Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Runaway Train, Never Coming Back

Last week at rehearsal, I made the following declaration:
“This group is a runaway train. You can either stay on for the ride, or get off.”
For as long as I’ve been singing a cappella, I knew that this statement, which I honestly had not planned in advance to say, was the most truthful thing I had ever said in an a cappella rehearsal.
I said it because I felt I had to be honest with the other members of the group. A cappella, for me, is not a hobby, nor is it a fascination. It is an obsession, one that drives me to dedicate my life to the art form. Through my years of college, grad school, and doctoral candidacy, I knew that the only form of music I wanted to hear when I got up out of bed in the morning was anything a cappella.
And so I made this declarative statement to both inspire and warn, and I say it to you now for the same purpose: I will do whatever is necessary to advance the art form. I will not stop pursuing new ideas and trying new techniques. I will not lay back and go on vacation, just because it’s the summer. I will not let anyone in the group, or anyone outside the group hold me back from moving forward. It wasn’t the group that was the runaway train, it was me.
Did that statement ring true with you or did you think I was a bit harsh? Well, the jagged truth is that the people you see becoming the names you know are runaway trains. They are in pursuit of the grand prize, while others are happy with the participation trophy. I certainly haven’t won any grand prize yet, nor will I anytime soon, but my eye is on the proverbial prize and the train is always headed in that direction.
With the summer looming and the school year gone, maybe it is time to ask yourself the tougher questions: Do you believe in the runaway train, or would you prefer the train didn’t exist? Does everyone in your group share your beliefs? Why, exactly, are you in this group? When you ask yourself the questions that only you can answer, and then you lie to yourself about what those answers are, that is what causes the drama and the controversy. With so much happening in a cappella today, and the exponential growth that seems too big to control right now, you have to adapt or move aside.
In other words, a cappella is a runaway train. You can stay on for the ride, or get off.
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Living Up To Standards

Did you know that the National Association for Music Education (or NAfME) has written nine national educational standards for music?
If you are a music educator or future music educator, the answer to this question should be “Yes, duh.” But that’s kind of rude, so thank you for being a jerk. Jerk.
If you aren’t a music educator, then the answer is probably a resounding “no” and will most likely be followed by “and I don’t care.” Which is also really rude.
So far, you and I are not off to a good start. But I’ll forgive you.
A cappella music can satisfy EVERY one of these nine standards. The next time someone questions why you would ever want to teach a cappella music or how a cappella music could ever be considered “educational,” hit them with this “truth-bomb.”
Standard 1- Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
Umm…yeah. This is pretty easy. Let’s move on…
Standard 2- Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
So this one is more difficult, as “a cappella” tends to mean singing WITHOUT instruments. But more and more a cappella groups are breaking away from the constraints of a cappella. Jazz group Groove For Thought uses a piano. European group Postyr Project uses a drum machine. Techno group ARORA loops everything with Ableton Live. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has used African drums in the past. Just because you want to stay primarily a cappella doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate an instrument every now and then.
Standard 3- Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
I have written countless articles about the need for more vocal improvisation. Read this for some ideas:
Standard 4- Composing and arranging music within specific guidelines.
A cappella music is all about arranging. Try challenging your composers with these guidelines:
1- Arrange a song you’ve never heard before
2- Arrange a classical sonata
3- Turn a familiar song into something totally unfamiliar and new
Standard 5- Reading and notating music.
Can your students sight-read music? Can your students transcribe music by ear? Can your students recognize chord progressions hidden within a full, 9-part arrangement? Chances are, the answer is no, so this requirement has a long way to go.
Standard 6- Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.
Compare and contrast several a cappella covers of the same song. Watch and compare different performances by the same group and determine whether they are improving or losing steam. Determine if an a cappella recording has too much cosmetic work done to it, and describe why or why not.
Standard 7- Evaluating music and music performances.
This is a great opportunity to see live a cappella performances. (Field trip!) Does a group that you have listened to several times on iTunes match the same quality live on stage? Could your group perform that song better? How?
Standard 8- Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
While not very a cappella specific, this is one of the most overlooked standards. Sure, it’s easy (or easier) to compare music with art or drama, but how do you use music to teach science? How do you use music to teach European history?
It is important to understand, and stress to your students, that music has permeated its way into every subject, from all angles. Music was a part of history and culture and in America, became one of the most prominent characters in social change. Music can be sung in any language and about any topic. Music is made up of frequencies that rely on physics and the overtone series. Music is interpreted by several parts of the ear and the brain. Music is constructed logically using mathematical formulas where the ratio of one pitch to the next determines the octave or interval.
Because so much of a cappella is currently “popular” music, a cappella arrangements can be used as historical references to past and current climates. A cappella singing requires vocal pedagogy which requires an understanding of human biology. A cappella singing requires musicians to pay attention to the overtone series and can go flat in specific acoustical spaces.
Standard 9- Understanding music in relation to history and culture.
As stated above, music’s role in history cannot be overstated. Music was at the forefront of change before movies and television existed. Music is one of the best surviving representatives of older centuries. Music described the thoughts and feelings of those who lived in that time. Music is as current today as it ever was and will ever be.
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Monday, May 5, 2014

Solo Survivor

My wife and I are huge fans of Survivor. Not because we enjoy the game play. The show is basically the same every time. We love the yelling. We love the backstabbing. We love watching the smart ones succeed and the dumb ones cry. We love watching the human drama unfold, even if it isn’t totally real.
As much as I love Survivor, I would never apply to be on the show. It’s not the athletic prowess one needs to have which I currently, and probably will always, lack. It’s not being confined to eat rice, fish, and coconuts for 39 days. What keeps me from ever applying to Survivor is the same thing I love watching: The drama.
I love watching the drama, but I hate living it. A cappella groups are, in many ways, like the contestants on Survivor. They must work together to succeed, like the tribe, but deep down, everyone knows that only one can be the star. One person will be the sole survivor and claim a cappella’s top prize: The solo.
Solos can turn a tribe into individuals. Solos can be the cause of drama, especially when you have divas (male and female) in your group, and then they don’t get the solo. Oh man…that’s a nuclear bomb waiting to go off. Solos tend to think of themselves as winning individual immunity. They don’t have to worry about practicing blend or dynamics, because they are separate from the rest of the group.
But that is not what solos are. Solos are integral to the foundation of an arrangement. Even if there was no solo, someone [cough, sopranos, cough] usually has the melody in a vocal arrangement, and we all know that asking an entire section of sopranos to sing the melody of a pop song is a terrible idea, just because of consistency.
Assigning someone a solo cannot be avoided, because the alternative is much worse: [Deep Breath] You try to give multiple people in your group a solo, and then you get to the venue and there’s only one solo mic, so all of you have to share, and the timing of the arrangement means everyone’s first word is always going to be cut off because you have to switch stage positions, and then the audience gets mad because they can’t understand the words anyway, and basically it looks like a free-for-all on stage, so then your group looks unprofessional for doing it this way, when the whole time all you really wanted to do was avoid this particular thing from happening and make everyone happy [runs out of air]
Here are some suggestions for handling your solo:
1) Audition the soloist BEFORE you arrange the song.
This gives everyone a chance to audition, because the key has yet to be set. What if someone can “kill” the solo, but only if it’s down a whole step? In my opinion, you should give it to that person, not the person who can barely squeak out the solo in the original key.
2) Stop, drop, and roll
Stop crying over spilt solo. Drop the issue before it causes drama. Roll with the situation.
3) Have a plan
Are you the group that has one front man? Are you the group that wants to spread the wealth? Guess what, you can’t be both (Or can you?). Everyone in your group needs to understand the group’s philosophy on solos. If you are going to audition for competitions or the Sing-Off, then one soloist is king. If you want to do some freelance gigs or make an album, spread the wealth. If you want to do everything, have a system in place that ensures people know whether or not a solo is up for grabs.
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major: