Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to compete in a riff-off Part 4

For the past three weeks, I have outlined steps to prepare your group for a genuine, one hundred percent authentic “riff-off,” much like the movie Pitch Perfect.
You can view the first three parts here:
Before I review the process, step-by-step, I’d like to start off with the following declaration:
That’s right. I talk the talk, but now I must prove that I walk the walk. So this is my formal challenge to you. I challenge any and all groups to a riff-off. Me and my lonely looping station versus you and your entire group. Anytime (pending schedules) and anywhere (assuming you are willing to host). I’m willing to do it for charity, for bragging rights, for any reason you come up with. I’m willing to travel near or far, North or South, East or West to improvise with you.
You (yes, you!) could be the very first a cappella group IN HISTORY to initiate this new movement. I will even post the results on my blog, so everyone (all 10 people who read it) will know that you were the first!
I don’t even care if I lose in a humiliating fashion (which I most likely will). For me, it’s not about winning or losing. If this sparks a new improvisation movement, then I’ll be a happy guy.
Email me at Bring it. I’m ready.
Now, let’s prepare you for the main event.
Step 6: Bringing it all together.
Okay. Your a cappella group has mastered the art of the circle song (or at least attempted). You’ve played Hot Spot enough times to know what songs your members are familiar with and what songs they should probably stay away from. D-day is here, and your group is preparing for the ultimate battle.
I’ll take you through the selection of a song, step by step. I’ll choose something repetitive and simple.
1) Let’s say you want to add “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz to your repertoire. First, you need to determine what key the song is in.
2) By looking at the sheet music (which I found by running a Google search), I discovered that the key signature of this song has 4 sharps. When I reference chart 1 (from step 5), I can see that 4 sharps means the key is E major or C# minor.
3) Next, I search for the tab/chord sheet and find the chords used in the song. This particular song has generally 4 chords: C#m, B, E, and A. By referencing chart 2 (from step 5), I now know that the notes contained in each of these chords is C# E and G# (C# minor), B D# and F# (B major), E G# and B (E major), and A C# and E (A major). Now, if I want to refer to these notes on a piano, I know which notes to play.
4) The next step is determining which roman numerals these chords belong to. If I reference chart 3 (from step 5), I can see that C# minor is “vi,” B major is “V,” E major is “I,” and A major is “IV.” I now know that this song moves in the following progression: vi, V, I, IV.
5) By consulting step 3, I have learned to hear which syllables in the major scale relate to each chord. The I chord contains the syllables DO, MI, and SOL. Since I know that the notes that make up the I chord (E major) are E, G#, and B, I can deduce that E is DO, G# is MI, and B is SOL. This is handy if you want to hear what these notes sound like by playing the piano.
6) I have trained my a cappella group to sing the syllables of the I chord, IV chord, V chord, and vi chord from following the procedures outlined in step 3. Since Dynamite follows the pattern of vi, V, I, IV, I know that my a cappella group has to sing the following notes in this order to imitate the correct chord progression:
vi chord (C# minor)- LA, DO, MI (C#, E, G#)
V chord (B major)- SOL, TI, RE (B, D#, F#)
I chord (E major)- DO, MI, SOL (E, G#, B)
IV chord (A major)- FA, LA, DO (A, C#, E)
If my group can sing these patterns over and over again, they will make up the chord progressions for Dynamite. I will now have to make sure someone in the group knows the solo and sings over the progression.
VOILA! You’ve added a song to your riff-off repertoire.
Okay…I know that this probably made your head spin. You’re probably sitting in front of your computer, reaching for the nearest hammer so you can bash your brains in. That’s okay. This is not a process I expect anyone to immediately understand. This takes practice, focus, and determination. Do you think I knew this when I was 18? NO! It took me this long just to think over and outline the process. (I’m 30 now…in case you were wondering)
Besides…this is music. Music cannot be mastered by reading a book. (Or in this case, a blog post) Music must be practiced, listened to, and mastered by performing. I detailed these steps because I wanted to provide groups who have the desire to improvise songs “on the spot,” a springboard to start doing it. And frankly, even if you can’t or won’t improvise using chord progressions, your group probably has the musical ear to make it up as you go along. I mean, the shortcut to all of this is just listen to the song and imitate what you hear…which is sort of the whole basic principle of a cappella music.
But I’m trying to encourage improvisation, because I believe that improvisation makes you a better musician. And what we need in a cappella these days are better musicians, better groups, and the promise of something new.
Enough preaching. Let’s set up the ground rules!
Step 7: Let’s get it on!
Rule 1: The riff-off will be moderated by someone who is not affiliated with any competing group, but the audience will decide the winner, either by applause or ballot. The moderator will be in charge of organization, calling disqualifications, and judging difficult rulings.
Rule 2: The moderator will have a list of musical categories, but will choose them at random. (preferably by the category spinning app which was maybe the coolest thing I ever saw) These categories will be categories that can be freely interpreted and are knowledgeable to the competitors.
Good suggestions: Ladies of the 80’s, Songs about sex, 90’s boy bands, Funky songs, Break-up
songs, One hit wonders
Bad suggestions: Greatest hits of Mozart, Songs on Green Day’s first album, Number one hits by
Bjork, Songs that contain the words “Poker Face”
Rule 3: Each group will have 20-30 seconds to deliberate and decide on 2 appropriate songs that will both fit the category, and wow the audience.
Rule 4: Whichever group is ready “jumps in” and starts singing. The group is not expected to sing the entire song, just a portion of it. It is the soloist’s responsibility to indicate, either visually or aurally, the “end” of the performance. If the group’s director wants to indicate this, that’s okay too.
Rule 5: Any group that is not singing must “jump in” before the first group is finished. If the first group finishes, the next group will have 5 seconds to “jump in” or they are disqualified. The moderator will keep track of this time.
Rule 6: If only two groups are competing, then a disqualification earns a “point” for the other team. First team to earn a certain number of points wins the riff-off. If more than two groups are competing, a disqualified group is “out” of the competition. Last group standing wins.
Rule 7: Each category should only last for about 2 songs. If no group has earned a disqualification after singing 2 songs, the next category is selected, and the riff-off continues. If only two groups are competing, the audience should decide who wins the round by applause or ballot.
Rule 8: During a song, one soloist may jump in or substitute for another if the performing soloist does not know the melody. Duets, trios, and smaller solo ensembles are allowed and encouraged.
Rule 9: A disqualification occurs when one or more of the following happens:
- A group sings a song that the moderator feels does not fit the appropriate category
-A group fails to think of a song within the allotted time
-A group does not come to a solid, concrete ending (e.g. The soloist keeps going, but the group stops, or vice versa)
-A group’s performance falls apart mid-song for any reason
-The moderator feels that the group is cheating somehow (looking at lyrics, looking at a chord sheet, etc.)
Rule 10: A disqualification shall NOT occur if:
-The appropriate song is already in the group’s rehearsed repertoire and they can perform it
-The soloist makes up lyrics to the song if he/she does not know them, as long as the song keeps going, or lyrics are repeated
-The group substitutes soloists at a rapid rate, as long as the song continues
Rule 11: The host group may make changes to these rules, as long as all competing groups have been notified and agree to the terms.
Let the age of riff-off’s begin…
Marc Silverberg

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How To Compete in a Riff-Off Part 3

For the past two weeks, I have been discussing the steps your group needs to take in order to participate in a riff-off, just like in the popular movie Pitch Perfect. Parts 1 and 2 are listed below, and it is recommended that your group master these steps before moving on:
Part 1: (This contains steps 1 and 2)
Part 2: (This contains steps 3 and 4)
Today, I'll talk about Step 5. Step 5 requires you to understand how music works. It is all fine and dandy if I tell you what the chord progressions are for every song ever written, but it's better if someone in your group knows how to figure out the chord progressions by either looking at the music or looking at a tab/chord sheet.
This guide is not going to help you be able to use ANY song in a riff-off. There are many songs that utilize very difficult chord progressions ("Stairway To Heaven" for example) and are probably not suitable for a riff-off. If your group wants to prove me wrong, then go for it. But the next step is designed for groups who don't understand very much about musical theory. If you understand musical theory and how chord progressions work, then you can completely skip step 5.
Now it wouldn't be fair to say all music works the same way. The compositional style of Mozart differs almost completely from the compositional style of Gershwin, which also differs from the compositional style of Adele. Thankfully, if you take the example of the riff-off that we see in Pitch Perfect, you'll notice that all the songs are relatively modern, from the decade of the 80's and up. This is by far the easiest type of music to start with, because a lot of popular songs have easily identifiable chord progressions.
Step 5: Understanding The Theory
This is what it will take for your group to recognize a chord progression and improvise from scratch:
1) Figure out the key of the song (Chart 1)
2) Figure out the notes of each chord (Chart 2)
3) Figure out what chords you need in each key (Chart 3)
The key of the music defines what notes are used in the song. Take a piece of music, any piece of music, and look at the very left of the first measure, next to the treble clef.
Visual example:
Do you see all those weird symbols there? Like # or b? Good. Those are symbols that define the key. (If you don't see any symbols, that's okay too. There is one key that has neither # or b). The # is called a "sharp," and the b is called a "flat."
Knowing the key will help you identify which chords we will use in the song. Look where the key is and count the number of # or b. If you see:
Chart 1:
No # or b- You are in the key of C major or A minor
1 b- You are in the key of F major or D minor
2 b- You are in the key of Bb major or G minor
3 b- You are in the key of Eb major or C minor
4 b- You are in the key of Ab major or F minor
5 b- You are in the key of Db major or Bb minor
6 b- You are in the key of Gb major or Eb minor
6 #- You are in the key of F# major or D# minor
5 #- You are in the key of B major or G# minor
4 #- You are in the key of E major or C# minor
3 #- You are in the key of A major or F# minor
2 #- You are in the key of D major or B minor
1 #- You are in the key of G major or E minor
"Wait! What?! Two sharps equals D major?? Why?? OMG!!!"
Relax. For the purposes of competing in a riff-off, it doesn't matter why. If you want to understand why, take a theory class.
Also, don't worry about why each key has both a major and a minor name. While this is extremely important for theorists (and musicians in general), explaining the difference is both complicated and opinionated. For the purposes of a riff-off, you don't need to understand this. However, since many music theorists are probably throwing items are the screen as I write this, let me be clear: Understanding whether you are in a major key or a minor key is essential for composition, intonation, and a long list of other musical components. But again, this article is trying to cut out the long explanations, and get you into a riff-off as quickly as possible. So to all my music theory teachers, please accept my apology.
Next, you must be able to understand how a tab/chord sheet works. Tab/chord sheets (or just “tab sheets” as I will call them) do not spell each chord out for you. These sheets only tell you what chords to play and on which lyric to play them. Take the following tab sheet for “Poker Face:”
If you look at where the lyrics start, you will see blue text above them. These are the chord symbols.
Chords are groups of notes played simultaneously. Go to a piano (if you don’t have one, go and play the following notes: C, E, and G. If these three notes were played together at the same time (which may not be possible on the virtual piano I provided), they would form what we call the “C major chord.”
“Wait! What?! Why is that a C major chord?? Why? OMG!!!”
Relax. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter why.
So what notes make up each chord? Let's consult chart 2.
Chart 2:
Chord Notes
C        C, E, G
C#      C#, F (E#), G#
Db      Db, F, Ab
D        D, F#, A
D#       D#, G (Fx), A#
Eb       Eb, G, Bb
E         E, G#, B
F         F, A, C
F#       F#, A#, C#
Gb      Gb, Bb, Db
G        G, B, D
G#      G#, C(B#), D#
Ab      Ab, C, Eb
A        A, C#, E
A#      A#, C#, F(E#)
Bb      Bb, D, F
B        B, D#, F#
Cm     C, Eb, G
C#m   C#, E, G#
Dbm   Db, E(Fb), Ab
Dm    D, F, A
D#m  D#, F#, A#
Ebm  Eb, Gb, Bb
Em    E, G, B
Fm    F, Ab, C
F#m   F#, A, C#
Gbm   Gb, A (Bbb), Db
Gm    G, Bb, D
G#m    G#, B, D#
Abm    Ab, B (Cb), Eb
Am    A, C, E
A#m   A#, C, F (E#)
Bbm   Bb, Db, F
Bm    B, D, F#
Of course, these are not the only possible chords. For every key, there are tons of possibilities, but to list them all in every key would take way too long. So here is a website that did it for me:
OKAY! Final step! [panting out of breath…]
Now we have to put it all together. Let’s review the chord progression we learned last week:
I V vi IV
Part two explained how to improvise these chord patterns. Now, here’s how to recognize them in tab sheets.
Let’s take the tab sheet for “Don’t Stop Believin’:”
Listed here are the chords E, B, C#m, and A. If we consult the chart above (chart 2), then we know these chords contain the notes E, G#, B (E chord), B, D#, F# (B chord), C#, E, G# (C#m chord) and A, C#, E (A chord).
If we look at the actual sheet music for the song (, we see that the key has 4 # symbols, and according to chart 1, that means we are in the key of E. So now, let’s look at chart 3:
Key I chord V chord vi chord IV chord
C    C         G          Am       F
C#  C#       G#        A#m      F#
Db  Db       Ab        Bbm      Gb
D    D        A          Bm        G
Eb  Eb      Bb         Cm       Ab
E    E       B           C#m      A
F    F       C            Dm       Bb
F#  F#     C#           D#m     B
Gb Gb     Db           Ebm     B (Cb)
G   G       D            Em       C
G# G#     D#           E#m     C#
Ab Ab     Eb           Fm        Db
A   A       E            F#m       D
Bb Bb      F            Gm         Eb
B   B        F#          G#m       E
We can see that in the key of E, the I chord is the E, the V chord is the B, the vi chord is the C#m, and the IV chord is the A. This matches up perfectly with the “Don’t stop Believin’” tab sheet.
For your purposes, this is how you identify what the pattern is to improvise the song. The fact that the note E matches up with DO, G# matches up with MI, and so on (Wait…what?) does not matter. Don’t worry about it.
Next week, I’ll review all the steps, take you through the process of preparing, discuss how to produce a riff-off, and then…issue an OPEN RIFF-OFF CHALLENGE! Good luck…
Marc Silverberg

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Presidential A cappella Debates- Round 1

Marc Silverberg (MS): Welcome to the first of three Presidential A cappella Debates between the candidates from the "See Major" party and the "Be Sharp" party. Tonight's debate is brought to you by "A cappella Fire Extinguishers," handy for when your group literally sets the stage "on fire." Tonight's debate will focus on questions about the Democracy of a cappella groups and questions about recording techniques and the use of Auto-Tune. I've asked our fake audience members to refrain from making extraneous noise, such as clapping, shouting, or singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." We will break that rule just this once to welcome our candidates, A and B.
[Sound of applause]
[Sound of "Wim-o-weh"]
MS: No, no. Stop that. Candidates, welcome. Let's begin with a brief statement about your party's beliefs, policies, and where you stand on the issues. Candidate A, since you won the pitch pipe toss, you go first.
Candidate A: Thank you Marc and thank you to the a cappella fans for listening in tonight. I want to thank my opponent, Candidate B for attending this debate with me, and I'd like to add that Candidate B is a loser.
Candidate B: I would like a quick rebuttal if I may. Candidate A is a stinky doo-doo head.
MS: Now, now. Candidate B, it's not your turn.
A: The See Major party believes in you, the a cappella people.
B: Barf.
MS: Stop it. A, continue.
A: The See Major party also believes in a future where A cappella music is taken as seriously as traditional choral singing. Many of the elements that constitute "good singing" are shared between the classical choir and the a cappella group. We believe that the draw of a cappella groups is good musicality. While it is important for every group member to be recognized as an individual and integral part of the ensemble, it is the whole group, not the individual, that should be the primary focus of singing. When we are asked to blend, for example, we are asking our group members to sacrifice their individual voices for the good of the overall sound. We believe in hard work and the constant striving of perfection. Groups should never perform a song that is still being rehearsed. Groups should seek ways to make them stand out from the ever growing a cappella crowd, and we believe that a well-rehearsed, tightly executed performance with unique and original arrangements is the key.
MS: Thank you Candidate A. Candidate B, your opening remarks.
B: Thank you Marc for moderating this event. I'd like to thank Candidate A for telling nothing but lies, as this will make my job a lot easier.
A: I'd like to thank Candidate B for continuing to drool slightly, as it makes me laugh.
MS: Children! Please! This is a formal fake debate.
B: The Be Sharp party believes that the purpose of an a cappella group is to collectively bond, rather than shine at the risk of overexerting themselves. A cappella groups are, at their core, social outlets that should continue to foster relationships and embrace the social medium of "singing together" above "perfectionism." Each individual performance should inform the audience that they are here to have fun, and not to marvel at the technical prowess of the musicians on stage. We believe that a cappella groups don't need to expand their palate of music if they choose not to. A group should be comfortable singing the songs they want to sing, and performing in the places they want to perform in. True music comes from a natural performance, rather than a perfect one.
A: If I may rebuttal...
MS: Only if it's nice.
A: Never mind.
MS: Let's move on. On the discussion of Democracy within the ensemble, where do each of you stand on the decision making processes? Candidate B, we will start with you.
B: The fundamental difference between a choir and an a cappella group is the way each ensemble is run.
A: I agree.
B: You do?
A: Yes, but I still think you smell.
B: That's fair. After all, you lie about everything else...
MS: Stop!
B: A choir is run by a director. It is, therefore, essentially a dictatorship or monarchy, and there are good directors and bad ones. That is the reality of music. A cappella groups have the unique opportunity to make decisions together, like a Democracy. The majority wins. Not everyone is happy with every situation, but just like nations with democratic governments, the same is true. Group members should be responsible enough to stay informed on all matters, and voice their opinions on everything from song selections and solo choices, to gig selections and performance choices.
A: What you are describing, Candidate B, is a congress or parliament, and we know that these bodies of government take too long to do anything.
B: But the process is fair and democratic.
A: Yes, but democracies work best with elected leaders making the tough decisions. If every group were to vote on every decision, the song selection process, for example, would take months.
B: Unless the group had a concrete voting process outlined in their constitution.
A: Which very few do.
B: I disagree.
A: Groups should elect officials, like a president and a music director, with the sole purpose and understanding that it is these elected officials that will make the major decisions. A group that votes on everything will accomplish nothing.
B: Not true. A group that votes on everything is an a cappella group.
A: Choirs succeed because they follow the director's intent without question.
B: Even if that director's choices are bad?
A: That is not the choir's fault.
B: But then, how do you replace a choral director who makes bad choices?
A: You can't.
B: Which is why a cappella groups should be wary of allowing one or two people to make all the decisions.
A: But a cappella groups often elect new officials every year, so it balances out.
B: But some don't. And our party speaks for the members who feel oppressed, like their opinions don't matter. Everyone has an equal voice.
A: That's not how an efficient ensemble runs.
B: Some a cappella groups don't want to be efficient ensembles. They want to sing because they enjoy singing.
A: And what about the ensembles that want to be both efficient and spectacular?
B: You can still be spectacular without having a rigid system of discipline. If a group wants to work towards winning the ICCA's, then that's their priority. You are saying that all groups should work towards the betterment of the music, when we say the music should work towards the betterment of the group.
A: Music is not being made if care and consideration are not taken into account for every single song.
B: No. Care and consideration should be taken into account for songs that require care and consideration. Some songs are just fun to sing.
A: And those are the ones that should stay out of the performance.
B: No. Those are the ones that show the audience what the true meaning of music is.
A: Our party speaks for the ensembles who want to better themselves as a whole. You cannot deny that there are a cappella groups out there that strive to be the best.
B: Of course they are. And that's fine.
A: But there are groups that secretly wish they were like someone else. That's because these members are stuck in a group that is, themselves, stuck in a rut.
MS: If I may interrupt you both for a moment...
A & B: No!
MS: Tough. I'm the moderator. You both mentioned something that should be addressed. Does music exist to serve man, or does man exist to serve music?
A: Man exists to serve music.
MS: Could you elaborate on that?
A: Music is a higher power. It transcends us all and unites us as the common language. However, it its we, the musicians, who must fulfill the musician's role in elevating this art form to the next level.
B: I believe the music exists to serve man. Music is, like my opponent said, a much higher power than us all. But the Be Sharp party believes that the sole purpose of music's existence is to better us as people.
MS: So which came first? The chicken or the egg?
B: Who's talking about chickens?
A: Yeah. What are you? Hungry or something?
MS: I was being metaphorical. Which came first? Music or man?
A: Music.
B: Man.
MS: Well that clears things up. Let's move on to recording techniques. One of the most heated debates in the a cappella world originates from the use of the recording studio as a musical tool. Many critics of contemporary a cappella believe the music is "too perfect," while many a cappella groups strive for a unique sounding album, regardless of which tools they need to execute that. Your thoughts?
A: As we have stated before, the best possible sound is what groups should strive to achieve. Critics of a cappella music think albums are not musical, because the arrangements are not unique, not because the group sounds "too good." Of course groups should try to avoid mechanical sounding tracks, but technology is a tool to help us create something new and exciting. The Beatles discovered this when they released "Sgt. Pepper," and the same has been true ever since, for both rock bands and a cappella groups.
MS: So you advocate the use of programs like Protools, Melodyne, and Auto-tune?
A: Absolutely! The more tricks you can use in the studio, the better you will sound.
B: Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
MS: Candidate B, do you have something you would like to add?
B: We in the Be Sharp party agree with our opponents in one regard. If you are going to release an album, it should be a great sounding album. The use of Protools and Auto-tune programs are support systems that have great features. The problem comes from groups who over-utilize these tools.
MS: How so?
B: If someone listens to an a cappella group, they should be able to hear voices, and voices only. If a group puts too much time and money into sounding exactly like the original recording of a song, why not just go out and listen to the original recording of a song? This is why a cappella gets a bad rap. A cappella is unique because we are vocalists using only our voices. Adding too many effects, or even making our voices sound like guitars using inputs and distortion boxes is destroying the very nature of why we sing without instruments. If I am listening to an a cappella record, I want to hear distinct voices using only the tools they have at their disposal.
A: So according to you, groups that use technology in a live setting, like SONOS, are not being true to a cappella?
B: Not at all. That's a live setting, and they are still using their voices only. We don't believe effects and pedals are bad. We just want to hear a cappella as a vocal medium.
A: So technology is not a helpful tool?
B: Technology is an instrument and a cappella is singing without instruments.
A: Technology is not responsible for creating the sounds. We still provide the necessary data to create sound. Technology is making us sound better. Groups should feel free to use anything and everything at their disposal, as long as it makes them sound better.
B: So, they are not being true to a cappella?
A: That's not what I said. I think they are evolving a cappella.
B: Why does a cappella need to evolve? Why can't a cappella be for the sake of a cappella? If a cappella makes us better people, hasn't it already done its job?
A: In a sea of new albums, a cappella groups yearn for their album to stand out among the weeds. We believe that every group should use everything at their disposal to make that happen.
B: Assuming they want it to happen.
A: Every group should strive for that. That's what elevates music.
B: That's what makes music manufactured.
A: Manufactured is the incorrect term. It's polished and produced.
B: We consider polished and produced to be manufactured.
A: That's because you are ugly.
B: You're ugly!
MS: Well, before these two candidates kill each other, I think I better end this debate. Join us next week for round two, and check back next week for instructions on how to vote for your favorite candidate.
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How to Compete in a Riff-Off, Part 2

