Monday, April 29, 2013

Why We Yell

Last week in rehearsal, I yelled.
No…That’s not accurate…
I completely lost my [expletive deleted].
Why do we yell? Why do we feel, as directors, teachers, and conductors, that completely losing your temper is the only course of action left? Do we not realize that we might be doing more harm than good?
Sure, it’s not fun to be the bad guy. But I feel like anyone who yells may not see both sides of the situation, and this is what makes me feel tremendously guilty moments after.
I always tell my students, or whatever group I’m working with, that they should never be concerned about me, or the group, if I yell. Yelling signifies a boiling point of frustration, but it also means we care. If we didn’t care so much about the project, we wouldn’t get so mad. So the moment I stop yelling…the moment I let the mistakes go by without correcting them…that’s when they should start being worried.
Now for the flip side. Being on the receiving end sucks. Nobody wants to be treated like they are second-class citizens. I mean…would you? Would you really enjoy it if someone you liked, respected, or cared about suddenly screamed in your face?
In my experience, there has always been two kinds of people who are on the opposite end of my wrath. First, there are the students who fall right within the bulls-eye of my frustration. For example, it’s the day before the concert, things are not going right, and nobody wants to focus because they don’t see the disaster that you see. These are the “students who set you off,” and most likely, they won’t be happy with you moments after. Most will calm down, some might quit. This is simply out of your control. You cannot control what others do, nor can you control how they should, or will, react.
Second, there are the “thank the lord he/she just said that!” students. They have been waiting patiently on the sidelines for this exact moment, when the group finally gets what’s coming to them. They think you’re a god now, because you said what they have been thinking for weeks, as if you just suddenly read their minds. Of course, they’ll never say this out loud. They don’t want to be ostracized as the “brown noser(s).”
Does anyone win when they yell? I’ll admit, sometimes, a little kick in the pants is what the group needs. There have been moments when a good scream-fest is exactly what was missing from the process. And there have also been times when screaming was just too extreme. Maybe…just maybe…they didn’t really deserve that.
All I’m saying is…choose your yelling carefully. And make sure the students know that aggressive, red-faced, obscenity-laced sharing is caring.
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest For the A cappella Major:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Schrödinger's A cappella

Imagine a cat in a box.
The cat cannot see you and you cannot see the cat. You are told that inside the box, along with the still-alive cat, is a rock, a Geiger counter, and a vial of poison.
Now the rock is slightly radioactive, with an exactly fifty-fifty chance of emitting a subatomic particle in the course of an hour. If the rock emits a particle, the Geiger counter will flip a switch, which will break the vial of poison and kill the cat.
(Quick note for all you cat lovers: This is a thought-experiment. Not a real experiment.)
This is the scenario Edwin Schrödinger proposed to Albert Einstein one day, perhaps when the two smartest men on the planet got bored. Together, they were able to concoct a scenario where, at this exact moment, since no one was sure if the cat was alive or dead, that in reality, the cat could be BOTH alive and dead at the same time.
Does your brain hurt? That’s okay. So does mine.
With the ICHSA and ICCA competitions winding down, and having just competed in the Harmony Sweepstakes myself, I began to wonder…
“Is it possible for an a cappella group to be BOTH good and bad at the same time?”
I suppose the circumstances for this to be true would have to be two opposing view points, arguing over the quality of an a cappella group. I recently had this discussion with a friend of mine. While listening to “I want you back” by Sonos, I proclaimed it was a magnificent arrangement. He agreed with what Ben Folds said to Sonos on the Sing-Off: That it didn’t sound anything like the original and that’s why he didn’t like it.
Two opposing arguments, two perfectly valid opinions. In this typical argument (which I’m sure many of you have had), a group can be considered good by one person and bad by another.
But what I want to know is, can a group be considered both good and bad by the same person within the same performance? Is there ever an instance where you form an opinion of a group and then change that opinion midway through a song, or a show, and still feel like, even though you didn’t come to a finite conclusion, you somehow sort of did…
While I certainly cannot speak for anyone else, my opinion is that a cappella fans are fickle. We hold opinions about our music that the rest of the world may not fully understand.
Picture this scenario: You go to an a cappella concert that features several groups. One group comes onstage and they are so bad that you just want to throw tomatoes at them and boo them right off the stage. And yet, right after their song ends, they get a standing ovation.
“Wait! What?” A standing ovation? For being able to sing in two parts? Why?
The rest of the audience may not have shared the same experiences with you. You could probably sing, from memory, the entire discography of M-pact, when everyone else in the crowd thinks the Barton Bellas are the best a cappella group they’ve ever seen, even though they don’t really exist.
Are you wrong for thinking the way you do? No. Are they wrong for thinking the way they do? No. Is it possible that both sides are not seeing the whole picture? Yes.
But the next time this instance comes along, try to imagine why the rest of the crowd would love this group, whereas you would rather be locked in a box with a cat and vial of poison than have to listen to another note.
If you can see things from both sides of the table, then you can perceive even the worst group ever as being both good and bad. And this is the key to a cappella education.
Unless you’re a dog person. Then this experiment is invalid.
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major:ödingers-cappella

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Cake Is A Lie

I was having trouble motivating one of the college groups that I currently direct. They didn’t have the desire or the energy to go and learn the notes on their own, even though I knew they could.
At first I thought they were getting tired of the same songs being rehearsed over and over again, so I tried to give them new repertoire on a weekly basis.
Next, I tried motivating them by taking some of the rehearsal time to listen to great a cappella recordings and watch some groups perform.
Then, I tried forcing them to hang out socially after rehearsal.
Nothing worked. They still had no desire to come in and sing.
I like to think of myself as separate from the group…an overall present force pulling the puppet strings…a GLaDOS if you will.
GLaDOS, for those of you nerds living under a rock, is the main villain of the wildly popular Portal video games. She’s sarcastic, she teases you, and she lies.
The biggest lie that she tells you is that if you complete all of the training exercises, you are rewarded with cake. Yummy, yummy cake.
But as you progress through the game, you begin to realize that perhaps, the cake does not exist. The cake is a lie.
That’s what I promised my group when I helped them form it. I promised them that at the end of a long, torturous rehearsal process, they would be rewarded with a fantastic prize. They would get the chance to put on a concert of their own design and all the hard work and sacrifice would be worth it.
So we put on the concert. And people cheered. And then…nothing.
Wait…what happened? Why did the momentum suddenly drop after a big performance? Why, after knowing the prize ahead, did we suddenly stop caring?
It’s because we directors were GLaDOS. We promised a reward that was never there. We promised (or more appropriately I promised) that after months of hard work, the concert was going to make it all worth it. They would feel like rock stars and the glow would carry them all the way to the next concert.
But I was wrong. One reward isn’t nearly enough. You need multiple rewards to feel satisfied. You may have one slice of yummy cake, but you always crave more.
So learn from my mistakes. Rehearsals are not the motivating factor in an a cappella group. Nobody “likes” to rehearse, and if you like it, you’re not doing it right. Nobody likes putting in the grunt work and the time. Performances are what motivate us to rehearse. Without a goal at the end, rehearsal time is misspent. And I’ve learned that one goal every four months is nowhere near enough to motivate anyone (Choral directors...I'm looking at YOU)
If you really want to educate your group on why a cappella music is awesome, then they need to experience it for themselves, and they need to do it often. One giant reward at the end of four months of slogging through the mud is not enough. You need a giant reward to work towards, and lots of little rewards to keep you motivated.
Don’t promise your group cake. The cake is a lie.
Marc Silverberg
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Monday, April 8, 2013

BOSS Battles and Mountain Climbing

Like many a cappella enthusiasts, I attended Boston Sings over the weekend and was once again blown away by the level of talent and expertise of the instructors. We even had a live riff-off!
But one theme prevailed from BOSS and I’d like to address that today:
How do we bring our group to the next level?
This question was prevalent in master classes, private group sessions, and especially in the Sing-Off Q&A. Every time I attend another convention, I hear the same question over and over. I often think the same thing myself.
How do we bring our group to the next level?
I think about it like a video game. Once you acquire a certain level of skill, you can’t move onto the next level until you defeat the boss, and let’s face it…the boss is usually very hard to beat. I mean, Bowser certainly isn’t as easy in level eight as he is in level one.
Groups most likely encounter these obstacles. It’s even a common thing to hear the phrase:
“Well we could be the biggest thing in the world, if it weren’t for this one thing…”
That’s a very defeating statement to make. And it creates an obstacle that could bring down the entire fabric of your group if left unchecked.
How do we bring our group to the next level?
There is a word I use for myself, whenever I encounter this very question. I call it “The Mountain.” I use the term “mountain” probably subconsciously, because mountains are very hard to climb. And the thing is, whenever I encounter one of these mountains, it almost stops me in my tracks.
I tend to hit the mountain and think that time, or new equipment, or just new information will get me over the mountain.
“I can’t start performing live until I have a better loop station.”
“I can’t make this arrangement sound amazing until I understand jazz theory.”
“I can’t convince my group to compete until they gain more confidence.”
“I can’t perform this complicated choreography until I lose at least ten pounds.”
Those are some of my mountains. Your mountains will probably sound much different. But if BOSS has taught me anything, it’s that waiting around for the answer is defeating in itself. You have to grab life by the horns and drag it down to the ground, because we only have so much time left.
How much more satisfying is it to defeat the boss after thirty tries instead of two?
In the case of a cappella, the harder arrangements are the ones that get you noticed. The hard choices, like choosing the solo undemocratically is how you make your stage show the best that it can be. The hard truths, like sacrificing your beliefs and your time for the betterment of music, gives the music a new life.
And the hard part is, once you climb one mountain, another one appears almost immediately. Unless you are the biggest star in the world and you can demand anything at the snap of your finger (and chances are, you are NOT), then your life will be nothing but climbing mountain after mountain after mountain.
But climbing mountains is what makes you strong. It makes you talented. And unless everyone is doing the same thing (and chances are, they are NOT), you WILL rise above.
That’s how you bring your group to the next level.
Marc Silverberg
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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Riff-Offs: The Next Generation

Ever since I posted my four-part series “How To Compete in a Riff-Off,” some questions have loomed in the distance.
For example, it seems that many people want to start riffing-off, and they’ve read the theory on how to prepare, but jumping in with both feet and starting a genuine riff-off is just not as simple as I may have led you to believe.
So today, I’d like to speak to all of you who are ready for level two. You’ve memorized the chord progressions. You’ve built a foundation of well-known repertoire. You understand the rules. But for some reason, you just haven’t been able to do it yet. Try as you might, it never works out the way you planned it. Here’s why:
1) Keep your standards low
In the movie, every group burst forth with dazzling 10-part harmony without even blowing a pitch. I don’t believe this is truly possible, but I’m sure someone, somewhere will prove me wrong. Until that day, it’s not happening.
To begin a song in a riff-off, you must build it from scratch. This means starting with a bass line, as you would a genuine circle-song, and adding harmonies when ready. Yes, this will take some time. It may take a group 30-45 seconds just to bring the soloist in. Or the soloist could start, and it may take the background parts 30-45 seconds to form a cohesive accompaniment.
Hopefully, your group will have trained enough to cut this time down. Ideally, you want everyone to sing harmony right off the bat. But for a first-time riff-off participant, that just isn’t going to happen. And that’s totally okay.
2) You need a process for building confidence.
So here’s what I recommend:
Step 1- Stage a riff-off.
Now I don’t mean stage as in “put on.” I mean stage as in “fake it.” Groups need to get a sense of how the riff-off flows. They can’t do that AND worry about what song to sing next. That comes with too much pressure.
Give each competing group a list of songs that all contain the same chord progression. Tell them that when it’s their turn, they MUST sing one of the pre-approved songs for guaranteed success.
This takes away the pressure of deciding what song to sing next, when there are millions of possibilities. This isolates the variable of “how and when should I come in?” This helps groups go towards a familiar goal that will have some modicum of success early on.
Step 2- Fake it again, but give them more options
For your second riff-off, I would again give groups a pre-approved list of songs, but I’d make the list really big, so each group now has to decide together, and quickly, what song they are going to sing next.
I would also refrain from giving specific, genre-confining categories. Make the only relevant category “Songs from the list I just gave you.”
Step 3- Give them a big list, and make them distinguish good from bad
The third riff-off should also come with a bigger list of songs, but this time, add the genre-confining category as a new element. Now they have to scan the list and figure out which songs best fit the category you just gave them.
Also, don’t give them a category that doesn’t fit any of the songs on your list. That would be foolish.
Step 4- Give them homework
For the fourth riff-off, tell them about it a few days in advance. Have each group come up with a list on their own, and let them use it in the competition.
For extra help, tell them the categories in advance as well.
Step 5- To battle we go….
Find a group that is also just learning how to riff-off, and riff-off together. Try to avoid some of the “aggressive body language” used in the movie. Don’t sing in someone’s face. Don’t throw your arms out like you just “dissed” them. Don’t jump up and down and cry tears of joy if you win.
3) Maybe your group can’t improvise yet…
Face it. Your group may just not be ready to riff-off yet. The improvisation training I proposed takes weeks to learn and master, not days. Building towards a genuine riff-off takes time. I don’t suspect anyone will be able to do it for at least a few more months.
Keep working. I believe the future of a cappella is riff-offs.
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major:

Monday, April 1, 2013

The completely accurate history of a cappella music

It’s time for a history lesson. Let’s look at how a cappella music was born:
A cappella, as we all know, means “in the style of the hat.” That’s why it starts with the proclamation “a cap.”
Somewhere around the era of cavemen, it was common to see homosapiens attempting to wear rocks on their head as a fashion statement. This would often lead to rocks falling off their heads and landing on their bare feet, in which at that time, cavemen and cavewomen would shout “AHHH.”
Harmony was invented when a quartet of four cavemen all had their feet crushed by “hat-rocks” at the same time. They shouted “AHH” in four different tones and harmony was born. In a complete coincidence, one caveman shouted his “AHH” longer than the other three. This was how Barbershop tags were born.
Fast forward to the Medieval age. A man named Gregory the Chanter thought he could use the invention of music to strengthen his relationship with the one true creator of the universe, some guy named Bob. The music he sang, which was later referred to as Gregory’s Chant and then, through the years, was misshapen and transformed into Gregorian Chant, passed throughout the world until it came upon the McFerrin clan of Scotland.
Fast forward nine hundred years later. A talented singer, Melvin McSnootypants, discovered this history. Eager to market himself in the music business, he adopted the stage name Bobby McFerrin, and the rest is history.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that a cappella gained a foothold in pop culture. On the popular children’s television show,” Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego,” which the popular video game was later based on, the studio a cappella group, Rockapella, scored a number one hit with their song, “The Warrant,” which they sang every time a contestant found the “warrant” hidden under a tile. Even though the song was only one second long, the complex harmony of a major chord rung throughout the music-loving community. A cappella had become a star.
Soon, college campuses across the nation suddenly filled themselves with the desire to sing this “major chord.” Over time, the single major chord became boring and stale, and other chords were discovered.
This brings me to instruments. It is a commonly held belief that a cappella is best performed without instruments. This is simply not true. The technique of beatboxing, or “banging out a beat on a cardboard box” is still used today by many a cappella groups.
College campuses were developing a cappella groups left and right, but they still had no way of connecting across state lines. A new organization was founded around the same time, CASA, which stood for the "Caring and Adoration of Small Aardvarks." This group saw the immediate potential of a cappella music as yet another way to spread their message of love and peace for all Aardvark-kind. They invented a form of communication called the “internet,” which allowed a cappella groups to talk to each other over the computer. Unfortunately, the “internet” did not become a huge success and a cappella groups had to start relying on “cell phones” to videotape themselves.
In 2009, a cappella hit an even bigger milestone, with the introduction of a television show called “The Nick Lachey Variety Hour.” This program brought a cappella groups, and cardboard box-hitters, or “beatboxers” into viewers’ homes. The show was a complete success, and is still broadcast to this day, with absolutely no premature cancellations.
It is still unknown where a cappella will be in 10, 20, or even 30 years. Some say the hottest a cappella groups today, the “Pentagrams” and “Straight Without Some Kind of Chaser,” will continue to be as popular as they are now. Only time will tell.
Happy April Fools Day.
Marc Silverberg
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