Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A cappella Festivus

Turkey. Stuffing. Cranberries. Sweet Potatoes. Crazy Uncles…
Thanksgiving has arrived. The time when families gather in someone else’s home, criticize the wallpaper in the dining room, stuff themselves full, argue over the benefits of eating white or dark meat, provide ridiculous commentary to a muted football game, get into a deep-seeded rivalry over a board game that will eventually destroy relationships, and then leave to line up for the midnight opening of their favorite store on Black Friday, leaving the dishes and the mess in your capable hands.
You know. The good times.
Despite your feelings about Thanksgiving and the subsequent holidays that follow, there is one holiday we tend to neglect every year, and it’s about time we recognize its importance.
I’m talking, of course, about Festivus.
You know. The holiday invented by George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld, that takes place on December 23rd. Traditions include the hanging of the Festivus pole, the traditional “airing of grievances,” the “feats of strength” demonstration, the easily achieved Festivus miracles, and finally, the Festivus meal of meatloaf and hip flasks.
Now for those of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, that’s okay. You were probably too young to have seen this episode and/or some of you were not even born yet. Here’s the brief, brief, brief, brief history:
Seinfeld was a television show. It was really popular. One episode featured a fictional holiday called Festivus. The episode was watched by lots of people. Festivus suddenly became a practiced holiday. The end.
I began to wonder (as I always do)… with the holidays approaching, is there an a cappella holiday that we can create, like Festivus, that will take off and be celebrated all over the country?
From what I have gathered about Festivus, there seems to be six “key components” of inventing a new holiday:
1) A date to celebrate (December 23rd)
2) Decorations (Hanging the Festivus Pole)
3) A reason to celebrate (Airing of Grievances)
4) An activity to participate in (Feats of Strength)
5) A holiday backstory or myth (Festivus Miracles)
6) Something to eat (Meatloaf)
So let’s create our own a cappella holiday! And I shall call it…
So how do we celebrate “Acappellamas?”
1) Date of celebration
I proclaim December 14th to be Acappellamas, in honor of the first Sing-Off broadcast that aired on December 14th.
2) Decorations
A cappella is, of course, a form of music and obtaining music-themed decorations is very easy nowadays. But since A cappella is considered to be even geekier than singing in a choir, we need to make sure these decorations strike the right balance of musical sentiment and a complete lack of “coolness.” Here are some ideas:
Instead of a Christmas tree, we should hang the traditional music stand, complete with lights and a pitch pipe glued to the top.
Instead of a Menorah or Kwanzaa candles, we could go outside, light a campfire, and sing an a cappella version of Kum-ba-yah.
Instead of Mistletoe, let’s hang a small working model of “Audrey II” from Little Shop of Horrors (that plant can SING).
3) A reason to celebrate
As I stated before, the very first broadcast of the Sing-off aired on NBC, on this date. Perhaps you could gather with your friends and watch some of the old seasons on itunes, zune, or amazon video. Celebrate how the premiere of this wonderful show gave us hope that we may one day be taken seriously, even in a battle-to-the-death scenario.
4) An activity to participate in
Of course, this is the moment when I would start talking about circle songs and improvisation and blah blah blah…but that’s too easy. Let’s get really creative!
Instead of door-to-door caroling, try door-to-door riff-offs.
Instead of exchanging gifts, exchange arrangements.
Instead of waiting for Santa, wait for a chord to tune.
5) A holiday backstory or myth
The Acappellamas Poem
By Marc Silverberg
Twas the night before Acappellamas, the preparation had begun
My group was rehearsing “Some Nights” by F.U.N.
We practiced our vowels, our claps and our stamps
In hopes that we would become the ICCA champs.
The number was over, and we started to chat
Cause we realized we ended a step-and-a-half flat.
But just then a miracle took us by surprise
The magical Deke Sharon appeared before our very eyes.
He told us such stories of days long ago
And how he did not like, the syllables “Jen" and "Jo.”
His songs were so pretty, his VP was tight
He told us to stop singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
And then, just like that, he was gone in a flash
But his presence had made a really big splash
We practiced our hearts out, determined to excel
We busted out our mash-up, of Queen and Adele.
