady Gaga. The groups who know their identities and play to their strengths have always taken at least third place or better.

12) Evaluate other groups on youtube
            Learn from other’s mistakes. Sit down and take the time to watch other groups together and evaluate. What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? More groups have improved by spending 30 minutes on youtube (which is something everyone does anyway…) than groups who think they know everything.

13) Pleasing the judges vs. pleasing the audience- Not necessarily different
            Groups have come on stage and tried specifically to win “the audience favorite.” They sing mainstream songs, they have really funny choreography, and they have exuberant energy- but they sacrifice the musical elements to do it. They usually don’t care, because the mentality is “the judges will probably hate us, but the audience will love us.” From the number of shows I’ve seen, 80% of the groups who win audience favorite also place top 3 or win first place. Audiences do not like to be talked down to- audiences appreciate musicality just as much as the judges. This is not American Idol- the audience does not pick the winner. The judges do.

14) Other groups should not be feared, but inspiring.
            Don’t worry about what other groups are doing. They are not you. They have different experiences, and both of you can get standing ovations. Groups try so hard to be better than others that they end up losing sight of their own goal. Think of the competition as an exhibition- you can all win in the audience’s eyes. The only reason to pay attention to another group is to learn from them. If they do something awesome, hopefully that inspires you to do something awesome. If your fragile psyche can’t listen to other groups without getting enraged (don’t worry, I’m the same way…) put the headphones in your ears and drown out all sound until it’s time to go on.

15) Audiences LOVE belt-y solos
            If you have a belter in your group, put him/her front and center. Devise a song that’s perfect in his/her range, and let them do their thing. Trust me, the audience will love you for it.

16) Don’t assume you are going first or last
            If any one of your numbers only works if you are a specific number in the overall night’s roster, don’t do it. You have better odds of winning the lottery than getting the number you want in the roster. Oh, and if you are last, assume your audience is fast asleep and/or really hoping the show is over soon and plan for that eventuality.

17) Audiences ruin moments.
            That great high note you want everyone to hear. That really serious moment in one song. That hilarious joke. You think these will be heard and appreciated the way you want them to be. Forget it. It’s a proven fact that audiences clap at the wrong times. Audiences yell and scream and drown out your soloist. Audiences clap along with your song and rush the tempo. The steps you take to prevent forest fires are the same with audience faux pas.

18) Dynamics and articulations matter.
            Judges love dynamics and articulations. That’s what makes the music, not black dots on the page. More groups have gotten slammed for their absence of dynamic contrasts and emotional singing than I can count. Rhythm and melody are not enough. Your group needs to be musicians, not robots.

19) Check egos and gimmicks at the door.
            Believing you’re the best group there is nice for self-confidence, but bad when you lose. The faces some people make when they realize they are not the audience favorite or not the first place winner is heartbreaking, but it can be avoided if you don’t set yourself up for a huge failure. Check your ego at the door and learn from the experience. You did the best you could. That should be enough.
 Oh and please stop using gimmicks. They get laughs like 50% of the time and they don’t help convince the judges you are serious about winning.

20) Judges sheets are WAY more important than judges open comments.
            True, not every a cappella competition has judges who openly critique groups on stage. In fact, that’s actually the minority. But if you happen to be in one, keep this in mind: No judge wants to be looked at as a “Simon Cowell.” Judges are not going to be openly harsh- which is nice but also unhelpful. A good judge should not only critique and compliment, but also provide helpful hints to improve. And these are always written on the sheets.

Marc Silverberg

Monday, March 19, 2012

A cappella, Conductors, and The Godfather

A very important class that all choral/general music majors should have in their 4 year curriculum is choral conducting.  The art of conducting helps the aspiring choral teacher prepare a choir for a performance, interpret the music artistically, and work together as an ensemble.

This begs the question: Does an a cappella group need a conductor?
If you are a vocal percussionist (like I pretend to be) and you are reading this, the answer is probably “No, and I’m insulted that you would even suggest this. Let me express this in drum language: Dm, ts, pfft, pfft, psh, dm dm!” (For those of you who don’t know drum language, this is a very offensive phrase…)

If you are the musical director of an a cappella group (like I pretend to be) and you are reading this, the answer is probably “Yes! I want full control of the music! Snarl, growl, grumble!” (This is better imagined if you picture drool dripping from their enormous, grotesque fangs).

While this caricature of the ticked off vocal percussionist and seven headed dragon known as the musical director are both fictional and purely for humor’s sake, they raise a good argument on whether a contemporary a cappella group needs a conductor. Let’s look at both sides:

Conductors? We don’t need no stinkin’ conductors!

The primary driving force of almost every a cappella song is rhythm. Rhythm is the priority and musicians should take great care to preserve a steady rhythmic tempo. Without rhythm, your vocal percussionist and walking bass line would be useless. If your vocal percussionist is good (and we only hope that he/she is), he/she can probably keep a steady tempo without much help. In fact, good vocal percussionists can and should be called “human metronomes.”  With all this beat keeping going on, why is the conductor waving his/her arm like they are chasing a particularly annoying bee?

The purpose of the conductor is simple: Be the visual interpretation of the music. Nothing else. A conductor must do more than keep a beat- a conductor must give his/her choir musical information using only his/her hands and body language. How much musical information does an a cappella group need to know that hasn’t already been rehearsed? If you’re a cappella group needs to be reminded to go softer during the bridge, maybe the problem isn’t that you need a conductor, but maybe the problem is that you are not rehearsing enough. Countless times I have seen members of an a cappella group waving their arms as if they are about to take off in flight, and I pray that they finally achieve the American dream of flying like Superman, just so I have something to look forward to in the future, but it probably isn’t going to happen.

Waving your arms up and down during an entire piece is a control problem.  You, as a director, are sending your group the message that “they are not trustworthy to handle music on their own.” Name one professional a cappella group that has ever conducted a piece…Go ahead…I’ll wait…

That’s right. They don’t exist (exceptions to the rule probably exist, but I’m trying to make a convincing point here…indulge me).

Please, directors. If the beat is steady and the rhythm is driving the piece forward, which 90% of the time it is, stop waving your arms. Unless you are very close to human flight. In which case, tell me how you do it.

Conductors? Of course we need a conductor!

Entrances. Exits. Pieces without a tempo that resemble a ballad style (Hide and Seek is a perfect example). How does your group handle entrances and exits together? Maybe they need a visual cue to help bring them in. Cue the conductor!

Let’s be clear. My radical philosophy is that a conductor and someone who rehearses a choir are two very different things. There are many conductors, most more famous and more esteemed than I will ever become, that heartily disagree. But they’re probably not reading this blog, nor do they have a membership to CASA. So I’m going to keep talking until someone puts a horse head on my bed with a baton sticking out of his nose.

A conductor is much like a dancer. They have a unique set of skills that allow them to convey musical information by moving their hands and expressing information in their face. A teacher, also known as a musical director, does not necessarily have to have these skills. They must require a different set of skills- how to run an effective rehearsal using oral and verbal communication. A conductor cannot teach you to sing a correct note- no amount of hand signals in the world is going to help you if you don’t know what the right pitch is. This is something a music director must fix in rehearsals.

Let’s look at some more examples. Have you ever seen a show choir director conduct a show choir during a competition? Umm…no. Not even Glee does this. So is Mr. Shue a conductor or a music director? I’ll tell you this- he’s definitely not both.

Before you conduct, ask yourself the most important question- Does your group need it? If you truly think they do, whether it’s because they are beginners, or because there is a particularly difficult spot that needs a little leadership on stage, then do it. But if you’re just going to keep a beat, stand out of the way and let the vocal percussionists percuss.

Don’t make the vocal percussionist angry. They will put a horse head in your bed with a drumstick sticking out of the horse’s nose.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Warm-ups are always picked last for dodge ball

In gym class, warm-ups are the kids who always get picked last.

Let’s be honest. When rehearsing you’re a cappella group, how many of you actually use warm ups? I suspect the statistical findings of the A cappella Blog will one day try to figure that out. But if I had to guess, I would guess that answers range from “what are warm-ups?” to “what are warm-ups?”

Finding a choral director or professional singer who doesn’t believe in warming up is near impossible. As a choral director, warm-ups are the fundamentals of singing. In my opinion, if you’re choir is not singing correctly, it’s because they haven’t successfully warmed-up. Warm-ups teach vocal health, vocal pedagogy, group intonation, correct singing posture and breathing, and many more important tools that singers need. It’s like playing Call of Duty on your Xbox without knowing how to shoot your weapon. Once you start playing online, everyone secretly hopes you step on a grenade.

So why don’t a cappella groups warm up? The answer is simple- it’s the same answer as to why musicians don’t practice. It’s boring. Really really really really really really boring.

 “It’s so loooooooooong.”
“It’s sooooooooo repetitive.”
“This has nothing to doooooooooooooooo with pop music.”
“We don’t haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave time.”

Yep. You’ve probably heard one of those before, or some variation. I will never argue that warm-ups, especially warm-ups used in traditional choirs, singing lessons, and professional choirs, is worthless. However, I would like to offer an alternative to those groups who secretly hope they would warm-up, but are too afraid to say anything because they don’t want to be the one picked last for dodge ball.

The answer is….wait for it…improvisation!

