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

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