Measure for Measure

The Pros and Cons of The Sing-Off Season Five

Measure for Measure

Since its initial run in 2009 The Sing-Off has become one of the most celebrated brands in a cappella. It has served as a launching pad for acts like Pentatonix, Home Free, and Street Corner Symphony, and perhaps even importantly than that, the show has played a key role in bringing a cappella into the living rooms of American television viewers who may have never heard of CASA or Varsity Vocals.

The show’s broadcast has been a rollercoaster. It started with a four-episode season, moved up to five episodes in its sophomore run, then ballooned to a full-on half-season of eleven episodes the third time around. That much a cappella, stretched out over three months and put up against stiffer broadcast competition yielded the shows lowest ratings, and we would need to wait two years before it came back again. The show did return, though, with a more manageable series of seven episodes. And now The Sing-Off is back again, starting on December 17 and--well, ending on December 17.

There are a number of interesting factors in play for the 2014 iteration of the show and so, in this special edition of Measure for Measure, we’re looking at the pros and cons of The Sing-Off season five.

Before we get into the meat of this article, a quick clarifier I am aware the The Sing-Off has already been taped, but will nonetheless refer to the show in the future tense because the overwhelming majority of us haven’t seen anything more than NBC has released to us. In addition, please note that I have not heard any spoilers from the tapings—everything you’re getting here is based on information released from the show, or based on my pre-existing knowledge of the show and performers associated with it.

Pro: The Sing-Off sings on. For a column in which I will be bashing parts of the creative direction of The Sing-Off, I do feel it’s important that I lead off by saying I love the show and am thrilled that it’s going to be back at all.

Con: We’re only getting one episode. As much as season three of The Sing-Off was my personal favorite, I get that eleven episodes is too much for the casual fan base that makes up most of NBC’s target audience. That said--really? One episode? Unfortunate upshots include that only six groups will get screen time (and after commercials, behind the scenes videos, commentary from the judges, and maybe a guest performance or two, not that much of it), and that we’re not going to have the time to see different groups thrive in different themes or demonstrate their worthiness via consistently strong performances over a period of time.

Pro: The Exchange is in. One of my reservations about The Sing-Off in the past has been that there are so many groups assembled just for the show, who get national exposure over groups that had been singing together for years and didn’t make it out of auditions. While The Exchange may, at first blush, look like a made-for-TV super group, in reality it’s a group of five incredibly dedicated men who have been singing, touring, and recording as a unit for almost three years. Moreover, the group features a collection of true a cappella stalwarts. There’s Christopher Diaz who used to work behind the scenes on the show and before that cohosted the Mouth Off a cappella podcast, and before that helped Florida State All-Night Yahtzee to three straight ICCA Finals. There’s Alfredo Austin who came up with University of Delaware Vocal Point and went on to sing with Hyannis Sound, Overboard, Blueprint, and others. You have Jamal Moore and Aaron Sperber who performed with the University of Rochester YellowJackets throughout their college careers and went on to appear with the group on The Sing-Off season three. And then there’s VP specialist Richard Steighner who loyal Sing-Off fans will recognize as the ultra-talented drummer from Urban Method. To me, that’s a heck of a line up, and the guys have already put out some darn fine music. I’m excited to see them do their thing on a national platform.

Con: Ben Folds is out. I’m still mourning Sara Bareilles’s departure from The Sing-Off judging panel (#ComeBackSara), but now we lose one of reality TV’s most earnest, technically proficient, and consistently likable adjudicators with Ben Folds bowing out for season five. Fortunately, we still have Shawn Stockman and Jewel was better than I expected on season four. For now, I’ll hold off on judgment for Patrick Stump as the new third man, but he’s got mighty big shoes to fill…

Pro: More all-female groups per capita. A few years ago, the American a cappella scene was abuzz about the void of top-performing all female groups. That sector of the genre has enjoyed a partial renaissance with the rise of pro groups like Delilah and Musae, and acts like The AcaBelles, Divisi, Noteworthy, Vocal Synergy, Crimson, The Highlands Belles, and The Edgertones holding it down at the scholastic level. That said, I’m psyched that out of just six competing groups on this year’s Sing-Off two of them are all-female. I haven’t yet heard music from Traces and Timothy’s Gift but here’s hoping they reveal new sides of what the female voice can do and inspire even more women around the country (and abroad) to perform a cappella at the highest levels.

Con: Instruments are allowed. Like the addition of Patrick Stump to the judges’ table, I’m going to hold out judgment until I see the show, but when the powers that be announced before auditions that instrumental accompaniment would be allowed on this season of The Sing-Off my first reaction was that they were going damage this show’s most unique defining quality. Here’s hoping the vocals remain front and center, and the music remains as strong as it has previously been.

Pro: We’re in the loop. The upside of The Sing-Off loosening its rules is that they’ve opened the door to live-looping technology. (Imagine if they had made this change when Sonos was on the show!) Word on the street is that looping is a key part of A-Squared’s game, so I’m looking forward to hearing one of a cappella’s coolest innovations get some exposure on a national stage.

What are you looking forward to about the 2014 edition of The Sing-Off? What are your complaints? Let us know all about it in the comments section.

Should You Record Individually or as a Whole Group?

Measure for Measure

In Measure for Measure, A Cappella Blog contributor takes a look at both sides of a controversial issue in collegiate a cappella. Please note that the views expressed by columnists do not necessarily represent those of The ACB as an organization, nor do they necessarily represent the view of individual columnists. The purpose of this piece is to explore issues and further civil, intellectual debate.

Traditionally, much of recorded a cappella has been compiled piecemeal, with individual singers or small subsections of the group singing their parts so that producers and mixers could assemble tracks in a balanced fashion. With advances in recording technology and technique, more and more studios are now offering groups the option of recording as ensembles. In this edition of Measure for Measure we take a look at the statement:

A cappella groups should record as a whole group.

True: The very essence of contemporary a cappella, barbershop, and many other forms of all-vocal music is that way in which voices complement one another. The harmony. The blend. The x-factor that synergizes when musicians who have worked together assemble to create a group sound that is distinctively their own. Singers can’t feed off one another when they’re singing in isolation. The truest way to capture the energy, spirit, and gestalt of a group is to record that group singing as a unit.

False: The world of people who make a living recording, mixing, and mastering a cappella has grown exponentially over the last few years. When you walk into a studio, you need to be prepared to trust the professionals you’ve chosen to work with. Many of those professionals will tell you that the only way to be sure they can balance your sound, ensure that no parts get lost, and clean all of your blemishes is to record your parts separately. Doing so may seem unnatural to your group at first blush, but in recorded a cappella, the ends justify the means, and, in this competitive a cappella marketplace, you have to prioritize a final product that sounds as clean as possible.

Should You Dress Uniformly for Competition?

Measure for Measure

In Measure for Measure, A Cappella Blog contributor takes a look at both sides of a controversial issue in collegiate a cappella. Please note that the views expressed by columnists do not necessarily represent those of The ACB as an organization, nor do they necessarily represent the view of individual columnists. The purpose of this piece is to explore issues and further civil, intellectual debate.

In this edition of Measure for Measure we take a look at the statement:

A cappella groups should dress uniformly for competition.

True: One of the best things an a cappella group can do in the competition setting is visually demonstrate a united front. That means synching up your choreography perfectly. That means coordinating how you enter and exit the stage. And that absolutely means dressing alike.

Dressing uniformly shows the audience and judges that you put thought into how you would present yourselves, rather than just throwing on any old attire the day of the show. Furthermore, the right look communicates your group’s identity—classy tuxedos and evening gowns; identifical t-shirt and jean combinations the sell your group as both fun and on the same page. Groups that dress uniformly look like units, and thus look like they are serious competitors.

False: In this day and age, stage performance is largely about making stars, which means that certain key group members, including your soloists and vocal percussionist(s) should stand out. When everyone dresses exactly the same, it creates a homogenous mass of people and its more difficult for the audience to recognize, much less identify with any individual.

