Taking Stock of the 2015-2016 Season: 7 Observations

Well, the summer is approaching, and we’ve reached the end of another school year and another competition season. It has been a remarkable one, with past finalists winning at both the high school and post-collegiate level, and an international first at the highest-profile collegiate competition. Along the way, there have been remarkable recordings, stand-out performances, and more.

But at this point, the history has been written. Instead, permit me a half-dozen or so observations at the end of the season:

A cappella is stronger than ever. As a part of our Competition Countdown and #TheSpotlight shows, we had a chance to talk with (and listen to) over 200 groups. Some are better than others, but both the median and mean quality just keeps going up. I’ve talked with several longtime observers – many have (rightly) said that we’re hearing middle and high school groups performing as well as the best pro groups a decade ago. Plus, we’re still seeing new groups getting formed, so the ecosystem remains really healthy.

Breadth, depth – and specialization – is growing. Over the last 50 or 60 years, the science and business of medicine just exploded. And as it got bigger and transformed, a funny thing happened: specialization. You get a pain while on the court, and you’re just as likely to see a Sports Medicine doc instead of a general practitioner. We’re seeing something similar with a cappella – witness the continuing explosion of south Asian groups, Jewish a cappella groups, geek-themed groups, 80s-focused groups, and … well, you get the idea. What a great thing this is! There’s room for everybody, and if you have a passion just for ancient Russian a cappella folk music? There’s a group for you.

Lines are blurring. It may seem paradoxical that when we have more specialization, we’re also seeing delineations between genres begin to fade. As we’re hearing more 9ths and 13ths work their way into pop a cappella covers, or barbershop quartets bringing out vocal percussion, the silos are every so slowly beginning to break down. This is perhaps the most gratifying observation of the last season – sure, it’s early days for this and it’s happening slowly, but we have so much to learn from each other that this cross-pollination can only be positive.

Some nagging issues remain. All of that notwithstanding, we still have things to confront in our own community. At the ICCA finals, there was one – one! – all-female group. One might ascribe that to a random occurrence this year, but a look at our history tells us otherwise. Yet there are a metric ton of great female groups out there at all levels…so what’s going on here? We need to continue the conversation about how we’re evaluating these performances – are we suitably equitable? At the same time, events this year highlighted a couple of extremes in terms of how to coach groups and help them improve, bringing to light some other aspects of ourselves that could use some (civil) discussion.

There’s a flash vs. substance conversation to have. Are we appropriately rewarding soul and storytelling? This season saw performances that were objectively remarkable, entertaining crowds in halls large and small. And often, they were rewarded. But the overlap between entertainment and emotional connection with the audience is not complete, and there were times when groups that just put on a fun show got higher marks than those who were digging deep. Is that OK? Is that who we want to be? I dunno. But it’s worth talking about.

We’re placing a big emphasis on soloists. About two thirds of the way through the ICCA finals this year, it just hit me like a ton of bricks: the solo + backing arrangements have become more ubiquitous than ever. At the time, it seemed like The Voice-ification of a cappella – rewarding the stellar solo performer over the tight, emotive, ensemble work. To be clear: I’m not anti-soloist, and there were solos at the finals (and other shows) that were mind-blowing. To focus on that approach exclusively, though, ignores the wide variety of textures, dynamics, and effects that can come from a meaty, front-and-center, ensemble arrangement. Perhaps this will be like a pendulum, and will swing back with time – we’ll see.

The future is exciting. OK, I said I had six observations, but I can’t help including this one, too. Think of the great stuff ahead: more genre mash-ups, more stellar talent, an ever-stronger pipeline from middle school to post-collegiate singing. Sitting at the ICHSA finals this season, I was practically giddy at the array of talent on display. There are local and regional high school festivals popping up everywhere. Yet the untapped potential remains off the charts – in terms of getting more singers into the genre, in terms of international collaborations, in terms of greater pop culture incorporation. 2016-2017 is gonna be fun!

Have your own observations? Share ’em!

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. Continue reading…

Of Frat Boys and Coquettes

Over the last month or so, I’ve been traveling around the country, sitting down with groups for interviews and performances for AcaVille’s weekly show #TheSpotlight. It’s a great chance to meet and hear really talented performers from all levels and all parts of the country – we talk to groups from middle school to the pros.

Among the topics we sometimes discuss are the gender politics of a cappella. Now that sounds like a heavy subject, ripe for ponderousness or a quick trip to snooze-town. But for single-sex groups, it is still present, even if it’s in the background. And frankly, in 2016, I find that amazing.

In the all-female groups we spoke with, there was often an undercurrent of wanting to defy gender stereotypes within the genre, and some spoke openly and freely about being disappointed by some of the reactions within the a cappella community. They talked about some listeners (and, ahem, judges of certain competitions) wanting to put them into a box. We didn’t get into specifics about what that box looks like, but I imagine it is probably either vixen or coquette. Either way, it seems like we’re in the 1950s.

For some of the all-male groups, the issue was no less present. One spoke eloquently about trying to put together a competition set as an all-male collegiate group, and wanting to be high energy (and maybe a bit goofy) without being perceived as a bunch of frat-boys.

I’m certainly not equating the magnitude of the problem for each gender, and frankly, only having been one gender since birth, I’m in no position to assert that one way or the other. But come on – really?

I realize we are in a subjective medium, and that art is, after all, art. So as humans who have a biologically-driven need to classify and categorize, we put labels on things in one way or another. Certainly, some competitive events don’t always help this, either, when they don’t provide thoughtful normative rubrics for evaluation. (After all, without some kind of guide beyond “xx% for artistic expression,” we are all left to fill in the gaps, which can lead to trouble.)

But maybe we can decide that all-male groups can be coquettish and all-female groups can be frat boys. Or, even better, something entirely of their own making. The next time you see or hear a group that’s unfamiliar to you, perhaps start by trying to figure out what their artistic intent is to begin with. Then you’ll have a better way to determine if they’re hitting the mark.

And if you can’t tell, then that might tell you something about the quality all by itself. Instead of making assumptions based on gender, which is more telling about you than the performers.

Obi-Wan and the Diva

Two episodes of the high school a cappella reality series Pitch Slapped have aired so far – in this era of short TV runs, that constitutes 25% of the season! While it maintains many of the structures of the form, Pitch Slapped is perhaps the best yet at focusing its spotlight on the music itself.

It wouldn’t be a basic cable docureality show if we didn’t have personalities front and center, however. Here, we have Deke Sharon and Diana Preisler – both already public figures well-known by the a cappella community. What’s interesting to me is how the show uses editing (and perhaps prompting to Deke and Diana in their “aside” moments) to heighten some of these personality characteristics.

Deke is a good guy who is incredibly knowledgeable about a cappella. In Pitch Slapped, he becomes a form of Obi-Wan, dispensing wisdom and empowering his “Bad News Bears” group. I’m not saying this isn’t based in truth, but it certainly is emphasizing some elements over others to add dramatic tension to the show.

Similarly, Diana is a lovely person, amazingly capable as a performer and coach. Like Deke, she has been generous with her time and support of Acaville. In the show, though, her edginess has been dialed up to 11, showing moments of tough love that emphasize the tough while omitting warmer moments that would give a more balanced look at who she really is.

Now, I’m not writing this from a fainting couch or anything – I get it. Reality TV isn’t quite reality, and engaging TV needs stories with conflict. But it’s not often that I see reality TV featuring people I sort of know in real life, so it hits a bit differently.

What is perhaps more notable about Pitch Slapped, though, is that amidst the somewhat-forced competition drama, there are actual moments of, you know, music. Not only do we hear extended snippets of rehearsals and performances, but we can get at least a fleeting sense of what the coaches are listening for and how the groups evolve over the course of the show.

This marks a difference from one of the other a cappella TV shows, which seemed to focus its energy on interpersonal conflict and the soapy competitive drama. Here, there’s more emphasis on the mutual support that an a cappella group provides – and its putative purpose: singing.

There are other areas for improvement in Pitch Slapped, perhaps – the competitive backdrop feels a little artificial at times, for instance. But on balance, this is a welcome addition to the a cappella scene. Hopefully, its ratings justify another season. So far, at least, it’s reflecting well on the fun, power, and camaraderie of the genre.

Postyr’s Paper Tiger

Postyr began as a project. Literally. The group initially called itself “Postyr Project,” and it sought to explore the human voice in new and exciting ways. The group’s efforts to put together new album “Paper Tiger” (currently available only in Denmark, with worldwide distribution coming soon) over the past two years has tested its resolve, but also made it stronger. So much stronger, in fact, that it has rediscovered its identity and dropped the “Project” moniker altogether.

I recently spoke with Postyr’s Tine Fris, who is as patient, gracious, and kind a person as I have had the pleasure of meeting in the a cappella community. She described the process from conception to release of Paper Tiger as a “bumpy ride,” beginning the day before a scheduled rehearsal week in August, 2014. At that point, tenor Andreas Bech told Postyr he was leaving the group.  One of the things which makes Postyr special is the members’ shared roots in the Danish a cappella choir Vocal Line and shared interests in musical experimentation and music education. The group has been singing together for years, and losing Andreas more than just a monumental shift in the group’s foundation, it was also in some ways the loss of a friend. As Fris pointed out, the group members are extremely dependent upon one another, professionally, financially, and personally.  Unsurprisingly, this development has brought remaining members Fris, Line Groh, Kristoffer Thorning, and Anders Hornshoj closer together. Perhaps more importantly, it has forced the group to confront challenges and explore its collective purpose and identity. The result is “Paper Tiger,” an album which is more intricate, personal, and emotional than its predecessor, “My Future Self.”   Continue reading…