Monday, April 30, 2012
Programs are like Twinkies. They should be rich, fulfilling, last a limited time, and survive a nuclear explosion (that last one may not be true…).
It’s concert season. The ICCA’s and ICHSA’s are over (congrats to the Socal Vocals and Vocal Rush). Guest groups are being called to appear as your opening act. Flyers are being plastered all over campus (and being ripped down by jerks…).
I recently completed a graduate assignment that forced me to dissect the philosophy of writing a concert program. What songs are you going to present for your concert? What order will the songs be in? Should you reveal your set list in a printed program? What does the audience think about the overall flow of your concert? Is your concert too long?
Though my assignment was not specific to the genre of a cappella, the ideas can easily be applied to a cappella set lists. Taking great care to mold your program can boost your group’s credibility and produce effective shows that audience members will want to return to.
1) Song List
Your group naturally has a long list of songs ready to perform. But ask yourself this question: Do the songs flow together? Is there a general connecting theme? Do you have multiple genres, eras, and styles represented? Or, were your songs chosen at random based upon what the majority of the group wishes to do? It’s the latter…isn’t it?
Obviously, there’s nothing you can do a week before your spring concert. But when your group locks themselves in the room, ready for another 4 hour song selection debate, posit this question- What if the songs were diverse enough to sample different genres of music, different eras of rock history, and still flowed together into a unifying theme? What would your set list look like then?
Choral directors take great care to unify their selections. As many songs that there are available for a cappella groups to arrange, there is double the number of choral octavos available for choirs to purchase. That’s why choral directors must limit their options. A choral program that seems all too random does not sit well with the audience. A choral program that only features contemporary music is limiting the education of the students and the ears of the audience. “If you draw information from only one source, it becomes rigid and stale.” Uncle Iro from Avatar: The Last Airbender (Yes… I still watch cartoons.)
2) Concert Order
My assignment was as much about the order of songs as it was the content. Though this diagram uses a 7-8 song program as its template, you can adjust it to fit any number of songs.
Song 1- Your opening number should be exciting, but short. The audience needs to be warmed up before you can hit them with the heavy stuff, but warm ups should never least as long as the epic numbers. Also keep in mind that your group will still not be up to full singing strength, because more than likely they didn’t warm up themselves, and nerves take a strain on the body. It’s like showing someone a Twinkie and telling them how good it is.
Song 2 and 3- You’ve got your audience on the edge of their seats. Now hit them with your “radio hits.” Songs 2 and 3 are the ones that audiences most remember, mainly because by song 7, they’ve stopped paying full attention. The biggest mistake made is placing a weak song directly after your opening number. It’s like allowing someone to eat a Twinkie, and then pulling the Twinkie away after the first bite. Not cool.
Songs 4 and 5- By now, you’ve probably sung some high energy stuff. Let’s dim the lights, and take it down a notch. Ballads would go well here. Savor the Twinkie…don’t just gobble it up in one bite.
Songs 6 and 7- Your epic masterpieces. Whatever big, shocking, or triumphant piece you have, 6 and 7 are the place to put it. In fact, one of the most common tricks of a choral director is to pick the epic piece first, and then choosing songs to program around it, so the build up is appropriate like setting up bowling pins, and then the epic song knocks them down. Or, in keeping with the Twinkie theme…lining up Twinkies in a row, and then gobbling them up like Pac-man.
Song 8- The closer. Your closer should be big, loud, and high energy. The audience will know this is your last song, and so they will want to clap along. At this point, unless you have an encore (which you should always have prepared just in case), your group can expel the last remaining amounts of energy. Lots of dancing, lots of singing- don’t hold anything back. Put everything on the table. Empty the box of Twinkies…then go run on the treadmill for 5 hours…
Encore- Yes, You should ALWAYS have an encore ready, even if you don’t always sing it. Don’t assume you are going to be asked for an encore, and don’t sing an encore when the audience thinks the concert is over and doesn’t want to hear anymore. But plan for every eventuality. If the audience asks for an encore, and you don’t have one, your group will look foolish and unprepared. Always have a second box of Twinkies waiting.
