Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Don't Make A Panda Dance

Last week, I tried to stage my own choreography for one of the groups I teach at college.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever met me, but if you haven’t, you need to get the right picture in your head:
I’m shaped sort of like a cross between a pear and a panda. One time, I fell into a bush, because of my own left foot. Sometimes I drift off to one side of my body, because I grow weary of standing with an even distribution of weight on both feet.
The group was going to perform a concert on risers (don’t ask…) so I knew the choreography had to be something more like “choral-ography.” “Choral-ography,” for those of you who are unaware, is the slang term given to choreography utilized by choirs who stand on risers. Because risers are often shaky and unbalanced, “choral-ography” consists of mostly upper-body movement, keeping the singer generally in the same spot the entire time.
In my attempts to stage some “choral-ography,” here’s how I did:
On a scale of 1 to “pathetic,” I was somewhere in-between "Why are you trying?" and "No, please. Just stop."
But it was definitely a learning experience for me, and with many groups headed to the ICCA’s, here are a few choreography tips I picked up along the way:
1) Learn how to mirror, or buy a mirror.
Yes, I tried to teach the students how to dance without actually looking at them, because I couldn’t perform the dance backwards.
Students need a model. If you can’t be that model, go and buy a sturdy piece of glass that will make you seem more competent.
2) Less is more.
This is a valuable lesson about using movement for music’s sake, not movement’s sake. Just because the students aren’t moving for four counts doesn’t mean you should suddenly add an extra four counts. Maybe it’s better if they don’t move.
Also, if you don’t have a lot of movement, and then suddenly you move in a very big, ornate kind of way, that looks equally ridiculous. You need some movement before that big move, so the transition runs smoother.
3) If you can’t do it, neither can they.
Now here’s a lesson I thought I could get around. I figured most of the students would be better dancers than I was, so I thought up some moves that were too difficult for me to do, but I was sure the students would have no problem picking up quickly.
Turns out I was wrong. Wrong and stupid. Wrong, stupid and shaped like a cross between a pear and a panda.
I couldn’t teach them, so I couldn’t explain it properly. They couldn’t do it, because I couldn’t explain it properly.
Turns out that every move has multiple layers: When do you start the move? What angle do your arms move up? When does the move end? Do you have to count beats? Which way do you face? And so on…
Just because you think a move is easy, doesn’t mean it is easy.
4) Watch a video
For inspiration, I took some moves from show choirs I had seen on Youtube. Turns out that watching the move done by professionals was WAY easier than explaining it myself.
Ahh, but there’s a catch. A cappella groups who “borrow” choreography from other groups risk being caught by the ICCA judges. I won’t give you details, but I caught a group doing this very thing once, and I docked them MAJOR points for doing so. In case you were wondering…YES, ICCA judges know a lot more about a cappella than you think they do.
5) Stop it.
I consider myself skilled at many things. Arranging, writing, studying, speaking in public, improvising…It just so happens that as many musical gifts as I was blessed with, fate did not want me to excel at everything.
Ever see me draw? It’s horrible. My car looks like a potato sitting on top of two doughnuts. (This description has also been used on my appearance, during a rather unpleasant date I once had)
Dancing, as it turns out, is NOT a skill I possess. Sometimes you have to know your faults and ask for help. Because the alternative is what one faculty member recently called it: choral “thai-chi.”
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Best Albums You've Never Heard, Part 1

Hundreds, maybe even thousands of a cappella albums are released every year. The number of albums flooding the market is both a huge positive and a crushing negative. On the plus side, we know that a cappella is thriving, vibrant, and the musical equivalent of the Energizer Bunny. Album output keeps studios in business, raises the self-esteem of group members, and is the number one promoter for all of us.
The downside to the staggering number of albums released is simple: The real gems, the ones that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, the ones that change your perspective on life, are often lost in the weeds.
Depending on who you are, this post will either be very helpful for you, or completely useless. The die-hard a cappella fans will have already downloaded and listened to these albums ad-nauseum, but this post isn’t for them. It’s for the reader who is new, or inexperienced, or just looking for some new music.
I came across these albums due to various circumstances. Some I had to listen to, for judging or writing a review. Some I’ve had stockpiled in my brain for the last ten or so years. Some appeared before me with a magical beam of light, as if someone were leading me down a righteous path, or the window was open slightly and I didn’t notice it.
I fear the controversy that this post will create, because naming a five-star album from thousands of options is like telling one of your three children that “you are their favorite.” So please do not misunderstand me. If your album is not on this list, I am in NO WAY saying it is a bad album, nor am I saying it isn’t excellent. A man is entitled to his opinion, and in my opinion, these albums made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. And the more I want to talk about them, the harder it is to find others who have listened to it.
[Side Note: Compilations, such as SING, BOCA, and Voices Only are not included on this list]
So here is part 1 of the best albums you’ve never heard (in no particular order):
1) Bioluminescence by ARORA
The album of 2013. No doubt about it. One of my favorite things about SONOS…sorry…ARORA... is their ability to make so much out of so little. The chords have a tremendous amount of life to them, even though the fundamental structure of the song is a loop, which rarely changes. One of my biggest pet peeves with a cappella albums is the group’s choice of track order, and ARORA finally gives me what I want: An album that flows from beginning to end, with great care given to the order of songs. It could almost be considered an a cappella concept album that takes you on a journey from simple to complex, from light to dark, from beauty to dissonance.
Tracks you must listen to: The Bridge, Satellite, Morning Light
2) Hold That Thought by Fermata Town
I think Fermata Town believes I am stalking them, because I can’t stop talking about this album. The reason being, is that when I was desperate for something new, starved for something different, I discovered this album at the right moment, and it was like I had listened to “Sgt. Pepper” for the first time.
Hold That Thought has exactly the kind of music I want to listen to: Pop music with complex jazz harmonies, sort of like the popular Swedish band Dirty Loops. (with whom they pay homage to in Circus) This album takes the music you can’t stop listening to, and gives you an entirely new reason to be obsessed with it.
Tracks you must listen to: Seven Nation Army, Stereo Hearts, Circus
3) Beatles Connection by The Kings Singers
Nineteen. There are nineteen tracks on this album. Nineteen of the Beatles' best songs sung by one of the greatest a cappella groups of all time. The Kings Singers don’t have a beatboxer, they don’t use auto-tune, and they don’t conform to traditional harmonies. You’ve probably sung at least one of these arrangements in your high school choir, the most popular being “Can’t Buy Me Love” in a Renaissance Madrigal style or the ever popular arrangement of “Blackbird” where the tenors have one note in the entire song.
But the album is more than just these familiar songs. “And I Love Her” is harmonically complex and gorgeous. “Here Comes The Sun” is as simple and chilled as it was intended to be. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is fast and furious, with an omage to Swingle Singing. The album is much older than the others, but it remains a cappella canon.
Tracks you must listen to: And I Love Her, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Back In The U.S.S.R, Can’t Buy Me Love, Blackbird, Here Comes The Sun
4) 1812 by The Swingle Singers
I know a lot of people love the new renditions of the Swingle Singers, and I do too. But I’m also a Swingle purist, and 1812, even though it’s live, is perfect. Beatles covers, Trois Chanson by Debussy, Sondheim, Clair De Lune, and, of course, the 1812 Overture a cappella.
Oh, and by the way, it’s live (did I forget to mention that?), so everything you are hearing is real and unedited. And live. This album is live....Live.
Tracks you must listen to: 1812 overture, Lady Madonna, Another Hundred People, Clair De Lune
5) Unwrapped by Sweet Signatures
I came across this album as part of a required listening assignment. It was the first track, Santa Baby, that drew my attention right away. Not only is it extremely different, but there are sections of the song, and other songs, when the harmony is so complex and advanced that it becomes something worthy of a musical analysis. Among the throngs of Christmas albums from a cappella groups, it is very difficult to make one stand out, but Sweet Signatures succeeded.
Tracks you must listen to: Santa Baby, Deck The Halls, Silent Night/Night of Silence
6) Steps by Cluster
If you haven’t heard their rendition of Hallelujah, stop what you are doing right now and listen to it.
It’s true that the first track, “Just Kidding” uses piano, but the tracks on this album demonstrate Cluster’s real talent for music making and the re-imagining of popular jazz standards. You probably won’t recognize many of the track titles, but it’s probably better that you don’t, since you leave yourself open to being pleasantly surprised.
Tracks you must listen to: Hallelujah, Just Kidding, One Note Samba
7) Collective by Duwende
The popular podcast “Mouth Off” once did a show where both Dave and Chris listed their top ten a cappella albums of all time, and on both lists, this album was near the top or at the top. Collective is all original material, and it’s truly a shame that more people don’t know these tunes. Perhaps it was because this album was released a few years before original a cappella material was considered “the future of a cappella.”
The tunes rock. It’s as simple as that. High energy, driving beats, catchy hooks...everything that makes Duwende an a cappella household name. Don’t be turned off by the all original material. These songs are better than most of the songs on the radio today, and this album was released over five years ago.
Tracks you must listen to: Young Leaders of Tomorrow, Someone I Don’t Know, Electrify
8) Life’s So Lyrical by Forte
Speaking of original material…Forte’s all original album was released only a year ago. The kids (that’s right…high school kids) wrote these tunes themselves and after every listening, I can literally hear my self-esteem as a songwriter slipping away.
Yes, the songs are that good. No, they are not perfect, but I really wish more bands had an album as good as this one. The best part? Every song sounds completely different. The group explores different styles, like piano rock and club beats, and it’s almost hard to tell that this is the same a cappella group throughout the whole album.
Tracks you must listen to: Life’s So Lyrical, Before I Met You, Celebrate
9) Commonly Unique by The Real Group
A lot of people know the Real Group as a jazz group. While it’s definitely true that Commonly Unique is nowhere near their best album (Nothing But The Real Group probably takes that honor), the songs in Commonly Unique are really catchy and totally original.
The thing I respect the most is how different this album was from Real Group albums that came before it. Much like the Swingle Singers are doing right now, Real Group transformed their image into something new. They tried something different, and for whatever reason, I like it.
Tracks you must listen to: Substitute For Life, Cage of Promises, Big Bad World
10) Late Night Parades by Men In Drag
Dear Ladies,
THIS is how you make an album.
Tracks you must listen to: Cherry Pie, Something in the Water, Pretty Girl Rock
11) Chameleon by Vox One
This is the first a cappella album I ever bought. Vox One is the a cappella group that broke up too early, and released an album that was way too ahead of their time. That’s probably why people don’t know it today. But if you want to hear one of the forerunners for the contemporary a cappella explosion, Chameleon is your best bet.
Tracks you must listen to: Chameleon, Danny Boy, Over The Rainbow
More albums to come soon. Happy listening!
[Let the flood of negative comments commence!]
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Power Of Doo-Doo

A couple of weeks ago, my a cappella group went flat. Not just in one song, but in every song. We were freaking out, because we had a concert coming up, and we couldn’t stay in tune to save our lives. We were in serious doo-doo.
This usually wouldn’t be an issue…I mean, if the whole group goes flat together, does it really matter? Look at Manhattan Transfer. They actually go flat on “Nightingale Sings In Berkley Square,” and they are supposedly the best vocal jazz quartet of all time.
In this particular case, though, it did. When I arrange, I tend to put each voice within the extreme registers, both low and high, so the arrangement doesn’t work if it’s in any key except the one I wrote.
I know what you’re thinking: “Well THERE’S your problem! You leave no wiggle room for going flat or sharp.”
True, I need to consider my vocal ranges a little more carefully in the future. But the problem, we discovered, was the vowel we were all using.
Below is a list of assumptions we tend to make when choosing vowels for our arrangement, and here’s what we, and especially I, have discovered in the process:
1) “Ooh” is for soft sections, “Ahh” is for loud sections.
The logic is simple. With an “ahh” vowel, our mouths are open to their maximum height, so naturally, we assume that we can produce the most sound. That may be true, but the “ahh” vowel produces just as many problems as it does decibels.
A pure “ahh” vowel is formed with the soft palate at its maximum height, jaw dropped to its lowest point, and tongue flat. Chances are, everyone in your group is singing their version of an “ahh” vowel, but no one’s “ahh” matches anyone else’s. To achieve a full, unified “ahh,” every singer must have the same mouth shape, as described above, and then, that still might not be unified, because there are bright “ahh” vowels and dark “ahh” vowels. A true “ahh,” according to the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a dark “ahh.”
My group changed a lot of our “ahh” vowels to “ooh” vowels. The “ooh” vowel is much easier to match, because it is the most closed vowel we can sing. It also increases the amount of space in our mouths, because it does not require the use of the tongue, only the lips. And if you think you can’t sing “ooh” in a forte dynamic, then you aren’t utilizing your support system or resonance system, and you’re most likely singing it incorrectly.
2) The soloist does not matter when it comes to vowels.
The soloist has words, the background singers have neutral syllables. That’s the fundamental way a cappella has been arranged for decades. But if the soloist is singing a word, like “me,” which is an “ee” vowel, and the background singers are singing “ooh,” there will already be a tuning issue.
I’m not saying that every vowel has to match the soloist. I am suggesting that all singers be aware of what vowel is used by each voice part, so that when you tune to each other, you are matching your vowels with the right person.
3) It does not matter which consonant you place before the vowel. You should choose whichever consonant matches the sound you want or the instrument you are trying to replicate.
Well...yes and no. Yes, you shouldn’t use “doo” when you want something more subtle, and you shouldn’t choose “voo” when you want to sing heavy rhythmic passages. But the attack of the consonant is more important than we realize, especially when we choose consonants called “fricatives.”
Fricative consonants include any consonant that you can hold. “S,” “F,” “SH,” etc. If you can speak the sound of a consonant and you can hold it out as long as you have air, then that consonant is a fricative. There are also consonants that act like fricatives, but are called glides, or nasal consonants, because of how they are produced. Glides include “W” and “L,” while nasal consonants include “M” and “N.”
Why am I boring you with this? Because fricative consonants take time to produce sound, and time to stop. Chances are, if everyone is singing the word “voo,” only half of your members are placing the “ooh” vowel on the beat, while the other half are singing the “v” consonant on the beat.
Fricative consonants must always be sung before the beat if your group has any chance of staying in tune and in tempo. True, the difference is measured in milliseconds, but those milliseconds matter.
4) It does not matter what voice part you are singing. Any voice part can sing any vowel.
Well, yes. Any voice part should be able to sing any vowel, but when you hit the extreme ranges, that statement is not true.
Here’s a fun anecdote: My soprano recently told me that she has rarely, if ever, sung the vowels I wrote on the page. She uses a mixed hybrid of “ooh” and “ahh,” which provides maximum power and helps her stay in tune.
After I got over my initial rage, I realized she was right and I was wrong. A soprano who is required to sing “ooh” at a high range will always run into pitch problems, because an “ooh” vowel requires a certain voice placement that contradicts the range. Sopranos, especially when singing notes off the staff, have to start modifying their vowels (changing “ooh” to “oh” and “oh” to “ahh”) to stay in tune. An arranger who writes a high soprano line with an “ooh” vowel is always going to run into this problem.
Basses sing their best low notes on the “ee” vowel, because “ee” is a maximum resonance vowel. Tenors sing best on “ooh,” because “ooh” is a maximum space vowel that uses both head voice and falsetto equally, and provides maximum room for dynamic shifts. Altos sing best on “oh,” because “oh” is a medium space vowel that fits best in their chest voice.
Of course, all of these statements can be contradicted by individual singers. If your alto sings best on “ooh,” then take that singer’s advice and ignore mine.
The moral of the story: Choose your vowels with care or your group will be stuck in doo-doo.
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A cappella Activism

In light of recent current events, I would like to change course a little bit and talk more seriously.
We are in some troubled times. I don’t count myself a political person. My daily news comes from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, so I can hardly say that I’m more well-informed than most. But there are things I believe in: I believe a cappella music is the coolest music ever. I believe in the power of education and that teaching is the most important profession that exists today. I believe that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, background, beliefs, etc. I believe that when a terrible shooting occurs, especially if that shooting occurs in a school, I believe our first, and most important duty, is to mourn the loss and do what we can to help.
I also believe that we, as a cappella singers and musicians, have a great deal more power than we give ourselves credit for. I believe that music has the power to shape our cultural identities. I believe that music, and all the arts, visual, literary, and performing arts, can raise awareness more powerfully than news networks can. I also believe that we are not using our powers enough.
I will not be so bold as to claim that singing in an a cappella group could possibly stop a horrific incident like this, or the hundreds that occurred right before it. But after a major event like this one, dozens, even hundreds of a cappella groups spring up to raise spirits, and a little money, for the cause. I wish the charity, love, and support brought on by a cappella groups happened more often, and before the horrific event ever happened.
Isn’t it possible, just possible, that the arts could have played a small part in preventing acts like this? Is it possible that a healthy arts program could have raised the shooter’s self esteem to the point where he might not have needed to go this far? Is it possible that music could have raised awareness about whatever the issue was that drove him to do this? Is it possible that with the support of peers, engaged in something meaningful, he might never have done this?
Is it just possible that this could have been prevented? Is it just possible that one of these events could have been prevented if the arts played a bigger role in our lives?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. You might think that the answer is a resounding “No, and you’re crazy for thinking this way.” That’s fine. I’d like to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes, there’s even a small possibility we could have stopped this.”
I can only speak for myself, but my music classroom has always been a place where students can escape their social burdens, peer pressure, and school stigmas, and bond together with others who share their love of something musical. I became a confidant, a mentor. And I did it while teaching a a cappella.
I don’t want to use this time to defend the arts. Anyone who is reading this right now knows the arts are in trouble, and if you don’t know that, you need to know.
I also don’t know any circumstances regarding this incident, or anyone involved. It could have been unrelated to anything I have just mentioned. But, even if this incident could not have been prevented, what about the countless others?
The point I’m trying to make is this…A cappella music is currently the “hot ticket” in musical culture. It gives people the chance to be the rock star of their dreams, to spend time in a classroom learning and singing the music they like, rather than the music that is forced upon them by curriculums. We, as a cappella singers, arrangers, producers, and especially educators, have an enormous power within us to spread good, promote creativity, encourage teamwork, raise awareness, build self-esteem, reinforce motor skills, enhance imagination, awaken healthy modes of expression, etc. We have that power, from the most advanced a cappella group on the planet to a group that just had their first rehearsal yesterday. And when tragedy after tragedy hits the news, the first thought in my head is “Could we, as musicians, have stopped it?”
Just give it a thought.
Marc Silverberg

Monday, October 7, 2013

Make Your Mash-ups Mashier

A while ago, I posted an article about the difference between a mash-up and a medley. You can view it here:
Defining the genre is not enough. Some arrangers need help turning their mash-up from a lumpy sack of unpeeled potatoes into a yummy mush of spud and cheese. These theory-based techniques are tricky to master, but they will give your mash-up the fuel it needs to stand out.
1) Harmonic progressions
One of the best ways to determine whether two songs would work together is the harmonic progression, or the progression of chords. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) I posted a series of blogs on how to participate in a riff-off. Included in these posts was a beginner’s guide to identifying chord progressions. You can view it here:
Let’s give an example. Say you want to mash-up “Happy Ending” by Mika and “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. An inexperienced arranger would look at the two songs, see that they were in different keys, and immediately think these two songs couldn’t possibly go together.
Mika’s “Happy Ending:” C G Am F
Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours:” G D Em C
An experienced arranger would notice that, while these two songs were in different keys, the harmonic progression, or the movement of chords, was exactly the same.
The chord progressions using Roman numeral analysis
Happy Ending: I V vi IV
Jason Mraz: I V vi IV
They are the same underlying framework, despite starting in different keys. This means that, if you changed the keys of one of the songs, the chord progression would work for both. These two songs would most likely sound good together.
Of course, you will need to place them in the same key, which means transposing one of the solos up or down, and adjusting the tempo of each song so that both solos were moving under the same chords, but at least you’ve discovered the basic framework.
2) Tempos
There are many apps on smartphones, tablets, and computers these days that let you play with the recordings of songs, and test out whether two songs would sound good together in a mash-up.
One of the easiest ways to choose two songs is based solely on tempo, or the speed of the song. A fast song often has a fast progression of chords. This could fit well with another song that moves quickly, or even more clever, a song that moves very slowly through chords.
Imagine a song that stays with the same chord for several measures, like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. Now add to that a song that moves quickly through chords, like “Marry Me” by Train.
Combining these two songs, one staying within the same structure and one moving quickly within that structure, may create a new harmonic sound that you enjoy.
3) Melody
The key to re-harmonization, or writing new chords for an existing melody, is all dependent on what note is currently in the melody. For example, a melody that stays on the note E would fit well over the C major triad, which contains the notes C E and G.
However, that’s not the only option. A melody note E would also fit over:
Em- E G B
Am- A C E
C#m- C# E G#
FMaj7- F A C E
G13- G B F E
There are dozens of chords that would work because they share the same note as the melody. Now, before I start getting hate mail from composers, let me be clear: Re-Harmonization is more than just picking out new chords. The placement of these chords in order, the function of these chords; all of these elements factor into the compositional process.
What if we took the melody of one song, labeled the notes, and then saw if that song worked with another, existing harmonic progression?
Take “Let It Be” by the Beatles and sing it over the harmonic progression of “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers. The end of the first phrase, “Let it Be,” the soloist sings a “C” while the chords move from C major (C E G) to G7 (G B D F).
The addition of the “C” in the melody turns the harmonic progression into C major going to G 11 (G B D F C). Already you have a re-harmonization, all because the chord was altered, thanks to the melody note.
You should feel free to play with different chords under the melody, as long as the chord you choose already contains the melody note within it. Using a pre-existing melody with a different, pre-existing chord progression, is one of the most advanced and clever ways to mash-up two songs.
4) Guess and Check
Forget theory! Theory is stupid! Just try singing two songs together, like they did in Pitch Perfect. See what happens. Who knows, you might find a new musical sound that you really like.
I don’t mean to make your head spin, or overcomplicate things by bringing musical theory into this topic. But there are times when you try a mash-up and something “just isn’t right,” but you can’t put your finger on it. These techniques will help you eliminate these inconsistencies.
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For the A cappella Major:
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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Spider-Man: Turn Off This Musical

Over the summer, I took in a few Broadway shows. Some were great (Pippin). Some were “meh” (Vanya, Sonya, Masha, and Spike). And then there was one that was truly an abomination to theatre everywhere.
It was Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
Let me just give you a taste of this garbage for those who haven’t seen it. It includes (but not limited to), a hip-hop dance in army uniforms; a dance in which everyone is dressed as Spider-Man; a fight scene with a larger-than-life balloon; an incredibly large and pointless baby silhouette; a plastic, blow-up Lizard protruding from a man’s chest; a bumble-bee costume with far too many wires sticking out of it; a giant, god-like spider which descends from the ceiling and into Peter Parker’s bedroom during one of the most unintentionally perverted scenes of all time; and finally, a lounge-singing Green Goblin who finally meets his demise in a "death-by-piano" situation. Oh, and the music is terrible.
This musical was a mess. A big, 65 million dollar mess. And it is currently the seventh highest-grossing musical today, raking in 10 million dollars a week.
WHAT???? That piece of human excrement is the seventh highest-grossing musical today?
It’s true, and I think I understand why.
It’s the name, Spider-Man, which holds enough weight to carry this show. Even I wanted to see it, and I knew it was going to be bad, because I love Spider-Man. And, I really wanted to see someone break their leg during the high-flying action scenes.
So can we learn a lesson from this? Is there some a cappella metaphor we can glean from this 3 hour waste of human life?
We see it all the time. Some a cappella group thinks they are going to be the “talk of the concert,” because they are about to bust out that brand new song that everyone has been talking about. We saw it last year with "Gangham Style," “Too Close,” and “Some Nights.”
You need to understand something. Once the audience figures out what song you are going to sing (and they will within 3-5 seconds), then the allure and mystery of your big reveal is over. Now you’ve got 3 more minutes of music, and your arrangement is not up to par, so the audience tunes out.
As we’ve seen with Spider-Man, the name carries with it a lot of weight. If you tell everyone you are going to sing a Taylor Swift song, you will probably get a lot of attention. As a musician, and an artist, I’m asking you to please give the audience a reason to keep that attention.
Having a great song in your repertoire affords you a very small window of opportunity to distance yourself from other groups, but it’s a double-edged sword, because if you sing it badly, then you’ve just ruined a “great song.”
Now the argument can be made against this opinion. After all, Spider-Man is really, really terrible, and it brings in more money than most other Broadway shows combined. But consider the history behind it. It had to be completely re-written. The original director, Julie Taymor, dropped out. It garnered absolutely no major awards from any academy or organization. It doesn’t have a single memorable song that we all know.
Are they laughing all the way to the bank? Yep. When the show is over, will it most likely disappear from our collective memory, much like the 1970’s musical “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman?” Yep.
So which is better? The monetary value and esteem of having a great name attached, or the lasting value of a work you are proud of? Well that choice is up to you. I’m suggesting that if you have a great name, you need a great product to back it up.
Oh, and don’t see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, unless you want to throw away three hours of your life.
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Brody Mcdonald Is Building Bridges

In the ever-growing world of a cappella education, Brody Mcdonald, author of “A cappella Pop” and award-winning director of “Eleventh Hour,” in partnership with Wright State University, has created a unique collegiate a cappella experience.
Much in the same way that “MIX” is part of the University of Colorado, “Up In The Air” is part of Tiffin University, and “Afro Blue” is part of Howard University, Brody has been hired to initiate a director-led a cappella group at Wright State in the hopes that the group’s success leads to increased enrollment for the music department. The auditioned group has several unique characteristics that are uncommon to collegiate a cappella groups: First, the class is taken for college credit. Second, the class works directly in conjunction with the school’s music department. Third, the class has a pre-requisite that all members must belong to another performing ensemble in the college.

Brody was kind enough to sit down for an interview and I learned all about this new project.

How did you become involved with Wright State University?

I knew the director of Choral Activities, Hank Dalman for thirteen years; his son was in my high school program. He came to the high school to coach my chamber choir, and afterwards we had a discussion about how to recruit for Wright State. The idea of an a cappella group wasn’t even mentioned at the time. In the spring of last year, he called me to interview for this position.

So the position was designed for you?

Hank emailed me in the spring. He had already talked to the dean about starting an a cappella group and he wanted to do this. He called me in to ask specific questions, to see what it would realistically take to do this. He didn’t offer me the job outright.

The first meeting came in March. I handed the dean a copy of [A cappella Pop]. In May, they came back and said “We want to offer you the job. Let’s talk about it.”

So you accepted right away?

I had to really look at my schedule. It’s important that I maintain balance with my family life.

Of course.

It’s important to remember: I’m giving up a night every week for a year. Still, Hank said I was the guy for the job, and I did really want to do it, so I knew it would be worth the extra effort.

So what is the class officially listed as?

I think it’s called “A cappella Ensemble,” listed under the chamber music category under vocal ensembles.

Why is Wright State the place to do this?

The college is relatively new. It has grown a lot recently; new dorms, new buildings, and a tie in with the Air Force Base which helps strengthen many programs. Hank came in and built a music department with a strong choral emphasis. Hank Dahlman and Randall Paul are visionaries.

The college never had a vocal jazz group, show choir, or a cappella group. In the state of Ohio, most universities have the same basic programs. This group will help differentiate Wright State by showing it is responsive to major trends in vocal music. The entire college actively pursued it and the group falls under the college music department umbrella.

Do you ever envision scheduling conflicts?

No, because the university is supporting it, and our events will be on the university calendar.

That’s different than other colleges, because usually a cappella groups and music ensembles clash over conflicts.

Right. I work for the good of the department.

You currently work with Eleventh Hour. Are they going to help with any part of the process or drop in every now and then?

It is inevitable that these groups will influence each other. I’m trying to build a community of lifelong a cappella learners and musicians. I’m a loyal guy to my students and in turn, they are loyal to me. This network that I’m building is going to influence every other part of said network.

For example, a lot of my arrangements for Eleventh Hour come from Bryan Sharpe. Most likely, arrangements for this college group will come from him. Former students of mine will come and help teach. There will be lots of people dropping in.

Did that answer your question?

Umm…sort of.

Okay. Let me try again. It’s inevitable that [these groups] will be around each other. I’m building a culture of lifelong learners and supporters.

Much better.


Can you tell me about rehearsals? I don’t want you to give away your playbook or anything…

I’m happy to give away my playbook. I believe if you know something, you share it.

It will probably be a lot of what I talked about in my book. The group will follow the same model of Eleventh Hour…rehearsal two days a week, one with me and one on their own. They learn all their music outside of both rehearsals. Every minute of rehearsal is spent on art and technique. I want them to be independent and learn the notes on their own. They should never bang out notes in rehearsal, ever.

In addition, every day they do a quick run. They get together for ten or so minutes and run through a song or two.

The college wants me to train the group to be self-sufficient and as independent as possible.

So essentially they want you to teach yourself out of a job?

No. They want the group to tour as much as possible and be able to run concerts on their own. I work full time, so I can’t go with them. And besides, I don’t believe I’m teaching myself out of a job. Eleventh Hour has been around for twelve years and I’m not out of a job yet.

Anything you’d like to add?

The big thing to take away is that this model can completely work. If the reader is involved in a school of music that has a negative attitude towards college a cappella groups, he or she should extend the olive branch.

Who wins if you have a school of music that has a vocal staff and a bunch of students who will not go near it? We are all on the same side.

It feels like there are bridges that we can build.

Brody McDonald is currently the director of “Eleventh Hour,” which was featured on season 2 of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” He is the author of “A cappella Pop,” a how-to manual for aspiring a cappella directors. He is the co-owner and co-creator of Camp A cappella, a week-long a cappella summer intensive for students and directors. His annual a cappella festival, The Kettering Ohio A cappella Festival is currently open for registry, and this year features headlining acts Pentatonix and ARORA. You can view the details at www.ketteringmusic.org. He is also part of the team working on the A cappella Education Association (AEA). Visit their website and donate here: http://www.acappellaeducators.com.

Interview by Marc Silverberg.

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