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
Follow the quest for the a cappella major:

1 comment:

  1. The idea of using live loopers in a cappella competitions is a really fascinating idea that actually is not as simple as it seems to be. It ties into the long-standing discussions in the a cappella communities of whether it is legit to use equipment (bass pedals, effects boxes, and even, in some circles, microphones). And that, in its very essence, is a discussion about what IS a cappella, anyway? What counts? Does it have to just be created with voices and it doesn't matter what electronic wizardry you use? Or does the music have to sound like voices? Is vocal percussion allowed or not? Does it have to be Harmony Singing? What if it's ALL vocal percussion--does that still count? (There was a minor uproar when Mouth Beats competed in the national Harmony Sweepstakes Finals because they were not primarily a "harmony" group, for example). Can it sound like voices the way we are acquainted with voices sounding in performance and recordings even though that "raw" sound is actually usually highly processed, mixed, and effected to sound "natural" or do the voices actually have to be bare?

    I've heard people voice opinions on all sides of this, and the only conclusion I've been able to draw is that there is no answer to that question, "What is a cappella music?" except "You know it when you hear it"--and even that has been pulled into question in the last ten years (some live loopers, for example, sound more like electronica/house music than a cappella...)

    It's similar to the question: What is choral music? Is any music sung by a vocal ensemble choral music? Do the Backstreet Boys count? Andrews Sisters? How big does the ensemble need to be be? What about folk music? What about chamber vocal music (small to micro ensembles)? What if it's a pops choir singing a rock song? Or a show choir singing the same song, which is only a stone's throw from an a cappella group? What if an a cappella group sings the very same rock song? Where are the lines? And if it's a one-man/one-woman vocal ensemble....is that a choir? Is it the number of voices you can hear or the number of throats on the stage that define when it is an ensemble and when it's a solo artist?

    It seems like the choral depts across the country have simply decided to define choral music as vocal ensemble music except a cappella (partially, perhaps, because they feel like a cappella music is stealing singers from the choirs--so instead of trying to embrace it, they've tried to outlaw it, thinking then the singers might actually come to choir?).

    In some ways, it parallels the folk art vs "real" art issue that comes up sometimes (moreso until the "establishment" embraced and began mimicking folk art). A cappella groups are, to a great extent, street choirs--modern folk ensembles. They function, culturally, in a lot the same way madrigal groups did in the Renaissance. Now, of course, madrigal groups are high art, but they weren't always. (I was exploring this myself last fall: http://beccajones.blogspot.com/2011/09/choir-or-not.html. Maybe a cappella can breach that gap from the people's art to academically acceptable--I hope so!

    We need more people like you, who are pushing from the inside, for that to happen, though.

    (If it helps your fight for your student ensembles any, University of Colorado-Denver gives ensemble credit for a cappella groups, so it is starting to happen.)