On “doo!” On “bop!” On “dee!” On “doh!”
And now switch to ooh, wop, zee, and oh!
And suddenly the music had a life of its own
We recorded ourselves on my brand new cell phone.
And we knew from now on, our group would be alright
So happy Acappellamas to all, and to all a good night!
6) Food.
Let’s be honest. The best food is usually what you eat during the breaks of your rehearsals. So let that be our celebratory food, which includes:
-Anything from a vending machine
-Fried, greasy foods from the food court
-Food you can order from Delivery
For the holiday, avoid eating/drinking the following foods/drinks:
-Dairy products
-Orange Juice
-Carbonated Soda
Have a happy Thanksgiving and prepare yourself to celebrate Acappellamas!
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major:

Friday, November 16, 2012

A cappella Pop Quiz #2

Class is in session!
Last week, I posted part 1 of what I call "The A cappella Pop Quiz." This is not a quiz to test your knowledge about a cappella music (though that's on the way...I promise). The A cappella Pop Quiz is designed to test your a cappella group's knowledge on common singing techniques and rehearsal practices. Part 1 was all about correct vocal technique. You can read it here:
This week, the answers are slightly more opinionated. I'm basing my "correct" or "incorrect" answers on common choral practices and my own opinions of directing a music rehearsal, so feel free to disagree with the answers.
For the best effect, have everyone in your group take the quiz and compare the answers. I think you'll be surprised by the results.
Part 2- Rehearsal Procedures
1) What is the (estimated) number of minutes per rehearsal your group spends on blending voices?
2) What is the (estimated) number of rehearsals that start exactly on time?
3) How much (estimated) time is spent on warming up your voice each rehearsal?
4) What is the (estimated) number of times members or sections are asked to sing by themselves, apart from the rest of the group?
5) What is the (estimated) number of minutes per rehearsal your group spends on stage presence and playing to the audience?
6) When you begin learning a new arrangement, how many (estimated) edits, changes, and alterations are made to it before you perform it for the first time?
7) Does your group take breaks during rehearsal? If so, how many breaks and how long are they?
8) How much (estimated) water do you drink during rehearsals? (do not include performances)
9) What is the (estimated) number of absences your most absent group member has racked up over the course of a semester?
10) How many (estimated) full group rehearsals (meaning every member is there for the ENTIRE time) do you have a month?
Answers (Don't peek)
1) If your rehearsal is 2 hours long, the answer should be 2 hours. Blending voices is the single most important thing an a cappella group can do, because you are a group, not a soloist. However, blend is easier than you think. While group members need to decide on matching vowel shapes, voice placement, and unifying musical elements, blending is really as easy as just listening more intently than you already do. Your four basses should sound like one booming bass, not four individual voices. All other sections should be the same. For an even better blend, put like rhythmic parts together and make sure they match syllables.
2) If the answer is anything but “all of them,” that’s bad. Starting exactly on time (and I mean exactly at the start of the first minute) establishes a “we mean business” attitude and you don’t even have to say a word. Serious groups start on time.
Directors must take care to end on time as well. This establishes an understanding that your individual time is valuable and cherished.
3) Most choral conductors agree that the optimal amount of warm-up time is about 10 minutes per rehearsal. Groups that meet at night could reduce this to 7-8 minutes, because the vocal cords are already warmed up from talking all day. But talking all day does not prepare you to sing. Singing preparation takes much more than that.
The first few warm-ups should focus on training one specific vocal technique, like resonance or support. The last few warm-ups should combine techniques and work on blend. At the end of each warm-up session, the group should do something musical, like improvise a circle song, sight-read a new arrangement, or transcribe a section of music by ear.
To provide an example, I’ve included my daily warm-up routine. I do this for EVERY rehearsal, with EVERY choir I conduct, and it takes roughly about 10 minutes. If you think 10 minutes is too much time to spend on warm-ups, then I believe you are not managing your rehearsal time well.
Warm-Up Routine
1) Relaxation exercise
2) Breathing/Posture exercise
3) Easy vocal warm up to relax the voice
4) Resonance/Support/Vowel Warm-up
5) Resonance/Support/Vowel Warm-Up
6) Range/Blend Warm-up
7) Musical mind warm-up/Blend Warm-up
8) Improvisation/Evaluation/Listening Analysis
9) Warm-up geared to the first piece of music
Let me explain this.
The relaxation exercise is anything physical your body can do to expel the stress from your day. These include stretches, rolling the neck, rolling the shoulders, etc. The most popular relaxation exercise with choral conductors today is a massage line. Every member of the choir massages the person to their left, and then turns around and massages the person on their right.
Breathing/Posture exercises prepare the body to warm-up. This means straightening up the vertebrae of the spine, relaxing the shoulders, putting an equal balance of weight on both feet, bending the knees, and keeping the body tall. This is when I would take the time to teach my singers about how to properly take a “singers breath” and we would try a support exercise to manage air flow.
Next I do an easy warm-up. This is the most sing-able phrase I can think of, starting in a low voice, so that the vocal cords are allowed time to warm-up. This includes humming or singing softly on “oo.”
The next two exercises comprise the “meat" of the warm-up. I vary the exercises every day to avoid falling into a repeatable pattern. I believe that if the warm-up routine is the same every time, your singers will NEVER give their full attention to the exercise, because they have sung it too many times.
I also vary the types of exercises. One day I’ll do a resonance exercise and then a support exercise. One day I’ll do a support exercise and then a vowel exercise, etc. There are just too many details of vocal technique to cover, and a warm-up that covers every vocal technique would take up your whole rehearsal time, so you have to pick and choose.
A resonance exercise trains the singer to place the sound they make in the mask of the face and the nasal passages. Too many singers sing from their “throat,” when they should be placing the sound as far forward as possible. See pop quiz 1 for more information about resonance.
A support exercise trains the singers to conserve air using their stomach muscles. Singing phrases on the word “ha” is a good example. Singers should take note that in a support exercise, the “h” sound, made by pushing out the stomach muscles, is AS important as the vowel “a.”
A vowel exercise trains the singer to sing one or several proper vowels in the correct mouth shape. For example, a proper “oo” should be made with small, rounded lips. A proper “ee” should maximize the singers resonance and be sung while your lips are in a vertical position, not a horizontal one. A proper “ah” should be made with the tallest jaw possible and the maximum amount of height your soft palate can reach, as if you were yawning.
For the next exercise, I choose either a range exercise, which takes high singers into their highest range and low singers into their lowest range, or I choose an exercise that teaches the singers how to “blend.” Keep in mind that ALL range exercises must be FAST, to avoid heavy sounds and damage to the vocal cords.
The next exercise alternates between a blend warm-up or a “musical mind” warm-up. I recently attended a workshop led by Matt Caruso from “Acappella Psych,” and he made an excellent point. You must train your singers to “think” harder. He introduced several warm-ups that forced us to think musically and to give as much focus as possible. Even if you this is not a musical exercise, you must coerce your singers into a focused, intelligent state before real music making can begin. (Take his Aca-Jedi class if you can.)
The next exercise alternates between three fundamental musical skills that I believe we take for granted and need to be reinforced. For this exercise, I do one of three things: I make my choir improvise a circle song or play an improv game, I make my choir watch and evaluate a different a cappella group on Youtube, or I make my choir listen to an a cappella recording and give feedback.
All three of these skills- improvisation, evaluation, and listening- are three of the national music standards. Possessing these skills makes you a more well-rounded musician. When I taught in public school, this was also where I asked my students to sight-read an unfamiliar example.
The final warm-up relates to the first piece of music we are about to rehearse. Let’s say for example that in one of your arrangements, your group is not effectively singing a crescendo or decrescendo because the word has a difficult vowel. This exercise would then be designed to simply crescendo or decrescendo on that vowel. If you design exercises that isolate musical problems, you will find that your rehearsal goes a lot smoother.
4) If the answer is anything but zero, then good for you. Sections need to blend within themselves before blending with the entire group. It’s like baking a cake (mmm…cake). Certain elements have to be mixed together in a separate bowl before the entire batter is mixed together.
5) The correct answer is “a lot.” Stage presence is just as important as sound. This does not mean choreography. This means your singers should look relaxed and professional, like they “own” the stage. Sadly, this is one of the elements I have watched become less and less important in collegiate groups, and that needs to change.
6) If the answer is zero, then I believe you are wrong. The best arrangements are tweaked during the rehearsal process. If the arranger demands that his score be followed to the letter, then he/she needs to wake up. Unless you are Mozart (and you aren’t), you will NEVER write a perfect first draft of anything, ever. My off-Broadway production was revised 11 times before it even made it to the stage. And when I mean revised, I mean completely re-written.
7) The answers should be “yes” and “frequently.” For every hour of rehearsal time, you should have at least 5 minutes of break time. If you have a two-hour rehearsal, that does not mean you should have only one 10-minute break. You should have two 5-minute breaks. This keeps the group refreshed and efficient. One long 10-minute break ALWAYS leads to a longer lapse in time and the death of rehearsal momentum.
8) Rehearsals use your voice twice as much as performances do, because you are often singing for two straight hours or talking to friends, or laughing, or whatever. For every one bottle of water you drink during a performance (which is something you SHOULD do), you should drink 1-2 bottles during rehearsal. This is especially true if your group rehearses choreography.
9) Whatever the answer is, divide the number of total rehearsals by that number. If the percentage is more than 10%, that person needs to shape up or leave. 10% is generally the college standard for excused absences during a class that can still earn a passing grade. For a 15-week class that meets three times a week, this is about 4-5 classes. After that number, the college failure or incomplete policy kicks in and it becomes impossible for that student to earn credit. If the student wants to earn an A+, the number of absences must be drastically reduced to less than 5%.
10) If you have 8-10 rehearsals a month, the answer should be 8-10. Every single rehearsal that does not have a full attendance means something you work on that day will have to be repeated. These techniques start piling up if a group member misses more than 2 rehearsals. And considering that multiple group members could be missing at any given rehearsal, the work you do is lost.
This does not mean that all absences are pointless. On the contrary. We are human beings first, group members second. Serious illnesses should be avoided, as they will undoubtedly pass to other group members. Deaths in the family take priority over everything. But my research shows that the majority of absences in a group result in one member having too many conflicts and taking too many commitments on their plate, and this is unacceptable.
These group members must prioritize their commitments. I was one of these offenders in college, and it cost me an a cappella group, a show, and a big singing gig all within the same semester, because I blew my voice out. If a group member puts the a cappella group on the low end of the priority scale, then maybe they shouldn’t sing in an a cappella group.
How did you do?
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The search for the A cappella Textbook, Part 1- Powerful Voices

If a cappella music is to become the focus of a serious educational study at the collegiate level, then it follows that there must be a textbook or scholarly source that can guide the discussion forward.
Or in simpler terms, “No textbook, no class.”
In my search for what I consider to be the “A cappella Textbook,” the first thought that pops into my head (and probably everyone else’s) is “Pitch Perfect.” Not only is the book an accurate, non-fiction portrayal of collegiate a cappella groups, it was made into a movie recently and has probably garnered the most success out of any book about a cappella music thus far.
But lately, I’ve noticed a sea of new books being written on the subject. Even more so, a little investigative digging uncovered books published BEFORE “Pitch Perfect,” about the subject of a cappella music. [Audible Gasp!]
So why haven’t I heard the names of these books being floated around the aca-blog-o-sphere? (This is the technical term…) How come I discover that at every a cappella festival, more and more people are unaware these books exist?
And so I present a (semi) weekly review of the a cappella books you probably haven’t heard about, from before and after "Pitch Perfect."
Because, if you discover even ONE new book that helps you become a better a cappella musician, isn’t it worth it?
A cappella textbook candidate #1- “Powerful Voices: The Musical and Social world of Collegiate A cappella” by Dr. Joshua S. Duchan.
What is the book about?
Dr. Duchan paints a scholarly portrayal of the phenomenon that is collegiate a cappella. As the first scholarly work on this subject, Dr. Duchan divides his book into two halves and utilizes his years of research and his completed dissertation to present a broad outline of a cappella music from its development to its application today.
The first half of the book is the history of collegiate a cappella, from its beginnings in Nineteenth Century Glee Clubs to, what Dr. Duchan calls, the “A cappella Explosion” over the last three decades. The second half combines real-time observations, quantifiable data, and educational theories to demonstrate exactly how a cappella music works its “magic.”
Why should you own this book?
If you have ever been interested on discovering exactly why a cappella music is so popular, how it began, where it has traveled, or you wanted to define exactly why your a cappella group makes you feel safe, warm, and comfortable during your college years, this is the book for you.
The book is not only interesting because it defends a cappella practices and draws on relevant research, much like a music theory textbook explains compositional practices, but it dissects a cappella from the “inside out.” It rips out the guts and shows you how each part works in conjunction with each other.
Dr. Duchan also makes an overall point, which I happen to agree with: That collegiate a cappella is as much a social outlet as it is a musical form of expression.
Why wouldn’t you own this book?
If you were hoping to own a “how to” book that would strengthen your rehearsal practices or arranging methods, then this book will not help you. The purpose of the book is to give collegiate a cappella groups a sociological examination, not teach one particular group how to be “better” than another.
Target Audience
In my humble opinion, this book fulfills the needs of several types of readers, albeit in a small audience base. Educators who typically do research to improve their scope of knowledge will find a tremendous amount of helpful information, especially when Dr. Duchan defends each a cappella practice with another scholar’s published theory.
Educated thinkers who are completely unfamiliar with a cappella music, but are familiar with reading sociological studies will also find this book useful. The book outlines the practices of a cappella in a logical, objective way.
The characteristic I love most about this book is how it lends credence to my ongoing argument that a cappella should be taken “more seriously” by classical choral conductors. It is these kinds of studies that give educators the ammunition to defend a cappella’s educational value. This is a great read to recommend to someone who thinks a cappella is “just a fad.”
The strengths of this book come from the outline, and the subsequent attempts to categorize and classify each element of a cappella music. Take for example, the chapter on a cappella performance.
You would think describing the nature of an a cappella performance would be simple: The group arrives on stage, blows a pitch pipe, sings a few songs, and leaves. But there are elements which we take for granted within the performance that Dr. Duchan expands upon, like distinguishing the defintion of a “gig” versus a “concert,” the inclusion of humor, the body language of the soloist, a group's resistance to choreography, cultural identities at the ICCA finals, and gender definitions of group members.
Dr. Duchan treats each facet of a cappella in this way. This includes the history, rehearsal practices, the use of technology, and recordings and compilations. Throughout the examination, Dr. Duchan maintains the status of an objective observer, highlighting only one opinion over and over: that every aspect of a cappella has a social cause or effect.
A reader should expect a certain level of scholarship when opening the “first scholarly work in collegiate a cappella.” To expect anything less would be a misunderstanding of the term "scholarly." But, since no book is "perfect," here are some weaknesses.
First, the text is dense and heavy, but rightfully so. Dr. Duchan has collected a tremendous amount of data on the genders of a cappella groups, the number of a cappella groups that exist, and so on. The inclusion of charts, citations, sources, and references to educational philosophers might scare away some readers who aren't familiar with this kind of writing.
Second, in between the lines of professional rhetoric, there are some great ideas and suggestions, but you would have to look hard to find them. Someone who just wants these “helpful hints” would have difficulty scanning the book, and a reader, like me, has trouble remembering these helpful hints without marking up the chapters with a highlighter (which I refuse to do unless I buy a second copy).
Thirdly, the group who gets the most thorough examination, the Harvard University Fallen Angels, represents the more “common” sort of group, but I felt the examination did not yield a satisfying conclusion. Dr. Duchan uses the group as a model for the basis of his data, but I wanted an end to the story, good or bad, much like Divisi in “Pitch Perfect.” I realize this was not the point of the book, but I still felt like the chapter did not have the closure I needed.
Lastly, it’s too short! True, the book is 184 pages (not counting references and the bibliography), but after meeting Dr. Duchan in Chicago for the first time, it was clear his knowledge base extends far beyond what this book offers, and I was hungry for more. I know there will be more in the future, but I’m cranky and impatient.
What college classes could use this book as a reference?
This could serve as the textbook of an a cappella history class. Not only does Dr. Duchan examine the effectiveness of common a cappella programs, such as BOCA, ICCA, CASA, and RARB, but he details the history of how a cappella groups formed in the college setting. The most complete history of the Yale Whiffenpoofs yet available is the subject of one chapter. Dr. Duchan also examines how Deke Sharon started CASA, with his beginnings as the author of the Contemporary A cappella Newsletter and the CASA songbooks.
Passages of this book could also be included in an introductory class, like “A cappella 101,” but the dense texture may be too advanced for freshmen students.
If there was a graduate a cappella curriculum (soon…I promise), this book would be the “must have” textbook.
Final Opinion
The book takes a cappella and places it under the microscope. I hope this book becomes a staple on every a cappella fans’ bookshelf. The following review sums up my exact thoughts:
“The scholarship is excellent. Duchan draws on relevant researchers and theorists in sociology, anthropology, music criticism, music history, culture and communication, musicology, and ethnomusicology. The sources are cited with care into the text to produce a fine analytic fabric treating of a cappella in all its complexity. Most impressive.” – Robert Stebbins, University of Calgary.
Where can I find it?
I bought my copy off You can also download it as an e-book from
Duchan, J. (2012). Powerful voices: The musical and social world of collegiate a cappella. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Marc Silverberg

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A cappella Pop Quiz #1

Get a pen and paper. It’s time for your group to take the a cappella pop quiz.
No, this is not a test of your a cappella knowledge. I recently attended Sojam X and like all the other conventions I have attended, rooms are filled with dozens of a cappella groups who desire nothing more than to be recognized, be amazing, and be innovative.
The more I attend these workshops, the more connections I start to make. A cappella groups who have yet to achieve ICCA or BOCA fame struggle with concepts that extend far beyond innovation and energy. Elements of music that should be second nature to singers (blend, intonation, dynamics,) are more the problem than anything else.
How many times have we heard soloists “try” to belt. If soloists knew “how” to belt, they wouldn’t have to “try.”
How many times have we seen a cappella groups lose the tempo?
How many times have we lost focus as audience members because the group on stage is not demanding our attention?
So as part of my ongoing research to justify the a cappella college major, I designed a little quiz and will post a different section each week. I believe that knowing the answers to these questions (or discovering the answers below) will solve many of your groups difficult quirks. For maximum effect, have EVERY member of your group take this quiz. I think you’ll be surprised by the results. Ready…set…begin!
Quiz #1- Vocal Technique
1) What is resonance?
2) What happens in your body every time you inhale and exhale?
3) True or False: Breathing from your diaphragm is the best way to support your flow of air.
4) What is vibrato and straight tone singing?
5) What is the difference between a vowel and a consonant (in terms of air flow)?
6) What is IPA?
7) What is the soft palate?
8) How many vocal sounds are you capable of producing at once?
9) What is the difference between chest voice and head voice?
10) What is falsetto and who is capable of singing it?
11) What are all the possible voice range classifications for a singer (e.g. Soprano, Alto, etc.)?
Answers below (Don't peek...)
1) Resonance is defined as the amplification of the phonation by the air filled cavities through which it passes. In simpler terms, resonance is vibration and the increase of resonance means an increase in vibration.
Resonance is the healthy way to sing. Many singers still don’t understand this term, which leads to overuse of the voice and “cracking” on the high note. The art of “belting” relies on resonance. It’s almost a magic trick, but anyone can do it. Because singers do not understand this, they believe that the only way to reach that golden high note is by screaming from the throat.
To develop your resonance, use this method, which I use everyday with my choirs and a cappella groups:
Sing a phrase or a warm-up ENTIRELY through your nose. This will sound nasal and weird, almost like “The Chipmunks.” Sing this phrase over and over and try to pinpoint the area in your face that feels like it is vibrating. This should be the upper cheeks, the bridge of your nose, and even your forehead.
Sing the same phrase in what you define as a “beautiful tone” but continue to place the vibration in the exact same spot. The combination of singing beautifully while thinking nasally is resonance.
THIS is the key to belting. This is how I went from a Bass 2 to a Tenor 1 who can now “belt” a high Bb.
2) Several things happen when you breathe. When you inhale, the rib cage expands, the diaphragm moves from a more domed position to a less domed position, the stomach moves outward, and your pelvis drops slightly. The exact reverse happens when you exhale. Also, the primary breathing mechanism is your NOSE, not your MOUTH. The best breaths are taken through the nose, because the nose is where you take in more air.
3) False. Despite what your voice teacher tells you, the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, which means you can’t MAKE it move. Asking someone to support or breathe through his/her diaphragm is like asking someone to concentrate on not floating away from the ground. Forces (like gravity) already keep us from doing this. What your teacher should be asking instead is to support your air flow by tightening the stomach muscles, which you can control and impact the air flow much more than the diaphragm.
4) Vibrato is a rapid pulsating change in pitch. Every singer has a natural vibrato, or a specific place in their voice where the vibrato naturally comes out, without being coaxed. This is something that needs to be worked on, not forced. Forced vibrato often sounds ugly and heavy. Vibrato also takes a tremendous amount of support, because it requires more air flow.
Straight tone singing is simply “singing without vibrato.” Vocal jazz groups, and even a cappella groups encourage straight tone singing for a few reasons:
1) Straight tone singing is more resonant
2) Often arrangements have very close harmonies and vibrato adds difficulty to blending and “locking” pitches. Barbershop singers call the successful blend of close harmonies “locking and ringing.”
3) Many a cappella singers are not trained classical singers, and singing vibrato is a skill they do not have time to work on, or even need.
4) Straight tone singing is used by the majority of pop artists today.
This is not to say that vibrato is useless. Vibrato is a technique, or a color, that produces an interesting effect when used sparingly. Soloists should experiment with vibrato to give their solo more of an impact. But a close harmony piece of music should use a little vibrato as possible.
5) A vowel produces air, a consonant stops the air flow. Even consonants that you can hold, like the s sound, sh sound, and f sound, are really just a combination of your throat producing a neutral vowel (like “uh”) and your lips, tongue, or teeth interfering with the flow of air. Contrary to popular belief, vowels are the only letters that can produce sound, which is why every word in every language has them.
6) IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is sort of like a language for sounds. Every symbol in the IPA represents one specific sound and words are the combination of multiple IPA sounds. Let’s take the letter B. When you say the letter B, it seems like you are only making one sound, but that is incorrect. You are really making two sounds and it looks like this:
The [b] symbol stands for the consonant sound that B makes (buh) and the [i] is the vowel sound (ee).
Why am I telling you this? Because understanding IPA is the key to understanding specifically what vowel sound you want from your a cappella group and exactly how to make that sound. Even the “guitar noise” that singers can make is a combination of multiple IPA sounds. For someone like me who likes to break down and understand the process, it helps to know exactly how a sound is made.
If your college has a music department, most likely they have a class in IPA, but it is usually called “Diction.” If you don’t have a class, you can view more information about IPA here:
7) The soft palate is the soft tissue located on the roof of your mouth towards the back. If you place your tongue on the roof of your mouth near the teeth, you’ll notice the roof is very hard. If you move your tongue all the way back, you’ll notice it gets softer.
Raising the soft palate opens the throat and maximizes the resonance your voice is capable of. This mainly affects intonation. Singers who often sing “flat” do not raise their soft palate enough (among other things).
The best way to practice raising the soft palate is to yawn. Yawning raises the soft palate to its maximum height. Singers should try to replicate the feeling of the yawn while still trying to sing “beautifully.” (Singing through a yawn produces a breathy, sleepy sound)
8) If the answer is anything but “more than one,” you are incorrect. The lips are capable of making sounds on their own. Your throat is capable of making sounds on its own. That’s already two sounds. Believe it or not, you have the ability to hum and whistle at the same time. This is the process Bobby McFerrin uses to sing harmony with himself. The throat can sing one note and the lips can direct the air flow (whistle) to produce another.
9) Technically, the human body has several registers in which they can produce sound. For singer’s purposes, the two most important registers are the chest voice and the head voice. The best way to distinguish these registers is to sing from your lowest note to your highest note and put your hand on your chest. In the lower notes, your chest should vibrate significantly. This is your chest voice range. When the chest stops vibrating, you have entered your head voice range.
