At Boston Sings this year, I will host a workshop on how to compete in a riff-off.
Now I know what you are thinking…”I just checked the website and it’s not on the calendar! Where are you?”
I have now been told that this will occur after the last workshop on Sunday. To further entice you to attend, all the participants will take part in a real, honest-to-god, live riff-off!
That’s right…now’s your chance to be part of a live riff-off competition, where together, we will learn how to do it, work out the bugs, refine the riff-off procedure, and then try it for real!
I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m not even guaranteeing that it will be 100% successful. In fact, I’m pretty sure that at some point, there will a complete and total “epic fail.” But that’s an integral part of the music process. You try something, it doesn’t work, you try something different, etc.
Here are some guarantees that I can make:
1) You will have fun, and you’ll probably laugh at yourself and me.
2) If the riff-off fails, you will at least learn something about improvisation.
3) This has never been tried at a CASA festival before, and you will be a part of history.
4) Everyone will be able to participate, even if you are not already part of an a cappella group.
5) You won’t humiliate yourself. The only one who is at risk of humiliating themselves is me.
6) At some point, we will all fail spectacularly.
7) At the end of this workshop, you will be able to go home and train your group for a riff-off. You’ll even learn how to host one. And, you’ll be able to take home a packet of materials that outlines the process.
8) This will not help you get on the Sing-Off, nor will this have anything to do with the Sing-Off. Sorry.
What do you need to prepare/bring?
Nothing! Just bring your singing voice and a smile. (And a cookie…I like cookies)
See you in Boston.
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Yesterday, I talked about the return of the Sing-Off. Today, I’m going to do something totally different…talk about the Sing-Off.
For years, my faith in the broadcast networks was shaky at best. I would fall in love with a new television show and then find out it was cancelled after three episodes. I’m the kind of person who can’t watch something if I know it never reaches a finite conclusion. (like Alphas or Pushing Daisies, both of which I stopped watching after hearing of their cancellation)
And like an obsessive fanboy, I get mad when these shows go off the air. I get mad enough to go on some crazy internet commenting spree, posting angry letters to the network on a website where I know no one will ever see them.
Such is the fate that befell the Sing-Off, and despite the a cappella community’s assurance that even getting the Sing-Off to television was a victory, it still felt like a loss.
The same story happened many years before the Sing-Off, to a wonderful show called Veronica Mars. I watched it because everyone raved about it. I fell in love with it, and it got cancelled, mainly due to the combination of two low-rated networks into the CW. (and the terrible ratings)
But as luck would have it, the Sing-Off has returned. And in an even more amazing twist of fate, Veronica Mars made entertainment history by funding a new movie project entirely on Kickstarter…They raised TWO MILLION dollars in ELEVEN HOURS.
It made me hopeful. It made me believe that despite our complete lack of control over which shows survive and which shows get cancelled, someone, somewhere, is looking out for us, and listening to the fans more than the powerful producers.
You’re probably wondering where all of this is going…I tend to draw parallels between the pop culture world and the a cappella community. I tend to let the real world events of today shape my philosophical views of a cappella music. I was stunned (STUNNED) to hear the Sing-Off was returning, but even more shocked (STUNNED…I mean…SHOCKED) to hear that Veronica Mars was making a triumphant return.
There will be people in this world who tell you that you can’t succeed in the a cappella world. There will be people who tell you that your a cappella group is not good enough to compete in the big leagues. There will be people who think they know more than you, because they have the experience and all you have is the dream.
They are wrong.
A dream is more powerful than twenty years of experience. Don’t misunderstand me…to achieve your dreams, you must work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. You must study and practice. You must become a perfectionist. You must learn from those who already succeed. You must develop a higher order of thinking. You must become something more than average or ordinary. You must become extraordinary.
But what the return of the Sing-Off and the history making Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign teaches us is…when the big boys told us we couldn’t have what we wanted, we proved them wrong. Even years after our dream was “killed,” we resurrected it.
This past week has showed us that no dream is ever truly dead, and if we want something bad enough, we can have it. That’s why Veronica Mars matters.
Oh…and it’s a darn good show. That helps too…
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The Sing-Off…a relic of our former mainstream a cappella days, has miraculously returned!
I’d like to think that this was karma’s way of paying me back for making me fat, but really, it’s because a cappella has gotten a lot more popular over the last two years.
Yes, it’s true ladies and gentlemen. NBC has brought the series back and auditions are posted online now.
But there’s always that small demon in your ear that’s saying…
Is it back for good? Are we going to get multiple seasons or just one more?
Speaking as someone who has zero hours of professional television experience, but millions of hours watching television eating potato chips, here’s my opinion on how the Sing-Off can stay for good from a purely outside perspective.
1) Find a happy medium season
Season 1 was four episodes long and aired in mid-December. Season 2 was 6 episodes long. Season 3 took some steroids and upped its game to 16 episodes.
You see the problem? 1 and 2 were too short. 3 was too long. We want to remember our favorites but get to the ending without overtaxing it.
2) Mondays are stupid.
The Sing-off was up against the CBS comedy block powerhouse, Fox Network’s House, and ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.
And we still pulled in 3-5 million viewers!
Obviously, that wasn’t enough to save the show from cancellation. But if NBC makes the wrong scheduling call, we are just going to run into the same problem again. NBC, here’s what you need to do. Either put the show in a time slot where it isn’t going to mangled by the competition, or consider the fact that 3-5 million viewers is a SIGNIFICANT win. (Plus, it outperformed “Whitney” which is the worst show ever, but NBC renewed it and no one is really sure why)
3) Vary the challenges.
It was clear to me (at least) that after 10 episodes of season 3, the show was starting to run out of ideas for song categories.
Couldn’t we try competing with GLEE? Couldn’t you do a Broadway night? A comedy night? An indie night? A salute to Hollywood night? A television theme song night? A “take this really popular song and flip it upside down on its head” night?
Couldn’t you bring in guest mentors? Add some star power to the show?
I loved the final episode, when the groups performed with the judges. Do more of that.
Nick Lachey takes a lot on the chin. But from the stories I’ve heard, he works really hard and I respect that. Which means the problem doesn’t lie with him, it lies with whoever writes his material.
So to the writers…Please stop using terms like “Rapappella.” That’s not a thing, and Urban Method didn’t invent it (mastered it yes, invented it no). Please stop saying “swan song,” or at least vary it with something else. Please stop complimenting groups on how they “do all that with just their mouths.”
5) Give groups their due
I’m a big fan of Afro Blue. I’m a big fan of Ben Folds. But I did not like Ben Folds critique of Afro Blue, when during their rendition of “American Boy,” they added a musical quotation of “American The Beautiful.” I thought it was brilliant, and it sounded fantastic.
Not every group is going to be full of pop superstars. I know this is a television show, and ratings are the priority. But I also believe that being different sells. I felt like Afro Blue kept getting shut down week after week for their jazz style and, having seen Afro Blue in person before they were on the Sing-Off, they are at the pinnacle of vocal jazz a cappella.
6) Show me something new
Here’s an idea…show us a live riff-off. Even if it’s staged and rehearsed. Show us that it can be done and more people will want to do it.
Bring back more guest groups. Every week, give us a “host” group who performs one or two numbers. Show us that these former groups still exist and groups that aren’t on the Sing-off are just as successful.
Let groups play with costumes and lights. Make the groups do something more dramatic.
Like it or not, The Sing-Off is back with a vengeance. Let’s hope it stays that way.
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Improvisation is not only one of the nine national standards of music education, but I believe it could be the next evolutionary step in contemporary a cappella music.
Similar to musical skills such as sight-reading, dictation, sight-singing, and technical playing, improvisation is a skill that must be nurtured and practiced regularly. For too long, we choral teachers have attempted to improvise with our students on rare occasion, only to be met with failure, fear, or ignorance.
I suggest examining these ten steps to encourage group and solo improvisation.
1) Jump Right In!
In recent blog posts, I’ve outlined some improvisation games that can be played with absolutely no prior improvisation knowledge or practice. You can find them here:
To demonstrate just how much fun improvisation can be, it is encouraged that you start with these simple games in order to motivate your students to learn more about improvisation.
2) Tear down the walls
Why are we afraid to improvise? To overcome the fear, we must understand the basis of the fear.
- Improvisation is much more difficult for a singer, since we do not have “buttons to push.” If a piano player wants a “C,” he or she pushes the button for a “C.” If a vocalist wants a “C,” he or she must know the key beforehand and find the “C” as it is relative to the tonic note.
- Improvisation is primarily thought of as a “jazz only” idiom. Singers believe that unless they intend to sing jazz music, they do not need to learn the skill of improvisation.
- Most colleges, music festivals, and organizations do not require improvisation to be an “essential musical skill” needed for entry.
3) Encourage groups of all sizes to improvise
Large Group Improvisation games
1. Call and Response a. Begin a repetitive chord progression on the piano or with a circle song. b. Choose one student to be the “leader.” He or she sings a short improvised riff over the chord progression and the ensemble immediately repeats it.
2. Sound Wall a. Teach the entire ensemble a short, melodic phrase. Sing it several times until they are comfortable with it. b. Ask each student to sing the melodic phrase, but at any speed or rhythm. They cannot deviate from the notes or the order of the phrase. They can only speed up or slow down the time. This will create a giant “wall of sound.”
4) Eliminate the fear of doing it alone
“Leave me alone, I’m improvising!” game.
1. Everyone stands up and finds an individual space in the room. 2. The teacher plays a recording of a song with a repetitive chord progression. 3. While moving around the room slowly, students begin freely improvising over the recording as quietly as possible. This gives each student the chance to explore long form improvisation without the fear of being embarrassed.
5) Figure out when to incorporate improvisation during your rehearsal.
You wouldn’t spend an entire lesson on sight-reading, so why spend an entire lesson on improvisation? Play one game a day, every day, as part of your warm-up exercises. A cappella groups who tend not to warm-up their voices (which is bad…) should try and play two improvisation games per rehearsal.
6) Develop an improvisation pay-off.
Why are you improvising? Just for the sake of improvising? That’s not enough motivation to get your group to do it every day. Try these goals:
1. Program a song in your concert repertoire that includes an improvisation solo 2. Do a live improvisation on stage or ask the audience to participate in a circle song 3. Train your group for a RIFF-OFF!!!
7) Relate improvisation to the national standards of music
A. Standard 1- Singing alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music 1. Vary the genres of improvisation. Try a pop progression, a jazz progression, a classical progression, a blues progression, etc.
B. Standard 3- Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments 1. Teach your students a familiar melody and have each one change it slightly, either tonally or rhythmically.
C. Standard 4- Composing and arranging music with specified guidelines 1. Develop an improvisation that frames the base for a composition assignment.
D. Standard 5- Reading and notating music 1. Use improvisation to draw connections between chord progressions in popular music.
E. Standard 6- Listening to, analyzing, and describing music 1. Listen to recordings of popular vocal improvisers and follow along with the chord progressions. Discuss any motives developed or recognizable patterns.
F. Standard 7- Evaluating music and music performances 1. Compare and contrast improvisations from different vocalists on the same tune or chord progression.
G. Standard 8- Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts 1. Interpret abstract symbols as sound effects 2. Develop a story through sounds 3. Improvise lyrics or lines of poetry
Several books have been written that provide aspiring improvisers with exercises designed to improve “hearing and singing” the chord changes. Bob Stoloff- Scat! Bob Stoloff- Vocal Improvisation Michele Weir- Vocal Improvisation
I will be holding improvisation workshops at the ACDA National Convention in Dallas this weekend and BOSS in April. Let’s improvise together!
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I think we misunderstand the definition of a mash-up and a medley. These two musical forms are a cappella’s bread and butter (mmm…butter), but what exactly do they mean? What separates a mash-up from a medley, and where did they first appear?
What is a medley?
The term “medley” refers to a collection of songs, performed together as one complete musical composition or work.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when medleys first appeared. My best educational guess (and it is a guess…) would be the musical form of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. In the fourth movement, each of the three previous themes are played, and then quickly rejected in lieu of a fourth and final melody. (The famous "Ode To Joy.") The overture to Broadway musicals is a good example of an early medley, as each overture seeks to play the familiar songs of the show, one right after the other.
Here’s what makes a medley great (in my humble opinion):
1) Creativity of connection.
I’m sure if you are a singer, you have probably performed the famous choral medley of Les Miserables (arranged by Ed Lojeski). The connection between each song is clear- all selections are from the show. Another simple connection is by artist- “Four or five songs sung by Adele” is a popular one.
When I hear a medley, I’d like to believe the songs have a deeper connection than artist or genre. I once heard a medley of songs that had to do with the term “Mother Earth.” (It was at this previous year’s Sojam, performed by "Mix.")
Another time, I heard a medley of seemingly unrelated songs connected by a story. The entire medley was connected by the tune “Happy Birthday,” and each selection began with a different age, progressing from 5 to 100, as if the subject of the medley was growing older with each passing song.
The point is, the strength of a creative medley rests on the connection between songs. A medley of songs by [artist], a medley of songs by [genre], or a medley of songs about [topic] just doesn’t satisfy me anymore, considering how many medleys I’ve heard in my lifetime.
One reason I hate writing medleys is the problem of transitions. How do you go from one song to the next and make it as interesting or smooth as possible? Do you stop completely? Do you write two measures of original music that change tempo and/or key? Do you sing two songs together, fading out from one and fading into the other?
A clean set of transitions shows off the arranger’s musical prowess. I often judge a medley based on how smooth it is, and how easily it transitions into the next song.
A good medley shouldn’t just contain a bunch of seemingly related songs. You need to think of a medley as a whole musical composition. It needs to start with a bang, end with a bang, and go through various phases in between. The next time you compose a medley, structure the medley like you would an a cappella set: You wouldn’t put your weakest song last, you wouldn’t sing two very similar songs back to back, and you wouldn’t ignore the overall arc of the show.
What is a mash-up?
Okay. Let’s get this out of the way first: GLEE did not invent the term “Mash-up.” I will give it some credit…it definitely popularized the phrase and introduced it to the scholastic masses in a whole new way, but musical artists, including a cappella groups have been singing mash-ups for years before GLEE was on the air.
The term mash-up implies combining one or more songs simultaneously to create a completely new musical composition. The key difference here is the word simultaneous.
Mash-ups have appeared as early as contemporary classical music. The birth of electronic music made it possible for musicians to take pre-recorded sounds and combine them into a new musical composition. In fact, musicians like the famous Frank Zappa were using multiple sound sources in his compositions before the genre of techno became popular. Another popular mash-up (before GLEE) was a song from Linkin Park and Jay-Z called “Numb/Encore.”
When you compose an a cappella mash-up, you need to consider these factors to stay true to the form and produce a quality composition:
1) Is it really a mash-up?
Let’s say you are doing a mash-up of (what’s the most random combination of songs possible…) “Surfin’ Bird” and “Locked out of Heaven.” (Ahh…randomness…)
Does each song get equal representation within the entire composition? Is there a moment when both songs are performed at the same time? Is your arranger showing off his/her musical prowess by combining these songs in a new interesting way?
If the answer is NO to any or most of these questions, you are NOT singing a mash-up.
It’s more than likely possible you are doing a musical quotation. For example, let’s say you’ve chosen “Locked out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars. About halfway through the song, you suddenly, and inexplicably, break into “Surfin Bird.” Then, as suddenly as it came, it’s gone, and you are back to Bruno Mars.
This is NOT a mash-up. This is a song with an extra musical quotation. I’m not saying this is bad…by all means, let your creativity freak flag fly…but calling it a mash-up is incorrect. A mash-up would be if you introduced one song, introduced the other, and then combined them for a totally new musical experience. Or, you switched between them as fast as if they were on two different radio stations, and then combined them at the end. Or throughout the entire Bruno Mars song, “Surfin’ Bird” made dramatic and prevalent appearances, fading in and out.
2) Are you doing the actual work?
To compose a masterful mash-up, the arranger must find the musical link between two or more seemingly unrelated songs. Sometimes, this task can be too easy.
For example, take the BOCA 2006 track “Crazy Train” by the UNC Clef Hangers. They start with Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train and smoothly merge into the Lil’ Jon remix, and then back into Ozzy.
Would I call this a mash-up? No. (I’m not saying this is a fantastic recording…because it’s one of my all time favorite BOCA tracks.)If you combine two songs that share so much of the same familiar material, half of the mash-up work is done for you. A mash-up combines two seemingly unrelated songs into a new musical composition.
Sure, these songs need to have some familiar musical material, like a similar chord progression, or melodic content. But using the same backing tracks for the original and a remix does not make a mash-up.
3) Is it actually a medley?
The most common misconception is that a mash-up is like a medley, but only has two songs instead of three or more. This is untrue. A mash-up does exactly what the name says- it mashes up two songs. Think of these songs as two large pieces of meat. Put them in a grinder (mmm…ground meat) and something new comes out, a new meat product where it is almost impossible to tell where each separate element begins and ends. This is a true mash-up.
Singing only two songs back to back is not a mash-up. Quoting a completely different song in the middle of a longer song is not a mash-up. Singing the original and then the remix of a song is not a mash-up.
The criteria for a mash-up and a medley should not be how many songs are included, but how specifically they are used. Can a mash-up occur within a medley? Sure. Can a medley occur within a mash-up? Ummm…I’ve never heard it, but I suppose so.
While there is no definitive rule on what constitutes a standard medley or mash-up, we can recognize some differences between the two, and appreciate when someone uses the terms correctly. Make absolutely sure which one you are singing before you mislabel the song.
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