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:

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