Last week, my a cappella group went on a retreat. The retreat was my idea, because I figured locking us in an isolated house, in the middle of nowhere, for three days, with limited transportation and supplies, hours away from where we live, with almost no phone signal, was a really good idea.
Despite the enormous amount of things that could go wrong, I still recommend taking a retreat with your group. It should be somewhere you can all stay together, and still get some alone time. It should be isolated enough that you can get work done, but still near civilization so you’re protected when a mass murderer comes to hack you to bits…I mean…you have somewhere to go for dinner.
As far as retreats go, I have to say that this year was a dramatic improvement from last year, because we knew what to expect, and we knew what needed to be accomplished. Here is what I learned:
1) Have one, singular goal in mind.
If the goal of your retreat is as vague as “Practice music,” you’re going to find, once the weekend is over, that you’ve accomplished almost nothing. Our group had a singular goal: To choreograph and run our competition set. Just three songs in two days.
Every now and then, we would take a break from the set and sing other music. There was this fun (and by fun I mean hellish) moment when we tried organically arranging something. We ran over some simpler arrangements. We played rock band.
But when the weekend was over, our set was done. It wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but it was done. We had every group member there and every group member learned the same material in the same way. This will provide a big step forward in preparing ourselves for the future.
2) Chip in on a few cases of water.
Our soprano brought the case of water for her, and obviously, we stole most of it.
Fun fact! Every Poland Spring bottle looks the same, so when you put it down, you immediately forget which bottle is yours, so you decide not to risk the germs and just grab a new bottle. If everyone does this several times a day, you’ll be out of water by the second day.
Either buy enough water to accommodate this fact, or mark your bottle and re-fill it with filtered water.
3) There’s nowhere to run.
Make someone mad or upset (which happened often) and you’ll have to deal with it…all weekend. Consider this “nowhere to hide” scenario as a teaching tool in “what not to say.”
4) Be the boss.
Someone has to be the villain and keep everyone on schedule. It sucks, but if you are the music director, that person must be you. I found this year to be easier than last, because we had already been through the ringer before, and I had a realistic view of what we can accomplish, and what might be too much to handle.
Still, you have to make sure that work time is spent on work and play time is for play. Don’t try to cut the play time short for work, and don’t be lenient on reducing the work time for more play time. Have an hour-by-hour plan of attack and make sure those micro-goals add up to your macro-goal.
5) Someone, or everyone will get sick.
It’s just one of those “Murphy’s Law” things- whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Just because you keep your hands away from your face doesn’t mean someone won’t get food poisoning, or break their toe, or be the unfortunate victim of a leap-frog incident, or burn their finger, or take some medication that puts them worse off than before…
Everyone needs to take care of their bodies, and a first aid kit wouldn’t hurt either…
6) Pitch? Anyone? Bueller?
Hey kids! Guess what isn’t included in every house…
If you need to run pitches, bring a keyboard or tablet with a keyboard app and a speaker. Don’t assume the house will have a piano…in our case, it didn’t. And make sure the music director remembers to bring the keyboard…(whoops)
7) The bathroom is a sacred place
Our house had multiple bathrooms, so we made sure to divvy up the bathrooms between the boys and girls. Using the wrong bathroom may make someone angry (again…whoops), and remember that everyone has to shower every morning, which takes time if you don’t have multiple showers.
8) Cards Against Humanity
This has nothing to do with music. I just wanted to come out and publicly endorse this game, which is just the greatest game known to man. Bring it. Trust me.
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Goofus and Gallant are two boys who are always doing right and wrong. They became a staple of Highlights magazine many years ago and have been teaching kids about manners and morals for several decades. Gallant is always right and Goofus is always wrong.
Some time ago (see link above), I sent Goofus and Gallant to the ICCA competition. This year, they are back, with some more life-affirming lessons as you go into battle.
1) When Goofus arrives at the ICCA competition site, he is rude to the other groups, because the other groups are the “enemy.” Gallant is polite and kind to the other groups. He knows that competitions such as the ICCA are great ways to make new friends and meet new contacts. However, he does not give away any details of his set, because this is a competition after all.
Lesson learned: Don’t be a jerk. Competing groups can still be cordial and friendly to each other.
2) Goofus believes that winning the ICCA is the only thing that matters. He drives himself crazy with winning, so much so that he alienates himself from the rest of the group and isn’t able to have a good time in rehearsal anymore. Gallant understands that ICCA competitions come and go, and there will always be something else, always be another gig, and winning the ICCA doesn’t guarantee that your group will become instant superstars forever.
Lesson learned: If winning the ICCA is the only thing that matters, you need a new hobby.
3) Goofus hears a new song on the radio that he likes and thinks if he acts on it now, his group will be the first to premiere the song at the ICCAs. Gallant knows that with over 1,200 collegiate a cappella groups, the chances of someone having the same idea as Goofus are pretty good.
Lesson learned: Don’t put a current radio hit into your ICCA set. You will undoubtedly set yourself up for the possibility that someone will sing that song on the same night.
4) When the last song of Goofus’ ICCA set starts, Goofus smiles, because he knows that it doesn’t matter how bad the first two songs in the set were. This last song has got that extra pizazz that will wow the judges to victory. Gallant knows that the judges are trying to determine who has the best overall set, not the best overall song. Gallant makes sure that all three or four songs in his ICCA set are equally magnificent.
Lesson Learned: If you put all of your effort into one song, the others will suffer by comparison. It doesn’t matter if your last song has backflips, fireworks, high belting solos, and a killer mash-up of Royals and Freebird. If the other two songs in your set are not as magnificent, you have no hope of winning.
5) Goofus hates the performing venue. He complains about everything, from the sound set-up to the acoustics of the auditorium, and thinks the person in charge is an idiot. Gallant respects the person in authority and knows that the company that runs the ICCAs, Varsity Vocals, knows what they are doing, so he will just have to adapt.
Lesson Learned: I’ve seen it time and time again. The groups that lose find something to blame, whether it be the venue space, the microphone set-up, the timekeeper, the person in charge, etc. Guess what? It’s not their fault. Having worked with members of Varsity Vocals before, I can say with confidence that they have their act together and blaming them does nothing to help your cause. And if things seem unorganized or out of place, be kind and ask questions; don’t yell and complain. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
6) Goofus does not hire a coach to work with his a cappella group, because that seems weird and unnecessary. Gallant knows that the groups who have the best shot of winning are the ones who work with professionals, because after all, this is a competition.
Lesson Learned: Hire someone to help, because you can’t do it all yourself.
7) Goofus and Gallant are told the layout of the stage and microphone set-up beforehand. Goofus ignores this information, because he doesn’t believe the size of the space matters. Gallant blocks off a section of the floor with masking tape to replicate the stage size, then borrows microphones from his school to replicate the sound of the space.
Lesson Learned: The dimensions of the space are important. Practice with them so you don’t go in blind.
8) Goofus watches an a cappella group he likes on youtube and decides to “borrow” their choreography, because he thinks no one will know where he got it from. Gallant knows not to steal choreography, because choreography is copyrighted and at least one of the judges will have probably seen the same video. And if Marc Silverberg is there, he will know every choreography move from every ICCA set.
Lesson Learned: I know when you steal choreography. So do most of the judges. Don’t do it.
9) Goofus posts videos of his ICCA set from rehearsal and from shows that his group performs. Gallant knows to keep that kind of information off of the internet, because he knows other groups will see it.
Lesson Learned: If you put it up for everyone to see, don’t complain when the other groups know what songs are in your set. That’s your fault. When in doubt, don’t post it.
Good luck this year.
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A new year, a brand new chance to immerse yourself in the ever growing phenomenon that is contemporary a cappella music. Last year, I posted a blog, very near the time I’m posting this one, about how you can improve your aca-knowledge in 30 days. You can read it here:
And since January is usually the time to gear up for competition, it seems like there is no better time to start becoming an aca-grand master.
Day 1-7 Let’s start with something you have already done (hopefully), if not…get started right away. Each day, you will watch one episode of the Sing-Off, season 4. But I want you to pay close attention to certain aspects of the show. I want you to watch each performance twice (fast forward through the judge’s comments and the story montages) and really listen to the group, not the soloist, to see if you can hear the intricacies of their arrangement. What is the bass doing? What are the inner lines? How many doo’s do they use and how many times do they sing words? How is their arrangement interesting from beginning to end and do they ever repeat a section?
Day 8- It’s time for a Sing-along viewing of Pitch Perfect! When you get to the Bella’s finale, really listen to the transitions between songs. Check to see what key each song is in and try to figure out how the arranger (Ed Boyer) got from one song to the next. This will help you gain insight on how to compose an a cappella medley or mash-up.
Day 9- Become a CASA member
Day 10- Look up all of the colleges in your area. How many a cappella groups do they have, and when is the next concert? Buy a ticket for one show.
Day 11- Listen to an all a cappella radio station for the whole day.
Day 12- On CASA.org, look up the winners of the 2013 A cappella Community Awards. Look up one of these groups.
Day 13- Go on Last.fm and listen to one a cappella album.
Day 14- Pick a song that you think no a cappella group has ever performed before. Search the internet and see if you are right.
Day 15- Vocal Health day! Drink lots of decaffeinated tea. Speak in a higher-pitched register so you don’t put pressure on your vocal cords. Get lots of rest. Don’t speak unless you need to.
Day 16- Google your a cappella hero and send him/her an email just to tell him/her that he/she is great.
Day 17- Go to celemony.com. Download the 30-day trial version of Melodyne. It’s free!
Day 18- Find 3 friends and sing a Barbershop tag. You can find hundreds of free tags on the internet. There’s even an app for that!
Day 19- Go to BetterAcappella.com and contact one arranger for their music.
Day 20- Have a piano-free rehearsal with your a cappella group.
Day 21- Buy an electronic pitch-pipe, tuning fork, or regular pitch-pipe.
Day 22- Find 30 websites dedicated to a cappella. Bookmark them and keep them in a separate folder marked a cappella.
Day 23- Buy a compilation album and listen to it (Either SING, BOCA, BOHSA, or Voices Only)