Last week, I outlined steps one and two for training your group to compete in a real, honest-to-god-no-joke riff-off. You can view the blog post here:
The bulk of the work involved in improvising an entire song is understanding how a song works, and the key to this is musical theory. But I'll try not to overload you with too much theory this week. For now, you have to get your group to start improvising using chords and chord progressions. The single greatest method for improvising chords that I ever stumbled upon was a method designed by Dr. Cindy Bell, who now works at Hofstra University. The bibliography at the end will tell you how to locate her original article.
Step 3: Improvising Chords
1) Start by making sure your group can sing a major scale on solfege syllables (DO RE MI FA SOL LA TI DO). This can be played on the piano by starting on the C key, and playing all the white keys up to the next C. (If you don't know what a C key is, use this virtual keyboard, which will tell you all the key names on the piano:
Once your group members can do this successfully, isolate the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale (DO, MI, and SOL) For our sake, we'll call this the I chord (I is the roman numeral 1, not the letter "I").
2) Ask each group member to choose and hold one of the three notes in this chord (either DO, MI, or SOL). Then, on your cue (or the music director's cue), each group member chooses and sings a different note in the same chord. The resulting chord will sound exactly the same, but each group member will be singing a different syllable than the one before. Continue to do this until your group is familiar with the three notes of the I chord.
3) Next, we will isolate the notes of the V chord, which are SOL, TI, and RE. The group should repeat step two, staying within the three notes of the V chord only.
4) When the group gets comfortable with the V chord, the next challenge is to switch between the two chords. Group members should choose and hold one of the three notes in the I chord (DO, MI, or SOL) and then switch to one of the three notes in the V chord (SOL, TI, or RE). The group should practice switching between these two chords until they are comfortable.
To improve this step (which is likely the hardest step), it is necessary for group members to plan ahead and be able to identify how far away each note of the I chord is from each note of the V chord. For example, the note SOL appears in both chords, so that note can be held between both chords successfully. The note DO (from the I chord) and the note RE (from the V chord) are very close to each other (see major scale above), so the move between them should be simple. Likewise the notes DO and TI are close together, as are MI and RE, etc. Recognizing these simple step progressions is the easiest way for group members to switch between chords.
5) Once the group is comfortable with the I and V chords, add the IV chord, which consists of the syllables (DO, FA, and LA). The group should familiarize themselves with this chord by itself (step 2) and then practice switching between all three chords (step 4). Note that all of these chords contain syllables within the major scale.
6) When your group gets comfortable, add the vi chord, which contains the syllables LA, DO, and MI. (For clarification, the vi is lowercase on purpose...don't worry about why that is). Repeat steps 2 and 4.
7) Practice moving through these chords in the following order:
I chord, V chord, vi chord, IV chord.
This is one of the most common chord progressions in popular music. Hundreds of pop songs follow these four chords, in this pattern, over and over again. Don't believe me? Watch this Youtube video of the Australian comedy group "Axis of Awesome." [Viewer discretion advised]
Another common chord progression is what we musicians call the "Twelve-Bar Blues." This is a twelve-chord progression, typically sung in a jazzy rhythm:
I chord, I chord, I chord, I chord, IV chord, IV chord, I chord, I chord, V chord, IV chord, I chord, V chord
Many of the songs from the Blues era, Doo-wop era, 50's era, and even a lot of Elvis songs follow this progression. Here are some listening examples. See if you recognize how the chords move similarly in each one:
"Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry (also from the movie "Back To The Future")
"Blue Suede Shoes" by Elvis Presley
"Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley
"Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Big Joe Turner
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
Another common chord progression is:
I chord, IV chord, I chord, V chord
The best example of this progression is in the a cappella standard "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Groups are used to singing this progression on the "wim-o-weh" syllables, but substituting the solfege syllables will work. Another song that utilizes this progression...The chorus of "Some Nights" by F.U.N.
It is also common to see the I V vi IV progression shuffled, so that the same four chords are being used, but in a different order. Starting on the vi chord, for example, tricks the listener into thinking the song is in a minor key (which, technically, it is...don't worry about why). Take the following progression from Adele's "Rolling In The Deep." If music theorists look at this progression, they would probably label it like this:
i chord, III chord, VI chord, VII chord
This progression is cleverly disguised. Really, the progression is:
vi chord, I chord, IV chord, V chord
See? It's the same progression as the first one I presented, but in a different order. Next week, I'll discuss how to recognize exactly what order these chord progressions are in. For now, here is a list of popular songs that use the I V vi IV progression, but in different orders:
"Blow" by Ke$ha
"Payphone" by Maroon 5
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift
"Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga
"Baby" by Justin Bieber
"S&M" by Rihanna (which was used in "Pitch Perfect")
"Just The Way You Are" by Bruno Mars (also used in "Pitch Perfect")
I'm not saying these are bad songs. Just the opposite. I'm saying that these songs fit perfectly with the kind of songs we are looking for to add to our riff-off repertoire, because they manipulate the common four-chord progression into something different.
Step 4: Adding Rhythms and Riffs
Songs are not just made up of chords. They also contain rhythms. Try the process outlined in step 3, but add a rhythm to each chord instead of just holding it. For example, instead of holding DO, try singing DO on 4 "quarter notes" or 8 "eighth notes." Listen to the instrumental parts of a song and imitate the rhythm of the bass guitar or keyboard. Rhythm is what drives the music forward and gives it a feeling of motion, so rhythm is essential.
If your group is comfortable with improvising chords, have one person in the group sing the "riff" of the song. The "riff" is usually the most recognizable part of the song, as it is repeated over and over by one or multiple instruments. Take the popular Beatles song "Day Tripper." The musical line that you hear in the beginning is the "riff" of the song. It repeats almost over the entire track. If you sang that line, everyone in the audience would know immediately what song you were about to perform, even if you haven't sung a single lyric yet. Recognizable "riffs" are just as important as chords and rhythms.
Steps 3 and 4 are vital steps if you want to improvise full songs. These steps are undoubtedly the most difficult part, and require weekly practice and focus. But if your group is serious about trying a riff-off, these are indeed the most important steps.
Next week, I'll explain how to identify chord progressions on your own, and how to produce a riff-off competition.
Quick plug #2: Come to Acappellafest this weekend and learn all of this in my Group Improvisation class!
Axis of Awesome. (2009). The axis of awesome 4 chords melbourne comedy festival [Online video]. Retrieved from on October 16, 2012
Bell, C. (2004). "Harmonizing and improvising in the choral rehearsal: A sequential approach." Music educator's journal, Volume 90, Issue 4, pages 31-35
Marc Silverberg

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Presidential A cappella Debates are coming!

We are living in a crucial time in our lives. There are men and women out there who desperately need your support, because they want to speak for you: the people. The issues must be discussed, debated, argued over, and examined. In one week, two candidates will face off in an attempt to gain your vote and your trust.

Oh...You thought I was talking about Romney and Obama? No.

I was talking about the issues that matter to YOU, the a cappella fan! I'm talking about the Presidential A cappella Debates!

A series of debates will take place over the next few weeks and the transcripts of those debates will be presented in front of you (because let's face it...this is a fictional debate and debating live is impossible). You will get to hear the arguments about a cappella-specific issues, and then you will have the chance to vote for your favorite candidate.

Just like our political situation now, we always want to try for bipartisanship. Each party has good ideas, but neither party has all the answers. However, there are fundamental things we agree on, and disagree on, and now you will get a chance to see where you stand on some of today's hottest a cappella issues.

What issues you ask? Here are some of the topics our candidates will discuss:

-Rehearsal procedures

-Recording techniques and Auto-Tune

-Sight reading skills and intonation

-The Democracy of a cappella groups

-Syllable choices in arrangements


-The past, present, and future of a cappella music

And just who will be debating? Let's take a quick look at the candidates (whom, for un-biased purposes, will be gender-neutral, race-neutral, religion-neutral, geographically neutral, and faceless.)

Candidate A, Leader of the "See Major Party"

Slogan: Everything's better when you see major."

The See Major party believes the most important aspect of an a cappella group is musicality. Groups who wish to progress and evolve must be technically perfect and this requires a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication. Groups should draw from all areas of a cappella music, from Barbershop to Doo-Wop to Madrigals, in order to round out their education. The See Major party believes that groups should adopt one specific vocal technique and everyone in the group must sacrifice his or her own vocal individuality to better the team. The See Major party believes that the meaning of the text/message of the song must always take precedence, but that doesn't mean the group has to give a performance that hasn't been rehearsed to perfection.

Candidate B, Leader of the "Be Sharp Party"

Slogan: We are sharp on the issues, not flat."

The Be Sharp party wishes that a cappella groups would focus more on the social aspect of music, rather than the fine details of perfection. The party believes that too many a cappella albums are being produced that are "too perfect." The Be Sharp party wishes that a cappella groups could accept their flaws in a live setting, because human beings are not technically perfect. No individual should have to sacrifice his or her own voice to better the song. Music is already better when groups are truthful with their audience- they accept what they cannot change and they have a clear sense of community and togetherness, because really, would anyone care if the entire group went flat half a step, as long as they blended well and put on an exciting show? Music is not "notes on a page." It is emotion, dynamics, articulations, phrases, and most importantly, the meaning of the text. Groups should sing music they are passionate about, not try to emulate a different style simply for the sake of broadening their education.

Stay tuned! The transcript of the first debate will take place next weekend!

[Special thanks to Mike Malaney, Cory Pinto, Lisa Rosenzweig, and Cory Hecht for political party name suggestions.]

Marc Silverberg

Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major: