Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Ten Commandments of A cappella

The Jewish New Year is almost over. For the Jewish community (like me), this is the time not only for celebration, but also guilt. Massive, massive guilt. I know the other religions can relate.

But if we look past the guilt (the massive, massive amount), we get right down to the heart of why we feel guilty. There are times when our moral compass strays. We become angry, sad, confused, selfish; and we make decisions that stray from the basic codes of human morality.

I started thinking...Does a cappella have a code of morality? Is there such thing as "good a cappella manners?" I think there is, and I think we must remind ourselves of what these rules are. And, in a lousy attempt to be funny, I will phrase them like the Ten Commandments.

1) You shall have but one music director and no other.

One of the fundamental arguments in choral music today is whether a choir should operate like a democracy or a dictatorship. Certainly, college choirs don't get to vote on who conducts the rehearsal, and the conductor's word is law. It is the conductor's interpretation of the music that matters, not the will of the choir. It is efficiency and musicality, not group preference, that matters. Or at least, that's what I've been told.
A cappella groups are fundamentally different. They get to vote on who the music director is. Each member usually has a voice in most decisions, song selections, choreography suggestions, etc. A cappella groups are, essentially, democracies.

But there is a problem with democracy. The problem is, we don't understand it very well. We believe that because an a cappella group is a democracy, every little thing should be voted on. This makes the rest of the group the Senate. And we all know how efficient our Senate is right now...

Once you select a music director, then stay out of his/her way. If the music director is not someone you voted for...tough. In November, we will elect a president, and half the country will be unhappy, regardless of who wins. You should be allowed to make suggestions, fairly heard, and able to state your case. But you elected the music director, so his/her word is law.

Are there times when the music director is inept? Of course! If every music director were the greatest music director of all time, the ICCA's would end in a tie every year. Instead of complaining about it, the group should work together to help the director grow and learn.

2) You shall not make for yourself a false group philosophy.

Your group is your group. It is not the [insert group name here]. Don't try to be something your group is not. If you are not dancers, then stop dancing. If you like singing mostly R&B music, then just sing R&B music. If you don't want a heavily processed recording, then don't ask for a heavily processed recording. Don't model your personality after a group that doesn't fit your personality.

3) You shall not take the name of your arranger in vain.

Arranging is both a skill and an art. Not every arrangement is going to be the world's best arrangement and not every arranger is going to be Robert Dietz or Ben Bram (or any of the other 100 amazing arrangers I neglected to mention). But come on...give the arranger a break. It's not easy. It takes practice, intuition, musicality, and skill.
If you don't like the arrangement you've just been handed, then say something. But don't yell or complain. Don't criticize. Critique. Don't scoff. Suggest. Don't reject. Rewrite.

4) Remember the rehearsal day, and keep it on your calendar.

Whenever I start an a cappella group (going on six next week), I don't look for talent. I look for commitment. I would rather have sixteen students who show up every time, put this group above all others, and work on the music outside of rehearsal even though they have less experience and vocal training over sixteen, super-talented divas.
I know. We all have lives that don't revolve around a cappella music (most of us anyway). Don't think of it like "just an a cappella group." Think of it like a sports team. Coach would never let a player miss a practice unless it he/she had a really really really really really good reason. Your group should have the same principle.

ICCA winning groups often rehearse 6-10 hours a week, sometimes even more before a gig or competition. And I'm willing to bet that when they aren't rehearsing, they are thinking about rehearsing.

5) Honor your president and vice president.

The key to a good president and vice president is a definition of what they can and cannot do. Do you, as a member of the group, know what the powers of the president are? When you elect a new president, do you even know why you are voting?
Just like our national election, you need to stay informed. Most a cappella groups belong to a university-sanctioned organization of extra-curricular activities, which means they must have a constitution, and that constitution must define what the officers can and cannot do.

Don't follow your president around like a blind ensemble member, but don't challenge his/her authority. Stay informed, and be an active member of your ensemble.

6) Thou shalt not steal

A cappella groups must adhere to strict copyright laws. The odds of releasing an album 
without paying copyright fees and getting caught is probably very small, but it's still illegal.

As Dave Brown, co-producer of the popular podcast "Mouth Off" taught me, there are three things to consider when you choose to break or not break copyright law:
Legal vs. Illegal- What does the law say is legal?

Right vs. Wrong- What is the morally right choice?

Getting Caught vs. Not Getting Caught- What is the likelihood that you will get caught?

Popular copyright lawyer and a cappella producer Jonathan Minkoff explains everything clearly on his website, A cappella 101. You can visit the site here:

Choosing to sell an album without paying copyright fees is risky. A cappella groups who follow the law are given a bad name when other groups do not. If we want the world to take our music seriously, then we must follow the rules like everyone else.

7) You shall not commit adultery with another group member and then make the situation super-awkward.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't guilty of breaking this commandment. A cappella is a very social medium and feelings can develop between two members. I'm not here to say whether dating a fellow member is right or wrong (who am I to stand in the way of true love?). What I do believe is, if you date someone and it becomes awkward for whatever reason, leave the drama OUT of the rehearsal. Be professionals.

8) You shall not murder a great song.

Have you ever sung a particular song in your group so much that now you can't bear to listen to it on the radio? I think the reason for that is because you have painful memories of that song, rather than pleasant ones. If the group chooses a song, make sure the process for learning it and performing it is a productive and musical one. Don't over perform a song. Don't sing a lazily put-together arrangement. Don't spend too much time working on it, when only half the time is enough.

9) You shall not lie to your audience.

I've sat in many audiences for many a cappella shows. Trust me when I say, we know when you aren't prepared. We know when you aren't ready to perform. We know when you are trying to hide your inconsistencies with too many gimmicks. Don't lie to us. Admit and celebrate your mistakes. Just put on the best show you can.
Try to avoid awkward concerts. Canceling a performance is bad and usually unforgivable. Plan your time wisely, book concerts that you can realistically achieve, and don't sing six songs when only five are ready.

10) You shall not covet another's solo.

Oh boy. Your dream solo has just been snatched up from under you. The soloist played dirty politics. Everyone in the group has it out for you. You're not good enough to be a singer. Maybe you shouldn't even be in music. Maybe you shouldn't even be in college! Maybe...

See where this pattern is going? It's just a solo. There will always be others. In my entire a cappella lifespan, I've had one solo. One. And I'm still alive and I still love a cappella music. I never feared that I was a bad singer. If I really was a bad singer, then I wouldn't be in the group. Now would I? Don't let fear take over.

"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side."- Yoda, Star Wars Episode 1: The Worst Movie of All Time

Here's my aca-philosophy about solos: A cappella music isn't about the solo. It's about the group. The solo is a bonus, an off-shoot, a reward; not the prize to be sought after. The rhythmic "jin jin doo bop va doo wah" line is the real prize. That's a cappella music, not the solo who has the (YAWN) boring melody. But if you get bored singing in the background, then your background parts aren't exciting enough and that's an arrangement problem.

There you have it. Like "Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock," everyone needs a code to live by; a set of rules.

Of course, there is an unspoken 11th commandment:
Thou shalt see Pitch Perfect on Friday.

Marc Silverberg

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hulk MAD! Hulk SMASH!

The Hulk is an iconic superhero who lets his hormones get in the way of good decisions. Idolizing films such as "Jekyll and Hyde" and "Frankenstein," creator Stan Lee wanted to design a monster that was, in contrast to the perspectives presented in classic horror films, the good guy, but no one knew it. He turned into a monster because he let his rage get the better of him, ultimately leading to bad decisions with good intentions.
We, as a cappella musicians, are considered obsessive, geeky, and extremely passionate about our craft. We let our anger make decisions because we are human. Anger, rage, emotional extremes; these are not bad emotions to have. It is the decisions we make under extreme duress that we must control. (How many times have you posted something on RARB and wished you could just take it back?)
Anger equals passion. We are angry because we care. If we didn't care, we would stay silent. I always told my students: "Don't worry when I yell. It's because I care. Start worrying when I don't yell."
But this post isn't about self-control. It's about situations in the a cappella world that turn us into green, hormone filled, nearly invincible monsters that just want to smash. Instead of raging against the machine (music joke...check!), there are healthy, logical choices we can make to counteract the anger.
So who is really angry right now? Let's find out:
1) You.
Okay. Not all of you. I'd wager that 90% of you reading this (assuming anyone is reading this) is already a member of an a cappella group. This is not about you. This is about the 10% who reads blogs on CASA and don't belong to an a cappella group. They were rejected, possibly from multiple groups, and they are not feeling the a cappella love.
It is important to me, as an educator, that no one is denied the chance to participate in a cappella music, because a cappella music is supposed to bring joy to all. How do we participate if there is no group to join?
Solution #1- Start your own group.
If I were to take a guess, I would guess that 30% of all a cappella groups were formed by someone who was rejected from another group. Is that figure based on statistics? No. It's a guess, with absolutely no proof to back it up. The number is inconsequential. I'm trying to motivate those out there, who have the desire to sing, to start a group themselves. In my a cappella life span, I've started three high school groups, one college group, and one semi-professional group. I've been rejected from four groups (twice from the same group) and I quit another. One emerging group even asked me to join, then made me officially audition, and then rejected me. Ouch.
Solution #2- Find a group outside campus.
Yes. There are a cappella groups that exist outside of college. The novels and textbooks that we have today focus primarily on collegiate a cappella, because collegiate a cappella is where contemporary a cappella has grown the most and innovated the field. But there is a great big world out there. CASA started the Contemporary A cappella League (though its primary goal was for college graduates). There are hundreds of barbershop choirs that don't require auditions. If you really want to find one, you will.
Solution #3- Do it yourself
Become a live looper. Multitrack yourself like Peter Hollens. Sing solo like Bobby McFerrin.
2) Us.
I was shocked when I read the latest blog post (latest meaning two weeks ago) of live looper June Caravel. You can read it here:
June wants to compete as a live looper in the biggest a cappella competition in the world, The International A cappella Competition Leipzig. But the rules won't let her, because they state that a competing group must have at least three members.
So I did some digging. Turns out, there isn't one a cappella competition (national or international) that allows live loopers to compete with groups. There are live looper video contests, but all dreams of entering the Harmony Sweepstakes as a live looper are crushed into goo, just like that small kitten the Hulk owned for five seconds.
Is there really no outlet for live looping? Yes, we can make albums. We can open for big concert names like Ben Folds and Imogen Heap. We can write blogs (Dylan Bell). But there is one thing we cannot do, and that's compete. Is there one singular place that the live loopers of the world can get together and share knowledge, clash over opinions, and show off?
I searched. I found the Live Loopers Conference on loopers-delight.com (squee!). But it wasn't a physical conference. It was an online chat forum (no squee!).
As a (very very very very very very) amateur live looper, I understand the frustration. How is this new a cappella medium supposed to grow if we are being stifled?
I remember the first time I saw a live looper. It was Mister Tim (squee!) at the Amplify A cappella Festival in Rhode Island, hosted by Liquid 5th studios. And I'll say for the record, Tim stole the show. Both shows. Every show. I couldn't believe my eyes and ears. How can we justify not allowing that kind of showmanship to compete against other a cappella groups? I'd bet that if Tim competed in the Harmony Sweepstakes, he would win. I'd vote for him anyway.
June Caravel has some valid arguments in her blog post. I don't agree with all of them (Bobby McFerrin wasn't famous because he won an a cappella competition), but her reasoning is sound. Live loopers need inclusion, or at the very least, their own musical convention. Can someone get on this please?
3) Me.
I am a part-time professor at Five Towns College in Long Island, NY. Five Towns College is in the minority of the a cappella world- a college that is completely unfamiliar with contemporary a cappella in any form. And so I turned the men's choir and the women's choir into a cappella classes for credit, and began advising a mixed group on campus.
Here's the irksome part: Neither class is a qualified ensemble in the eyes of the school. That is to say, neither men's a cappella nor women's a cappella count as "official ensembles." The only official ensembles that count towards college credit are chorus and choir.
Not that I'm against chorus or choir. I was raised a choral conductor and I believe every college should be performing at least one masterwork a year. But discrediting the a cappella ensembles as "official" angers me.
Are a cappella groups (generally) the same as choirs? YES. They are. Don't tell me they aren't. There are fundamentals that frame both groups (blend, intonation, rhythm, vowel shapes). Do they perform radically different music? Of course they do. But don't tell me that rehearsing an a cappella ensemble is any easier that rehearsing a choir. It's not.
This coincides with my fundamental argument that a cappella needs to be legitimized in the school system. This issue is not the school's fault. Nor is it ours. It's a common belief that there is a definite separation between a cappella groups and "real" choirs. Designing classes that immerse students in a cappella music will help turn this tide. But until then, my students will have to settle for an elective credit.
How do we deal with anger? The Hulk has a simple solution:
"I'm always angry." - Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers
Marc Silverberg
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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fantasy Football and Time Management

I am not a football person. If you have ever met me, you'd know that I neither have the body type, nor the coordination to qualify as an "athlete." I watch football on Thanksgiving because my uncle refuses to let me change the channel and watch the Spongebob marathon.

Football is not really a mystery to me. I've had enough gym classes in high school to get the gist. But fantasy football...wow. I don't get it. I don't understand how teams are drafted, winners are determined, bets are made. The opportunity to be a coach of an imaginary football team is appealing to many, but stressful enough to compel me to find a nice quiet corner and rock back and forth, sobbing in agony.

So I looked it up. Call it intellectual curiosity. Call it a desire to fit in. Call it peer pressure. Call it a yearning to fulfill crushed dreams of dating a cheerleader. It turns out that playing fantasy football is not something you can just jump into. It takes a certain amount of skill, a tremendous amount of luck, and a butt-load (technical term) of advanced preparation to ensure victory. It's also a very social event. There are public groups you can participate in, or more commonly, there are private groups that require an invitation.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

That's right! A cappella groups are like fantasy football leagues! (You are so smart!)

The key to winning a fantasy football league, as I understand it, is preparation; more specifically advanced preparation, and the ability to maximize the assets you have. This translates well to your group rehearsal.

1) Advanced Preparation

This is actually so important to choral conductors that it requires two semesters of study just to master the skill. We in the choral conducting field call it "score study." The diligent marking of your score helps prepare you for the upcoming rehearsal.

What do choral conductors mark in advance?

-Dynamics and dynamic changes

-Cut offs and breaths

-Diction- when to hold vowels, when to attack and release consonants, etc.

-Difficult note passages you assume the choir will need help learning

-Extraneous musical markings made by the composer

-The intervallic relationship between parts for tuning purposes

-The translation and meaning of text (if in a foreign language)

-Tempo changes

-Phrase beginnings and endings

-Harmonic analysis

How many times does a question come up in your rehearsal about one of the above items? And how frustrated does your musical director get when too many questions are asked?

If the music was marked properly, your group could save precious time asking questions that didn't necessarily need to be asked. Your director would have a battle plan in mind going into rehearsal, so that each song was given its maximum amount of focus. The dynamic of the rehearsal would change, because everyone would come in more prepared, and leave more confident.

2) Maximize Your Time

Do me a favor. For your very next rehearsal, bring a stopwatch. You all have one because they come standard on every cell phone. Start the stopwatch every time your group isn't singing, talking about the song you are currently working on, or breaking into sectionals. Stop the stopwatch when these things happen.

Now, how much time have you clocked on the stopwatch? That's how much time is being wasted in your rehearsal not rehearsing. Many groups complain they need an extra hour or two to get their practicing done, and then I show them the stopwatch...and it turns out, almost an hour was wasted on not rehearsing.

I'm not suggesting that the stopwatch should be at zero. If a group had no social time, it wouldn't be an effective a cappella group. It would be a robotic factory of lifeless musicians. I'm directing my suggestion to the groups (you know who you are) that waste too much time not rehearsing, and then complaining that they don't have enough time.

3) Choose Your Members Carefully.

This is the biggest mistake made by fantasy football coaches: picking a bad roster. Selecting a member of your a cappella group that comes with risk (they are not committed enough, they need help staying on pitch) is inviting failure to rear its ugly head.

A cappella groups don't always come with a contractual obligation (though some do). Group members can quit at any time. You have a responsibility to motivate your members to regularly, and punctually, attend rehearsals to maximize your group's success. If music is constantly being made, the level of musicianship will rise, the level and number of performances will rise, and the motivation to attend will follow.
What is infinitely more difficult, but much more rewarding, is cutting off the problem. If your group knows full well that one member is causing more strife than success, it is the group's responsibility to invite that person to leave.

This will cause drama. LOTS of drama. Many will be angry. A few may resign in protest. Speaking as a music director who has done this before and taken all the heat, I'm here to tell you: It's one hundred percent worth it. At the end of the terrifying storm, there is glorious, musical rainbow that consists of truly committed members.

Besides...in this day and age, recording an a cappella record takes a minimum of ONE person. If your group only has three members, you already have triple the amount of people it takes to make a stunning a cappella album. And if the album is good, success and recruitment will follow.

Enjoy your fantasy football. Enjoy your time in rehearsal. If anyone ever figures out how to create a fantasy a cappella league, let me know.

Marc Silverberg

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Don't judge a Doctor Who by its cover

Try as I might to resist, the temptation of Doctor Who was too strong. After years of painful resistance and the persistence of my friend Alex, I forced myself to watch and, as much as I don't want to admit it, I love it. It's a great show.
So why did I resist? It's the same reason that more and more people complain to me about how they don't want to try a cappella music. I understand. If someone wanted to hear "Moves Like Jagger," why would they want to listen to a cover of it sung by someone who wasn't Adam Levine?
I resisted Doctor Who for a long time because I was aware that each episode followed the same basic formula. In fact, a recent article in Entertainment Weekly confirmed what I had already suspected:
"The show swiftly established a dramatic template that remains intact today. A typical adventure starts with The Doctor hanging out in the control room of the TARDIS with his companion...The Doctor usually assures said companion that their next destination will be somewhere nicely free of imminent danger but...he is always horribly wrong...But no matter what peril the pair encounter, it is ultimately overcome...Cue credits and crazy, futuristic theme music." (Collis, 32)
With the knowledge that a show is unlikely to change its format after forty-nine years on the air does not a curious viewer make.
The same problem can be compared to hesitant a cappella fans, whose expectations of a cappella arrangements are just as predictable:
"A pop tune appears on the radio and becomes an instant hit. Singers, college students the majority, wish to live out their fantasy dreams of becoming a rock star, but due to the harsh realities of the music business, their efforts go horribly wrong. They seek solace in companions who feel the same way and they realize together that they can live out their dreams without ever having to learn a single instrument. They use their voices, imitating the sound of the original recording and covering the song live in front of an audience. Fans go crazy. Cue credits and crazy, futuristic theme music."
Now we, the a cappella performers, arrangers, and singers know that this is not accurate. A cappella music is an art form that evolves like the progression of Rock and Roll or Jazz. But lately, even a cappella fans have struggled to break from the mundane formula plaguing many a cappella groups:
"The arranger finds the sheet music, a chord sheet, or transcribes from a recording. The arranger writes the bass line out first, throws in a ton of doo's and dah's, gives back-up harmonies to the belters, and maybe throws in a mash-up for good measure. Cue credits and crazy, futuristic theme music."
Where is the next evolutionary moment of a cappella music? Have we fallen into a rut that we can't get out of? Is there a way to innovate a cappella to a place that it has not yet gone?
I do not have a definite answer, but I believe it starts with these suggestions.
1) Train Your Musicians.
I believe the most common cause of a cappella fatigue is that arrangers and directors don't challenge their singers often enough. We still hold on to the belief that the song we select is more important than the arrangement, as if singing "Call Me Maybe" is enough to stand out. Truthfully, I believe audiences would rather hear a unique version of "Don't Stop Believing" that they had never heard before.
But really, the issue is time. Doctor Who has all the time in the world. But we are not The Doctor. With note learning, choreography practice, socializing time, and competitions/performances to prepare for, the exercises required to mold and shape your singers into advanced musicians (sight reading, improvisation, vocal technique) are not the priority.
But what if it was? What if, for just a couple of months, your a cappella group drops off the face of the Earth, locks themselves in whatever room you practice in, and commits to becoming better musicians? I wonder what your arrangements would look like then...
2) Educate Your Advocates.
A cappella is still in the young, developing stage. Many believe that a cappella music is fun, but serves no educational purpose. Choral teachers, especially high school teachers, can counter this belief by convincing the non-believers that a cappella is a career-making musical genre. We can release and sell a cappella records. We can teach others about a cappella. We can become recording engineers. We can be professional arrangers. We can study a cappella law. We can write books about a cappella. We can produce festivals to promote a cappella.
This is no different than working for the music business.
3) Expand Your Palate.
I am desperate to hear more Weird Al a cappella covers. That's a personal choice, but he represents a sub-section of music that is largely overlooked. As a past and current member of a cappella groups, I know how hard it is to convince your group to sing something they never heard, especially from a band that is mostly unknown. But do we really try hard enough to make them listen? Do groups push hard enough for new material? What if every group designated one or two spots in their repertoire list for new, and totally unheard of, music. Or even [gasp] original songs?
Doctor Who is a show about opening your mind and discovering new possibilities, new worlds, and new cultures. A cappella music should be the same.
Marc Silverberg
Collis, C. (August, 2012). "The doctor is in." Entertainment Weekly, 1218, 29-35
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