Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Case for Curriculum

There has been a lot of debate and discussion lately about whether contemporary a cappella should be included in the music curriculum, whether that be a cappella examples in the general music classroom, a cappella ensembles at the college level for college credit, or most importantly, the creation of a four-year degree in contemporary a cappella.

Today, I make my case.

Including a cappella music into a formal curriculum has far more advantages than detriments.

Before I begin my incoherent rant, I must clarify the argument I’m making. I’m making the case for adding a cappella music into a formalized school curriculum. I’m not addressing education initiatives such as Next Level, A cappella Academy, Camp A cappella, or the A cappella School. I love and support all of those creations, but none have specific ties to a formal college or degree. I’m suggesting we take the model that the aforementioned organizations have already devised and add it to a degree-granting institution.

The benefits are:

1) Popular Music Base

This is nothing new. Most students respond better to popular music than they do classical music because it is familiar and more representative of the current music trend and their culture. But choral teachers are still hesitant to include popular repertoire into their curriculum, because popular music is made for the masses, and the simplistic, repetitive composition of pop music yields little material to study and analyze.

But (of course) I disagree with the above assessment. If utilized correctly and fully, a general music classroom can go a full year teaching new musical concepts with just a popular music base, and nowhere is that more prevalent than a cappella.

Last year, I joined the Association for Popular Music Education (APME), an organization that promotes the inclusion of pop music into the classroom, not as a one-off lesson anomaly, but as the fundamental basis for all musical learning. It’s entirely possible (and utterly plausible) that your kids aren’t ready to appreciate the complexity of Mozart, the uniqueness of Stravinsky, or the thematic development of Wagner. So I say, screw it. Don’t teach it until they’re ready, even if that means they won’t be ready until they go to college.

2) The End of Mediocrity

Behind closed doors, buried deep within the confines of Facebook comments, there is a word understood by many a cappella professionals who dare not speak its name. It’s called mediocrity.

True, the a cappella community has never shone brighter, thanks to all of the educational initiatives and the sudden expansion of a cappella companies. But for every new bright star, five more groups are struggling to keep up, unaware that educational resources are easier to find than ever.

An a cappella major, or a cappella college classes would help in the fight against mediocrity. Imagine if you will, a recent college graduate who has had 3 dedicated semesters of a cappella arranging, covering everything from medleys to barbershop, 2 semesters of recording techniques covering everything from tracking to mixing (not mastering because there just wasn’t enough time to squeeze it in), a full semester of vocal percussion techniques and live sound, a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary a cappella history, and seven semesters of training in pop vocal styles.

I imagine if a college began churning out students like that, the fight against mediocrity would be more evenly matched.

3) Ensembles for College Credit

When a college includes a dedicated a cappella ensemble as part of the course offerings (as they do in many colleges such as Wright State, Tiffin, or UCD), it sends a clear message that a cappella is considered to be a legitimate style of singing.

Let’s take the age-old Pentatonix discussion: Pentatonix, and Ben Bram, wanted to be known in the music industry as a band. Not an a cappella group…a band that just happened to use no instruments. Their desire to send a message was clear: "A cappella is as legitimate a musical style as pop, hip-hop, or heavy metal." The unique characteristic that this particular group sang without instruments was less important than the fact that they SAAYNG. (pronounced “sang” with extreme emphasis on daaaammmmmnnnnn!!!)

They have made many strides in this endeavor. Now, it’s education’s turn. To truly legitimize a cappella music as an art form equal to classical choral music, educational institutions must transform it into a credit-worthy ensemble, under the umbrella of the music program.

4) Better for Beginners

I teach a for-credit a cappella ensemble where I work. The ensemble is unique for three reasons: one, we exclusively sing contemporary a cappella arrangements from a variety of arrangers, two, it is a non-auditioned ensemble so anyone can join, and three it is made up of mostly beginning singers who can’t even identify a treble clef, let alone sight read.

By the end of the semester (or more likely two consecutive semesters), several changes have occurred: The students can sight read, but only in a stepwise direction, the students have learned the basics of pop vocal production, the students have sung complicated, syncopated rhythms, and the students have freely improvised over a simple chord structure. True, none of these advancements are at an expert level, but the change from day one to the end is significant, and I believe the unique characteristics of chosen a cappella arrangements contribute to it:

A. I choose arrangements where the background voices serve as chordal accompaniment so that the voice leading is simple and stepwise.
B. I choose arrangements where the pitches are almost identical, but the rhythms are very challenging and fun to sing, requiring a high level of concentration and internal counting.
C. I choose arrangements with repetitive chord progressions so that the students can have the freedom to improvise a section.
D. I choose arrangements with a limited range so that I can demonstrate healthy chest singing and the transition from chest voice to head voice.

What do you think? Does a cappella belong in the school curriculum?

Marc Silverberg

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