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

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Monday, April 4, 2016

Secrets From The Studio

A few weeks ago, my group, Satellite Lane, recorded their first EP with The Vocal Company. While the experience was incredibly worthwhile and satisfying, there were things we discovered during the recording process that I wish we had known, which probably would have helped us better prepare for the weekend. There are also a lot of things I discovered about recording that I never knew before.

If you’re part of a group that has already put out multiple albums, won multiple CARAs, appeared on many compilations, etc., then this post will probably not be very helpful. In that case, since you’re already here, here’s a lovely video of a sloth crossing a road:

For those of you struggling to make an album, thinking about making your first album, or disappointed with the albums you’ve already made, try these tips on for size…

1) Where you record doesn’t matter…sort of…

We recorded in my mother’s house, in the den. True story.

Do you need a fancy recording booth or lots of heavy equipment? No. You need a dead room (more on that in a second), a microphone, an interface, and a laptop. True, those things are still very expensive, but they are far less expensive than the big machines you probably think you need.

A dead room is any room with little or no echo. Our vocal percussionsit, Evan Feist, taught me a simple trick for determining dead rooms- Clap your hands and listen to the echo. If there is no echo, you have a dead room.

Also be careful that building machines (heating grates, air conditioners, etc.) aren’t making noise either.

2) The Vocal Company has many microphones.

Not every microphone is built the same. They each use different materials, different parts, different blueprints, etc. Just like a different type of car suits a different kind of a driver, a different kind of microphone suits a different kind of voice.

Did you know you can walk into any Sam Ash and try out their microphones? It’s true. If you’re looking to buy a microphone, try them out and see which one sounds the best. Do some research…don’t just buy any microphone and feel like it will work best for everything you record.

If you don’t have the money for several microphones, then you need to find one that accommodates as many vocal styles as it can.

The microphone I use to record my Docacappella music is an Audio-Technica AT 4040.

Now that’s not the one Vocal Company uses. They use something much better and much more expensive. But if you’re looking for a good overall model that’s not too expensive, I recommend that one.

3) Don’t be afraid to think outside the box .

For one of our tracks, we needed our vocal percussionist to sound like he was playing a washboard, like in a country jug band. After several takes of sounds that didn’t quite do it justice, the engineer suggested chewing an apple and projecting that into the microphone.

Hey…whatever works.

4) MIDI matters.

MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is the key to getting a good track. A MIDI file keeps the singers in tune and is the best way for the engineer to keep track of what the right and wrong notes are.

I always felt like MIDI tracks were just a guide to help me stay in tune, nothing more. But after watching our engineer Mel utilize MIDI in fascinating ways, I realized how important MIDI was to the recording process. It helped her learn the songs without knowing them in advance, and created a helpful roadmap for the editor and mixer.

To create a MIDI file, you need a notation program like Finale or Sibelius. You simply input the music into the program and then export the file as a MIDI file. When you export it, use “Type 1.”

5) Be flexible.

Some people record faster or slower than others. Just because you make a schedule doesn’t mean you will be able to stick to it. In fact, there’s a 100% chance you won’t stick to it. Make sure everyone in your group has extra time blocked off in case things change (which they will…trust me).

6) The engineer is and isn’t God.

The engineer does not know your music, nor do they know your arrangements. They are learning this on the fly, so you need someone to be in the room with them to answer questions they might have. Other than that, you need to stay out of the engineer’s way. They know how to get the best takes and how to get the best out of singers. You may want to “direct” the recording, but believe me, they have it covered.

7) Triple track

Did you know that a cappella groups triple track their parts? I sure didn’t. What is triple tracking? It’s making sure that every note sung by each singer has two additional tracks with the same notes. Basically, everything you sing has to be done three times, so that when they are mixed together, it creates a “fuller” sound.

I’d like to end this post by personally thanking The Vocal Company for a productive and fun weekend, especially our engineer Mel Daenke.

Marc Silverberg

Follow the Quest For The A cappella Major: