Thursday, December 6, 2012

Goofus, Gallant, and the ICCAs

Are you familiar with Highlights magazine? Sure you are. You must be, unless you had a very unhappy childhood. Besides the hidden object cover (which was awesome), there was always one other segment I loved as a kid. It was called “Goofus and Gallant.”
Goofus and Gallant were twin boys who taught you moral life lessons and manners. Goofus would always do wrong and Gallant would always do right. For example:
“Goofus starts eating before others are seated at the table. Gallant waits for everyone to come to the table before taking any food.”
The “Goofus and Gallant” comic strip has been a model for several online blogs to define what is right and what is wrong. Political parties have used it. Comedians have parodied it. (most notably, MAD Magazine)
You’re probably thinking…”Where is he going with this? Is there a way to apply the “Goofus and Gallant” comic strip to a cappella music?”
OF COURSE THERE IS! (Silly you…)
After all, it’s competition season! (Hooray!) Groups are gearing up for their preliminary battles in the ICCA, ICHSA, and Harmony Sweepstakes. It just so happens that Goofus and Gallant are both part of groups who were accepted into this year’s ICCA. Let’s see what they are up to and if they can teach us something about succeeding in competitions…
1) "Goofus’ a cappella group is going to sing “Some Nights.” Gallant’s group is going to try to avoid popular songs on the radio, because he knows that inexperienced groups will probably sing these same numbers."
Listen…I’m friends with a fair few number of important and influential a cappella people. I’m not bragging. I’m just setting up an anecdote. The day after the quarter-final groups were announced, my facebook update notified me that ten (10!) different a cappella enthusiasts were predicting that multiple groups would be singing “Some Nights,” and that a few of them would even close their set with it.
First of all, singing the same tune as another group on the same stage is bad enough. You definitely don’t want to be in this position, because, even if you do it better, the audience has already heard it, and nobody wins. Secondly, as a regular audience member of competitions and concerts, the first thing I think when I hear the same number twice is “Man…these groups are totally uncreative.”
“Some Nights” is a GREAT song. That’s why it should be avoided at all costs, because everyone and their mother wants to sing it. something original, do something unexpected, sing something that was never a radio single, and make sure the arrangement is spectacular. Speaking of which…
2) "Goofus arranges his competition set without thinking about choreography first. Gallant arranges his competition set with easy to sing lines and uncomplicated rhythms, because he knows the choreography will probably be very difficult and the singers will run out of breath quickly."
If you are going to include choreography, you MUST MUST MUST consider the choreography as an element of the performance. Here’s what happens usually:
A group receives a fantastic, complicated, and harmonically interesting arrangement. They rehearse it to perfection, adding all sorts of articulations and dynamics that would make any music theory professor proud. Then…[cue dramatic music] somebody adds complicated and visually stunning choreography to compliment the awesome sound. Suddenly, your singers are out of breath and can’t hold the harmonies in tune, the rhythms of the arrangement don’t match the rhythms of the choreography and your singers are confused which is which, and worst of all, the competition stage is hot, sweaty, and not suited for the amount of space you need, which means you have to adjust everything on performance night.
Think ahead, plan accordingly, and maximize your potential without sacrificing musicality.
3) "Goofus doesn’t care about sound check. He thinks it is a waste of 15 minutes that he could be using to rehearse. Gallant thinks the sound check is the most important part of any competition day and plans ahead to ensure that everything goes smoothly and no time is wasted."
Sound check is the MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ANY COMPETITION DAY. In fact, this is so important, I’m going to yell it again:
Your sound check needs to go flawlessly. Your group needs to know exactly how they are going to spend their 15 minutes, and they need to be prepared ahead of time for any situation that may occur. One (ONE) person leads the sound check, and for the next 15 minutes, that person is God and should be followed with a rigid, army-like obedience.
Here’s another helpful hint. If you are the music director who also sings with the group, DON’T go out into the audience and listen. You’ll never truly hear what the group sounds like, because the group is one person short. Bring with you a trusted friend who will sit there and listen, so you don’t have to juggle two jobs at once.
And finally, please treat your sound operators with respect. Regardless of how stressed you are, how angry or frustrated you might be with your group, or the fact that you think all sound operators are mindless space chimps whose only goal in life is to piss you off, they really are intelligent, helpful people and your last line of defense between winning and losing.
4) "Goofus thinks his group will win without preparation, because everything will fall into place at showtime. Gallant knows that the groups that win are the ones who play the hardest, and train the best."
Oh, how I wish the philosophy held by Goofus was not shared by others, but sadly...
Assume that as hard as you're working, some other group is working twice as hard. Just take a look at last year’s winner, the SoCal VoCals. Look at their precision and timing. Listen to their arrangements. They worked hard and it shows.
5) "Goofus refuses to take a look at the competition to get inspired and motivated. Gallant realizes that he does not know everything about a cappella and, even if he did, he would still try to watch and listen to other groups for inspiration."
You may not know who you are competing against. You may know exactly who you are competing against. It doesn’t matter. If you want to win, you have to study the competition, or at least, study groups who have competed before.
There isn’t a football coach on Earth who doesn’t watch film reels of old games and studies the other teams. It’s not cheating. It’s “being educated.”
6) "Goofus assumes everyone in his group knows how to hold and operate a microphone. Gallant realizes that microphone technique is an essential skill to learn and to have, and that live sound is an art form."
Mouth to the metal. That’s all you really need to know. The more sound you give your sound board operator, the more options they have to raise or lower you. There’s even a special way to hold the microphone if you are the vocal percussionist. Cup the microphone head with your fist, so that only a small amount of sound can get through. This will increase the impact your bass drum and kick will have.
DO NOT assume everyone in your group knows how to sing into a microphone. That “pulling the microphone away when you are singing loud technique” that you see pop stars do is technically correct, but it shouldn’t happen for every note you sing. Stop trying to emulate Lady Gaga before you understand how Lady Gaga does what she does.
7) "Goofus does not perform his a cappella set before the competition. Gallant lets several audiences critique his a cappella group before they go on stage, because he knows that audiences see and hear things that he can’t."
You should hold open dress rehearsals before your competition set. Even better, you should perform for another a cappella group on your campus. Even better, you should ask one of the hundreds of a cappella experts to give you a masterclass. Even better, you should videotape yourself performing and critique it immediately after.
8) "Goofus chooses to rap even though he’s the dorkiest guy on the planet. Gallant chooses music that he can truthfully perform."
Look, I get it. Every girl in the world wants to be Katy Perry and every guy wants to be Usher. But if you don’t have the chest voice range or the sharp, vibrato-less quality that they have, you have two options: Either train really hard to achieve it, or sing a different song.
I believe that there is such a thing as an “untruthful” performance. This is a group, let’s say a group of older men, who attempt to sing Maroon 5, because they think it will win them points in a competition. I completely disagree. I think you should play to your group’s strengths, sing repertoire that is suited to your main audience, and stop caring what others think about you.
I’m a huge Eminem fan, but I’m also a fat, white, Jewish geek. So, as much as I love his music, I will probably stay away from rap.
9) "Goofus chooses not to use his best soloists. Gallant picks the competition set with soloists in mind, so he can utilize his group's best assets."
A good soloist can make or break your set. Forget about fairness, forget about drama, and forget about seniority. Your best singers should get the solos. You already know who they are. Stop pretending you don’t, and give them the solos. Remember the a cappella philosophy of group singing- If you are really that crushed that you aren’t the soloist, maybe singing in an a cappella group isn’t for you.
10) "Goofus assumes his gimmicky jokes and energy will beat the more musical groups. Gallant appreciates senses of humor, but knows the best jokes are ones that don’t try to be funny."
Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. The best comedians don’t even think they are funny. If you think you’re funny, you’re probably not.
And besides, this isn’t a comedy competition. It’s a music competition. Stop trying to be funny and be musical. ICCA judges and crowds are some of the toughest audiences in the world. Even if your joke is hilarious, expect that it won’t get a laugh.
11) "Goofus does not know how groups are scored. Gallant understands exactly how groups win these competitions, because he has researched it."
The scoring system of the ICCA is much like the Olympics. Mickey Rapkin, author of “Pitch Perfect” even quotes this in his book. Basically, each group is scored on a variety of show elements, from musical attributes, to showmanship, to originality, to choreography. The judges convene and present their overall scores. The highest score and the lowest score are dropped, to prevent one judge from sabotaging the competition, or unfairly helping one group win. The group with the highest remaining total wins.
Have you ever been to an ICCA competition and wondered “How the hell did that group win?!!!” This is how. And besides, the judges are often selected because of their a cappella or choral knowledge, so they might see something you don’t.
12) "Goofus assumes that because he has the best group on campus, that his group is the best in the country. Gallant realizes that there are over 1,200 collegiate a cappella groups in the country and even more all over the world, and doesn’t let his ego get the better of him."
Okay. Great. You’ve achieved superstar status on campus. No group could possibly hold a candle to your shows, which always sell-out. Groups from around the area beg you to allow them a chance to perform on your stage as a guest group or beg you to visit their stage.
Guess what? Every other group competing is probably thinking the same thing. This gives you an advantage. Instead of thinking you’re awesome, what if you assumed your group was the underdog? What if you assumed every group was ten times better than you? Would that motivate you to work harder?
Don’t let your ego get in the way. Especially because egos are often crushed at the ICCAs. As an avid audience member, it’s very obvious to me who wants to win because they have something to prove, and who thinks they can coast by with good looks and charm.
Don’t be a Goofus. Be Gallant. Good luck in the competitions.
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major:

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