Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on theme.

As more and more groups dive into the world of recorded a cappella, a sub-pattern has been espousing a theme around which to record—a love album, a futuristic album, an all-eighties album. Some of these themes are natural extensions of group identities, while some are more stand-alone representations of what interests the group at the time.

There are those groups reluctant to go the theme route. Indeed, embracing a theme can mean denying your creativity in other realms—not including or not even beginning to pursue an arrangement of a song that fits your group nicely but that doesn’talign with the theme, or feeling as though the final product of a theme album is contrived or forced.

The aforementioned concerns are not without merit, and I would not push a group to pursue a themed album at the expense of the group’s existing personality and preferences. There is a happy medium, though, at which point a theme is not constricting, but rather opens creative possibilities.

The theme can follow from existing songs. What patterns has your group already established and how can you tie them together? Alternatively, how many different ways can your group look at the same theme? Take advantage of the hive mind of your group membership to assemble a list of potential songs. Using a love theme? Yes, that album can include Bruno Mars’s “I Think I Want To Marry You.” You can also go retro with Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” get into familial love with Ed Sheeran’s “Afire Love,” apply a contemporary lens to imperfect romantic love with Muse’s “Madness,” and explore any number of other genres styles and philosophies on love.

The point is that a theme should give your album a coherent feel and facilitate the creative process, not limit your group. Start brainstorming and you may be surprised with the results.


200 Reasons To Love A Cappella

Reason #180: Crimson

The past seven years have seen an explosion in the number and quality of a cappella groups—professional, amateur, college, and high school. Based on this rapid expansion, it can be too easy to overlook the pioneering work of groups that came before television deals and major motion pictures. One such group is Cheyenne Mountain High School Crimson.

I covered my first ICHSA shows when the Finals were still merged with ICCA Finals in one big show, and one of the positive outcomes was the opportunity to first see Crimson grace the stage in New York in 2007. The all-female group immediately stood out for, despite its small size, achieving an excellent sound and putting on a tremendous stage show. I’ve had the opportunity to see the group now and again over the decade to follow, and have been consistently pleased to see them continue to evolve while retaining these core principles of producing a clean sound and putting on a great show, not to mention evolving with the times and even releasing fully produced music videos.

Continuity of excellence is particularly difficult for scholastic groups, for which there tends to be a ton of turn over at least once every few years. Crimson has remained a group to watch out for.

I love it!

Cosmic Love

Tuesday Tubin'

This week we present the Rice University Philharmonics performing Florence and the Machine's "Cosmic Love."

Soliciting Outside Feedback Before The Show

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is on soliciting feedback before the show.

Ask early.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of a cappella groups in my local areas ask me if I could sit in on a rehearsal to give feedback on their intended competition set. In principle, this makes a lot of sense—getting an outside, objective set of ears and eyes on your performance before you put it in front of the judges affords you the opportunity to fine tune and adjust, and sometimes someone from outside the group can “see the forest for the trees”—spotting big picture issues your group might be oblivious to because they’re just too close to the process of constructing the set.

Asking for outside feedback is great, but timing is key. First of all, there is sheer scheduling. We live in an age when people live by the calendars on their phones, and asking someone to come in with a just a few days’ notice to the final rehearsal before a competition means that you’re minimizing the chances of actually getting that guest to come due to scheduling conflicts and perhaps not even getting the message in time.

In addition to scheduling, you’ll want to get feedback in enough time for you to actually do something with the feedback. While there are a handful of perennial ICCA Finals contenders who can be confident that they have a solid set nailed down and really are looking for fine-tuning, rather than holistic advice, groups with less experience and more room to grow really ought to be looking for feedback sooner so that an outside voice who can point out a significant tuning issue that will take time for the group to correct, a point when the choreography is overwhelming the music, or, even more broadly, that that twelve-minute medley of every Michael Jackson song you can find might be a cool concept, but you probably want to put it on the shelf for competition. These are the kinds of changes that will take more than few days to plan around, so soliciting some of that feedback weeks, if not months before competition (rather than days, or hours) is key

Have questions in mind.

While general feedback is great, it can also be scattershot. Oftentimes, the best move is to have just a small handful of key points that you want observers to zone in on when they’re observing, to keep the feedback more focused and ensure you’re actually getting the kind of feedback you were interested in in the first place.

Be receptive to criticism…

The main reason to invite in outside observers is to get honest feedback. (Note: there are exceptions, when a group might legitimately just want a morale booster, in which case the group should make those interests clear.) Too often, I’ve seen groups shake off criticism from master classes or judges’ scoring sheets, citing aesthetic differences or that the expert didn’t know what she or he was talking about on a particular point. While I can understand that impulse, it’s also important to consider that groups rarely evolve and holistically improve in a vacuum. Groups should take feedback and think critically about it. Even if you don’t agree with every piece of advice, that advice might still point out significant areas in which the group should focus its attention.

Additionally, to head off non-credible feedback, it might make sense for the group to invite people it trusts, exclusively. If there’s someone whose feedback the group will dismiss anyway, it’s disingenuous bother asking for that person’s advice. 

…but don’t let feedback overwhelm you.

Everyone has an opinion, and the group that tries to serve every single critic likely will not be able to hone in and really respond to individual criticisms meaningfully.

As alluded to in the previous point about being open to criticism, it’s beneficial to keep the pool of critics limited—not inviting too many voices into the conversation. Moreover, while it’s important that groups be receptive to critique, it’s also fair for the group to decide you’re going to focus on no more than three large-scale criticisms in revising the set, to keep from growing too scatter-brained or from changing so much that the set loses pieces of its intrinsic character that are important to the group.

Men of Note

200 Reasons To Love A Cappella

Reason #179: Men of Note

Before enterprises like The Sing-Off and Pitch Perfect launched a full-fledged explosion of a cappella at every level, there were Men of Note.

That’s not to say that Men of Note has gone anywhere—the all-male group out of Cherry Hill West High School in New Jersey is, to the best of my knowledge, still singing—but there’s a particular magic that the group achieved in the late-to-mid-2000s that still sticks with me.

These were the years when the group was a dominant force in competitive a cappella, capturing three ICHSA Championships, besides recording, and ultimately sending a contingent to The Sing-Off.

We could debate whether and how this group fits into the scheme of all-time great groups, but what I’ll always remember most about them is a unique sense of style and class—a breezy, confident, fun showmanship that made their every performance irresistible. Plenty of a cappella groups strive for intense and brooding nowadays, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but Men of Note stand out to me as evidence that a group can thrive with a lighter heart and rock-solid harmonies.

I love it!

New Rules

Tuesday Tubin'

This week we present the Hofstra University Hofbeats perfroming Dua Lipa's "New Rules."

Next Page
Cosmic Love
Soliciting Outside Feedback Before The Show
Men of Note
New Rules
Enormous High School Groups
All We Got
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
Groups With Unique Identities
You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
Lay Me Down
Off-Beat Openings
The One Person Rocking Out the Hardest
Hush Hush
Creating Moments
The End to Controversy on the Internet
Heavenly Father
Controversy on the Internet
Wake Up Everybody
Start-Up Groups
The Diversity of Acts In a Competition
Cocoa Butter Kisses
Rediscovering an Album
Came Here For Love