Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Twitch Plays A cappella

I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore gamer. I enjoy the occasional video game every now and then, and I follow the latest video game news when I need a break, but this is only on occasion.
One particular videogame phenomenon caught my eye recently, and I’ve been transfixed ever since. The popular internet site “Twitch,” which is basically a youtube-like site where gamers can post live videos of them playing video games, has now been the host of a rather interesting social experiment, similar to the anarchy that befalls any community without a system of order.
A twitch user set up an emulator (sort of like a computer program) where anyone can type in a command and control the main character, Red, in a game of Pokemon.
So basically, thousands of users type in commands, all trying to guide this one, poor, hapless, frustrated pokemon trainer to complete his mission.
As you would expect, soon thousands more logged onto the site with the singular purpose of disrupting any chance of success. And then thousands more logged in to try and stop the disrupters. So thousands more disrupters created an emulator program that allowed them to type in commands that would be executed multiple times. And then thousands more logged in to hopefully restore order.
This has been going on for a week now.
In fact, it got so bad that the creator established a system of governance. Users could forgo their turn to vote on how the system would respond to the thousands of commands it receives per minute. A vote for anarchy would leave the emulator the way it is now, with chaos reigning supreme. A vote for democracy would change the program so that the command with the most number of entries per every ten seconds would be the next command on the list.
It’s been several days now, and obviously, the game is nowhere near finished.
This got me thinking about a cappella (as everything often does). Let’s say that an arranger, looking to create a new a cappella arrangement, left every musical choice and decision up to the general public. People could input their ideas, one note at a time, and you could have the option of deleting a note, changing a note, adding a note, etc.
What would this arrangement look like? Would it be mixed? Would it be faithful to the original song? Would it have lots of long notes? Would it have complicated rhythms? How many parts would it have? What song would it be based on? Would there be a mash-up?
This all comes down to a matter of taste. One criticism I have with a cappella critiques is that they are opinion-based. The ICCA is a perfect example: To win, you have to please the judges, none of whom you know until the day of the competition. If your set is a complicated mixture of swingle singing and barbershop, but the judges only want to hear a group emulate Pentatonix, it doesn’t matter how well you perform. You have no chance of winning.
The same problem remains an integral part of a cappella groups. Usually, the group has one or two arrangers working on a song, which is then given to the entire group to perform. The arrangement is shaped and crafted during rehearsals, and the final product suits the majority.
But what if several of your members want to take the group in a different direction? What if someone wants to hear more jazz, and you want more pop? What if someone suggests a really good, but completely unknown song, and you want to sing the latest, popular radio hit? Who wins in the end?
The social experiment known as Twitch Plays Pokemon has, in my view, only one conclusion: The game will end, but the destination will not be as fulfilling as the journey. Through the chaos of creating something new, like an arrangement, the final product might not be accepted by all, unless everyone has a hand in it. For everyone to have a hand in it, we would need thousands, maybe millions of people, crafting the same arrangement to please everyone.
If thousands of people craft the same arrangement together, you get the chaos that is Twitch Plays Pokemon.
I guess the moral is this: You can’t please everyone. Critics will critique, judges will judge, naysayers will say nay, and optimists will be optimistic. I prefer to play Pokemon on my own time, to suit my needs. The same goes for a cappella.
Marc Silverberg
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Monday, February 10, 2014

2 Years Young

The Quest is celebrating its second year anniversary today!
I am elated that this blog has gained support from readers and singers alike. As of today, the Quest has been viewed over 12,000 times. A popular a cappella site, Vocal Asia, is currently working on translating this blog into Chinese, for international distribution. The website, docacappella.com, is taking an inordinately large amount of time to develop (sorry…).
In what is sure to be known as the “most self-indulgent blog post of all time,” I’d like to list the top ten blog posts so far, based on the amount of reader responses. Why am I doing this? Because it’s my blog, and I can. So nyah nyah nyah.
10) Goofus and Gallant Return to the ICCA
The two boys who teach moral life lessons in the popular children’s magazine “Highlights” finally grow up and join a cappella groups, in what can only be described as the “dumbest fan-fiction ever written.” Goofus is clearly about to lose the ICCA and Gallant is clearly going to win.
“Whoops” moment- When I promoted this article on Facebook, I pluralized ICCA into ICCA’s. That would mean the event was actually called the International Championship of Collegiate A cappellas. Wrong.
9) A cappella Day and S.O.S
I’d like to believe this, and only this, was the sole reason the Sing-Off was saved from cancellation. I know it’s definitely not true, but it makes me sleep better at night.
“I failed” moment- I started a petition on change.org to convince MENC (now NAfME) to declare December 14th “National A cappella day,” in concurrence with the first airing of the Sing-Off. It didn’t get enough signatures. And MENC changed it’s name, presumably to avoid me.
8) How To Compete in a Riff-Off, part 2
I really don’t know why this entry became 4 parts, but after watching Pitch Perfect, I knew the riff-off scene could, in theory, be duplicated to some extent. In this particular entry in the series, I talk a lot about theory.
“Bored in class” moment- I wrote this during a college class, in which I was really bored. The teacher didn’t seem to notice…or maybe he just didn’t care.
7) How To Compete in a Riff-Off, part 1
The one that started it all. Thanks to this post, I was able to teach these lessons at several CASA festivals, and the ACDA National Convention in 2013. When you read it, try to figure out where I am the angriest/most passionate. (Hint: It’s the part where I say WRONG in capital letters, multiple times in a row. Not my proudest moment.)
“Angry Reader” moment- This series of articles was written in response to a review of Pitch Perfect, where the interviewee stated that the “Riff-Off” scene was impossible to re-create.
6) What I learned from LAAF
This is the most recent blog post, but it exploded like a thousand fiery death stars of death. CASA festivals are where I got the idea for this blog, and they will always remain at the top of my “to-do” list.
“Duh” moment- I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner, but I plan to do this after every major CASA festival from now on.
5) Warm-ups are Always Picked Last For Dodgeball
In one of my earliest attempts to be funny, I tried to make the case for improvisation over traditional warm-ups. My view of this has changed dramatically since I wrote it, two years ago. I still maintain that improvisation is a crucial part for a balanced breakfast of singing, but traditional warm-ups help strengthen vocal skills and shouldn’t be ignored. Plus, I thought the “fat kid in dodgeball” reference reflected my horrible childhood.
“Typo” moment- I wasn’t proofreading these first posts. I was too eager to post them, and had too limited of time. The most common typo was when the computer corrected “your a cappella” with “you’re a cappella.” Stupid Microsoft.
4) How to Compete in A Riff-Off, part 3
I included this post in all of the bibliographies that I hand out during workshops, so it’s no wonder that this one is so popular. Either that, or people are really interested to learn about traditional music theory.
“Formatting” moment- Making these lists was horrible. Really, truly, utterly, horrible. I will never post something this detailed again.
3) Riffing about Riff-offs
Geez. Riff-offs are apparently popular for some reason.
“Sell Out” moment- My blog, at this time, was not getting a lot of hits, so I tried to up the readership by posting about a topic I already knew was popular. Devious, I know.
2) How to Compete in a Riff-Off, part 4
This is the post where I invented the rules of a Riff-Off. They are terrible and I wish I had thought more about them before posting. Please, for your own sake, make up your own rules.
“Get Out of Jail Free Card” moment- I knew these rules would create some controversy, so I included a rule at the end that said the host group had liberty to change the rules as they saw fit. That way, no one could yell at me that my rules were wrong. After all, no one had ever invented rules for a Riff-off before…
1) Mash-ups vs. Medleys
I’m really glad this post is getting as many views as it is. One of my biggest pet peeves in a cappella is when someone calls something a “medley” when it isn’t and when someone thinks a “mash-up” qualifies when a second song is merely “quoted.” It’s almost as bad as spelling a cappella like “acapella.”
“GLEE hates me” moment- I definitely thought I was going to get some backlash when I proclaimed that GLEE did not invent the term “mash-up.” I didn’t. Hooray!
My personal favorite:
The Completely Accurate History of A cappella
Man, I thought this was hilarious. No one else did.
Thank you for reading. You have made me the luckiest blogger on the face of the aca-blogs. More in store, I promise.
Marc Silverberg
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Monday, February 3, 2014

What I Learned from LAAF

This past weekend, I attended the Los Angeles A cappella Festival. Besides the six-hour flight, sandwiched in the middle of two large people who ate tuna wraps and Caesar salad respectively, I enjoyed myself immensely.
Attending CASA festivals, or any festival for that matter, gives me the chance to re-discover something I already knew, but often forget- I definitely don’t know everything about a cappella.
There is always something new to learn. There is always some new way to approach a cappella that you haven’t thought of before. There is always someone who has a different outlook on life, with different experiences, that shows you something no one else could.
As much as I’m trying to avoid doing a PSA for attending CASA festivals, I would like to share what I learned this weekend.
1) Expect the unexpected.
Rene Ruiz of Toxic Audio taught me that the best performances are the ones where you never let the audience be comfortable with what is about to happen. When you spice things up, go in a different direction, and give the audience the complete opposite of what they think is about to happen, then you strike gold. This applied to the Friday night competition as well, when Unstrumental, a high school a cappella group who had twice been denied the win, finally took home first place after what can only be described as the craziest, gutsiest, funniest, confetti-filled Ke$ha performance I’ve ever seen.
2) Group warm-ups are the only warm-ups that matter.
The Honey Whiskey Trio, winners of last year’s Harmony sweepstakes, made the case that individual group members should perform their own warm-ups outside of rehearsal, and the only warm-ups you should do together are ones where you constantly match vowels and work on group blend. I 100% agree with this method, and you can bet I’ll be working on this from now on.
3) Draw inspiration from sources outside of music.
Ariel Arbisser led a workshop titled “Sing it like you mean it.” I had never attended this workshop before at other festivals, but heard through the grapevine that it was outstanding, so I finally saw it. Ariel made the case for incorporating the Meisner technique, an acting method, for determining how to sing with conviction. Even if you don’t agree with the Meisner technique, or you don’t really know much about it, like me, your group needs a way to connect to the lyrics that doesn’t involve simply talking about it. You need to emote, and you need to find a method that lets you do that.
4) The best thing for a cappella music is not to be separate, but to be inclusive.
In Ben Bram’s open forum class, we had a discussion about a cappella transforming into its own genre of music. I’ve written several posts about this topic, making the case that, for a cappella to be taken seriously, it needs to become its own classification, separate from pop music. Ben made the opposite case, which makes sense: For a cappella to be taken seriously, people need to stop viewing a cappella as a separate genre of music, and just look at a cappella music as live music. Pentatonix is not an a cappella group…they are a live band with no instruments, capable of winning the same Grammy award as Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift. If we approach a cappella from that angle, we will be taken more seriously.
5) Home Free is amazing and they are the example of how hard work pays off.
Home Free, the winners of season 4 of the sing-off, had been together for 13 years before their television appearance. When I saw them at the concert on Saturday night, it was very clear that these guys were seasoned performers. The show was incredibly tight and smooth. It was entertaining, hilarious, and free-flowing without getting too messy.
Groups want instant fame. That’s an opinion I maintain is true. Groups want to get on the Sing-off, win the competition, make a viral video, and be superstars without spending years honing their craft.
You, and I, need to understand that this is just not the reality. Sure, Pentatonix met a day before the audition, but Avi and Kevin were already seasoned performers, and the other three had been singing together in high school. You cannot jump into a Pentatonix-like situation without being as talented as the five of them beforehand, and to get that talented, you have to work. Home Free reminded me of this. 13 years, thousands of performances later, and they are already steps ahead of the game.
Instant fame is attainable, but without hard work and practice, that instant fame might be for the wrong reasons…and then you become Rebecca Black.
Marc Silverberg
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