A couple of weeks ago, my a cappella group went flat. Not just in one song, but in every song. We were freaking out, because we had a concert coming up, and we couldn’t stay in tune to save our lives. We were in serious doo-doo.
This usually wouldn’t be an issue…I mean, if the whole group goes flat together, does it really matter? Look at Manhattan Transfer. They actually go flat on “Nightingale Sings In Berkley Square,” and they are supposedly the best vocal jazz quartet of all time.
In this particular case, though, it did. When I arrange, I tend to put each voice within the extreme registers, both low and high, so the arrangement doesn’t work if it’s in any key except the one I wrote.
I know what you’re thinking: “Well THERE’S your problem! You leave no wiggle room for going flat or sharp.”
True, I need to consider my vocal ranges a little more carefully in the future. But the problem, we discovered, was the vowel we were all using.
Below is a list of assumptions we tend to make when choosing vowels for our arrangement, and here’s what we, and especially I, have discovered in the process:
1) “Ooh” is for soft sections, “Ahh” is for loud sections.
The logic is simple. With an “ahh” vowel, our mouths are open to their maximum height, so naturally, we assume that we can produce the most sound. That may be true, but the “ahh” vowel produces just as many problems as it does decibels.
A pure “ahh” vowel is formed with the soft palate at its maximum height, jaw dropped to its lowest point, and tongue flat. Chances are, everyone in your group is singing their version of an “ahh” vowel, but no one’s “ahh” matches anyone else’s. To achieve a full, unified “ahh,” every singer must have the same mouth shape, as described above, and then, that still might not be unified, because there are bright “ahh” vowels and dark “ahh” vowels. A true “ahh,” according to the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a dark “ahh.”
My group changed a lot of our “ahh” vowels to “ooh” vowels. The “ooh” vowel is much easier to match, because it is the most closed vowel we can sing. It also increases the amount of space in our mouths, because it does not require the use of the tongue, only the lips. And if you think you can’t sing “ooh” in a forte dynamic, then you aren’t utilizing your support system or resonance system, and you’re most likely singing it incorrectly.
2) The soloist does not matter when it comes to vowels.
The soloist has words, the background singers have neutral syllables. That’s the fundamental way a cappella has been arranged for decades. But if the soloist is singing a word, like “me,” which is an “ee” vowel, and the background singers are singing “ooh,” there will already be a tuning issue.
I’m not saying that every vowel has to match the soloist. I am suggesting that all singers be aware of what vowel is used by each voice part, so that when you tune to each other, you are matching your vowels with the right person.
3) It does not matter which consonant you place before the vowel. You should choose whichever consonant matches the sound you want or the instrument you are trying to replicate.
Well...yes and no. Yes, you shouldn’t use “doo” when you want something more subtle, and you shouldn’t choose “voo” when you want to sing heavy rhythmic passages. But the attack of the consonant is more important than we realize, especially when we choose consonants called “fricatives.”
Fricative consonants include any consonant that you can hold. “S,” “F,” “SH,” etc. If you can speak the sound of a consonant and you can hold it out as long as you have air, then that consonant is a fricative. There are also consonants that act like fricatives, but are called glides, or nasal consonants, because of how they are produced. Glides include “W” and “L,” while nasal consonants include “M” and “N.”
Why am I boring you with this? Because fricative consonants take time to produce sound, and time to stop. Chances are, if everyone is singing the word “voo,” only half of your members are placing the “ooh” vowel on the beat, while the other half are singing the “v” consonant on the beat.
Fricative consonants must always be sung before the beat if your group has any chance of staying in tune and in tempo. True, the difference is measured in milliseconds, but those milliseconds matter.
4) It does not matter what voice part you are singing. Any voice part can sing any vowel.
Well, yes. Any voice part should be able to sing any vowel, but when you hit the extreme ranges, that statement is not true.
Here’s a fun anecdote: My soprano recently told me that she has rarely, if ever, sung the vowels I wrote on the page. She uses a mixed hybrid of “ooh” and “ahh,” which provides maximum power and helps her stay in tune.
After I got over my initial rage, I realized she was right and I was wrong. A soprano who is required to sing “ooh” at a high range will always run into pitch problems, because an “ooh” vowel requires a certain voice placement that contradicts the range. Sopranos, especially when singing notes off the staff, have to start modifying their vowels (changing “ooh” to “oh” and “oh” to “ahh”) to stay in tune. An arranger who writes a high soprano line with an “ooh” vowel is always going to run into this problem.
Basses sing their best low notes on the “ee” vowel, because “ee” is a maximum resonance vowel. Tenors sing best on “ooh,” because “ooh” is a maximum space vowel that uses both head voice and falsetto equally, and provides maximum room for dynamic shifts. Altos sing best on “oh,” because “oh” is a medium space vowel that fits best in their chest voice.
Of course, all of these statements can be contradicted by individual singers. If your alto sings best on “ooh,” then take that singer’s advice and ignore mine.
The moral of the story: Choose your vowels with care or your group will be stuck in doo-doo.
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In light of recent current events, I would like to change course a little bit and talk more seriously.
We are in some troubled times. I don’t count myself a political person. My daily news comes from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, so I can hardly say that I’m more well-informed than most. But there are things I believe in: I believe a cappella music is the coolest music ever. I believe in the power of education and that teaching is the most important profession that exists today. I believe that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, background, beliefs, etc. I believe that when a terrible shooting occurs, especially if that shooting occurs in a school, I believe our first, and most important duty, is to mourn the loss and do what we can to help.
I also believe that we, as a cappella singers and musicians, have a great deal more power than we give ourselves credit for. I believe that music has the power to shape our cultural identities. I believe that music, and all the arts, visual, literary, and performing arts, can raise awareness more powerfully than news networks can. I also believe that we are not using our powers enough.
I will not be so bold as to claim that singing in an a cappella group could possibly stop a horrific incident like this, or the hundreds that occurred right before it. But after a major event like this one, dozens, even hundreds of a cappella groups spring up to raise spirits, and a little money, for the cause. I wish the charity, love, and support brought on by a cappella groups happened more often, and before the horrific event ever happened.
Isn’t it possible, just possible, that the arts could have played a small part in preventing acts like this? Is it possible that a healthy arts program could have raised the shooter’s self esteem to the point where he might not have needed to go this far? Is it possible that music could have raised awareness about whatever the issue was that drove him to do this? Is it possible that with the support of peers, engaged in something meaningful, he might never have done this?
Is it just possible that this could have been prevented? Is it just possible that one of these events could have been prevented if the arts played a bigger role in our lives?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. You might think that the answer is a resounding “No, and you’re crazy for thinking this way.” That’s fine. I’d like to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes, there’s even a small possibility we could have stopped this.”
I can only speak for myself, but my music classroom has always been a place where students can escape their social burdens, peer pressure, and school stigmas, and bond together with others who share their love of something musical. I became a confidant, a mentor. And I did it while teaching a a cappella.
I don’t want to use this time to defend the arts. Anyone who is reading this right now knows the arts are in trouble, and if you don’t know that, you need to know.
I also don’t know any circumstances regarding this incident, or anyone involved. It could have been unrelated to anything I have just mentioned. But, even if this incident could not have been prevented, what about the countless others?
The point I’m trying to make is this…A cappella music is currently the “hot ticket” in musical culture. It gives people the chance to be the rock star of their dreams, to spend time in a classroom learning and singing the music they like, rather than the music that is forced upon them by curriculums. We, as a cappella singers, arrangers, producers, and especially educators, have an enormous power within us to spread good, promote creativity, encourage teamwork, raise awareness, build self-esteem, reinforce motor skills, enhance imagination, awaken healthy modes of expression, etc. We have that power, from the most advanced a cappella group on the planet to a group that just had their first rehearsal yesterday. And when tragedy after tragedy hits the news, the first thought in my head is “Could we, as musicians, have stopped it?”
Defining the genre is not enough. Some arrangers need help turning their mash-up from a lumpy sack of unpeeled potatoes into a yummy mush of spud and cheese. These theory-based techniques are tricky to master, but they will give your mash-up the fuel it needs to stand out.
1) Harmonic progressions
One of the best ways to determine whether two songs would work together is the harmonic progression, or the progression of chords. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) I posted a series of blogs on how to participate in a riff-off. Included in these posts was a beginner’s guide to identifying chord progressions. You can view it here:
Let’s give an example. Say you want to mash-up “Happy Ending” by Mika and “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. An inexperienced arranger would look at the two songs, see that they were in different keys, and immediately think these two songs couldn’t possibly go together.
Mika’s “Happy Ending:” C G Am F Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours:” G D Em C
An experienced arranger would notice that, while these two songs were in different keys, the harmonic progression, or the movement of chords, was exactly the same.
The chord progressions using Roman numeral analysis
Happy Ending: I V vi IV Jason Mraz: I V vi IV
They are the same underlying framework, despite starting in different keys. This means that, if you changed the keys of one of the songs, the chord progression would work for both. These two songs would most likely sound good together.
Of course, you will need to place them in the same key, which means transposing one of the solos up or down, and adjusting the tempo of each song so that both solos were moving under the same chords, but at least you’ve discovered the basic framework.
There are many apps on smartphones, tablets, and computers these days that let you play with the recordings of songs, and test out whether two songs would sound good together in a mash-up.
One of the easiest ways to choose two songs is based solely on tempo, or the speed of the song. A fast song often has a fast progression of chords. This could fit well with another song that moves quickly, or even more clever, a song that moves very slowly through chords.
Imagine a song that stays with the same chord for several measures, like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. Now add to that a song that moves quickly through chords, like “Marry Me” by Train.
Combining these two songs, one staying within the same structure and one moving quickly within that structure, may create a new harmonic sound that you enjoy.
The key to re-harmonization, or writing new chords for an existing melody, is all dependent on what note is currently in the melody. For example, a melody that stays on the note E would fit well over the C major triad, which contains the notes C E and G.
However, that’s not the only option. A melody note E would also fit over:
Em- E G B Am- A C E C#m- C# E G# FMaj7- F A C E G13- G B F E Etc.
There are dozens of chords that would work because they share the same note as the melody. Now, before I start getting hate mail from composers, let me be clear: Re-Harmonization is more than just picking out new chords. The placement of these chords in order, the function of these chords; all of these elements factor into the compositional process.
What if we took the melody of one song, labeled the notes, and then saw if that song worked with another, existing harmonic progression?
Take “Let It Be” by the Beatles and sing it over the harmonic progression of “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers. The end of the first phrase, “Let it Be,” the soloist sings a “C” while the chords move from C major (C E G) to G7 (G B D F).
The addition of the “C” in the melody turns the harmonic progression into C major going to G 11 (G B D F C). Already you have a re-harmonization, all because the chord was altered, thanks to the melody note.
You should feel free to play with different chords under the melody, as long as the chord you choose already contains the melody note within it. Using a pre-existing melody with a different, pre-existing chord progression, is one of the most advanced and clever ways to mash-up two songs.
4) Guess and Check
Forget theory! Theory is stupid! Just try singing two songs together, like they did in Pitch Perfect. See what happens. Who knows, you might find a new musical sound that you really like.
I don’t mean to make your head spin, or overcomplicate things by bringing musical theory into this topic. But there are times when you try a mash-up and something “just isn’t right,” but you can’t put your finger on it. These techniques will help you eliminate these inconsistencies.
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Over the summer, I took in a few Broadway shows. Some were great (Pippin). Some were “meh” (Vanya, Sonya, Masha, and Spike). And then there was one that was truly an abomination to theatre everywhere.
It was Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
Let me just give you a taste of this garbage for those who haven’t seen it. It includes (but not limited to), a hip-hop dance in army uniforms; a dance in which everyone is dressed as Spider-Man; a fight scene with a larger-than-life balloon; an incredibly large and pointless baby silhouette; a plastic, blow-up Lizard protruding from a man’s chest; a bumble-bee costume with far too many wires sticking out of it; a giant, god-like spider which descends from the ceiling and into Peter Parker’s bedroom during one of the most unintentionally perverted scenes of all time; and finally, a lounge-singing Green Goblin who finally meets his demise in a "death-by-piano" situation. Oh, and the music is terrible.
This musical was a mess. A big, 65 million dollar mess. And it is currently the seventh highest-grossing musical today, raking in 10 million dollars a week.
WHAT???? That piece of human excrement is the seventh highest-grossing musical today?
It’s true, and I think I understand why.
It’s the name, Spider-Man, which holds enough weight to carry this show. Even I wanted to see it, and I knew it was going to be bad, because I love Spider-Man. And, I really wanted to see someone break their leg during the high-flying action scenes.
So can we learn a lesson from this? Is there some a cappella metaphor we can glean from this 3 hour waste of human life?
We see it all the time. Some a cappella group thinks they are going to be the “talk of the concert,” because they are about to bust out that brand new song that everyone has been talking about. We saw it last year with "Gangham Style," “Too Close,” and “Some Nights.”
You need to understand something. Once the audience figures out what song you are going to sing (and they will within 3-5 seconds), then the allure and mystery of your big reveal is over. Now you’ve got 3 more minutes of music, and your arrangement is not up to par, so the audience tunes out.
As we’ve seen with Spider-Man, the name carries with it a lot of weight. If you tell everyone you are going to sing a Taylor Swift song, you will probably get a lot of attention. As a musician, and an artist, I’m asking you to please give the audience a reason to keep that attention.
Having a great song in your repertoire affords you a very small window of opportunity to distance yourself from other groups, but it’s a double-edged sword, because if you sing it badly, then you’ve just ruined a “great song.”
Now the argument can be made against this opinion. After all, Spider-Man is really, really terrible, and it brings in more money than most other Broadway shows combined. But consider the history behind it. It had to be completely re-written. The original director, Julie Taymor, dropped out. It garnered absolutely no major awards from any academy or organization. It doesn’t have a single memorable song that we all know.
Are they laughing all the way to the bank? Yep. When the show is over, will it most likely disappear from our collective memory, much like the 1970’s musical “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman?” Yep.
So which is better? The monetary value and esteem of having a great name attached, or the lasting value of a work you are proud of? Well that choice is up to you. I’m suggesting that if you have a great name, you need a great product to back it up.
Oh, and don’t see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, unless you want to throw away three hours of your life.
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