Monday, March 30, 2015

Behind The Scenes of Total Vocal: A cappella Takes Over Carnegie Hall

This past weekend, my students from Five Towns College, along with thirteen other a cappella groups from all over the world (including Australia!) sang in the very first, all a cappella  DCINY concert at Carnegie Hall: Total Vocal. Conducted entirely by Deke Sharon, and featuring notable guests like beatboxer Chesney Snow, Rockapella founder Sean Altman, Blue Jupiter’s Marty Gasper, and Shelley Regner And Kelley Jakle From Pitch Perfect, the two-hour concert was a perfect encapsulation of how far a cappella music has come over the years. Sure, a cappella in the media has a wider reach and is more notable to the public eye, but to choir geeks like myself, seeing a cappella in the most famous of all concert halls really drove the point home: A cappella is not only here to stay, but it is quickly becoming the most popular form of singing among public and private schools.

The three-day event began with rehearsals Friday and Saturday. I watched from the back of the rehearsal space as Deke attempted to wrangle two-hundred singers into a cohesive group. The task wasn’t easy; A two-hundred person choir comes with many challenges: Keeping a steady tempo, sound differentiation from one side to the other, and a battle to stay in tune, especially when everyone is singing forte. Friday had its ups and downs. I’ll admit, even I was skeptical that this was going to work.

Saturday assured my fears and proved me wrong. The first time you rehearse something together, there are always going to be bumps in the road. Once everyone gets used to the sound, and used to how they sound individually within the ensemble, the real music making can begin.

Sunday’s concert was spectacular. Every single seat in the 2800 was sold out, and there were multiple standing ovations. Deke even got the entire hall to sing “Lion Sleeps Tonight” in harmony.

The concert was divided into two halves. Act 1 featured all of the high school students, and their directors, if they chose to sing. Having only witnessed the rehearsals for act 2, I was curious to see which songs were chosen for the other group. Deke focused primarily on the well known songs from “Pitch Perfect,” mainly, the girls sang the Barden Bellas finale and the guys sang the Treblemakers finale. Included in this set were some of the opening numbers from the Sing-Off, as well as some of Deke’s published arrangements. Reinforcing Deke’s mission to get everyone singing as much as possible, almost every song had a number of different solos and vocal percussionists, chosen from the Carnegie Hall singers, and two groups even had a chance to sing arrangements by themselves, separate from the main chorus. Included in this set was Calabasas High School’s Bare Rhythm, an all female group whose rendition of “Hallelujah” received a standing ovation, and G-E-T Vocal Point, who performed their song with choreography.

Act 2 featured college students (including Five Towns College), as well as adult groups like Toronto’s New Choir and The Blenders Chorus from Australia, both of whom performed individual numbers. The second act featured more ballads, and more opening numbers from The Sing-Off, but no features from Pitch Perfect. It wasn’t until the last number, “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2, that the audience was treated to the full might of 400 singers, when the high schools students stormed the aisles and sang with the Act 2 chorus.

Overall, the concert was extremely entertaining, with Deke’s high energy conducting bright smile leading the way. Now that we know Total Vocal will be around next year, I HIGHLY recommend you apply for the chance to be a part of it. Singing a cappella in Carnegie Hall, the same Carnegie Hall that plays home to the New York Philharmonic, is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen or been a part of.

Congrats Deke. You did it.

Marc Silverberg

Monday, March 16, 2015

In Memoriam: Steve Zegree

In Memoriam: Steve Zegree

Two weekends ago, I learned that another one of my personal heroes, Steve Zegree, passed away. After writing the memoriam for Ward Swingle, ( I had hoped that this would be the last memoriam I would have to write for a while, but Steve Zegree deserves, at the very least, his own blog post outlining why he will forever be one of the greats.

1)  Published Music

One of the great things about Steve Zegree was his arrangements. Zegree was a master jazz musician (piano was his instrument) but more than that, he knew how to write music for a specific purpose. His arrangements ranged from extremely difficult, like the Westminster commissioned “They Say It’s Wonderful” to extremely accessible, like his arrangement of “Blue Skies.” Notice how I said accessible, not easy. To perform jazz music, an ensemble must understand the fundamental aspects of jazz like the swing rhythm, the high voicings, the difficult tritones, and the use of improvisation. Steve Zegree excelled in writing accessible arrangements for ensembles who were not familiar with the jazz genre. Zegree even wrote in his scores that an ensemble could sound just as qualified as a professional jazz choir if they followed his arrangements. In summation, Zegree’s arrangements educated, as well as entertained.

2) Books

The book I consider to be the gold standard of vocal jazz how-to-manuals is Zegree’s book, “The Complete Guide To Vocal Jazz.” In his book, he outlines the basics of vocal jazz arrangements and how to construct a vocal jazz choir when you have little-to-no experience. There are many other books that are just as fascinating a read, including Paris Rutherford’s book “The Vocal Jazz Ensemble” and Michele Weir’s book “Vocal Improvisation,” but my experience has always favored Zegree’s book.

Fun fact: He has another book, “The WOW Factor” which is just as good a read.

3) Jazz Education

I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Zegree at his Vocal Jazz camp in 2008. In that short span of time, and with the help of his staff including Michele Weir, Vijay Singh, Diana Spradling, and Duane Davis, I learned more about vocal jazz in that one week than I ever knew before, and I thought I knew a lot. Turns out, I was very wrong and Zegree set me straight. He spent five minutes with me discussing my conducting of the jazz choir and it was the greatest, most eye-opening five minutes of my career.

4) Gold Company

One of the many things Zegree leaves behind in his legacy is Gold Company, a fantastic vocal jazz choir that remains at the top of their game, even after Zegree left for Indiana. The Gold Company is the model to use if you’re looking for vocal jazz choirs to emulate. I still listen to their records today.

5) Work their asses off

The very first time I met Steve Zegree was at the 2007 ACDA regional convention in Michigan. I knew of his success and wanted to understand how he could train his choirs to sing even the most complicated music, music I thought to be impossible for all but a very select few choirs around the world. I thought there was a secret to rehearsing a Gene Puerling tune as opposed to rehearsing an easier, more standard arrangement.

His response was perfect: “I work their asses off.”

I can still remember the inflection in his tone, the smile across his face. There was no secret. Rehearsing a Gene Puerling tune and rehearsing anything you consider to be easier (which compared to Gene Puerling, is almost anything) involves exactly the same procedures, but the harder tunes require more work.

It seems like such an easy concept to grasp today and a lot of you might be reading this thinking “Well, DUH.” But as a fresh-faced kid out of college, this wasn’t as clear as it is now. Steve Zegree set me right.

Rest In Peace Dr. Zegree. Thank you for all that you have done.

Marc Silverberg

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pavlov's A cappella

I attended a recent a cappella festival this weekend on Long Island. It was here that I began to think about a strange phenomenon that occurs at every a cappella concert/festival/performance…something that I call "Pavlov’s a cappella."

For those of you who are confused, let’s start with Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist who was famous for his theory of classical conditioning. In other words, he’s that famous scientist who rang the bell every time he fed his dog. The dog was so used to hearing a bell every time it ate that, when Pavlov rang the bell, the dog began to salivate.

This experiment of classical conditioning could apply to a cappella. See if this scenario “rings true” for you (pun intended):

You put on an a cappella concert. It doesn’t matter how good your arrangements are, how well you rehearsed, how great your blend is; the only the thing the crowd really responds to is “high notes.” When one of your soloists sings a high note, the audience goes nuts.

Is this classical conditioning of the audience? Are they so used to high belting notes that they now expect them? Are those the only kinds of things audiences care about? Does that diminish the arrangement or the effort of the group? Should we cater to the audience and give them lots of high notes, or try to re-write their brains to care more about the musicality of everyone?

There are many factors to consider as well, before you investigate this phenomenon:

-How much a cappella music has the audience been exposed to?
-What is the average age of the audience?
-How many audience members know the people on stage and how many are strangers?

Try an experiment: At the next a cappella concert you go to, try to listen for the phenomenon. Does the audience go crazy for every high note or only certain high notes? Is it just high notes that trigger that kind of response?

Once you have your data, then you need to decide how to wield this awesome weapon. Should you pack your arrangements with belting and riffs, or should you try to hold off the cheers for something particularly worthy?

This is not to say that audiences are idiots, though there have been audiences that each of us has felt particularly discouraged by. Audiences are not the performers. They only hear the finished product, and the finished product is a combination of things, from visual to aural signals. Personally, I believe that you can cater to both and still maintain your musical dignity. If you have an amazing soloist, let them cut loose and win some favor with your audience, but make sure the cheers don’t cover up something else you want heard.

Consider this for your next show: What will the audience cheer for, and will it be a genuine cheer, or a Pavlovian response?

Marc Silverberg

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