Monday, March 31, 2014

The Problem With Rankings

There has been a lot of buzz this week over ranking systems. Wherever you go, whatever you do, someone will find a way to rank your skills, your accomplishments. In our country, filled with Billboard top 100, iTunes top selling singles, and even Letterman’s humorous Top Ten list, our culture is used to ranking one thing above another, and assigning intrinsic value to each rank.
Before we start thinking that rankings are rank, let’s take a moment to examine the purpose, and practical application of rankings.
1) Rankings are only as important as we determine them to be.
A rank is kind of like a collectable item: It’s only as important as we make it. The first comic appearance of Superman goes for millions of dollars because Superman is the ultimate American superhero icon. Even people who aren’t into comic books know who Superman is. The first comic appearance of Electro the Robot is probably worth nothing, since no one knows who that is.
The same goes for ranking websites. The AFI (American Film Institute) ranked "Citizen Kane" as the number one film of all time. I disagree, so does that make them right? Well no, because all rankings are subjective, meaning that they are based on one’s own opinion and not factual data. It just so happens that AFI is a well-respected organization with movie scholars and critics on their panel, so the fact that they made "Citizen Kane" the number one film of all time probably means they had significant cause to do so. But I don’t agree, so right there you cannot state, for a fact, that AFI’s ranking is universally accepted.
2) What's the basis?
First, we need to understand the difference between objective and subjective. Objective means with absolutely no bias. A scoring system that’s completely objective is based on scientific data, determined by proven fact. Subjective is the exact opposite-it is based on opinion.
The ICCA, Harmony Sweepstakes, and all other a cappella competitions, try as they might, are subjective. The ICCA does the best job of determining a point system for each individual aspect of the group’s performance, but still, the score is subjective, based on the opinion of the judge. It is nearly (but not totally) impossible to make any kind of singing competition objective. The Barbershop Society is the closest, with each judge studying the arrangement as the group sings, and marking off points for blend or balance, or whatever else they deem fit.
For a judging system to be completely objective, you would need to score a group on a scale of 100 points, and take a point off for every wrong note, every blend issue, every tempo change performed incorrectly, etc. It’s really hard to do, and too complicated to be accurate. That’s why, when you get judged in a competition, you should keep this in the back of your mind: Your score, your placement, your overall impression is based solely on the opinions of the judges and nothing else, so it is very hard to take it at face value.
And who determines what to be scored and how? Human beings, who are inherently flawed. So if you put too much stake into scoring systems, you are saying that you care way too much what five, completely random people think about you, and that’s just silly.
3) Rankings often contradict each other.
You should never take one ranking system at face value. That is one ranking system, written by one group of people. When you determine whether the ranking system is viable, you need to look at several systems and compare the results.
For example, almost every group that ranks the best movies of all time has “Citizen Kane” as number one, so it’s safe to assume that the majority of movie scholars think this and this decision merits some weight. But television rankings are all very different. One group says "Breaking Bad" is the greatest television show of all time, one says "The Wire," one says the "Simpsons," etc. Who is right? No one. Who should you trust? Whomever you want.
When it comes to competition feedback, I use this method for determining which judge comments are worth looking at, and which are total bunk. Let’s say you just competed in the ICCA and you have five feedback sheets from judges. Use this method to determine how to score your actual performance:
1-If there is a comment that appears on all five judging sheets, take it to heart. Judges don’t compare notes, so if all five judges noticed the same thing, then it is either really good or really bad.
2-If there is a comment on one sheet that is completely contradicted on another sheet, cross both of those comments out and ignore them. If one judge liked your dance move and the other judge hated it, then how exactly are you supposed to react to that? You react by crossing them both out, and ignoring it.
3-If one judge noticed a very specific thing and none of the other judges noticed it, then you have to look at who the judge was, and what kind of background they have. If the judge who once choreographed a Broadway show thinks your dance is too simple, you can probably take that opinion to the bank. If someone like me thought the dance was too simple, you can probably shrug it off.
4) What do you get if you are number 1?
Here’s a fun fact: If you are at the top of any ranking list, if you win the ICCA, if you win Harmony Sweepstakes, guess what prize you get? NOTHING! You get nothing. No record deal. No prize money. No special plaque. You get nothing but the satisfaction of being first. If you get nothing, then why do you care so much that you are on top?
Rankings are subjective. Despite what critics tell you, despite what kinds of formulas they use, they are always subjective unless there is hard data to back it up. So please, take it at face value and don’t let the ranking ruin your day.
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

100 Ways to Make a Medley

A student came up to me recently, frustrated with the task of composing an interesting medley, as commissioned by another group. For him, and for everyone else looking to make your medley stand out from the crowd, I offer these helpful suggestions.
[ADDITIONAL NOTE: Clearly, there are areas in this list where I started to run out of ideas. Just ignore those...]
1) Songs from the same decade
2) Songs from the same genre
3) Songs from the same artist
4) Songs from the same composer
5) Songs from the same lyricist
6) Songs from the same show
7) Songs from the same movie
8) Songs from the same television show
9) Songs from the same block of television shows
10) Songs from video games
11) Songs you all love
12) Songs you all hate
13) Songs that, when you put the lyrics together, they tell a story
14) Songs with the same chord progression
15) Songs from commercials
16) Songs from the same region
17) One song covered by multiple artists
18) Songs with the same lyrical topic
19) Songs that have nothing to do with each other in any way
20) Songs where the verse of one song could be better complimented by the chorus of a different song
21) Songs that start with the same melodic interval
22) Songs with the same rhythm
23) Songs that demonstrate how uncreative an artists is, because every song sounds exactly the same
24) Songs performed at a specific concert
25) Songs from the same album
26) Songs that start in different keys, just to demonstrate how good your arranger is at linking them together
27) Songs you can dance to
28) Romantic songs
29) Power ballads
30) Songs with extreme guitar solos
31) Songs that all start with the same word
32) Songs from a specific holiday
33) songs that make you laugh
34) Songs that make you cry
35) Songs that feature one soloist singing with different voices
36) Songs that are popular with Karaoke singers
37) Songs with extremely difficult-to-sing melodies
38) Songs that have never been released
39) Songs that can be looped
40) Songs that change their harmonic progression by adding a different bass line
41) Songs in the same time signature
42) Songs that are typically covered by a cappella groups
43) Songs that are never covered by a cappella groups
44) Songs that someone told you could never be performed by an a cappella group, EVER.
45) Songs that are impossible to cover because you would need a specific instrument to make it authentic, and yet you cover it anyway
46) Songs from a specific license company
47) Songs that tell a story…a story that already has different songs attached to it
48) Songs that progressively get faster
49) Songs that progressively get slower
50) Songs from a specific culture
51) Songs in a different language
52) Songs first sung in English, then covered in different languages
53) Songs made up by weird, unusual sounds
54) Songs that annoy everyone
55) Songs that everyone in the audience knows the words to
56) Songs that describe one person, whether that person is real or fake
57) First song has a soloist, second song has a duet, third song has a trio, etc.
58) Songs chosen entirely at random in advance
59) Songs chosen entirely at random from the audience
60) Songs with very long intros, and you never quite get to the words
61) Songs that won awards
62) Songs that hit #1 on the Billboard or iTunes chart
63) Songs that you are sure no one has ever heard of
64) Original songs
65) Parodies
66) A medley of songs that are linked by a continuous solo countermelody
67) Songs in the style of a fugue
68) Theme and variations
69) Songs in AABA form
70) Songs covered by a specific a cappella group
71) A medley of medleys
72) Songs that allow for humorous dialogue interludes
73) Songs that could only be performed in a specific type of setting
74) Songs that require a specific type of technology
75) Songs that could be used for a Riff-Off
76) Songs that combine styles of music very well
77) Medleys of mash-ups
78) Songs with the same bass line
79) Songs that tie together a video clip
80) Songs with similar choreography
81) Songs that demonstrate unique choreography
82) Songs that could be staged like a play
83) A medley that comes full circle (Song 1-Song 2-Song 3-Song 2-Song 1)
84) A medley of songs, if they were sung by a different artist
85) A day in the life of a particular artist
86) A medley of songs with misheard lyrics
87) A medley of songs with the original lyrics, rhythm, melody, etc.
88) A medley of songs that blatantly stole from other songs
89) A medley of songs that only work with extreme dynamics
90) A medley of songs sung with heavy vibrato
91) A medley of songs sung with no words, just humming
92) A “name that tune” medley
93) A medley where the next song is determined by a roll of the dice or flip of the coin
94) A medley that forces everyone in your group to adopt a new, unfamiliar, personality
95) Songs all covered by a specific a cappella arranger
96) Songs in public domain
97) Songs that are popular at your local school
98) A medley of 100 songs in 3 minutes
99) A medley of songs all sung at exactly the same time
100) A medley of why you hate medleys
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Finding the McMuffin

This past weekend, my group and I spent two days in the prescence of my favorite a cappella live looper, Mister Tim, whose wealth of knowledge was only surpassed by his looping skills.
During our coaching session, Tim brought up an interesting discussion point that we had never really considered before…Why are we doing what we are doing? What is the end game, why do we compete, and why do we perform?
Tim calls it “Finding the MacGuffin.” The Macguffin is a word in literary fiction that refers to the desired object, goal, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues.
When he first said it, I thought he was making up a word, combining the famous Shakespearean character MacDuff, and the ever tasty, but very fattening, McDonald’s McMuffin.
With very little literary knowledge to speak of, I will now refer to this MacGuffin as the McMuffin, because I like food.
So Tim suggested that finding our McMuffin requires us to answer a simple question about our motivation. What is the end game of all of this? When we compete in two weeks, why are we competing?
Let’s put this in a practical context: If you, in your college a cappella group, win the ICCA, what do you get? NOTHING. You get nothing. No recording contract, no prize money, no special performing right. You get nothing. The same goes for eating a McMuffin. What satisfaction do you get? NOTHING. You get fatter, your calorie intake skyrockets, and you don’t win any special prize money.
So why do it? Well I think the answer is the same for both: It makes you feel good. It gives you bragging rights. (I won the ICCA…nyah nyah nyah.) (I ate a McMuffin while you ate carrot sticks…nyah nyah nyah).
In the long run, does it matter? The answer for us was yes, but that needs its own explanation.
My intentions upon entering us in the competition were: To elevate our group to a new level, to take the first step in attaining a much higher goal of going as far as we could without disrupting our daily teaching jobs, and to see, under extreme pressure, how creative and diligent we could be. Those are all intrinsic goals, meaning there is no physical proof that you have attained them and the only person who can determine success or failure is you.
The point of all this was that Tim was trying to make us understand that our drive to win, which was the biggest reason we were nervous and awkward on stage, was the wrong way to look at competition. Our drive should be to put on a great show, whether we win or not. If we win, we get nothing and we risk the possibility that we leave the competition sad or angry. If we put on a great show, we still get nothing, but we guarantee that we leave feeling good about ourselves. For me, being sad or angry just leads me to eating a whole bunch of McMuffin’s, which solves nothing.
What is your group’s Macguffin? How many Mcmuffin’s will it take before you realize that you need Macguffins and not McMuffins in your life?
Marc Silverberg
P.S. Tim’s new album, The Funky Introvert, is currently available on iTunes. You should buy it. You can also visit his website here:
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major: