Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Please Stop Covering Adele

Oh goody. A new Adele album is coming.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think Adele is one of the most talented singer/songwriters in the world today. I love her and her albums and I am just as excited as everyone else to hear what her new album sounds like.

But as an a cappella musician and educator, I am frustrated. Her album 21 was released in 2011 and a cappella groups are STILL releasing covers of Rolling in the Deep, Someone Like You, and Set Fire To The Rain. Sigh…

A cappella people, this is a plea. Please don’t cover Adele.

The main reason that so many a cappella groups want to cover Adele is because her songs are great and it gives someone in the group a chance to show off their belting range. So, I’m glad you want to sing Adele, but from the audience’s perspective, I don’t want to hear Adele.

Now, to be fair, I’m probably in the minority. If an audience, who is unfamiliar with the growing a cappella movement, hears Adele, they will go nuts. They will clap and cheer and love every moment of it. But this post isn’t for them. This post is for the groups who want to stand out from the rest of the a cappella crowd.

If you want to appear on an a cappella compilation, or make your mark at the ICCA, you need to do one of two things: You need to either think of a totally new, and revolutionary way to sing one of Adele’s popular songs, or you need to not cover Adele.

For those of you who choose the latter option, allow me to suggest some lesser-known, but incredibly talented alternatives:

1) Haley Reinhart

The third place contestant from the tenth season of American Idol has a voice unlike any other. Her album of all original songs Listen Up, is a masterpiece of female pop singing. If you love Adele, try listening to Haley Reinhart.

Songs you should listen to: Oh My, Spiderweb, Wasted Tears

2) Postmodern Jukebox

Postmodern Jukebox is currently my musical obsession. Led by Berklee graduate Scott Bradlee, the band takes radio hits of yesterday and today and transforms them into authentic re-creations of jazz and fifties music records. Just some examples of what they have done include a Ragtime version of “Call Me Maybe,” a Motown version of “Maps,” and probably the best jazz version of “Bad Blood,” I’ve ever heard.

The best reason to listen to this band is that every song is its own lesson in arranging and composing. If you ever wanted to know how to re-arrange a song in a completely different medium with a different tone/inflection/harmony/whatever, the band that can teach you all of that is Postmodern Jukebox.

Songs you should listen to: Sweet Child of Mine, Poison, All About That Bass, Bad Blood, Radioactive

3) Marianas Trench

 The Canadian Pop group resembles a modern version of Queen mixed with 90’s boy bands mixed with alternative punk bands. Their songs are not just infectious, but rhythmically diverse and full of vocal harmonies. Each song practically screams “Sing This A cappella!” because of all the different layers contained within each song.

Even more impressive is their desire to push the boundaries of storytelling. The video set for their 2011 album, Ever After, actually tells one long story when you watch them in sequence. The opening and closing track of their latest album, Astoria, is a connected series of musical vignettes that form a complete story.

Songs you should listen to: Pop 101, Stutter, Shut Up and Kiss Me

4) Dirty Loops

The only word to describe this Swedish group is “disgusting.” It’s disgusting how talented they are. It’s disgusting that they can play like that. It’s disgusting how incredible their arrangements are.

Chances are, you or one of your friends has already watched their videos on Youtube.  True, covering their arrangements would be incredible difficult, as there is no printed sheet music and the chords are so complex they almost sound inhuman. But if you want a good representation of how to turn overplayed pop songs into incredible works of musical art, this is the band you should emulate.

Songs you should listen to: Baby, Wake Me Up, Rolling In The Deep

5) Pomplamoose

A duo from San Francisco that specializes in polytonality. Their arrangements are fascinating, because it feels like those chords shouldn’t work with those songs, but somehow they do. For those of you playing at home, polytonality is when a song is two different keys, simultaneously. The composition is tricky to get right, but when done as well as Pomplamoose does it, the result is fantastic.

Bonus fun fact! Pomplamoose member Jack Conte was one of the founding members of the widely used website Patreon.

Songs you should listen to: Pharrell Mashup, Single Ladies, Don’t Stop Loving Me

Marc Silverberg

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pentatonix Needs YOUR Help!

Pentatonix just released a new album last Friday, and it is magnificent; A crowning achievement to what is fast becoming the group success story of the decade.

Believe it or not, a cappella music is STILL not taken seriously as a mainstream form of art. A cappella can quickly go the way of “passing fad” if we don’t band together and help Pentatonix reach Number 1.

