Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Sometimes life becomes so fraught with complications that it becomes a heated mess. Not a hot mess. A heated mess.

Let me explain where this comes from. The phrase “Heated Mess” comes from the new Pitch Perfect 2 trailer which was released to the general public recently.

Though the obvious incorrect pronunciation of “hot mess” was for humor’s sake, I began to ponder whether or not the phrase “heated mess” could actually enter our lexicon, with a slightly different definition than "hot mess."

Here’s what I came up with:

A cappella music is messy. The amount of success achieved within the last few years alone has created a storm of new content, new groups looking to get in on the action, and new revolutions in the field. This week alone, my Facebook page informed me that twelve groups had released videos, fifteen people were recording albums, and dozens were promoting their latest concert/show/gig.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, I’m of the opinion that the more a cappella music there exists in the world, the better. It also has led me to the conclusion that I follow way too many a cappella groups on Facebook. So I can hardly take my Facebook page/Twitter account as a realistic gauge for how a cappella is doing in the world.

Fun fact! 80% of the songs on my Ipod are a cappella. I have a problem…

But here’s where the “heated mess” comes in. The "heated mess" is essentially the precursor to the "hot mess." When a group reaches "hot mess" status, they need to hit the reset button. That’s my opinion. If your group can be classified as a “hot mess,” then whatever you are doing isn’t working. Let me define these more clearly:

A group I would call a “hot mess,” is stagnant and lost. Rehearsals are more arguing than collaborating; there are small factions within the group that oppose other members; everyone is talking revolution or forming a new group minus a few people. Your group is essentially on the brink of total nuclear meltdown and you basically have two options: start over or quit.

Now if any of this sounds familiar, you probably think your group is a “hot mess” right now. But this definition of “hot mess” is way worse than you probably perceive. If your group realizes they are in trouble and are working to fix that, you are NOT a “hot mess.” If there’s hope in the air; if there’s a sense that everyone wants to work for the greater good but no one knows how yet; if you know that one good gig can turn everything around again; you are definitely not a “hot mess,” so stop using those words…

That leads me to the “heated mess.” Think of the “heated mess” as the calm before the storm. It is this phase of a group’s lifespan that constantly goes unnoticed or ignored, much like a person who clearly has an illness but refuses to see the doctor, claiming that time will heal all wounds.

No. No it will not.

That mole on your back should be checked out.

Anyway, the groups that are aware of their problems can never be called a “heated mess,” and will never reach “hot mess” status, because awareness is the first step to recovery.

If you think you are insane, you’re not. Only truly insane people don’t think they are insane.

I’m talking specifically about the groups who are unaware that anything is going on, even though the signs are right in front of them. You can’t ignore that problem forever, so stop trying. You need to confront these problems head on and let people say what they need to say.

Try this exercise that my group uses whenever a problem arises and we need to have “the talk.” We call it the Angry Birds Talk.

Everyone sits in a circle and one person is handed a stuffed Angry Bird (hence the name). When that person has the Angry Bird, he or she is the only one allowed to speak. No one is allowed to utter even a sound. If you want to speak, the Angry Bird must be passed to you, even if it’s for one sentence.

The “heated mess” phase of a group’s lifespan is the most dangerous, because if left unchecked, the group will collapse under the sheer weight of hatred and negativity, leaving only a “hot mess” behind, and if you reach that stage, the group is essentially unfixable.

Know the warning signs. CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

Send your thoughts about the "heated mess" and "hot mess" to @docacappella on Twitter with the hashtag #heatedmess.

(Pitch Perfect 2 opens in theatres on May 15th.)

Marc Silverberg

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Pentatonix Wins A Grammy

Sunday night marked a significant moment in a cappella history. It was the first time in almost twenty years that a musical group, specializing in a cappella music, has won the music industry’s highest award.

Now you’re probably reading this and saying “Well I’m not in Pentatonix. (Unless of course you are in Pentatonix and you are actually reading this blog, which is probably as likely as me winning the Super Bowl.) Why should I care?”

You should care. We should all care. Here’s why:

1)   Timeline

Let’s take a look at the history of the relationship between a cappella and the Grammys.

The 1988 Grammy ushered in the first big a cappella win. Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” won Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Male Pop Performance. That same year, Take 6 won Best Jazz Vocal Performance by a duo or group for “Spread Love” and Best Soul Gospel Performance by a duo or group for “Take 6.”

Take 6 continued to win Grammys in ’89, ’90, ’91, ’94, ’97, and ’02. The pop group Boyz II Men won their first Grammy in ’91 for “Cooleyhighharmony” in the category of R&B performance by a duo or group, but not every track on the album was a cappella. The popular jazz group Manhattan Transfer had also won several awards in ’80, ’81, 82, 83, 85, 88, and ’91, but no tracks were exclusively a cappella. And the King’s Singers won a Grammy in 2008 for Best Classical Crossover Album.

Though several significant a cappella groups (or groups that sing a cappella arrangements) have already won Grammys, it is important to note that under no award was the word “a cappella” ever mentioned. Until now…

2)   Category significance

Do you know what award they won? Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A cappella. This is the FIRST time this category has existed. Until this year, the category only read “Best Instrumental Arrangement.” (Don’t believe me…check grammy.com.)

This marks a significant change in progress for a cappella music, specifically because the term a cappella has now been recognized by awards, just like mainstream culture. This has caused some debate…

3)   The Big Debate

It wasn’t just Pentatonix who won the Grammy. It was also their album producer/arranger Ben Bram, who works on The Sing-Off, and arranges/arranged for the SoCal VoCals.

I once asked Ben Bram what he thought of my opinion, that a cappella needs to be classified as its own genre, rather than just an instrumentation. While a cappella music has made great strides in making a name for itself, a cappella is still just defined as an instrumentation- all vocals, no instruments.

A long time ago, in a very early blog post, I argued that for a cappella music to be taken as seriously as pop music, it needed to define itself as more than just an instrumentation. Let’s face it- we perform a cappella music very differently than with a band. We approach arrangements with an approach that combines jazz, pop, choral, and rock methods. More and more over the years, a cappella groups have taken overplayed songs on the radio and turned them into something new, sometimes more musically interesting than what we already have heard. (Case in point: Pentatonix’s version of “Somebody That I Used To Know”) Some recording studios have resorted to only taking a cappella clients, because the demand is so high. Companies/Organizations/Websites have sprung up devoted exclusively to a cappella music, including the AEA, The Vocal Company, and AcappellaHOW. We have become our own many-headed hydra, and there seems to be no end in sight.

I expected Ben to agree with me, but I was surprised to hear his viewpoint: He believed a cappella music shouldn’t be viewed as separate, but as similarly as we would a current pop tune. When a cappella music, or Pentatonix in this case, is booked on the same show as other pop icons of the day, only then can Pentatonix be taken as a serious artist who is doing something different, rather than a novelty artist that will disappear soon.

I don’t know if his opinion has changed since then (This conversation happened a year ago), but I was struck by how profound this opinion was. Ben is looking for musical equality, and the proof is already there: Don’t Worry Be Happy wasn’t a winner of “Best A cappella Album.” It won “Record Of The Year,” a feat that Pentatonix (or someone else) could possibly achieve down the road, provided that they market themselves as a musical group, not an a cappella group.

My opinion has one, very visible flaw: If a cappella groups are considered separate from mainstream music, then they will never be taken as seriously as mainstream musicians. So do we separate ourselves for the purpose of growing within our own boundaries, or do we try to muscle our way into the mainstream? Ben’s plan seems to be working, but the Grammys placed the Daft Punk arrangement in with the Best Instrumental/A cappella arrangement category, a category that did not exist until this year. And speaking of arrangements…

4)   Arrangement, not original

It’s also important to note that the Grammy they won was for an arrangement, NOT an original. This has several implications for us. Firstly, it explains why they weren’t nominated for any of the mainstream categories: It wasn’t an original song. Only original music can be nominated for the top prizes. So that takes care of that.

But more importantly, a cappella arrangers should be THRILLED that an arrangement won a Grammy, because if they can do it, you might be able to one day as well. A cappella music is still about 90% covers (That's my opinion, not fact), and while the a cappella leaders are pushing for more original tunes, it is nice to know that killer arrangements can be recognized for outstanding achievement as well.

5)   Nice people

I’ve met Ben and the members of Pentatonix on three different occasions. And speaking as someone who has been let down multiple times by rock stars who just don’t give a damn about their fans, I can tell you that this does not apply to Pentatonix in the least. They are nice people, and the looks on their faces constantly suggests that they are still amazed by the success that they have had.

I believe that nice people deserve nice things, and when a group that I genuinely like and has been genuinely nice to me wins a Grammy, I’m going to root for them.

And speaking of nice people, it is also important to note that several extremely nice a cappella people helped them along the way. You certainly cannot forget the efforts of Ed Boyer and Bill Hare, who helped mix/master the album. And their manager, Jonathan K.

Lesson learned: Be nice to your fans and they will write a blog post about you.

6)   Weird Al


Sorry. This has nothing to do with Pentatonix. I just love Weird Al.

Marc Silverberg


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How To Read Comment Sheets

Competition time is upon us! And with competition comes the dreaded score sheets and comment sheets.

For a sensitive introvert like myself, I approach reading these comment sheets with the same amount of dread and fear as sticking a red-hot poker in my eye. The internal pain of getting a bad comment is just as bad as the external pain would be of burning out my eye socket.

So I developed a system, one which separates the subjective from the objective. Ever since I developed that system, reading comment sheets are much less damaging to the soul and much more educationally beneficial. Here is my process:

Step 1- Know your judges

As a judge of the ICCA and ICHSA, I know first hand that every judge looks for something different. I approach my comments from a choral director perspective, whereas someone who has no choral directing experience might judge based on a professional experience with recorded music. Really, it’s a crap shoot, and unless you understand the mind-set of every judge, you won’t truly understand where their comments are coming from. So once you know who the judges are (and they are always listed in the program), make sure you do a quick Google search to get a sense of their background. Only then can you begin to interpret their words logically.

Step 2- Compile all of the comments and write them out on a big sheet.

Once you know your judges well, it’s time to eliminate the subjective aspect of judging. The best way to do this is to write down the comments of every judge, but on one big sheet so they all blur together. That way, you won’t begin to assume one judge “has it out for you” or “he/she is taking your performance personally.”

Step 3- Eliminate the paradoxes

This happens all the time. One judge says you have a great vocal percussionist, one judge says you have a terrible vocal percussionist. If you find any conflicting comments like that, cross both of them out. Statements that directly contradict each other only prove what you should already know: that you can’t please everyone.

Step 4- Find the patterns

If there is one comment that the majority, or all, of the judges make, take that comment very seriously. If everybody noticed it, it’s a problem or it’s something you do very well.

Step 5- Summarize your findings

Instead of taking each comment literally, categorize the comments. For example: These four comments talk about your vocal quality. These eight comments talk about your choreography. These eleven comments talk about your vowels.

Organizing and categorizing these comments gives you a much broader picture of what you need to work on for next year. If you have four comments about dancing and twenty-one comments about vowels, maybe you should start working on vowels.

Marc Silverberg

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