Is Ours A Combative and Competitive Community?

The “a cappella community” means different things to different people. For some here in the States who have been around the community for awhile, it means a group of maybe 75-100 people who are current or former singers and other a cappella professionals, are connected on social media, and who comment or post in Facebook groups such as, mainly, the CASA group (and before that, the RARB/CASA forums).  In the past few days, a controversy broke out in that particular group when Tom Paster, director for Highlands Voices, posted a fairly long commentary on why Diana Preisler, who had coached his group through Season 1 of “Pitch Slapped,” was terrible (among some far more inflammatory comments).

The response included many comments from both people “in the know” (Deke Sharon, who was the other coach on Pitch Slapped, offered a detailed affirmation which was surprisingly critical of Preisler) and many people who had no apparent connection to the show or its participants.

Curiously, a moderator for the group apparently took the original post down after someone or some people reported the post to Facebook as “cyberbullying” or a similarly offensive message. The discussion then shifted into a discussion on censorship and freedom of speech before returning to the original focus when a Highlands Voices group member wrote his own post affirming the truth of the original post and referring to Preisler as a “she-devil,” among other things.

Now, I did not offer a single response in any of the comments because I am incapable of writing complete thoughts in less than triple-digit wordcounts.  And this one’s quadruple digits. Nevertheless, the subject got me thinking about our community and how recent media productions have reflected (or perhaps not reflected) its character and purpose.

If you want my thoughts on the particular incident in question, you can scroll down but don’t expect me to take one side or the other.

In the past 5 years, the a cappella community has watched as The Sing Off, Pitch Perfect, Sing It On, Pitch Slapped, and more have purported to show the rest of the world what a cappella music is all about. Except, they haven’t, not really. A cappella is not about competitions, at least not to 99% of the singers I’ve met. In fact, for most of them I would suggest that the competitions were the least important part of the experience. It is about camaraderie and harmony. It’s about finding a place to fit into a group, both figuratively and literally (pitchwise). It’s about finding a way to engage with others and create music together, both for the benefit of the group members and for the benefit of an audience. It’s the purest group activity there is, and it is one which traditionally has a hugely communal aspect. Yes, groups at a college may compete with each other (a la Pitch Perfect), but they also befriend, date, and/or marry each other. It is very rarely if ever mean-spirited or vitriolic, and yet… yet Pitch Slapped seemed to explore and then revel in this kind of approach.

It occurred to me that this was a natural extension of the increasingly competitive portrayal of a cappella on television. With The Sing Off, the judges were often nice and constructive and feelings rarely seemed to get hurt, but in the end it was always a reality competition- meaning there were limits to who could really win and who actually did “win” (except, of course, for the incomparably talented Pentatonix). As time has gone on, media entities have sought to branch out from The Sing Off, first with Pitch Perfect and then with Sing It On and now Pitch Slapped. The result, as with all of television (and some movies), was a need to keep pushing the envelope. I watched Sing It On last year and realized the power of editing and the likelihood that some events and comments were modified if not generated entirely for the sole purpose of following a storyline on television, resulting in a somewhat inauthentic representation of collegiate a cappella. Pitch Slapped took that freedom from the bounds of actual reality to a new level, setting two groups in a totally fabricated “summer invitational” setting and inviting unsuspecting high school groups to “compete” against Stay Tuned and Highlands Voices when there was never any question the featured groups would place other than first and second. Deke talked a little about this in his interview with AfterBuzz.

It seems like Lifetime wanted an edgier, more dramatic, and less representative version of the modern a cappella experience. Look at their title for episode 3: “The Cruella of A cappella.”  It is hardly surprising that we ended up here- it was a predictable extension of the vocal competition/reality show. The sad thing is that the network chose to do it with high school kids, and I think that is where a lot of the frustration comes from.

So, the question I ask to you, the a cappella community, is this: Do we think this is, or want this to be, a fair representation of what we do and why we do it? If this is the kind of “competition” that mainstream media wants to portray, wouldn’t we rather disavow televised competitions altogether? Wouldn’t you rather watch a travelogue of The Swingles (touring the States, Taiwan, China, France, and Canada this year) or Take 6 (touring the States, Italy, France, Germany, Lithuania, and Norway this year)? How do we get those shows? Or what about a show featuring the growing pains and growing relationships of a post-collegiate group in a metropolitan area:  The Real World with pitch pipes? That’s the a cappella TV I want to see, and I assume/hope many of you would agree.

I have no first-hand knowledge about the creative process in Pitch Slapped or what happened behind the scenes. If it is true that Preisler’s behavior with the students was aggressive, impatient, and/or condescending then that is a shame. It also strikes me as something television producers would very much prefer to see in their programs, rather than a whole lot of hugs and happiness. Does this mean Preisler was encouraged to act this way or believed it was the right thing to do? I have no idea, since she has not offered a public defense yet. But I would not be surprised at all if the network wanted or encouraged such drama. I’m not offering excuses for Preisler if she behaved this way.  I have many friends who are music teachers, as is my wife, and I do not believe such behavior is appropriate in an educational setting. In fact, it is unacceptable.

But I also don’t believe that putting high school kids on a “competition” program which was more of a reality show like this was necessarily in the students’ best interests, at least not if the guidelines and expectations from the producers were clearly laid out in advance (yet another unanswered question).  For example, if the producers made it clear from the beginning that they wanted a “nice coach” and a “tough coach,” I don’t know that any high school group should have been subjected to this approach.  If you want to do that with college students or older groups, be my guest. But leave the minors out of it. And by the way, if the producers of the show were dishonest about what the show would be, which Deke seemed to suggest in the Facebook group, why has so little of the outrage been focused on them?

Whether Preisler’s behavior was acceptable or deplorable, the public “airing of grievances” as it was done in the Facebook group was deeply unsettling. I would not use the term “cyberbullying” which was thrown around in the group posts, but I would consider using the phrase “public shaming” and it is equally unbecoming for our community. I do not doubt that Tom Paster believed everything he said in his original post or that “Blue” (student who subsequently posted) believed everything that he shared. What I doubt, however, is their motivations.

What exactly was the objective of sharing these extensive and aggressively-worded posts? If Paster believed Preisler’s conduct was abusive or inappropriate and his goal was to protect his students (even months after the whole thing was over) or to express his disapproval and frustration, he easily could have shared those thoughts with Preisler directly (and perhaps he did). If his concern was that she not behave this way in future coachings with other groups, this was the most constructive way to achieve this goal.

If his goal was to ensure that she never gets coaching work again, posting on Facebook was the way to go. If his goal was to publicly shame her, posting on Facebook was also the way to go. I should note that if the goal was to tarnish her coaching reputation, I’m not sure posting on Facebook was even necessary. Any educational director I spoke to who watched even five minutes of the coaching cringed, and the show very clearly and forcefully played her up as the “villain” by calling her “Cruella.”  My contacts just told me they would not put their group in her hands on the basis of what they saw.  I don’t think there was a real need to “warn” people about Preisler’s methods as a coach unless Paster believed that there might be some people out there who thought it was all an act. If his objective was to confirm that her behavior was depicted fairly and honestly, it surely could have been done in a more tempered and less accusatory manner. Yes, I’m a defense lawyer and yes I believe in a fair process. I also believe that the strongest way to prove your point about something is to provide indisputable facts without name-calling, without using inflammatory language, and without taunting.

[NOTE: It occurs to me that there may be reasons for the original post which were well-intentioned and motivated by factors other than mere public shaming. To the extent that I excluded any such possibility, I apologize to Paster. Even if this is the case, however, I still believe the methods utilized to achieve those goals were of questionable character. We have to examine how we use Facebook and social media to communicate and pursue our objectives- particularly those who are educators or hope to set examples for our youth. Even if our protective instincts are strong. Perhaps especially if our protective instincts are strong.]

While the original post should certainly not have been taken down, I think the forceful defense of it went overboard as well. People chose to comment about how it “only told the truth” and should not have been removed for that reason. I have no first-hand knowledge of the reason for the takedown, but I can assure you the original post and comments were not “just the facts, ma’am.” There were a number of personal attacks in there as well.  I think the whole thing was ill-conceived and poorly executed, even if (perhaps) the goal was understandable.

It comes back to this- we as a community are generally more supportive, responsive, and open to discussion and debates than the public at large, or at least we like to think we are. We generally do not engage in or create the types of moral sinkholes into which  the comments section of any popular website inevitably descend. Engaging in personal attacks diminishes the very things we generally cherish most- acceptance and harmony, both figurative and literal. Constructive criticism is important, it is valuable, and it is also best given with a dose of support, humanity, and understanding. I hope that we all consider that in the future.

Also- someone please work on getting us a Swingles or similar travelogue program.

 

*** NOTE- While I do not believe there to be any bias with my past affiliations with Diana, Deke, SingStrong, or CASA, I will lay them out briefly:

While I recently participated in SingStrong NY, I have only met Diana once or twice and barely spoke with her. My role with SingStrong related to the charity auction, and I found certain attacks on the festival and the organizing team in the comment threads to be distasteful and deceptive. SingStrong itself is a non-profit charity organization, as is the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund for which the SingStrong team has raised over $100,000. Please try to keep perspective when making personal attacks on an organization devoted to positive goals. Anyone who has ever worked for or with a non-profit knows just how hard it is to get anything accomplished on the backs of so many volunteers and so little funding, and that should include those associated with the very CASA organization who housed the Facebook group in question, the A Cappella Education Association, and other such entities in our community.

I should also note that I have corresponded with Deke for this website and have met him in person once or twice, and do not have any reason to doubt his observations or perceptions, nor do I doubt that he was told all the things he recounted in his comments.

I have never served on the CASA board but have been a member of the organization on and off for years, have written for the website a number of times, and also interviewed President Greg Rubin last year. I choose to believe that whomever pulled down the original CASA post because they thought they were protecting an individual from public shaming rather than because they did not wish for an open dialogue to proceed. Once again, however, there has been no full accounting or explanation and I agree with those who said it was a poor decision on the part of the moderator.

11 Comments

  1. Chad Bergeron   •  

    This.

    Thank you.

    You’ve said so many words that I am allowed to say so few.

    • Dave Bernstein   •     Author

      So. Many. Words. You deserve a prize for making it to the end. The prize is no more words…

  2. Andrew   •  

    Boom.

  3. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    One of the key points in your post that really resonates with me is the notion of everybody just calming down a bit and taking a breath. Is Diana being portrayed as a diva coach with her own interests in greater focus than those of the students? Absolutely. But we don’t have a real sense of what’s going on there, and generally speaking, the students kept coming back for the season (ostensibly with their parents’ support), so there’s at least one indication that the experience couldn’t have been as ravaging as portrayed. The time period depicted covers a sufficiently long duration that if it got bad, there would be time for remediation or exit. Since that didn’t seem to happen, it speaks toward perhaps some moderation.

    Regardless, not having read Paster’s post, I can easily surmise some of its contents, and can imagine that it was unnecessarily inflammatory, leading to the censorship discussion you outline – yet another topic where passions run high and tempers can flare. So I return to that part of your thesis with alacrity: let’s all take a beat here.

    To another of your topical threads: the emphasis on competition in reality a cappella TV. Yep, it’s there. And yep, it’s a disproportionate focus in comparison to the motivations of those who have participated in it, myself included. That’s true of other activities portrayed in that context as well – from the Step It Up movies to cooking shows like Top Chef and Masterchef. These all feature activities the majority of participants do not do with an eye toward competition, but for passion, enjoyment and, in some cases, camaraderie. The reality TV lens trains on drama and conflict, though, and outside of the occasional PBS or Travel Channel show, a Swingles travelogue isn’t going to fly on US domestic TV.

    So is it worth it? That’s probably the first question. It is, I think, indisputable that the increased TV and movie coverage of the last half-decade or so has contributed to new singers entering the genre, to new groups being formed, and to an increase in the robustness of the community. That’s all pretty great. Can we live with the side effect of occasionally bad characterizations as well? Perhaps to each his or her own on that, but I tend to err on the side of inclusion. The content marketplace will sort itself out, even if the interstitial period can be difficult.

    The next question is about whether the performers’ community wants to arrive at a rubric for what they will and won’t abide in terms of their representation in the media. They very well might feel this is important, although I suspect the range of ideas about what’s acceptable is as broad as the number of participants – and that there may always be a handful of groups willing to make trade-offs in exchange for exposure.

    Returning to the example at hand, it seems that if this was a bad experience for the students involved, there’s probably culpability all over the place here. If Diana was playing things up for TV, that’s an issue. If Deke saw or heard stuff happening with the other group and didn’t intervene, that’s an issue. If the showrunners manipulated the footage to play up drama that didn’t really exist in the accurate depiction, that’s an issue, too. As an observer, though, I have control over none of that.

    I do, however, have control over what I say when I press the submit button on a comment thread. And that might be a good place to start.

      • Aaron from Acaville   •  

        Thanks, Josh. This is one of those topics that warrants more words, I think – not less. It’s why I appreciate Dave’s post and folks’ thoughtful comments. (And it justifies my perpetual verbosity, so that’s nifty, too. 😉 )

  4. Andrea Figallo   •  

    Nice. Very nice.
    Still, it’s Facebook. And it’s rough. And some of us like it as it is. Everyone will take responsibility for their words. All I can say is that when money starts pouring in, things change. Things happen. In my opinion, this is one of those cases.

  5. Joe Oliva   •  

    Well, at least someone down there can write intelligently. Are you sure you don’t want to run against Donald Trump? 😉

    • Dave Bernstein   •     Author

      Ah, Joe. Thanks for the compliment, but the thought of going into politics gives me hives. Let’s just say even the thought of having to beg a room full of powerful people for money and support makes me physically ill.

  6. Dave, I meant to thank you for this post before and after our brief Twitter interaction yesterday. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this perspective. The two biggest things that rang out for me were being constructive and the use of social media in regards to being an example for our youth. Well said on both thoughts!

What do you think?