Okay. Stop laughing.

I’m serious. The key to warming-up is to make it fun, make it challenging, and still address some vocal need. The key is a technique I learned directly from Bobby McFerrin. It’s called “Circle songs.”

The technique is simple. Someone, anyone, should start singing. What they sing is a 2-4 bar phrase.
            It should be repetitive: Something they can sing accurately over and over.
            It should be singable: If someone were to sing it with you, they should be able to pick it up in 1 to    
2 hearings.
            It should establish a tempo: Everyone should be able to tap/clap/snap along
            It should not have lyrics: Use your favorite scat syllable. Doo’s, la’s, bop’s, and jin’s are always fun to sing.

Once this 2-4 bar phrase is established, then the fun begins. Someone else, or several someone elses should add their own part. Something different that adds to the song. The phrases should stay within the 2-4 bar phrase and the established tempo.

When adding parts, this does not have to be one at a time. In fact, the first or second time you do this, NO ONE is going to want to sing. People are inherently shy when it comes to improvising. Its fine if instead of adding one person at a time, EVERYONE starts at the same time. Yes it will be chaos, but at least you started and the ice has been broken.

There is no wrong way to compose a circle song. If you have a better way to do it, then go for it. For more inspiration, I suggest listening to the following records:

Bobby McFerrin- Circlesongs. Sony Records, 1997
Bobby McFerrin- VOCAbularies, EmARCY Records, 2010

Keep in mind, these are not rounds, canons, or fugues. “Row Row Row Your Boat” is not an example of a circle song. You want to create something, a nonsensical pattern, that someone can add to, not repeat at a different time. Plus, “Row Your Boat” has lyrics, which beginning circle songs should probably not have. It’s okay to add lyrics anytime you want, but for groups starting with circle songs, lyrics add a challenge that may frustrate some people.

I know what you’re thinking. This guy is crazy. There’s no way we can improvise on the spot just by reading a blog. Well… yes, crazy and I are cousins. But try it. You’ve got nothing to lose. As the guy who was always picked last for dodge ball, I always wanted to the chance to prove myself.

But not in dodge ball. I hate running…and jumping…and catching… and gym…

Marc Silverberg

Monday, March 5, 2012

The missing link between a cappella and tomatoes.

What exactly are tomatoes?

Yes, technically they are a fruit, since fruits have seeds. But why don’t you find tomatoes on fruit salads? Tomatoes are not sweet like fruits. Tomato paste, also known as ketchup, does not have a fruity, sugary flavor. Fruit ninja does not have a tomato option. Most of us don’t even agree on how to say it (you say tomato, I say potato…bonus points if you get that…).

It is here that a cappella music falls into the same category. Sure, we have seeds, but you wouldn’t put a cappella on a fruit salad. Fruit ninja does not have an a cappella option…

Wait…I think I’m getting off track…

Oh that’s right. The missing link between a cappella and tomatoes is that a cappella music, much like tomatoes, has no definite classification. It behaves like something- pop music, but is classified as something else- choral music. It has a consistently growing fan base and set of rules- i.e. the use of scat syllables or a manual for how to arrange it, but it does not have a widely accepted standard.

I refer to a very interesting article I once found on CASA.org. The article is called “A cappella- The Genre That Isn’t” written by Joseph Livesey. You can find it here:

In the article, Livesey makes an excellent case for whether or not we can rightfully call a cappella music a “genre.” A cappella music has its own sub-categories (see singers.com for a complete list).  And his entire argument stems from visiting a website where you can DJ your own music- a website which does nto have an a cappella option.

And so, here is where I make my stand. Yes, a cappella music is a genre. We have our own history. We have our own recordings. We have our own set of rules. It is these rules that must be established and defined, even if they are broken later, which they probably will be- much like a squishy tomato that squirts into your eye. I do not claim to be a teacher of choral music. I claim to be a professor of contemporary a cappella, because contemporary a cappella music is what I believe to be a fan of.

Let’s take an original a cappella composition for example, and one that probably everybody knows: “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego.”

This is not a cover, it’s an original. So let’s imagine for a moment that a band- an actual band with guitars, drums, pianos, basses, and didgeridoos- and they tried to cover this song. What exactly would it sound like?

I’ll answer my question with another question- Would you actually want to hear that cover? Maybe with all didgeridoos…but with a regular rock band?

So can we call this rock? We can call this rock much the same way we can call “The Beatles” rock- the word rock is too vague. You have to be more specific. I would consider both “Queen” and “The Beatles” to be both rock, but to consider them the same type of rock would be inaccurate. And so a cappella music being called “pop music” is, in my opinion, inaccurate and out-of-date.

In the salad of music, we are the tomatoes.