Monday, November 21, 2016

ICCA or ICCA(s)?

 Oh boy…this one is going to get me in trouble…

The ICCA is upon us once again! Soon our social media feeds will be swamped with groups who win, groups who lose, groups who should have won but didn’t, and groups who won but shouldn’t have done so.

Chances are, another ICCA-related matter will probably pop up on our social media feeds…Someone will inevitably say “ICCAs” and someone else will yell at him/her.

But here’s my question…Is it grammatically incorrect to say ICCAs? Your first thought is probably: “Yes. Obviously. Why are we even discussing this matter? Your blog is stupid.”

Let’s put aside personal opinions and hatred of me for a moment, and let’s take a serious, analytical look at this issue:

The case for “S”

While writing my dissertation, I came across the very issue I am analyzing now: Do I write the “ICCAs” or “ICCA competitions,” or something entirely different. I decided to ask the style guides, (APA, Chicago Style, MLA) for help.

Unsurprisingly, the amount of information they had on pluralizing acronyms was small or non-existent. But I was able to find the following:

“In APA, abbreviations should be limited to instances when a) the abbreviation is standard and will not interfere with the reader’s understanding and b) if space and repetition can be greatly avoided through abbreviation.”
-Purdue Online Writing Lab

“To form the plural of most abbreviations and statistical symbols, add s alone, but not italicized and without an apostrophe.”
-Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, pgs. 44 and 110

“If you can stop thinking of the spelled-out meaning of the acronym and just treat the acronym itself as a word with its own meaning, you should be able to add that little s without fretting.”

“Write the plural form of an acronym without an apostrophe”
-MLA Style Sheet

The information gathered from this research draws no formal conclusion as to whether pluralizing an abbreviation of an acronym is correct, but style guides tend to agree that it is generally okay to do so.

During further research, I found this example on the American Journal Experts webpage:

“Regarding pluralization, abbreviations should reflect the meaning you wish to convey.”
-American Journal Experts

In this case, the intent of the writer is valued above the accepted rules. It really depends on how a writer uses the ICCA acronym.

Usually, when we say ICCAs, we are probably trying to say this: “The International Championships of Collegiate A cappella.” We are, in effect, pluralizing the correct word as our intent, but by writing the ICCAs, the reader chooses to think we are pluralizing the A, which is not a word that has a plural form.

This is the main reason why we are split on whether or not the ICCA can have a plural form. Technically, when we use the acronym, we are using it as a noun and we are referring to the “C,” or championships.

A concrete piece of evidence, however, can be found in the nonfiction book Pitch Perfect by Mickey Rapkin:

“Now, back in competition with a near all-new roster of girls, could they return to the ICCAs and avenge their good name?”
-Pitch Perfect, pg. 14

Not only does Mickey Rapkin, senior editor at GQ magazine, use the pluralized acronym in the above quote, the term “ICCAs” appears 50 times within the book.

The book A cappella, by Deke Sharon, Brody McDonald, and Ben Spalding also uses the pluralized acronym 13 times.

To provide a contrary argument, take a look at Powerful Voices: The Musical and Social World of Collegiate A cappella, based on the dissertation by Dr. Joshua Duchan. In the 20 or so times that ICCA is mentioned, never once does he use the plural acronym, but he does mention it when quoting a contributor of RARB:

“…cause I haven’t heard their recordings or heard about them winning in ICCAs or anything.”
-Powerful Voices, pg. 177

Now I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: Just because a few people do it, does that make it right? If that argument were always true, I could hypothetically jump off a bridge and all you blog readers would say “Oh. I guess all bloggers should jump off bridges to emphatically prove their point.”

But the pedigree of the authors should count for something. I’m not saying that because they said it, it automatically means it is correct. But if they can do it and no one raises a big fuss, it should be okay to do it as well.

The case for no “S”

The way I see it, there are two main reasons why opponents of “ICCAs” have valid arguments:

1) The “A” in ICCA stands for a cappella, and a cappella has no plural form.

Think about other acronyms you have used in plural form before: VCRs, DVDs, UFOs…These work because the last letter in each acronym stands for an object that does have a plural form. Technically, if everyone wanted to have their cake and eat it too, the ICCA should be re-named the ICACs, or the International Collegiate A cappella Championships, which would allow the plural form to be justified.

2) They don’t want us to.

Okay. Full disclosure: When I set out to write this article, my goal was to prove that ICCAs was and is a viable plural abbreviation and when someone uses it, we should all calm down and let it happen.

But then, I proved myself wrong when I remembered another post I wrote almost 2 years ago: “2 p’s, 2 l’s, and no O.”

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a fan of a cappella. Unless you found this blog by mistake, which would explain my viewership over the last 5 years…

And if you’re a fan of a cappella, chances are you hate when people spell a cappella “A-C-A-P-E-L-L-A.” It’s a sore spot. It’s a pet peeve. We hate it because it doesn’t seem right.

However, groups, especially international groups, have continued to use the word “a capella,” and they have a good argument- when the word was first written, it was spelled “a capella,” not “a cappella,” because it was originally written by Renaissance composers and in Latin:

“The spelling capella is occasionally found; Giovanni Gabrieli marked sections for chorus alone “capella” and J.J. Fux referred to ‘Stilus a Capella.”
-Grove Dictionary of Music, A cappella

Just seeing that version of spelling makes my blood boil, and that’s the very point. The company that runs the ICCA, Varsity Vocals, is made up of very nice people. (I say that because it’s true and also because they all probably hate me right now) They have repeatedly asked in person and on social media to not use ICCAs:

“Your friendly reminder: It is ICCA, NOT ICCAs.”
-Emily Flanders, Facebook

Despite your belief in what is right and what is not, the employees of the company have asked you to not say ICCAs, and their opinions should matter.

The verdict:

In academic writing, the pluralized form of ICCA is probably fine to use, but there is no empirical evidence to suggest that ICCA can be pluralized, so don’t fight the powers that be. If you do use it, I doubt anyone is going to raise a fuss over your choice, but make sure you know what you are referring to, and who your readers are. Ask yourself these questions:

1) What’s the best way to phrase this sentence?
2) Do you ABSOLUTELY have to use “ICCAs?”
3) Will your readers hate you for doing so?

One final thing…

ICCA’s is totally incorrect. Acronyms cannot have possession of anything. No apostrophe. Ever.

Marc Silverberg

Follow the Quest For the A cappella Major:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

How To Organically Arrange

I’ve been organically arranging songs with my a cappella class for some time now, but just recently, my CAL group, Satellite Lane, began working out arrangements by ear, rather than using sheet music.

If you don’t know what I mean by organic arranging, let me explain: Organic arranging is the process by which your a cappella group, as a whole, creates a new arrangement from scratch, by combining group improvisation with a lot of trial-and-error.

I highly recommend attempting this process for two reasons: First, it gives your group a sense of accomplishment and pride to know that they contributed to the arrangement. Second, it’s a great way to develop everyone’s aural skills.

Here’s what I learned from going through the process multiple times, and maybe you can use this as your how-to guide:

Step 1-Start with a song everyone knows

The best results come from a song that most or all of your members know, especially if this is your first time organically arranging. If the majority of your members don’t know the song, they will have to split their focus between learning the song and listening to an unfamiliar chord progression.

These characteristics work best when choosing a song for organic arrangements:

1- Everyone or almost everyone can sing the solo
2- The chord progression is mostly or entirely repetitive
3- The song does not have a significant a cappella cover that everyone already knows (Like the Pentatonix version of “Somebody That I Used To Know”)
4- The majority of group members seem excited or interested in covering this song and putting in the time to work on it

Step 2- Sing with chords.

I have found that the best way to begin an arrangement by ear is by playing and singing along with the chords. Pull up a lead sheet or sheet music off the internet, and have someone just bang out the chord progression on a piano or guitar while everyone improvises along.

Don’t have anyone sing the solo. Have them hear the solo in their heads.

The first time we approach a new song, I have everyone sing all the way through, even if they don’t know exactly what to sing. This helps outline the form of the song and, since the chorus most likely repeats several times, provides everyone wth multiple chances to improvise and revise their part during the chorus.

Sing the entire song at least twice, with someone playing the underlying chords. Once that’s finished, break the song down by section. Tackle one verse or chorus first, and sing it through a few times until everyone has a general sense of what to do.

Step 3- Know your individual roles

A good a cappella arrangement has many moving parts. If everyone sings something rhythmic, the song sounds too choppy. If everyone sings long whole notes, the arrangement sounds too static. You need a mix of both to fill the space.

You can decide who does what using a couple different ways. Typically, less confident improvisers will want to hold long notes, while more confident improvisers will want to add rhythmic ostinatos. If everyone is shy and/or confident, elect a leader to choose who will do what.

Don’t forget that there is more to an a cappella arrangement than long whole notes and rhythmic ostinatos. Here are some other background variants:

-Bell chords (each voice enters one at a time)
-Duets and Trios with the soloist
-Instrumental impressions like a guitar countermelody
-Changing the style of the song (rock to doo-wop or country to gospel, etc.)
-Countermelodies, canons, and echoes
-Changing the underlying harmony

Step 4- Write it down AND record it

When you agree on something you like, make sure somebody writes it down AND someone records it on his/her phone. Always have a backup memory system, or chances are you will forget what you did then next time you revisit this arrangement.

Step 5- Try Everything

No idea is a bad idea. (unless, of course, this suggestion is a bad idea…) Don’t be afraid to try something that completely fails. Don’t play it safe. Don’t stick to what you think everyone expects.

Step 6-Interject with some direction

Organic arrangements, unless your group is REALLY GOOD, will need some specific guidance to avoid a stale, repetitive arrangement. It’s okay every now and then to suggest a technique that relies on theory or is based on an existing arrangement. If you are having trouble thinking of new ideas, try to include the following items in your organic arrangement, whether by group improvisation or direction from an arranger:

1- Every verse must sound different.
2- The chorus can use some of the same background parts, but every chorus must add something new
3- Change at least 3 chords in the original progression
4- Insert a glissando somewhere in the arrangement
5- Insert a quote from another song
6- Change the musical style of one chorus
7- Everyone sings the lyrics in a homophonic texture for one chorus
8- Change the key
9- Sing one section without a strict tempo
10- Change the meter of a verse

11- Eliminate the bridge, intro, or transitions between verses

Marc Silverberg

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

To Compete or Not Compete

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Delaware, I took a number of courses dedicated to “choral methods,” or the preparation of becoming a choral director in school. During one particular class, we had a stirring debate over whether or not a school choir should enter a graded festival or competition.

No clear winner emerged.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to entering your groups in a competitive festival, such as a CASA competition, the AEA national competition, or the most common, the ICCA (International Clam-bake and Cartwheel Association).

If you’re on the fence about whether or not to sign up for these competitions, then read on. I’ll do all the hard debating for you!

Yes, you idiot! Competitions are great!

1) Competitions are sure-fire ways to get on-the-ground feedback about how far your group has come and how far it needs to go.

2) Winning a competition makes you feel better than eating a double-fudge brownie topped with ice cream and money.

3) When gigs are hard to find and hard to book, competitions can help fill the schedule and give you something to practice for. After all, a competition is a guaranteed gig with a deadline and (almost always) a packed-house audience.

4) For a new a cappella group, competitions can unite your members under a common goal: “Be the absolute best you can be.”

5) A dedicated rehearsal schedule for an a cappella group wishing to compete separates the adults from the children. After a few intense rehearsals, you will know who is 100% committed and who is ready to quit. Remember, “there’s no crying in a cappella…unless you’re performing ‘Cry’ by Faith Hill in which case there absolutely is crying in the form of a lyrical shoutout.”

6) Working under competition guidelines can highlight your group’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ll bet you ten dollars (legally non-binding) that by the end of the competition, your group will know who the best soloists are, who can dance and who can’t, and how effective your arrangements are for a competitive setting.

7) Most a cappella competitions have individual awards in addition to group awards. Even if your group doesn't take home the gold, someone in your group might get a really good consolation prize.

8) Competitions give your group a chance to watch and evaluate other a cappella groups, and possibly be inspired to use new techniques.

9) Winning a competition can rocket your group’s momentum. As the old sports-ball saying goes, “No one remembers who came in second.”

Except me. I do. ‘Cause I’m a freak. And I also don’t watch sports.

As demeaning as that saying is, there is a nugget of truth to it. A competition-winning a cappella group can use their newfound fame to kick open doors that would have once been closed. And with the ever-growing number of a cappella groups around the world, winning a competition is the “get-rich-quick” version of standing out in a crowd.

Now the big question…

Is there an educational purpose to competitions?

I think the answer is: “Well, if your group learns something new, then YES!”

You must understand that competitions are not built around educational foundations. Competitions, especially those “sing-for-us-and-then-go-enjoy-yourself-in-your-selected-theme-park-while-your-chaperones-constantly-worry-about-whether-you-will-get-kidnapped” festivals are built around big hefty piles of cash. That’s not a critique, it’s just the way businesses work. Competitions cost money and if people don’t buy tickets, there is no money.

I know firsthand, having judged a few ICCA rounds, that the company who runs the competition, Varsity Vocals, cares deeply about giving everyone a “meaningful” experience. The on-staff producers advise judges to write comments that provide thoughtful feedback that groups can use to improve upon. (Disclosure: This may not be true in every region. I just know that it was always true for me, and I’d like to believe it’s a company policy).

Of course, there is that possibility you won't get an educational experience…

No you idiot! Competitions are the worst!

There are some serious downsides to competitions and let’s all address the one big argyle elephant in the room…

Losing sucks.

Losing sucks worse than eating a no-fudge brownie topped with cream cheese and garbage.

Let me tell you astory:

I’ve competed in the Harmony Sweepstakes six times in the last three years. I’ve competed in the New York region four times, and the Boston region twice. How many times do you think I’ve won? 


That’s right. Zero times.

UNTIL…wait for it…

Last year, my vocal jazz group, Quintet took second place in the New York region, and I personally won the “best arrangement” award in the Boston region. Those awards did nothing to cheer me up. I was unable to shake the other, humiliating losses. I couldn't be happy or satisfied. (Like Hamilton, I am never satisfied…or able to rap)

Now before I make my point, let’s rewind the clock a moment.

When we applied for our first ever Harmony Sweeps competition in 2013, my other CAL group, Satellite Lane, was not aiming for first place. We were aiming for the “Audience Favorite” award, which is voted on by the members of the audience and not the judges.

That night, we won that award and I won the night’s “best arrangement” award. That night was a triumph. I was happier than a kid at an all-you-can-eat-candy-buffet (I’m making a lot of food references…I think I’m hungry).

So what changed? Why was I happy then and not now? Well, in between those two victories, I suffered four terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad losses. Those hits kept coming and each one hurt just a little more than the one before. By the time I had finally won anything else, during my SIXTH time competing in Harmony Sweepstakes, the burn of the losses overpowered the euphoria of the triumphs. I had become numb to the win, because, in my mind, we still didn’t win “first place.”

Here’s my point. Yes, you could infer from this post that I’m a dedicated pessimist and that you understand why I’m an “emotional eater” but that’s not what I’m trying to say. I’m speaking to the people out there who have become obsessed with winning, obsessed with earning the only achievement that could possibly make them happy. Don’t let the dozens of losses taint the eventual win, even if the win is not what you had hoped for.

Losing over and over can really take a toll on your self-esteem and the group’s self-esteem. You need to monitor your group’s emotional state carefully. If competing is no longer fun, you should no longer do it. Otherwise, you may lose more than a competition; you may lose your a cappella group.

But enough depressing stories. Let’s break down the negatives of competition:

1) The judges of competitions can sometimes be, intentionally or unintentionally, really mean (More on this later). I’m sure they aren’t trying to put you down, but there’s always that one comment that haunts your very dreams for the next ten years. Maybe you’re not the accomplished beatboxer you thought you were. Maybe your arrangements are not at complex as you thought.

Take the comments with a grain of salt and remember that one person does not speak for everyone else.

Also, the judges don’t have time to write inspiring comments that give you fully formed ideas for your next rehearsal. They have a limited amount of time to get everything in, AND score your set, AND sign every piece of paper shoved in front of their noses. This is not to say we should take pity on the judges. This is just a reason why competition comments are often blunt, a little vague, and occasionally contradictory to one another. (Again...more on this later)

2) Competitions, especially the desire to win, can sometimes bring out the worst in people who are hungry for the win. Those self-prescribed desires can make someone look at another group as if these perfectly normal singers are the devil incarnate.

We must stay strong and united as a community if a cappella is to thrive and evolve. Plus, let’s all remember who the real enemy is: Bagpipe players.

3) Competitions are subjective, and therefore, who wins and who doesn’t is entirely up to a small panel of individuals. To think that your recent competition performance is the be-all-end-all representation of your group’s skill is incorrect.

Maybe the microphones were in a bad spot. Maybe your bass got sick. Maybe the room wasn’t what you thought it was going to be. Maybe you got a sudden case of stage fright.

All I’m saying is, don’t interpret competition performances as a serious representation of what your group can do. A cappella is not foremost a competitive sport, like sports-ball.

4) Too many wins can make a group cocky and stagnant as well.

Let’s say you are a group who continually wins (good for you…please hug me so you can rub your magical winning-juice all over my body). If you win too often, you start to believe that no one can beat you and everything you are doing is absolutely perfect. so there’s no reason to change. This is as dangerous as losing too often. A cappella groups need to think about new techniques to remain relevant in such a fast-moving musical marketplace. True, you may be on top for a long time, but when you start to go down, you’ll go down hard.

5) Judges suck.

I’m sorry. I know this will anger those of you who judge competitions, but we all suck.

We are snarky, judgmental, harsh, confusing, arrogant, miserable creatures who control the fate and emotional state of up to ten groups of singers, which is decided in the span of 10-12 minute sets, all within one night of competitive mayhem.

In short, we are A-holes. We don’t take into account the other 364 days in an a cappella group’s lifespan, and we can only draw on the experience we ourselves possess.

Now before you troll my comments section with pitchforks and inappropriate GIFs, let me just say this: If we weren’t all of those things, we wouldn’t be qualified to be judges.

If you’re reading this blog post and you are a judge, all I ask is that you keep in mind that competitions are more than just one-night spectacles of a cappella domination. Competitions are, purposely or not, educational experiences for those involved because every group is coming from a place where education is the priority.

And if you’re reading this blog post and you are a director of an ensemble, try to restrain your venomous thoughts about judges until you put the entire night into perspective. And maybe count to 100 before yelling.

Marc Silverberg

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Review of Next Level

We're back... (A dinosaur's tale)

This past summer, I attended (for the first time) a Next Level session, hosted by The Vocal Company. For those of you unfamiliar with Next Level, let me describe it briefly:

Next Level is a week-long workshop, held at the home of the Vocal Company in Rochester, NY. Each Next Level session invites several participants (spots are limited) to observe and participate in specific, a cappella-related activities with a special guest, usually someone who has achieved a large measure of success in the a cappella world. Examples include a week-long arranging session with Robert Dietz (from The Sing-Off), a week-long teaching/coaching session with J. D. Frizzell (director of One Voice) and Dr. Erin Hackel (director of MIX and LARK), or in my case, a week-long recording and mixing workshop with Ed Boyer (recording engineer for Pentatonix and Glee’s “The Warblers.”)

The week, which begins Monday morning and usually ends Friday afternoon, is expertly organized and planned by The Vocal Company’s director of education, Shannon McNulty, who manages to cram an entire a cappella curriculum into a specific time frame, ensuring that participants are given plenty of one-on-one time with instructors and ample time to work as a group on assigned projects.

Just so you get a better understanding of what to expect, should you ever decide to attend a Next-Level event, let me give you a few highlights:


Monday began with a “so…what do you want to learn” power session. I appreciated this because it gave everyone a chance to voice their concerns and open up about what experience they already have. The instructors took note of this, and it was clear during the week that they were addressing each participant’s level of expertise differently.

For example, many of the participants had no experience with either Pro Tools or Melodyne, so these students were led through the process of using each program slowly, while some participants already understood both and were able to get an advanced understanding of both programs.

The Vocal Company gave every participant a chance to record another singer and a chance to edit a track in Melodyne; an experience one would never get at an a cappella festival.



While this might seem like a chaotic nightmare of disorganized planning, the real-world scenario of falling behind a deadline is part of almost every recording process. When the deadlines start piling up, engineers invent shortcuts and pieces of the recording are left out purposely. For anyone who wants to record a cappella music or open up their own recording studio, this is the day when you take notes and watch the magic happen within the blink of an eye.

Oh. And we played laser tag. It was very intense.


So Wednesday morning offered up my first critique of the process. Ed Boyer was trapped in Hurricane "I-Don’t-Care-About-Your-Schedule” and unable to arrive on time, so the morning was divided up into learning segments. Some participants learned about songwriting, some got more experience with editing, and some, like me, were able to have prepared mixes critiqued by David Longo, head of the Vocal Company.

Now I LOVED this because it gave me a chance to present a mix I had already done and watch a master like David tear it apart with sharp pointy teeth. I feel like I learned more in this short session than most of the previous two days, and my critique simply is that this section needs to be much longer. I know it was a spur-of-the-moment choice, but out of those moments comes something really valuable.

Ed arrived sometime mid-morning and began working on the mix we had spent Monday and Tuesday preparing. Watching Ed mix was like watching Mozart compose or watching Van Gogh paint/rip off his ear. Ed Boyer moves so fast and flawlessly that it almost seems like what he’s doing isn’t even human.

We were warned beforehand to ask lots of questions because Ed moves so quickly that he rarely stops to explain what he’s done. Of course, I was the jerk who asked the most questions, and Ed always gave me an answer. Whether or not I understood the answer was a different story, but that was my problem, not his fault.

If it wasn’t clear already, this is one of the best parts of Next Level: the close proximity and one-on-one time you get with each artist. True, a cappella festivals give you that same proximity, but the schedule is so compacted that it is often difficult to corner someone and get all the answers you are looking for. Plus, with hundreds of people, artists tend to hang out with the friends they already have, whom they haven’t seen in months.

Here at Next Level, the group is small and everyone is in the same house for five days, so there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.


Ahh. Now here is my biggest critique of the week, and it comes with some explanation, so bear with me.

On Monday, Shannon mentioned in passing “On Thursday, you will arrange, track, and edit an entire recording in one day, so Ed can mix on Friday.”

At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that, and then Thursday came around…

No. She wasn’t kidding.

Thursday was a 24-hour, you’ll sleep-when-you’re-dead, track-a-thon. Four participants arranged the song by 1 p.m., we tracked until 10 p.m. and we edited all night.

Now, I’m 33 and my all-nighter days are FAR behind me (see: Marc’s grad school experience). To effectively describe the mood I was in that night would be…Imagine if a mouse was eaten by a leopard, and then that leopard was crushed under the foot of an elephant. I was the mouse.

Why was in such a bad mood? Well, I explained this to the instructors on Friday: I'm old and tired. With the rigorous schedule and lack of adequate sleep I had already experienced, I wasn't in the mood to go all-in. 

To be fair, the other participants, all far younger, were bundles of energy, bouncing around until 5 a.m. ready for the next task, while I was cursing every minute I still existed. And to be fair, this was common practice for Next Level recording weeks, and I just wasn’t in the loop.

I tell you about this not to keep you away from Next Level, but to give you the early warning I never had. It’s a great exercise, as most a cappella albums are put together in a very short amount of time (some even over one or two days). It just wasn’t for me.

Unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I went to bed around 4 a.m. which no one seemed to have a problem with.


Friday was the shortest day, as we only had activities booked in the morning. We watched Ed mix our Thursday track, once again pestering him with questions until he could stand it no more.

As a final celebratory “get-the-hell-out-of-my-house,” the Vocal Company has a chalk-throwing party in their backyard. So…bring clothes you don’t care about.

Final Verdict:

The Vocal Company’s Next-Level events are the next evolution in a cappella experiences.  To really get a sense of where a cappella is moving and to get a complete knowledge over one area of expertise, you MUST attend this event at least once in your life. I know I’ll definitely be back.

Marc Silverberg

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

New Video!

While you're whiling away during the summer, check out my Youtube page where I've made videos of complete and utter lunacy!

Have a great summer!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Fight Back!

After attending this weekend’s Boston Sings festival, I was inspired to write this post. This topic was born out of a conversation that was held in Deke Sharon’s roundtable class: "The Future of A cappella."

One attendee asked Deke a question about educating his advocates: How do you convince classical musicians who dislike a cappella to let you start and train an a cappella group at your school?

The answer is simpler than you think: You need to be ready to counteract every argument that your opponents might throw at you, and you need to do it with hard data, not opinions. 

Now there’s no guarantee that even with the data, and the a cappella community on your side, that you will win the battle. Convincing someone to go against everything they’ve ever believed in is near impossible. Just ask politicians.

Before we get to HOW you can rebuke each of their arguments, we need to look at how to win an argument.

There was a movie that came out in 2005 called “Thank You For Smoking.” In this movie, there was a dialogue between the main character, Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart and his son, Joey Naylor, about how to win an argument:

Nick Naylor: OK, let's say that you're defending chocolate, and I'm defending vanilla. Now if I were to say to you: 'Vanilla is the best flavor ice-cream', you'd say...
Joey Naylor: No, chocolate is.
Nick Naylor: Exactly, but you can't win that argument... so, I'll ask you: so you think chocolate is the end all and the all of ice-cream, do you?
Joey Naylor: It's the best ice-cream, I wouldn't order any other.
Nick Naylor: Oh! So it's all chocolate for you is it?
Joey Naylor: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
Nick Naylor: Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the defintion of liberty.
Joey Naylor: But that's not what we're talking about
Nick Naylor: Ah! But that's what I'm talking about.
Joey Naylor: ...but you didn't prove that vanilla was the best...
Nick Naylor: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.
Joey Naylor: But you still didn't convince me
Nick Naylor: It's that I'm not after you. I'm after them.

The argument itself is kind of silly, but Nick Naylor brings up a valid point: You can’t win an argument against one person who thinks you’re wrong. You need to convince everyone who is listening that you’re right, even if you never win over the person who you are directly arguing against.

How do you use this information to your advantage? Simple. When you defend a cappella, don’t do it one-on-one. Make sure you have several people who listen to your arguments, and even if you convince just one of them you’re right, that may be enough to turn the tide.

Now, let’s get to these myths. Detractors of a cappella will inevitably use these arguments to stop your a cappella train in its tracks. Here’s how you counter them…

Myth 1- A cappella singing is like pop singing, and pop singing is bad for you.

Ummm…no. The principles of pop singing have its roots in classical singing. In fact, pop singing and classical singing use all of the same vocal techniques. The only difference is placement.

Dr. Erin Hackel, director of Mix, developed her own procedure for teaching healthy “belting,” which she uses on her two groups at University of Colorado-Denver. After 5 years, the group can still belt better than anyone, and no one has ever been harmed.

To counter this argument, you need to do some research. Take a look at books published by Berklee Press, the leader in contemporary vocal techniques. Dip into the resources of musical theatre singing, which is the closest technique to popular singing that we have today. Cite professional groups, like Pentatonix, who “belt” almost every day of the year, and have not yet been injured on the job. Best of all, use Lady Gaga, who has proven she can sing classical (Sound of Music), jazz (with Tony Bennett), and pop without skipping a beat.

In fact, the suggested warm-ups for a cappella groups look almost exactly the same as classical warm-ups for choirs. Use J.D. Frizzell’s chapter in the recent book “A cappella” as a guide.

Myth 2- Pop music is not what you should be teaching. You should be teaching the classics.

Singing popular music has single handedly increased the enrollment in music programs across the country, thanks to GLEE, Pitch Perfect, and The Sing-Off.

Just because a group sings pop music does not mean that this is all they will do for the rest of their life. Take a look at two groups in particular who prove this isn’t the case: The Kings Singers and The Swingles (formerly The Swingle Singers). The discographies for both groups is as eclectic as you could possibly get, from Renaissance Madrigals to an entire album of Beatles songs (which both groups have).

Singing popular music is the “gateway drug.” Get them hooked on a love of singing, and once they are hooked, then you can slowly introduce them to the classics. People, especially hormonal teenagers, fear what they don’t understand, so in your case, Mozart is the enemy until you show them otherwise.

Myth 3- A cappella groups will put a strain on the budget and/or school resources.

A cappella groups play no instruments, so no money will be spent. A cappella groups are completely portable, so you can increase school awareness more easily than you can with a band, because an a cappella group can perform music literally anywhere, from a street corner to a “cafetorium.”

The challenge comes when your opponent brings up sound systems as a factor. Yes, a cappella groups eventually need to learn how to sing on mic, and a speaker system definitely helps increase your volume with minimal effort. But microphones don’t magically make your group sound better. Does your a cappella group need microphones? No. Will they eventually need them? Maybe…it depends on what kind of shows you want to book. But having a sound system is NOT a make-or-break factor in developing an a cappella group.

You know who doesn’t use microphones and never will? Every Barbershop group in the world.

Myth 4- Arrangements are incredibly difficult to find and/or purchase, so your group will not have repertoire.

If your school has an auditorium, then it has a performing license. This license allows you to perform most types of music, including radio hits, without having to pay royalties. If you arrange a song a cappella, you can perform it legally and you can charge for your show.

The problem comes when you try to sell the arrangement or record the song. You don’t own the arrangement, so you can’t sell it legally, and if you record it and you want to distribute it, you need to buy a distribution license.

If your school demands that you use only published arrangements, Deke Sharon’s library is the place to start, and it grows every month. Alfred music has even started publishing a cappella arrangements that aren’t by Sharon. And those are 100% legal…assuming you buy the copies.

Most Barbershop music is also legal to perform/sell/record, because it falls under public domain.

Myth 5- Singing in an a cappella group has no educational merit, because you learn everything by ear.

Yes, most a cappella groups these days learn music with learning tracks. But so what? That doesn’t mean your group has to. A cappella music is still music, and music can be sight-read, regardless of genre. I actually argue that a cappella music is EASIER to sight-read, because of the repetition and (often) simple harmony.

A cappella arrangements can also be improvised or written by ear. This encourages group participation and a strong sense of tonality, all of which can be reinforced by singing a cappella. Do you know who used to write their arrangements by ear? Pentatonix.

Myth 6- A cappella is ruining the fabric of music and of our culture.

Well, they said the same thing about Elvis and The Beatles. So…tell them their face is stupid.

A cappella can always be a force for good. Take a look at Jonathan Minkoff’s Singstrong festival, which raises thousands of dollars each year for the cure for Alzheimer’s disease. He does this with a cappella concerts, not string quartet concerts.

Myth 7- A cappella music will never have a place in the real music community.

Tell that to Deke Sharon, who sold out Carnegie Hall, TWICE, with an all a cappella concert.

Myth 8- If students join your a cappella group, they will drop out of other music ensembles.

Well, most a cappella groups meet after school, not during the school day, so that shouldn’t be an issue. But if it is, then make a rule that students need to belong to certain ensembles before they can audition for the a cappella group. If that lowers the number of auditionees, then so what?

To make a great ensemble, you only need a small number of people. The Honey Whiskey Trio won the National Harmony sweepstakes competition with 3 people. Pentatonix had the number one album in the country, and they did it with 5 people. All you need is a few strong singers, not 15 strong singers.

Now go out and educate your advocates. The more we make our case, the more we will win.

Marc Silverberg

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