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…

November 2015 A cappella News

The leaves have fallen, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the annual holiday music aca-outpouring has begun. This is a busy time of year for all of us, so forgive us if we missed anything and for the brevity of the “Releases” and “Videos” sections this month.


– Pentatonix leads the news once again with their performance at the American Music Awards, where they were introduced by Harrison Ford (!) and then performed a Star Wars medley. Read about it here (with video). Also at the AMA’s, Pitch Perfect 2 won the Top Soundtrack and Anna Kendrick thanked Deke Sharon and Ed Boyer in her acceptance speech.  In other Pentatonix news, the group appeared on ABC’s The Muppets program and announced the winners of the MACY’s a cappella challenge.  Congratulations to Briarcrest Christian School’s One Voice, UCD’s MIX, and Orange Center Elementary School.

– The Swingles performed with and opened for jazz vocalist and composer Kurt Elling at the London Jazz Festival, and the Guardian offered a very positive review.  The Swingles will be performing in the United States, Italy, and Russia this coming month, with a lot more to come in 2016. You can check to see if they will be near you on their website. Lastly, the group released their new Christmas album, Yule Songs Vol. II, which is available online now.

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The Naturalism Debate: We’re Doing It Wrong

I’ve been thinking a lot about naturalism in a cappella. We’ve gotten quite a bit of new music submitted to Acaville lately, and one of the benefits (and sometimes burdens) of my role is that I listen to all of it before it makes it on the air. Some of the music we’ve gotten isn’t actually newly-released, but earlier stuff from today’s artists.

In doing all that listening, it has really highlighted the evolution of studio effects in a cappella – a move that some would characterize as a move away from naturalism. Some might say better, some might say worse – but certainly it is different.

Think back to your earliest toners. And by toner, here I mean the early musical connections you felt in your heart – the artists or groups you heard and fell in love with. (Purely Platonic, people. Not strictly in the Urban Dictionary/Pitch Perfect sense.) Being 182 years old, contemporary a cappella was still growing up as I was, so one of my early toners was for the a cappella of Chanticleer, and their debut album. Along with Bobby McFerrin’s The Voice, I think it stayed perpetually in my CD player.

What was so amazing to me about Chanticleer was the blend – and the musical accuracy. You could measure their tone in places and find that it was perfect, plus or minus a few cents. (And as a geeky middle and high schooler, I did that experiment, confirming the result.) Autotune and its ilk weren’t on the horizon – so when I took an impromptu weekend road trip from college a few years later to see them in concert, what I heard sounded like it was right off the album.
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High school A cappella Jives With Teacher Evaluation Systems

Student leadership and choice has been a hot topic among music educators recently as the element is being used to evaluate teachers. To earn a perfect score using teacher evaluation tools such as the Danielson rubric or the new National Core Arts Standards, students need to take ownership of their experience and proceed beyond teacher-led activities. In many cases, that’s exactly what they are doing in their high school a cappella groups.

While attending a recent festival on a cappella music in schools, I asked students why they joined a cappella groups, particularly those that met outside of the school day or where they needed to sacrifice their free time. Overwhelmingly their answers had to do not with performing or even being “cool.” These students said being in a cappella groups helped them become better musicians. They wanted the chance to learn about new types of music and hone their listening ability.

These responses are the exact reason we nurture student choice and leadership in schools. These responses are how you create lifelong learners. We can argue about the actual evaluation tools, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not important.

The Danielson rubric

Created by Charlotte Danielson, the “Framework for Teaching” – commonly called the Danielson rubric – was originally designed for teachers as a “foundation for professional conversations among practitioners.” Instead it has become a way to evaluate teachers. Continue reading…