The problem comes with too many singers who misunderstand the difference. Singing in the chest voice is often incorrectly referred to as “Belting.” This sound is what most pop singers and Broadway singers produce, thus it is the sound desired by future singers. Someone who tries to sing higher notes in their chest voice without the proper technique will “crack” or “break.”
In fact, the vocal “break” is the exact note in which you switch between registers and this CAN be worked on. Think of a break as a muscle that just hasn’t worked out. You can’t lift 200 pounds without working up to it and your break can’t support the weight of your voice without working on it.
10) Falsetto refers to a register that falls in a specific place in the vocal track. ONLY MEN have falsetto. There are many people who believe women possess the capability of singing falsetto and this is just incorrect. While men singing in falsetto can reach the ranges that females have, falsetto is not classified by the range of notes. Men can sing falsetto on any pitch in any range (believe it or not). Falsetto is classified by where the sound actually falls in the human body. Simply because women were born with different anatomy than men (something you should have learned in Kindergarten), women are incapable of producing falsetto
11) There are 8 official vocal classifications, with 2 extreme classifications that apply to extreme registers.
Voice classifications are often mislabeled, because only the range of notes is taken into account. This is incorrect. The ease of note production, the anatomy of the singer, and the timbre (or specific sound) of a voice classify the singer. For example, I am able to sing all the way down to a low F, but that does not make me a bass. My voice is naturally more resonant and higher pitched, so I am a tenor.
Soprano is the highest voicing possible. Females are classified as sopranos. There are also boy sopranos, who are young men capable of singing in the soprano range. However, men who have already gone through puberty and can still sing in the highest range are not sopranos. Sopranos can sing in the high range WITHOUT the aid of falsetto. A natural soprano should be most comfortable singing in the high treble staff.
Mezzo Soprano is the next voicing down. Mezzo sopranos are most comfortable singing in the middle range, where sopranos consider too low for head voice and altos consider too high for belting. Typically, this is a voicing classification for operatic singers. I have yet to see the justification for classifying an a cappella singer as a mezzo, but I welcome you to prove me wrong.
The Alto is the under the mezzo. A true alto is most comfortable singing in the lower treble clef staff and below. Altos often have difficulty producing notes, either in chest voice or head voice, above a C in the middle of the treble staff, but that does not apply to every alto.
A contralto is rare but exists. This is a female voice who not only can reach notes typical for a bass singer, but also feels most comfortable singing in this range. If you don’t know whether or not you are a contralto, you probably aren’t. Try singing for a long time on C, D, E, and F below the treble staff. If the sound is not very loud, or this hurts your voice, you are not a contralto.
The highest male voice is the Counter-Tenor. This voice classification is also rare, but becoming more common in recent years. A counter tenor is most comfortable singing in an Alto or Mezzo soprano range WITHOUT the use of falsetto. A good example is Kurt on “Glee.”
Tenor is the most common high singing male. True tenors should be able to produce high notes WITHOUT the use of falsetto. Many baritones attempt to “belt” tenor notes, as tenors are the most coveted male voice in popular music. It is possible to train your voice to have a more substantial tenor range (I did), but this takes a lot of practice and time and you are still not technically a tenor.
Baritones are the middle register of male voices and comprise the majority of male voices. Baritones are most comfortable singing in the middle register of their voice. Baritones can often have a wide range, both high and low, and are usually mistaken for basses. To determine whether or not you are a baritone, try to figure out where in your range your voice is most powerful.
Basses are the lowest voice classification. A true bass is most comfortable singing in the lowest part of his register, and true basses can comfortably sing below a low F without difficulty.
There are two extreme classifications of voice types, Coloratura and Basso Profundo. A Coloratura soprano is comfortable singing in the highest part of the highest Soprano range. Coloratura sopranos are often classified as such in classical music, most notably, operatic singing. For example, the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” is a coloratura aria. A Basso Profundo is also an operatic classification. These basses are not categorized by their massive range, but by their massive volume. Basso Profundos often have a heavy vibrato, useful for singing operatic arias. A Basso Profundo could also apply to a person who has a naturally low voice and sings very low.
How did you do?
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major