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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