To better inform you of the situation, I’ve prepared this handy F.A.Q.:

What situation? What the hell are you talking about?

The members of Pentatonix are on their way to achieving an a cappella milestone. If Pentatonix gets the number 1 album in America, it will be the first time in history an all a cappella album took the top spot.

Fighting tooth and nail for that same spot is Demi Lovato’s new album. While I’m sure she is a lovely person and her album is probably very good, we need to make a stand for Pentatonix.

Why on Earth should we help them? I’m not in Pentatonix!

There are several reasons why the new Pentatonix album taking top spot would benefit YOU directly:

1) It would support the claim that singing a cappella is both relevant and cool.
2) It is an album with absolutely no dirty or explicit lyrics taking the top spot, thus reaffirming the belief that artists don’t have to use explicit lyrics to sell records. (Not saying Demi is doing that...just saying in general)
3) It would be perfect ammunition for starting/developing/continuing an a cappella group in your school.
4) The knowledge that 3 members of Pentatonix met in a high school choir would help recruit new singers to your vocal program.
5) It would further encourage an emphasis on musicality rather than over-production and money.

Are you telling me that if this album reaches number one, all these things will happen to me immediately?

No. In fact, very little will change in the near future. But the future of vocal music will benefit in the long run.

How could you possibly know this?

I’m a psychic.



So if Demi Lovato wins the top spot, none of this will happen?

No. In fact, just the thought of Pentatonix giving Demi Lovato a run for her money helps all the above causes, whether they win or lose. Plus, they already won a Grammy. But as a self-proclaimed a cappella super nerd, knowing that a cappella is SO CLOSE to this victory makes me want it even more.

Okay I’m in. How do I help?

Buy the album. Encourage others to buy the album. That’s pretty much it.

If I buy it in bulk, will that help them?

No. Multiple purchases on one receipt only count as one purchase, according to the way Billboard tallies their records.

Isn’t this battle a little stupid?

Yes. It is incredibly stupid. Really, all that should matter is that both artists are doing well and will still be around for years to come. But it’s no different than rooting for your favorite sports team. As long as you don’t take to social media about hating the other side.

Seriously, stop doing that. Both sides.

Marc Silverberg

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Monday, September 21, 2015

How to Belt without Belting

The key to a successful “pop” sound is easier than you think. And while other a cappella directors have their own ways of instructing singers in the art of belting (see: Dr. Erin Hackel, director of MIX and LARK), there is a method I use that works for me. If you want your a cappella group to start sounding like a pop group and less like a choir, WITHOUT damaging their vocal cords, keep reading.

The key to maintaining “chest voice” (which is the pop sound you want) is a combination of vocal techniques that you must reinforce at every rehearsal. The easiest way to do this is with warm-ups.

Warm-ups are typically seen as the bane of every group’s existence. Why do we have to do these silly exercises when all we want to do is sing our repertoire? I have posted several articles about how improvisation should be included in your warm-up routine, but make no mistake. Warm-ups are the most important part of your rehearsal.

Here. Let me say that again so you understand.


When I rehearse with my a cappella choir, these are the exercises I use to train singers into achieving the “pop” sound I am looking for. Success with this does not happen overnight, but in time, they are able to sustain higher, longer notes without any vocal pain.

1) Squeak-squeaker-squeakin

What is resonance? Resonance is bringing the vibrations of your sound into the front parts of your face, so that the natural cavities in your skull can amplify the sound. To learn how to resonate, you need to research one of the most famous singing groups of all time…Alvin and the Chipmunks.

To train a group’s resonance, I usually start with exercises sung completely (that’s 100%) in the nasal cavity. Yes, this sounds awful. Yes, it sounds ridiculous. Yes, it sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks are being tortured on a medieval rack. But it is vital to the pop sound you eventually want to get.

Choose any warm-up your group is familiar with, and make them sing the warm-up, entirely through their nasal cavity, from start to finish. Make sure that this warm-up goes very high and DO NOT let them slip back into head voice. They need to chipmunk-it-up throughout the whole thing.

While this sound is obviously not what you want to end up with as a final product, it does teach a fundamental concept of resonance- placing the sound forward and up. With enough repetition of this exercise, you’ll find that your sopranos can probably sing a high E-flat or F in a nasal tone. Once they can do that, you are ready to move on to phase two.

2) HO HO HO!

You need to teach your singers how to access their “power.” The power in this case is the strength to reach and support those high notes. Ever hear a singer “crack?” That’s because singing high takes a tremendous toll on your vocal cords. It’s like walking into a gym on your first day of training and trying to deadlift 300 pounds. Only a rare few in the world have enough built-in muscle to be able to do something like that. The rest of us are scrawny wimps who need to build that muscle.

The power comes from your support system, a.k.a the gut. Remember when vocal teachers would tell you to “use your diaphragm?” That’s a load of bull. You can’t “use your diaphragm.” The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle and isn’t triggered by you consciously “accessing” it. It functions in conjunction with the other muscles in your respiratory system. What you CAN control is the stomach.

The stomach, or “man’s best friend” as I like to call it, is what you need to control to get enough “oomph” to lift those high notes out of your body. The easiest way to do this is to use exercises on HA or HO or HOO, or whatever vowel, as long as it begins with an H.

I ask my choir to sing the following exercise with their hands on their stomach:

I emphasize two things: First, your stomach needs to pulse. You need to feel like that stomach is getting a workout, like you are belly laughing. Second, I need to HEAR the H. If the vowel is wrong, I don’t care (eventually I do care, but that comes later). I need to hear that H sound. If I can’t hear it, that means someone is singing a “glottal” attack, or a HA without the H. That’s bad.

3) Think nasal. Use the force.

Now that we’ve shown your singers where to place the sound and how to support the sound, we need to eliminate that whiny “nasal” sound, because no pop star sings like that. (except maybe Aaron Neville…and Justin Beiber) The next exercise is just one example of how to remain in the resonant space while not singing completely through your nose.

In a fast tempo, have your singers sing the following phrase:

The first time, they should sing an “ahh” vowel 100% nasally. The second time, they should sing an “ahh” vowel with 50% nasal sound and 50% classical tone.  The third time, they should sing an “ahh” vowel with a 100% classical, dark tone.

This exercise demonstrates to the singers the difference between resonance and space. You should create some exercises that demonstrate the difference in tone, but the similarity in placement.

Here’s another exercise that I find useful:

The open mouth hum, or “NG” sound, is perfect for directing the vibrations exactly where you want them to go. When the singers eventually open to an “ahh” vowel, they should take special care that NOTHING about their singing approach changes. The only different between “NG” and “AHH” is that their tongue is releasing itself from the roof of the mouth, thus enabling the singer to produce a clear tone.

4) Fight your fear.

I have found through years of voice lessons that when it comes to “belting” high notes (and by belting, I mean singing in chest voice), one of the biggest obstacles is fear…fear that they will sound stupid or crack or hurt themselves.

To fight this fear, you need to rev up their vocal engines. You can’t immediately start singing high without starting low and working your way up. Fast call and response exercises, where your best soloist sings a phrase, everyone repeats the same phrase, and the exercise is repeated up a half step, can really get the energy flowing in the room and give the singers some much needed confidence.

The moral of the story is this: The higher they go, the more resonance they need.

One recent vocal student wanted to sing a Beyonce song, with a high Gb and she didn’t want to switch to head voice. Every week, I trained her bit by bit to sing higher and higher in a resonant tone, by combining the nasal exercises with the support exercises. Within four weeks, she nailed the high Gb. And the way she did it was this: When she reached that high Gb, she sang it totally nasal and it didn’t sound nasal at all because the note was short and she worked up to it.  (In case you were wondering….the song was 1+1)

Try it. But if it hurts (which it shouldn’t if you do it right) stop immediately.

Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Monday, August 31, 2015

How To Craft The Perfect A cappella Audition

It’s audition time for a cappella groups! Thousands of a cappella tykes are running around, trying to find songs to show off their belting range, thinking of their funniest anecdote to make groups laugh, and compiling/stealing arrangements to show they are not a one-trick pony.

Typically, a cappella auditions share similar qualities. You want to know the range of the singer, you want to hear their best solo voice to see if they can stay in key and/or blast your face off with a high note, you want to see how fast they can learn their part either by ear or by sight, and you want to know if they will make a welcome addition to your nerdy group of friends. And of course, you have to do this all within a very small window, or risk being yelled at by grumpy students waiting over an hour outside the door.

To better condense/improve some of these experiences, I recommend the following to expedite and streamline the process:

1) Range Substitutes

Why are you worrying about what their highest and lowest note is? Chances are, your arrangements won’t put them in the extremes of their range very often, and when you do, you’ll put everyone else in the extremes of their range.

What you should really be doing is listening for the change in voice: when do they stop belting and flip into head voice? That’s the note you should consider as the “top” of their range.

It’s not hard to tell the difference. Chances are, you already know the difference. The chest voice, or belting, is a loud, “brassy” sound, more in common with the “pop” tone you are probably used to. These are the golden notes; the ones that will make the crowd roar with delight. Very few pop songs are ever sung in head voice all the way through.

Head voice is the darker, “woofy” sound. It sounds more classical than pop. When they stop belting and start singing darker or lighter and whispery, that’s when you should stop vocalizing, because you already have enough information to go on.

Let’s be clear…there’s nothing wrong with head voice. Head voice is the healthiest way to sing, and you have to build up your head voice muscles before you can start belting healthy. The belters will probably be straining and hurting themselves, because they are belting incorrectly. That’s a warning sign that you need to teach them the right way to belt. If you don’t know how to do that, then you should probably not take them. If they continue to sing in your group and belt incorrectly, they will do permanent damage to their vocal cords.

Whether a singer is a belter or more of a head voice singer is not the basis for your choice. You are simply vocalizing them to the point where they have to switch. This way, your arranger knows at what note they can no longer belt. Obviously, for the pop style of singing, you want healthy belters who can go high, but they are few and far between. Chances are, you need to find singers who understand the difference and are willing to be taught.

ALSO, please vocalize them down the scale, and make sure they sing on “ee.” “Ee” is the most resonant vowel a human can sing, and when singing low, you need to sing brassy and forward. “Ahh” is too difficult a vowel to really gauge a person’s low range.

2) Solo Substitutes

16-32 bars. That is it. Stop letting your auditionees sing a full verse and chorus of a song. It wastes time, and frankly, you don’t need it. Broadway auditions require only 16-32 bars of a song. Here’s why:

In 16-32 bars, you will have all the information you ever need. If they can’t stay in key, you’ll know it right away. If they have a tone you don’t agree with, you’ll know it as soon as they open their mouths.

Also, by restricting singers to 16-32 bars, you are forcing them to give you their best. You can easily gauge how good a musician they are by the song they choose, the key they put it in, and their sense of musical timing. (Do they even know how long 16-32 bars is?)

Trust me…you get more information out of their first three notes than you get out of the whole solo. Make it short and cut them off.

3) Sight-reading Substitutes

Okay. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Stop making your auditionees sight sing. I’m a college music professor who teaches four different levels of sight singing, and I think it’s a stupid idea. Unless they are a trained musician or a music major, they can’t do it. Only scientists need to memorize the periodic table. Only ballet dancers have to know the first positions. Why on earth are you asking your auditionees, most of whom are probably not music majors, to sight read?

You are better off asking them to learn by ear. You probably do this anyway, but if you don’t, you should start.

And for those of you who ask auditionees to learn by ear without a score in front of them…for shame. What if the person auditioning is an extremely gifted visual learner who needs both sights and sounds to help him/her process information?(like ME)

Ear training only, in front of a score. Done.

4) Interview Substitutes

Look. I get it. You want to make sure there are no “weirdo” red flags. That’s understandable. But I need to explain the interview process to you from an introvert’s point of view.

You see, an introvert, like myself, is musically very gifted, but often shy around new people. It isn’t until this introverted person gets to know people in a comfortable setting that he can really open up and be himself. Standing in front of 10-15 watching eyes, knowing that your whole audition rests on how you answer these questions is enough to stress anyone out. 


I have been rejected by a cappella groups solely because I’m an awkward guy who needs to warm up to people. And I’m getting a doctorate in a cappella.

Please, be kind during the interview and don’t rely too much on it.

5) Callbacks

You should have callbacks. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong. Callbacks give you a chance to really spend time with the potential candidates and weed them out, either musically or socially. Callbacks also prevent long, heated arguments between your group which inevitably follows auditions and keeps you in the room until 1 a.m. in the morning.

Don’t make the callbacks difficult musically. Make them difficult in terms of dedication and commitment. Forward them a score and ask them to learn their part within 2 days. Give them a form of silly questions and see how they answer them. Put them in a sectional with members who sing the same part and watch them closely. Put them under the microscope to see if they really want this.

Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major: