Choosing Your Group’s Repertoire- Part 2

[My recent article on repertoire was published over at CASA this afternoon. Here is an excerpt, followed by the link to the entire article.]

 

Late last year, I wrote about the need to think outside the box when choosing a cappella repertoire, and I suggested groups stay away from the songs populating Billboard charts and Top 40 radio. Now, I’m here to tell you I was wrong. Not wrong, exactly, but my analysis was incomplete. You see, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to learn some of the most ubiquitous radio pop music. It may even be a good idea. It’s all about what you hope to accomplish and achieve with your group.

Over the past twenty years, there have been a few contemporary a cappella groups or bands who have focused almost entirely on crafting original music. The House Jacks, Duwende, Rockapella, and The Bobs are examples of some American groups that have traditionally written their own music and sprinkled in covers (yes, I know Duwende’s last album was all Michael Jackson covers and Rockapella’s was Motown covers). On the other end of the spectrum are American groups that have traditionally performed all covers, like Hyannis Sound, Straight No Chaser, or Overboard. The vast majority of high school, collegiate, and amateur groups are in this mold, and they are the ones who need to be smart and careful in choosing their music.

Groups looking to perform mostly or all covers may face the choice which I wrote about previously: radio pop music versus slightly more obscure pop/rock/R&B music. While my orders last time were to stay away from radio pop, there are two big reasons why this was incomplete at best.  First, it assumes that your goal as a group is to perform vocal music which may be new and interesting to the audience. The reality is that not every audience wants something new and interesting. If you are going to be performing for a group of die-hard a cappella fans, they may be bored or tired of another “Some Nights” cover. They probably don’t mind hearing your group perform a song they’ve never heard before, so long as it sounds good (or interesting). Other audience members, however, will be searching for a true cover band.  They’ll just want to hear how a vocal group can perform “Some Nights” without instruments, and they likely won’t have heard any other a cappella group perform it previously.

You can read the rest of my article over at CASA right here.

All of the “Lights”

One of the biggest grenades (incendiary discussion starters, as per Deke) which regularly invades RARB reviews (and the forums), Twitter, Facebook, and other dark holes of the a cappella webosphere is the lack of originality and the repetition of song choices in the a cappella community.  I can relate to this discussion, and I generally advocate for innovation in song selection for largely selfish reasons: when I want to find and consume more a cappella music, I don’t always want to wade through 5-7 versions of “Fireflies” (as I did in nominating for the Male Collegiate categories for the CARAs two years ago) or “Some Nights” (this year) in order to find something I really like.  However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for there to be multiple versions of a song if each is interpreted and tailored for the groups performing them.

What got me thinking about this was the release, in the past few weeks, of three different vocal versions of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights.”  I don’t know the precise order of their respective releases, but I know that the SoJam X collaborative track (available for free to CASA members here, or you can listen here), a version by new Charlotte-based vocal band NOI5E (available for free download here), and a live YouTube version by Sing Off alum/supergroup Level (available for viewing below) were all offered for public consumption in early or mid-February. What struck me was these are all very capable groups/collaborations, and each produced a different take on the song. In a way, it is like comparing apples to oranges to plums. Yes, they’re all fruit, but with very different consistencies.

How so? Well, the SoJam collaboration features a ton of voices, including members of Pentatonix, The Edge Effect, Musae, the Northeastern University Nor’easters, and a variety of SoJam “VIP’s” (festival attendees). There’s a lot of talent and a lot of voices there, as well as a lot of production by Sled Dog Studios and The Vocal Company.

NOI5E is a new vocal band which features 5 members: 3 men and 2 women. So, right off the bat, you have a different consistency to the sound, different ingredients and different context.

Somewhere in between the others you have Level, a group of alumni (onscreen and offscreen) from The Sing Off which features 5 men and 3 women. Again, different consistency. Also, this is a live recording and thus devoid of the bells and whistles which enhance the other two recordings.

Since these are three distinct versions of the same song, I thought this could be an instructive example of how groups, from high school through post-scholastic, should approach making a pop tune their own.

The SoJam collaborative track is, by necessity, a mixed bag. I suspect that because there were so many singers involved, the challenge was trying to create enough parts for everyone to be included. The result is a song which is almost 5 minutes long, and to me that feels about 60-90 seconds too long. This version begins with a longer buildup than the other two, complete with percolating bubbles and overtone singing (Oh hai, Avi) offering a hint of an eastern tinge to the song. The breakdown at 2:11 is great, as expected, but the song then takes a dramatic shift to a subtler, quieter verse. There’s nothing wrong with the singing here, I like the little faded individual flourishes and the production is terrific, but I just start to lose interest at this point. I must reiterate that a lot of this probably relates to the context; this recording was created as an opportunity for a whole lot of people to get in on a single all-star track, and there are only so many parts available at any given time in the song.

NOI5E offers a very different take on the song. Again, the arrangement is a function of necessity: it is more sparse, as it must be since there are only 5 singers. To me, this version feels like the song is being shone through the lens of an ’80’s pop tune. With the swirling synth sounds, the cracking  drum machine beat, I can almost see the John Hughes movie playing on the screen over the track. It’s a little treble-y for my taste, and a little too light on the low-end, but it’s a totally valid interpretation of the song and the performances are fine.

My favorite, the version which appeals to me the most, is the Level version.  It takes an upbeat, danceable tune and converts it into something with a sinewy, sultry groove.  The clustered chords, the bell tones/waterfall effect, the sparkling breakdown; there are just too many hooks implanted within this version which I want to go back and hear again.  In some ways this version feels fuller or richer than the others, and more satisfying too.

The great thing is that not one of these versions is bad and they all appeal to a slightly different aesthetic.  So, what do we learn from this? These groups/collaborations all include or rely upon skilled arrangers who took chances here tailoring the song for their needs and talents.  So, the next time you are asked or decide to arrange yet another Adele/Coldplay/Gaga/fun./[insert latest zeitgeist] tune, try to be that arranger for your group.  Spend a few extra minutes before you put pencil to paper or click to software thinking about how you can make your version of the song memorable and unique. And maybe listen through all of the “Lights” first for some inspiration.

 

ANY CHARACTER HERE

A cappella singing made me a better chorus teacher

Greetings acatribe readers. This is an article I’ve wanted to write for a long time but never had the forum. As you will soon discover, my posts to this blog will center on music education and popular music.

When I auditioned for the Potsdam Pointercounts, I wanted to sing pop music and be a part of that great group. They sang at the open house I attended and I thought it would be fun to do that, too. I didn’t know how much I would actually take into my career from the experience.

To put it delicately, I am not a good piano player. In fact, I am what “they” call a “bad piano player”. My a cappella background helps me, though, as I routinely get out from behind the piano when my students are learning songs and I sing with them. They get to hear me model more than a lot of teachers who play all the time and I get to hear them on a closer level as I weave down the rows. (It’s also a classroom management bonus to not be tethered to one spot in the room.)

I’m a middle school chorus teacher and I have a wide range of singing voices I can demonstrate thanks in part to my time as a Tenor I in the Pointercounts. I model in my falsetto for the unchanged and changing male voices as well as my girls. Using different vowels in my upper range is something I did extensively on my accompaniment parts in a cappella and continue to use daily. I sing in my regular voice with my more developed guys but I spend about 80% of my chorus time in my falsetto.

Teaching my chorus students without the piano also has another benefit – the kids actually listen to each other. Instead of listening for constant support from the piano, they listen for my voice and when I drop out they listen to each other sing. I do a lot of rehearsals a cappella and it makes my singers that much more confident on their parts. When we do add the piano later, they are watching my conducting and not relying on the piano part because they learned the song by leaning on each other.

I firmly believe my a cappella training helps my choruses sing with better vowels and with better listening ears. It’s not just about doing popular music or choreography. The educational benefits can be far-reaching.

Not so “cool?” Why “The List” fell flat.

There was a bit of controversy recently following a series on The A Cappella Blog called the “ACB Cool 100.” The series, focused on the “coolest” people in a cappella, premiered two weeks ago with short bios on each person counting down from 100, released ten at a time over 10 weekdays. The reaction to this list was mixed; a number of people praised it, while many others criticized it for reasons ranging from the use of the word “cool” to its primary focus on Americans. Earlier today, CASA published a response by Nick Girard which you can check out here.

I have been thinking about why a list like this could or would be so polarizing, and I think it relates directly to some unique traits to the a cappella community. I wanted to go through my thoughts on this, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on whether I’m right, wrong, or both. In the interest of full disclosure, after the ACB list concluded, I was listed as part of the “honorable mention/forgotten” list. I do not believe that my opinions reflect my inclusion or exclusion (depending on how you look at it), but you are certainly welcome to take my comments with a grain (or more) of salt.  Mostly, I’d like to talk a little about what I believe the reasons are for all the controversy.

So, the criticism on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere on the web was generally focused on four areas:

1) the use of the word “cool”

2) the use of a ranking system

3) the particular rankings

4) the exclusion of non-Americans, a cappella producers, and others

Before I address these, I want to acknowledge a few facts. First, for those who don’t know, The A Cappella Blog is primarily run by Mike Chin, who explained in his recent apology/explanation for the rankings that he has never been an a cappella singer or producer. I did not know this, and it only enhances my respect for his dedication to the A Cappella Blog over the years.  Also, keep in mind that the ACB’s primary focus for the first few years of its existence was on the ICCA competition, with efforts made to attend nearly every regional, semifinal, and final of the competition. So, for the majority of its existence, the ACB has been dedicated largely to competition among collegiate a cappella groups.

Second, it is immediately apparent to those who live in the United States, but may be less so to those who live elsewhere, that Americans love rankings. Our daily sports shows feature at least one list of top plays every single morning and night, one of our most popular late-night hosts regularly features his own brand of humorous Top 10 list, our magazines and newspapers publish frequent lists of “Top” books, movies, music, television shows, and dozens of other topics. We are undoubtedly a nation of rankings. As Girard points out in his CASA commentary, the a cappella community too is one of rankings and competitions, with the CARAs, ACAs, ICCAs, ICHSAs, and so on. I think he failed to mention that while some of the organizations/businesses in charge of these awards/competitions recognize groups from outside of the United States, all of the actual awards are generated or selected from within our nation.

“COOL”

When I was in high school, I was friends with a lot of other musicians. Most of them played in the marching band, which was run by a director with a very strong personality and stronger sense of common purpose. For 3 months of the school year and part of the summer, many of these friends were frequently busy, immersed in the marching band, and eventually I felt excluded even though I spent a great deal of time during the remaining months of the year with these friends. I joined the marching band my junior year, and immediately felt like I had reached a new level of inclusion.

When I got to NYU and started Mass Transit, one of my best friends in the group learned about my marching band background and relentlessly teased me as having been the “coolest kid in marching band.” To him, marching band was not “cool.” Yet to many others around campus for whom MT performed, a cappella was not “cool.” To many out there today, it still isn’t.

In his song “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You,” Ben Folds notes that “coolness” is relative, transitional, and ultimately meaningless. In a New Yorker article 15 years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote “The act of discovering what’s cool is what causes cool to move on”, thus leading to the “triumphant circularity” of hunting for cool. And of course, there’s the line from the movie Almost Famous where Philip Seymour Hoffman (as fictional rock writer Lester Bangs) says “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone when we’re uncool.”

Here’s the thing: cool means different things to different people, both in definition and in value, and that’s fine. I don’t consider the term to be a gauge of anything other than subjective opinion. In his explanation/apology, Mike Chin at the ACB indicated that the goal for this list was to celebrate people who “don’t ordinarily get their just due” and who deserve recognition for their accomplishments. I don’t think anybody would disapprove of this concept in the abstract, nor would they necessarily complain if ACB had simply offered a series of posts about individuals entitled “People Who Deserve Recognition” or, as the dormant Mouth Off podcast featured in several segments, “Names You Should Know.”

By inserting the word “cool” and then utilizing a ranking system, however, I think ACB (perhaps unknowingly) chose a system of exclusion. It is necessarily exclusive to use the word “cool” because everything and everyone else then becomes “uncool”- something nobody wants to be. I do believe that a lot of the backlash was triggered by people who were left off the list whose feelings were hurt and by their supporters.

So, I think this was the first strategic error in theexecution of what was otherwise a reasonable idea.

Note: none of us will ever be confused with Bono, Tom Brady, or any other “cool” person as defined by society generally. Or, as Deke Sharon put it in a comment on a Facebook post, “no one in a cappella is cool.”  Said as only the coolest person in a cappella could. 😉

RANKINGS

Much like the term “cool,” rankings are necessarily exclusive rather than inclusive.  As I explained before, we do live in a culture that places inordinate value on rankings. The “hottest,” “sexiest,” “smartest,” “funniest” anything are frequently categorized and publicized in America (thus far, to my knowledge, we have not had an aca-list for any of these categories). So, our society values rankings, yet they often mean nothing. For example, when the New York Times publishes a list of the Top 10 movies of the year, they offer different lists from different critics because it is necessarily a subjective concept. So, when ACB chose to publish their list, it was clearly (and Mike indicated as much) a subjective collection of a cappella rankings.  The main problem which seemed to permeate discussions on the web afterwards was the exclusion of  certain individuals and of groups like non-Americans and a cappella producers.

Now, I write a blog and there is nothing better for publicity of a blog than controversy. It may well be that ACB recognized this and hoped to spark some discussion, which is always a noble topic. In fact, one of the best things we can hope for in the a cappella community is more engagement and discussion about what it is we are doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. If this was indeed ACB’s goal, I give them credit for succeeding.

Objectively, it is true that the ACB largely overlooked or omitted non-Americans (I believe they featured only Florian Stadtler from Vocal Blog and Bellatrix from The Boxettes). While it was surely a simple oversight, it was a major one considering the vast wealth of talented groups in Europe and other continents right now.  In fact, many of the best albums which are released regularly are coming from outside of the United States.

I will say this- until I listened to the Mouth Off podcast, I had never heard of any groups outside the United States besides The Swingle Singers. So, we do have a bit of a problem in America with the relative lack of exposure to these groups. If you have not attended an a cappella festival (and I’m sure the vast majority of American aca singers have not), and do not listen to Mouth Off, you might have little or no basis of knowledge for what is going on in a cappella outside this country. I think those of us who live in the United States and produce content about a cappella have a responsibility to raise awareness of these groups and albums here, and perhaps the ACB will be more inclined to do so in the future.

It is somewhat ironic that the list included Florian, who says the following in the “About” tab on the Vocal Blog Facebook Page:

“Vocal Blog is about SHARING the vocal & a cappella experience. Be a part of it – and tell as many people as possible about the fantastic sounds and vibes to explore.”

I think this mission statement describes perfectly the main flaw with the rankings concept. Many of us in the a cappella community want it to be a place where we can all share this music we love. By excluding people, through rankings, the community is actually divided rather than united.

It is also objectively true that the list overlooked a number of terrific a cappella producers and engineers, including several that I have interviewed for this blog. The truth is, much of the innovation in the past 10 years, and really much of the shifting paradigms of a cappella music generally result from the terrific w0rk these folks do. This was the very reason I started the “Spotlight” series on this blog: to shine a light on those who are impacting and evolving the music we love on a regular basis. So I think the absence of names like James Cannon, Alexes Green and Koutsoukis, John Clarke, Tat Tong, James Gammon, Tony Huerta, and others was also a major oversight, though again they may not have been intentionally omitted.

Gripes about the particular rankings are somewhat less compelling to me. If I were creating my own list, people like Dave Sperandio and Jonathan Minkoff would be in the Top 5, because of both their clear dedication to a cappella music and their vast contributions to the community over time. These are factors which I would weigh heavily, but which could easily be less valuable to someone else’s calculations. If someone is committed to creating a list of rankings, then I don’t feel it is anyone else’s place to second guess the subjective criteria used to create that list. I don’t recall who said this in another Facebook comment somewhere, but if you disagree with the particulars of the list, make your own list and share that with everyone. This is assuming, however, that you believe that a rankings list has intrinsic value. If you don’t, then why do you care where you were (or weren’t) on the list?

Conclusion

So, where does all of this verbiage leave us? As is often the case, Deke Sharon may have put it best (in a comment on Facebook):

“Lists are silly, awards for artistic endeavors are silly, ranking music is silly. The only value is in promotion of our art form to those who fundamentally don’t understand the immense subjectivity of any creative endeavor.”

To which I say: +1.

Nick Girard offered his own list of “cool” people, and I believe he did a better job of explaining that his were people who have inspired him or continue to do so. While I appreciate his articulation of the motivating factors better than the ACB’s presentation, I still think lists like this are ultimately the wrong choice for us as a community. We love a cappella music because of community, we love it because of the time we spend together making and sharing it. Most of all, I think, we love it because the community is accepting of folks whose only commonality is appreciation for the human voice. It is an accepting community. I started this blog thinking I would be lucky if ten people ever read a single post. Within a week, I was receiving encouraging emails, tweets, and comments from people I had never met. I have engaged in dialogue with people through Twitter, Facebook, and other websites from all over the world, people whom I have never seen in person and may never stand before. Those people have been supportive, friendly, critical at times, but always accepting. And that’s why the execution of the ACB’s perfectly reasonable idea, to help us all learn more about people who love this music as much as we do, was somewhat flawed.

The best thing we can do now is move forward, share more music and ideas, and continue to build this community and engage others who may be interested or feel excluded. Let’s keep building this tribe!

~Dave