Monday, January 14, 2013

Riffing about riff-offs

A few months ago, I posted a four-part blog about how to compete in a true riff-off, much like the movie Pitch Perfect, but without the movie magic.
This topic has gotten a fair bit of attention lately, especially when Universal announced a riff-off contest, which turned out to be nothing more than a karaoke sing-off on Youtube.
The riff-off I was talking about was an honest-to-god true, spontaneous creation of a song by your entire group, live on stage. You can view the series by following these links:
I re-read them about a week ago, and it occurs to me that I failed to clarify a few things. So it’s time once again to riff about riff-offs.
1) Preparation
As I’ve stated before, a riff-off is something your group can aspire to be a part of, but it won’t happen overnight. Just like the ICCAs or the ICHSAs, you need to train. But unlike the ICCAs or ICHSAs, it takes a completely different skill set to master the art of spontaneous improvisation. Let’s compare the two:
Skill set required to compete in the ICCAs:
Memorization of music
Perfecting your group blend
Perfecting your choreography (if applicable)
Mastering microphone skills
Perfecting your group’s musicality
Fine-tuning your competition set (usually 2-4 songs)
Improving your overall stage presence
Selecting the perfect solos
A ton of other things I’ve neglected to mention
Skill set required to compete in a riff-off:
Memorization of a large repertoire of songs you can draw from that will apply to multiple categories
Group cohesiveness
An ability to follow each other and recognize audible and visual cues
Comprehension of chord structures and how to improvise over them
An ability to internalize and sing harmonies
Knowledge of how to build a song from the bottom up as quickly as possible
As you can see, the skill sets are almost entirely different. Riff-off’s don’t require group blend, microphone skills, fine-tuning repertoire, or even choreography. Audiences should be more impressed with your improvisation skills.
2) Exercises to help your group train for a riff-off:
The first four blog posts listed some great (and mandatory) exercises to determine whether your group is capable and ready to riff-off. Included in these are mastering the art of the circle song, expanding your group’s repertoire knowledge, and improvising chord progressions. Here are some more exercises that will encourage improvisation and repertoire knowledge:
Speed Chords:
This exercise will determine how fast your group can grasp the concept of major and minor tonality. This will, in turn, illustrate how quickly your group can build a song from scratch. One person plays, sings, or blows on the pitch pipe one note. This will be the root of the chord. Everyone else in the group, as quickly as possible, must sing the third or the fifth above that note in order to complete the chord. A major chord is probably the easiest one to sing, followed by a minor chord. Since pop songs rarely have augmented or diminished chords (rarely does NOT mean never), you can probably avoid those for now. The group should be timed on how long it takes them to sing a major or minor chord. Anything more than three seconds is too long.
Solo riff-off:
I’ve mentioned this game before in other posts, so this idea comes from the department of redundancy department.
This game should be played with two or more competitors. Someone (anyone) says a familiar word, like “love” or “man.” Competitors take turns singing a different song that contains the given word in one of the lyrics. For example if the word was “love,” competitors could choose from “All you need is love,” “Can you feel the love tonight,” “I will always love you,” etc. Play continues until someone cannot think of a different song, or a song is repeated and that person is out. Last person left standing wins. This helps your group expand their repertoire knowledge.
Advanced Hot Spot:
If you’ve never heard of the game Hot Spot, you should read part 1 of the riff-off blog first. Here’s the advanced version:
Same rules apply with Hot Spot. One person jumps into the center and sings a song.When someone in the circle recognizes the song, they start singing along. The exception is that they CANNOT sing the melody. They must either sing the lyrics in harmony, or sing a pattern that reinforces the song’s harmony.
3) The rules of a Riff-off.
Since a true riff-off has never occurred, I wrote these rules as I think a riff-off should be played. If you disagree, that’s totally fine. I don’t hold any copyright to the rules of a riff-off. These were merely suggestions to ensure a fair competition. For those who are unfamiliar with my suggestions, here they are again:
4) The actual building of a song
Unless your group consists of musical gods/goddesses, you will most likely not be able to sing a perfect, eight-part song from scratch as soon as you open your mouths, like they did in the movie. Is it possible? I’m honestly not sure. I’d like to believe it can be done, but until I see it for myself, live, then I’ll be in doubt.
More than likely, your group will need to build the song, on stage, part by part. This should not only be allowed in competition, but it should be encouraged. Granted, if it takes your group thirty seconds to come up with an accompaniment, that’s probably a bit too long. But to expect that a solo will open his/her mouth with lyrics and the group automatically responds with a full a cappella arrangement of the instrumentals, all within two seconds, is unrealistic.
Here’s how I imagine a song will be built, on stage:
All competing groups receive the category and huddle together to choose a song. Whichever group is ready either blows a pitch, or selects one person to start singing, and more than likely, that person will sing either a bass line, or the recognizable riff of a song.
Members join in as soon as possible, filling out the chord structure. The soloist enters, when appropriate, and cues the group on how and when to end the song. The entire process takes about 30-45 seconds. With only a short amount of time, only a full chorus or verse of one particular song will be sung, but that’s exactly how it went down in Pitch Perfect, so nothing new there.
Another competing group should jump in before the first group is done. After all, it is a “riff-off,” not a “politeness-off.” But remember, this isn’t a rap battle. You’re not trying to insult the other group.
5) The open challenge.
In the fourth, and final, post about riff-off’s, I issued an open challenge to any group, live looper, or merry band of singers to go up against me and my humble loop station.
And so far…no one has answered the call.
I suspect it’s either because no one is ready to riff-off yet, or more likely, no one read it. That’s okay. The open challenge still stands.
You versus me. Your entire group versus me and my machine. You can set the place, the time, and the home ground rules.
I’ll sweeten the pot. If you win, I will declare your group to be the “undisputed masters of the riff-off” and describe, in gory detail, how you slaughtered me and tore me limb from limb onstage. I will recount your victory in every upcoming riff-off class that I teach (two upcoming ones in the next four months) and hang my head in shame if I ever walk past you.
If I win, you buy me a cookie.
Now let’s get ready to riff-off!
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major:

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