The Quarter-final rounds of the ICCAs are almost over. Dreams have been fulfilled...and shattered. Tears have been shed. Voices have been lost. Complaints have been tweeted.
I’d like to draw your attention to a television show that illustrates this point very well, one that I’m sure you’ve criminally never watched, Friday Night Lights. The basic premise revolves around a high school football team and the ENORMOUS pressure they are put under to win.
Without spoiling anything (seriously…go watch this show…) I almost feel as if there are a cappella groups out there who put this kind of pressure on themselves, or receive pressure from their peers to take home the ICCA gold. (Why are you still reading this blog…the show is FREE on Netflix)
Let’s do the unthinkable and start a dialogue…Is it better to compete or not to compete? (Kyle Chandler won an Emmy...go watch him be awesome)
1) If I were to invent an equation that would equal success in a competition, it would be the following:
(Drive to win) + (Hunger for success) + (Diligent work ethic) + (Visually stunning) + (Priority given to musicality) + (Group cohesiveness) + (Dumb luck)= WIN!
Unfortunately, this is the equation I tend to see at competitions:
(Hunger for success) + (Dumb Luck)= Praying for the win
This is a complicated equation, and some groups have still never found the ICCA success they’ve been looking for. The point is, if you want to win, your set must reflect this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The equation for success Pro- This could really motivate your group to advance to the next level Con- If your group is happier not competing, then this equation could be your group’s downfall.
2) The Next Step
Nobody tends to think past the immediate competition, but it’s a very important decision and for an obsessive-compulsive like me, the next step is key. There are three possible outcomes:
Outcome 1- You win a quarter-final or semi-final competition.
Congrats! You won! Now what…
You have to know that the next step will be twice as difficult as the last. Winning the quarter-finals means you’ll now be competing against…winners of the quarter-finals, so your “A game” needs to go to an "A+ game." Take the judges comments seriously. They are only trying to motivate you.
Outcome 2- You win the final round.
Congrats! You are the champions! Now what…
Does it make sense to go and defend your title? What did winning the whole competition do for your career? Your credibility? Did it help you reach new heights of musicality? Did you make life-long friends? Did you book bigger and better gigs? Couldn’t you have done all those things without winning the ICCAs?
From my perspective, the title of champion really only comes with one great prize…pride. ICCA champion doesn’t get you a record deal, a significant cash prize, or a legion of fans who will swear you are the greatest. It gives you an internal prize- one that lets you bask in your hard work, team unity, and school pride.
Outcome 3- You lose.
Okay. You’ve lost…Now what?
Let’s say for a moment that the ICCA was your single, motivating goal for the last few months. Now the competition is over and there’s nothing new on the horizon. What do you do? Give up and call the semester a wash?
You learn from it. You analyze what you did right and what you did wrong. And you keep singing.
Does losing hurt? As someone who has lost a lot, I can say with experience that yes, it hurts. No one is denying you the chance to be hurt, angry, sad, etc.
But you need to let it go and you need to use it as fuel for the fire. Losing a competition shouldn’t create rivalries, bitter feelings, or shame. You are singing a cappella music. You are participating in the single greatest form of musical expression (in my opinion) EVER! You are part of the evolution that will one day be studied and documented. Regardless of how well you did or how well you didn’t do, no one can take away the fact that you are a worthwhile musician.
The moral here is, whether you win or lose, the competition should teach you something about working hard, singing beautifully, and improving your performance. If the only drive to win is to “bathe in blood of your defeated adversaries,” maybe competing is not for you.
The outcome of the competition Pro- You could learn your most valuable lesson from either winning or losing. Con- Losing sucks, plain and simple.
3) Develop a Thick Shell
Now we come to the hard question…How harsh should judges be at competitions?
Here’s my opinion. If you are going to put yourself out there to compete in a national competition, whether it be the ICCAs, the ICHSAs, the Harmony Sweeps, American Idol, X-Factor, The Voice, etc., then you have to be able to be criticized harshly.
Judges can sometimes be harsh and mean. But beneath the scathing comments, there are some very useful suggestions. Remember, this is a competition. And like a football game (have you watched the show yet?) there is a winner and a loser. And the spirit of competition sometimes gets the better of us, to the point where we let our emotions overtake the rationality that we were just not ready to win.
There is a stark difference between reality singing shows and a cappella competitions. Television shows don’t care about fair. They care about ratings. They will deliberately put someone on camera who sings off key, because they know you will be talking about it the next day. So if we watch enough of these shows, we begin to make the connection that losing a competition means we’re only as talented as the off-key singer whom everyone is laughing at.
But this is totally untrue. A cappella competitions are not televised. Ratings don’t matter. And speaking from experience, the producers care if you have a good time, because in the end, the evolution of a cappella music is all we really care about. Just because you get some negative critique does not mean you are ever being laughed at, mocked, or degraded.
Criticism Pro- Competitions give you the necessary feedback to improve your overall group. Con- Negative criticism hurts, and it takes years of experience and patience to read between the lines of negativity to find the constructive critique.
There are pros and cons to competition. The next time you compete, think about all the factors in advance. And watch Friday Night Lights.
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The more I rehearse, the more I arrange, the more I direct, I notice a pattern in the mistakes. It’s so simple that it’s staring me in the face, and I still ignore it time and time again, because I fail to recognize that this mistake is probably the cause of every wrong note for the next few measures.
Is it because the person who sings that part doesn’t know the notes? No. Is it because the words are tripping them up? No. Is it because the breath is not big enough? No.
It’s because they can’t find their first note.
I think sometimes we assume too much of our singers. Let’s examine the rehearsal process.
Most likely, each section learns the notes on their own, and they learn them section by section until they believe they have the entire song down.
Then the group puts the whole thing together, and it’s a complete and total disaster.
Wait a minute…didn’t you just spend a half hour going over these notes? What happened? Did you forget them? What are you…stupid?
No. That’s not it. Your singers are not stupid. The note-learning process is probably flawed. And the reason it’s flawed is because:
1) They have no idea where “Do” is.
Most a cappella groups learn by rote. It’s rare that a member, or several members of an a cappella group can pick up a piece of music and sight-read it on the first try. And if they can, everyone stares at them as if they are radioactive.
The skill required to find “Do” (or whichever note is the “home base” for the piece) is a skill in which music educator Edwin Gordon refers to as “Audiation.”
This is not a real word. Try typing it into a word-processing program and it will yell at you.
Gordon coined this terminology to mean:
“Hearing an comprehending in one’s mind the sound of music that is not or may never have been physically present. It is neither imitation nor memorization.” (Gordon)
For our purposes, it means hearing the “home base” note, even if it does not presently exist. The key to sight reading is always knowing where the “home base” note is and being able to understand the distance between your note and the “home base” note. (assuming you are not singing the “home base” note)
I’ve found myself altering my arrangements to fit the needs of the group, because I know that some singers simply can’t find “LA” if their last note was “MI.” That’s incredibly constricting for an arranger and the arrangement doesn’t sound as exciting, regardless of how much energy the group puts into it.
The next time you encounter a section of the music that forces everyone to find a new and unfamiliar note, take a healthy amount of time to make sure everyone is comfortable with finding that note. Make them hold it. Make them sing the note before and the note after. Reset the key, start from two measures before and hold it again. Chances are, the phrase is out of tune because someone is not starting on the correct pitch.
2) Your singers are unfamiliar with how they fit inside the chord.
Here’s a likely scenario. The baritone part has three F’s in a row. It’s a really simple part and everyone feels like they should be able to sing it without any difficulty. So the first two F’s go by fine and then…all of a sudden…the third chord goes out of tune. Naturally, the music director blames someone other than the baritones, because they are singing the same note over and over, so it can’t be their fault.
Ahh…but here’s the secret…In the first two chords, the baritones were holding an F in an F major chord (so they were holding the root) and then a B-flat major chord. (so they were holding the fifth.) In the third chord, their F was actually the seventh of the G dominant seventh chord. Suddenly, their F has a completely different harmonic function and everyone was caught off guard.
Yes…chord function matters. Assuming you want your singers to sing in tune. Make sure parts that sing repeated notes know how they fit within the harmonic structure.
3) Your singers are unfamiliar with how their note clashes against someone else.
The best chords (in my opinion) are ones that have dissonant notes- extra notes that add color to a simple, boring, major chord. The problem with writing color notes, even sevenths in jazz chords, is that there will always be a dissonant, hard-to-tune, interval between whomever has the color note and whomever has the most dissonant distance away.
Adding a seventh note creates a “tritone” distance between whomever has the third of the chord. Adding a ninth creates a “major second” distance between whomever has the root of the chord and the third of the chord. Adding a sixth note creates a “major second” distance between whomever has the fifth of the chord.
Even if you have no idea what that last paragraph meant, chances are that somewhere in your arrangement, two parts will have a difficult-to-tune interval. It’s imperative that those singers are made aware of that “clash” and focus their energy into listening and tuning it.
Music is more than just an imitation of what’s on the page and what you hear. If you are going to sing in a “group,” then you must understand that every part is just as important as yours.
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Okay. Let me preface this by saying that if you are not a fan of the show Community, this is probably not the blog post for you.
Community, one of my all time favorite shows, is finally returning to television on February 7th. Community is, like many shows of recent years, a critical hit and cult fan favorite, but a ratings disaster.
Basically, the show centers around a group of seven individuals (not counting other major characters) who attend Greendale Community College. The plots always start out simple, but then escalate to sheer chaos and insanity. In one particular, and well-appreciated episode, a simple house-warming party creates six different reality timelines, each spiraling the same events to different conclusions. And let’s not forget about the paintball episodes.
I love the show for many reasons. (and yes…every one of these reasons can tie into a cappella music…) Here’s why:
1) Abed, the pop-culture guru with a social disorder
The character Abed, played by Danny Pudi, is a pop-culture spouting super-geek with a very active imagination and an extreme social disorder. He knows every line from every movie, television show, and comic book. He’s a walking encyclopedia straight from the Nerdist Youtube channel, but he’s still unable to “know left from right without reciting the pledge of allegiance.”
Isn’t that the crux of a cappella music? A genre devoted to showing off our encyclopedic knowledge of songs long forgotten or showing off our musical theory prowess by tying two, seemingly unrelated, songs into a crazy mash-up?
Every time I listen to a new a cappella album, like a new box of cereal, there is always a surprise inside. Just recently, I heard an a cappella cover of a song from “A Goofy Movie,” one of my favorite animated movies as a child. (Credit goes to the AcaBellas)
But just like a kid sifting through the new cereal box, I always found that one prize was not enough and soon I’d have to live with boring old cereal. I challenge a cappella groups to make albums that constantly shock and amaze us. Let the other groups do top 40. I want to hear you sing another Weird Al tune.
2) The season-long, running gags
Community is one of the rare shows on television that gives the audience hidden gems to find and doesn’t care if you find them or not. (It’s sort of like LOST, but funnier)
For example, over three seasons, the word “Beetlejuice” was uttered by one character. When the name was said in the third Halloween episode, Beetlejuice walked by the window.
It’s a gag that would only appeal to anyone who had watched the show enough to see the connection, but it’s a payoff that makes me respect the show even more.
I don’t think a cappella groups can have running gags from concert to concert, unless they are sure that their audience is usually the same every time. Running gags certainly wouldn’t work at every stage of the ICCA, because you’d have to assume that you will even progress to the next stage, and every stage is in a different state.
But one of the things I love about a cappella arrangements is our ability to slip in musical jokes when no one asked for them. A cappella is such a unique genre, in that the human voice is capable of making more than one sound (unlike a trumpet, which sounds like a trumpet). Plus we have the benefit of using words.
I challenge a cappella arrangers to slip at least one “hidden gem” into their next arrangement. And don’t worry if no one catches the reference. That’s not what matters.
3) The homage
Like many comedies today, almost every episode of Community pays homage to another television show or movie. One episode was almost a pitch-perfect re-creation of Law and Order. GLEE has been spoofed twice. Mockumentary shows like The Office and Modern Family also got their due.
A cappella music is almost nothing but an homage to other genres of music. Singing “Come Together” in the style of Stevie Wonder, singing “Teenage Dream” in the style of Imogen Heap, etc.
Since this is common knowledge, my challenge to you is to combine two, COMPLETELY DIFFERENT styles together and hopefully create something brand new. What about singing “Purple Haze” in the style of Britney Spears? Put a reggae spin on Metallica. Turn a Beyonce song into an “Eric Whitacre” arrangement.
4) The theme of togetherness
One overall theme of the show is “community.” I know that’s kind of obvious, since the show is called “Community,” but it should be addressed anyway.
The members of the study group, or as the show calls them, “The Greendale 7,” creates quirky situations by grouping together seven strangers, who are as different as different can be, and forcing them to get along.
This is about as close to the definition of “a cappella group” as you can get. These differences shouldn’t be ignored, but encouraged. Like a republican and democrat forced to compromise, so should you learn how to use everyone’s strengths to counteract everyone’s weaknesses.
And everyone fights. Oh boy, how they fight on the show. This leads to some of the greatest moments, like when Jeff chops the study table with an axe out of frustration, or they ranked each other by popularity in order to avoid being lab partners with a random stranger. The point is, they may fight, and the fights may be big, but they always get back together in the end, even if it is to fight bullies on top of a nativity scene.
5) The underdog status of the show
The thing I love most about Community is how it keeps fighting back against the powers that be. If the fan base wasn’t so committed, NBC would have cancelled it a long time ago. NBC even put the show on hiatus during season three and the internet literally exploded with “NBC hate.”
Will the show last past season four? Probably not. The show is truly a ratings disaster and NBC has every right to pull it from their schedule, but the fans are so hardcore and so devoted that the show has, miraculously, hung around. It is the ultimate underdog, fighting a war it shouldn’t have been able to win and still hasn’t.
There are probably several groups out there who feel like they are the underdog, battling a sea of phenomenal on-campus groups that seem to hold all the power. Take Community’s struggle as a lesson on how to be the underdog:
1) Develop a small, but incredibly loyal fan base 2) Produce tracks on a regular basis and market them 3) Find concert venues outside the college or school to boost group confidence 4) Make humorous viral videos to show your college that you are, in fact, still around, and still alive 5) Develop a single identity that will differentiate you from the rest
All in all, the pop-culture world we live in today can and should have an impact on how you approach a cappella music. Don’t just look to other a cappella groups for inspiration. Turn on the television and see what’s on.
Cool, cool, cool.
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