3) To program or not to program…that is the question…
The pros of programs:
- You have a physical record of who was in your group, when your concert was, and what songs you performed
- The audience knows exactly how long your concert is
- Programs can thank people who helped your group succeed
The cons of programs:
- A cappella groups often don’t want to give away their set list
- Programs cost money and are time consuming
- Contemporary a cappella is typically not a genre that presents programs
- A cappella groups often change their set lists at the last moment
- Rock concerts don’t have programs
How do you want your concert to be perceived? If your group is going for a professional atmosphere, then programs are probably the way to go. If your group wants to be free of the professional stigma and treated more like a rock concert, then programs are not the way to go.
Keep in mind…even boxes of Twinkies have information you can read.
4) Program Length
Our nation is a nation of short attention spans. Audiences expected to be entertained, not held prisoner by a 20 song set list. Consider the following rules when programming music:
-Unless the song is your epic masterpiece, a cappella selections should be 2-4 minutes long. Many arrangements cut a lot of the original music, making the instrumental bridges much shorter. Consider the song length of groups on the Sing-Off. NBC would never allow any group to be longer than 2 minutes.
-A cappella concerts should be 90 minutes in length, max. The only permittable shows to exceed 90 minutes in length- musicals or plays.
-Cut down your talking time. If you are going to talk, it needs to be concise, short, and have a purpose.
Just like eating a Twinkie, the memory of your concert should last forever and be as rich, fattening and enjoyable as every other concert.
Just writing this has made me feel guilty. I’m going to work out…
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Monday, April 23, 2012
It’s that time of year…The birds are singing in the trees (a cappella of course), USA Network has original programming that people actually want to watch (Psych dedicated two episodes to a cappella ensembles…in case you wanted to know), and college semesters are winding down. For many groups, this means the end of another a cappella year.
But what if it didn’t? What if you’re a cappella bliss could go on, well into the summer? What if the group you spent so much time with, forged so many friendships, didn’t have to part ways for 2-3 months?
In my unending quest to eliminate the need to visit a public pool…I mean develop an a cappella major…here are some suggestions to keep the a cappella bliss going a little bit longer:
1) Virtual Choir
If you are involved with any type of choral ensemble, the name Eric Whitacre probably rings a bell. He’s the choral composer that every new composer wants to emulate; he writes the compositions that every trendy choir wants to perform; and he’s the guy breaking all sorts of barriers in traditional choral music.
In 2010, Eric Whitacre embarked on a unique idea that has spawned copycats around the globe: Virtual Choirs. Singers from around the world submit their audition videos via Youtube, and a large number of selected participants are invited to sing one of Whitacre’s compositions live using computer cameras and video feeds. If everyone in your a cappella group was able to sync to a metronome using a midi track, then you’re a cappella group could post a video on youtube without ever leaving the comfort of their couches and pajamas. It would be an interesting project…difficult, but do-able. Click the link to learn more:
Okay. I’m probably asking for a miracle, but think for a moment…Wouldn’t everyone in your group love to sing again, just one more time? (If not, see my previous article about lobsters) Put your nose to the grindstone, and plan a tour during the summer.
Is this going to be difficult to plan? Yep.
Is this going to be extremely difficult to plan? Absolutely.
Are members of your group going to whine about how they have to leave their comfy homes and X-boxes? Oh yeah.
Deal with it. We need more a cappella music during the summer. Summer is the best time to tour, because all the festivals, gatherings, parades, and miscellaneous performance opportunities happen over the summer, and they are dying to get a group like yours to sing.
3) Join/Form another a cappella group
No, it’s not cheating. If your group’s season is over and you are itching for another a cappella fix, go find a local group, or better yet, form one. It may seem daunting, because forming a group means a new slew of logistical problems, but what if you and your friends just wanted to enjoy singing? Get some buddies together, improvise a bunch of circle songs, read through a few Deke Sharon charts, and then play a healthy game of Apples to Apples. Done. A great night of music and fun, without the stress of managing and building a group.
4) Go to a reading session
Do you know what a reading session is? It’s the most fun thing a choral dork can do. You basically travel to a local college, you are handed a stack of choral music, and you just sit there and read. No practicing, no stopping, no drama. It’s a great way to improve your reading skills, discover new music, be inspired by new ideas, and have a stress free hour or two of singing for less than fifty bucks (usually). Just Google “reading session” and your hometown. You’ll find one. Trust me. If not, start one.
I think the best thing about contemporary a cappella recording techniques is the fact that a high-quality album can be made, without the group ever being in the same room at one time. If one person from your group recorded his or her part separately, once or twice a week, you would have a BOCA ready submission in 2-3 months without ever interfering with your practice time (of course…don’t quote me on the BOCA thing…but at least you would have something to send.)
6) Don’t break up
Wait…why is your group not singing over the summer? Has anyone actually explored this, or did you all just assume that the semester is over once the concert is finished? Is almost everyone from a local part of the area? Can anyone suggest a new meeting place? Maybe your group should open up a dialogue before assuming that the semester has to end.
Box videos are the new trend. They consist of one person, singing every part. Pick a song in a comfortable key, arrange it so that every part is sing-able, and hit the record button on your computer. Ta-da! A one man a cappella group. If it’s a good arrangement, you can even post it on the internet and probably get a fair amount of views (thought be careful with legal issues…don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
I hope this will keep your a cappella addiction fed for a little while longer. What can I say…I’m a pusher.
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Monday, April 16, 2012
Kudos to BOSS. I attended the festival this weekend and was very impressed with the organization, content, and performances. If you missed it, you should make every effort to go next year, as this will become a great tradition in the canon of a cappella festivals.
Special mention should go to the University of Chicago Voices in Your Head. Their arrangement of “Titanium” was one of the most brilliant performances I have ever seen. And a moment they shared on stage is the focus of this week’s rant.
After winning the BOSS competition, Voices in Your Head were given the opportunity to open the Saturday night professional showcase. At the end of their number, the MC presented them with their championship trophy…a small plastic lobster. As clever as this moment was, this was actually the moment in the festival that resonated with me the most. No, not because I have a strange sense of humor…though I do. I was reminded at this moment of one of my favorite television quotes:
“You’re his lobster!”- Pheobe from Friends
This particular line refers to love- two soul mates (in this case Ross and Rachel) are destined to be together- because lobsters mate for life. A bizarre reference to compare to a cappella, I know, but take a moment to answer these questions:
-Is your group made of lobsters- in that everyone fits and every rehearsal gels as if every group member was meant to be together?
-Are your rehearsals run effectively and smoothly? Does actual work get done?
-Is there drama between two people who would rather talk about someone behind their back than to them?
I posit this suggestion- If you don’t feel like every member in your group is a lobster, then something is wrong and it needs to be fixed. And rather than dwell over the drama, open up a calm, rational, and friendly dialogue with the group that addresses these concerns. Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t become emotional. Anger, depression, and frustration lead to saying the wrong thing without thinking.
-Organize your thoughts before you say them. Be concise.
-Educate your group- Show them examples of what you are talking about by playing videos of other groups on youtube, reading testimonies from people who you’ve emailed, or listen to groups who embody the characteristics that you are looking for.
-Talk to the person who is the problem, not behind their back.
In one of the many workshops, I overheard one student ask the following question:
“What do you when one member of your group is not as committed as everyone else? You have a performance and she can’t make it because of dinner plans that she could have easily cancelled and you can’t be angry with her because she’s a good friend?”
An all too common problem in collegiate groups, I imagine. I’ve been in a few groups and this problem has occurred in every one of them. I argue that if this problem exists, the overall issue lies far deeper than this one incident. A group needs a leader, and a leader needs to decide how the group will run. Are you a democratic leader, a dictator, or a mix of both?
Pros: Every person has an equal voice. If a choice is made that some disagree with, you as the leader do not get the full force of the grumbling, because it wasn’t your decision, it was the group’s. Majority always wins, so every decision is made with the majority of the group’s intentions in mind.
Cons: Much like this countries congress, decisions take FOREVER. Every suggestion has a system of checks and balances, and unless a decision is unanimous (which it will be 0.000000000000000001% of the time) someone is going to fight for their idea and delay making the decision that much longer. Oh, and don’t even start me on song selections- yikes.
Pros: One person, one decision. You like it or you leave. If the leader of your group is a knowledgeable dictator with tons of a cappella experience, you can bet that the decisions they make will almost always be good ones. If your group leader is a sensitive person, then every decision will be made with the group’s intentions in mind.
Cons: More than likely, your leader is probably a jerk. What he/she says goes, and he/she probably has no idea what he/she is doing. Plus, group members are not group members, they are subordinates, so the dynamic is not a “friends first” atmosphere- it’s a “you’re here to get work done and get out” atmosphere.
Mix of both- the best solution
Consider the way our country is run. Congress doesn’t control the temperature, the president does. The most effective leader is one that guides- he/she imposes his desires, delegates tasks, and allows decisions to be shared. It would be wonderful to strike a balance where one person is in charge but everyone feels they can contribute. You as the leader have to decide which choices can be made by yourself, and which can be made by the group.
If every decision is made by everyone, nothing gets done. If every decision is made by one person, a lot more grumbling occurs and a revolution will most likely occur. You have to decide what your group leader is in charge of, and your group has to understand and accept the fact that every group needs a decisive leader who is sensitive to the group’s intentions.
This particular model is the one I’ve found the most success with. The group is happier, they actually want to come to rehearsal, and they feel like everyone is a “lobster.”
I don’t eat lobster. I go to Red Lobster for the cheese biscuits….mmm…
Follow The Quest for the A cappella Major:
casa.org-Quest for the a cappella major
I also learned how to tweet:
Monday, April 9, 2012
Nightmare on Elm Street...
Friday the 13th…
Nothing instills more terror in a vocalist than the dreaded “i” word…Want your group to run screaming for the hills, leaving a hole in the nearest wall that matches their exact body, ask them to improvise. Why? Why is vocal improvisation such a scary concept? Well…
-Vocal improvisation is perceived as a jazz idiom, and unless you are specifically a jazz major, improvisation is not a skill that will be addressed in classes or individual lessons.
-Improvisation takes years of practice and discipline to master, much like sight singing, composing, or technique. But unlike the latter, improvisation is not a skill that many music teachers possess, and it is difficult to teach a skill they don’t already know.
- Vocalists, unlike instrumentalists, have no buttons to push to make sound. If a piano player wants a C, they simply press the right button. If a vocalist wants a C, they have to produce the correct wavelength, and in the correct octave.
-There are not many role models to imitate. Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin, and Lambert Hendricks and Ross are masters of their craft, and what they do is perceived as “impossible to imitate.”
-Improvisation is a skill that is best developed individually. Most students are unable or unwilling to improvise in front of others, let alone sing something they already know as a solo.
I argue that the number one reason that high school and college vocalists cannot sight read is consistency. Choral directors have every intention of teaching the material, but lack the know-how to keep the process going and how to evolve the students who are progressing.
The same holds true for improvisation. Most likely, the word has been introduced in the majority of choral programs in the country, but the utter lack of participation and the possible failure scares them away from mentioning it again.
I intend to change these stigmas, however scary it may seem. And no…I’m not wearing a jigsaw mask.
How? By introducing ways to improvise in a group, and as part of the daily warm-up. This way, improvisation becomes a tradition, an exercise. Just a little bit each day helps build a program. Doing too much at once is scary. Below are some games that encourage improvisation in a safe, group setting, saving the willing student from possible humiliation.
1) Circle songs: I have previously defined a circle song. See link below:
But perhaps I was too enthusiastic. Instead of beginning with tone, which implies harmony, which implies a possible chance to be “wrong,” start with rhythm. In fact, don’t even sing. Use hand claps and foot stomps. As the leader, begin a repetitive 1-2 bar phrase using only body percussion. Students (group members) should join you by adding a complimentary 1-2 bar phrase with body percussion. This allows the shyer student to just clap on beat, and the staggered entrances coupled with the freedom of entering at your own pace, will generate participation…which is all you really want in the beginning stage.
2) The drone game. “How to begin solo improvisation”
Start by asking the choir to sing a D in octaves. Begin demonstrating improvisation
by singing over the drone. It doesn’t matter what you sing. Since there is only one note in the background and no tonality, anything you sing will fit. The philosophy behind this game is that once students see how anything they sing will fit within the harmony, they will be less afraid to try it. Take care not to force any students to sing solo. Many students are terrified of singing solo, let alone singing in an art form very few understand.
Here are some ways to help ease students into improvisation:
1. Over the drone D, sing a pattern that a student can repeat. Do this
several times until the student is comfortable singing, then ask him/her to make up a pattern that you will repeat. This gives the student confidence
because to him/her, he/she is singing a duet and not singing alone.
2. Let two students sing together. Even if they are incredibly out of key with each other, do not stop them. Remember, this game is not about
pitch, rhythm, or technique. It is about gaining the courage to improvise.
3. Go with the flow. Once during this game, a student chose to sing a
familiar television theme song instead of improvising. Anything that
comes out of these students’ mouths should be encouraged.
4. One student suggested that she would be less nervous if everyone in the circle sang something in turn. I tried her method and more students opened up and improvised than if I had went around the room and chosen
I hope this sparks some interest in improvisation. More games to come.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Remember Pogs? Anyone?...Bueller?...
Pogs were these cardboard discs that people would collect and then sacrifice in a winner-take-all kind of game. Kind of like marbles, except flatter, with better designs. Forgive me, loyal fans of Pogs, but they were a fad. They were really cool for a while, but then they disappeared, like snap bracelets, sitcom catch phrases, and cassette tapes. If someone wished to explore the entire scope of a cappella music, an educator or educated student must examine current a cappella trends, where they evolved from, and where they are going. I find it fascinating to discover that fans of a cappella music discover the latest trends only at festivals, when there is so much to discover on this new invention- the internet. Hopefully, the internet won’t go out of style like Pogs.
1) Live Looping
Probably the biggest and fastest growing trend in a cappella music. Live Loopers, like Julia Easterlin and Mister Tim, have pioneered the next great thing in “I hate other people and their smelly faces” performing- an entire a cappella song, built from the ground up, with only one person on stage. It’s a very exciting thing to see live, especially because you actually watch the song being built part by part, usually starting with the percussion, followed by the bass line, followed by the repeated pattern that forms the basis of the harmony. Utilizing the same equipment, a BOSS RC-50 looper, both artists have achieved what so far, only box videos on you tube have shown us- that one person can sing every part and still be entertaining. Oh and speaking of box videos…
2) Box Videos
I have absolutely no idea who started this trend. I first discovered it after watching Peter Hollens sing “Moves Like Jagger.” But, regardless of who started it, Box videos have become all the rage. What are they? Box videos are videos (duh) where one person sings an entire song, every part with percussion included, a cappella. Recorded on a computer (probably using Protools, but don’t quote me on that) and then filmed with the artist singing each part, facing the camera, box videos are called that because they literally just contain “boxes.” In each box, the artist is singing a different part, continuously throughout the entire song. Just like live looping…only…not live…looping…
3) A cappella Blogs
It wasn’t too long ago that “The A cappella Blog” took the internet by storm. Looked upon as a companion to Casa.org, this blog focuses primarily on the collegiate and high school aspects of a cappella, while trying to spread the educational message of a cappella’s musical values. But if that were the only blog out there, then this wouldn’t exactly make the checklist…would it? Just run a google search for a cappella and blog (and hopefully my name will come up…maniacal laugh…)There’s acatribe, acappella 101, the UK university a cappella blog, vocalblog, a cappellapsych, and many more. In fact, acablog is a website that tracks and summarizes each a cappella blog.
4) Cell Phone Pitch Pipes
Is it just me, or have you seen less and less pitch pipes these days? Sure, an electronic tone is more in tune, but doesn’t the risk of your cell phone going off on stage warrant at least some concern that maybe you should just buckle down and pay the twenty dollars for a real pitch pipe? I don’t know. That’s just me I guess. Though my cell phone would never go off on stage…no one calls me. Ever. (sniff sniff)
5) Handheld Microphones
I encourage the progression of this trend. Microphone set-ups are tricky, especially for large groups and for universal on stage settings. The trend of one microphone for one voice allows arrangements to not be limited by ooh’s and ahh’s. Singers can now be heard, even if their part is all consonants on pitch. Microphones should enhance the dynamics, not get in their way. Hooray for more microphones!
Here’s a list of resources mentioned in this article.
Mister Tim, Live Looper: http://www.mistertimdotcom.com/
Julia Easterlin, Live Looper: http://www.juliaeasterlin.com/
Peter Hollens, Box Video Specialist: http://peterhollens.com/
ACA Blog, A list of popular a cappella blogs: http://www.acablog.net/
Acatribe, one of my favorite a cappella blog: http://acatribe.com/
What other trends have you noticed? Visit http://acappellaquest.blogspot.com/
for more educational discussions about a cappella music.