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.
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