Monday, May 7, 2012


It’s time we established a few standards of a cappella. If my doctoral classes have taught me anything, it’s that the best way to evolve music is to establish rules, and then break them in half, and then chop them into little tiny bits.

The problem is, we don’t have rules. I recently attended 4 a cappella festivals in a row, and got 4 different answers for the same question. I believe a canon must be established if a cappella music is to be taken more seriously outside of the world that it now exists in. I’m not saying that the “world of a cappella” isn’t growing…far from it. If anything, I want it to grow even more. But when I see opinions about a cappella music from established and creative thinkers that groups are doing something “wrong,” well I want to know what “right” is, and I think everyone in every group has a different definition.

No, I cannot answer any of these questions myself. Neither can the pros, the amateurs, the intermediates, the arrangers, the composers, etc. Until an established canon is developed (hopefully by a few a cappella textbooks…hint hint…) then we can only begin to think about the evolution of a cappella music. Consider how each era of rock has established a well-known set of distinguishable traits. Think about it. You can tell the difference between a song from the 60’s and a song from the 90’s, right? Well what’s the difference between any song and an A cappella song? Right now…only one characteristic really defines us: singing without instruments.

I believe we can go further. What’s the difference between vocal jazz and contemporary a cappella? What’s the difference between contemporary choral music and a cappella music? Are they the same? What’s the difference between the genre of Barbershop and the genre of Doo-Wop? Deke Sharon says that there really is no difference, but from a musicological perspective, I disagree. I agree with this assessment that the experience of singing in each group is 100% the same. But there are rules that define Barbershop…in fact, there are 2 manuals published defining the distinct Barbershop style, one by the Barbershop Harmony Society, and one from the Sweet Adelines Society.

To develop this canon, we need to answer the following questions:
1) What are the appropriate syllables to use when singing the “back-up?”
2) What are the established recording procedures for developing a live album and a produced album?
3) What kinds of music will a cappella cover? What is the difference between “Contemporary a cappella” and “Barbershop?”
4) How do we define a cappella original songs? What category of music do they belong in?
5) What are the base arranging rules? What is the established procedure to start?
6) What are the appropriate microphone techniques for performing live?
7) How do we separate ourselves from contemporary choral music? Is there a difference?
8) What is the traditional note-learning procedure? Do we read or do it by ear? Do we use midi files or plunk out notes on the piano?
9) What are the standard procedures for choreography? What kinds of choreography do we regularly use and which styles are not appropriate?
10) What are the traditional methods of vocal percussion?

If we want our genre to grow, the next generation of singers must be able to learn from those who already know, and learn how to be better than average.

Marc Silverberg

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