No, you should take the stage in mismatched street clothes—you should put your thought into what your group’s attire is communicating about your group identity or your set. But groups that find individuality within a uniform look (e.g., matching colors without matching every article of clothing) let individuals shine while still illustrating that your group is united.

Should Your Group Have Only One Music Director?

Measure for Measure

In Measure for Measure, A Cappella Blog contributor takes a look at both sides of a controversial issue in collegiate a cappella. Please note that the views expressed by columnists do not necessarily represent those of The ACB as an organization, nor do they necessarily represent the view of individual columnists. The purpose of this piece is to explore issues and further civil, intellectual debate.

In this edition of Measure for Measure we take a look at the statement:

A cappella groups should have only one music director.

True: Democracy, checks and balances, and joint leadership work for many aspects of life. But when it comes to an artistic vision having too many voices of equal weight is more distracting than valuable. When two or more leaders need to agree on major decisions, the likely outcome is a watered down vision that isn’t really what anyone wanted in the first place.

One strong leader keeps order and keeps a group moving forward in a consistent direction.

False: A cappella groups should honor the common vision of every group member—not one individual. While not every group member can or should be named director, having co-directors offers the opportunity for two group members to share their visions for the group, to share the weight of leading rehearsals, and to make tough musical decisions. It builds an infrastructure of backup so the group doesn’t fall apart when someone graduates, moves away, or sick for a week.

Having two leaders for an a cappella sets up the group up for more ideas, more creativity, and more sustainable success

Is Humor Bad in Competitive A Cappella?

Measure for Measure

In Measure for Measure, A Cappella Blog contributor takes a look at both sides of a controversial issue in collegiate a cappella. Please note that the views expressed by columnists do not necessarily represent those of The ACB as an organization, nor do they
necessarily represent the view of individual columnists. The purpose of this piece is to explore issues and further civil, intellectual debate.

Every a cappella group has its own style, but when it comes to competition are groups best served to “play it straight” and not aim for laughs? In this edition of Measure for Measure we take a look at the statement:

A cappella groups should avoid humor in competition.

True: Humor has a long and storied history in a cappella, from punny group names, to humorous takes on the vocal electric guitar, to pseudo-sexy choreography. There’s nothing wrong with making the audience laugh, but if you want to be take n seriously on the competition stage, you need to approach your set with a serious attitude. Sure, audiences like to laugh, but judges don’t look at the class clowns of the competition as champions, or as the ones who they want to represent their show or region when they progress to the next round of a tournament. They’re fun, but when it comes time to pick the best of the best, judges will gravitate toward the group with perfect tuning over the one with comedic timing; the one that moved them tears rather than the one that got them laughing. A cappella are best served to leave humor out of their competition sets.

False: Humor is vital in a cappella, particularly in the current era when competitions tend to have so many groups performing. Including a good comedy song helps a group stand out—it’s different and it genuinely entertains the audience. Furthermore, let’s not forget that only one group can win a competition. While it’s all well and good to aspire to walk away champions, there’s also a lot to be said for stealing the show. The judges’ opinion is only half the story at any competition—the rest of the story is told in which groups the audience actually remembers—the ones they like on Facebook afterward, and the ones whose sets they’ll track down on YouTube the next day to share with all of their friends. Fans—and particularly casual fans—may appreciate good music but they're more prone to remember the act that made them laugh.

Should High School and College Groups Compete With Each Other?

Measure for Measure

In Measure for Measure, A Cappella Blog contributor takes a look at both sides of a controversial issue in collegiate a cappella. Please note that the views expressed by columnists do not necessarily represent those of The ACB as an organization, nor do they
necessarily represent the view of individual columnists. The purpose of this piece is to explore issues and further civil, intellectual debate.

At the January 2013 Los Angeles A Cappella Festival (LAAF), high school groups Vocal Rush and Unstrumental competed against four collegiate groups in a pan-scholastic a cappella competition. Remarkably, the high school groups ended up finishing first and second in the competition. In this edition of Measure for Measure we take a look at the statement:

High school groups should compete with college groups.

True: When high school and college groups compete together, it presents unique opportunities for them to network and learn from one another, which, in many ways, is the biggest benefit of competing in the first place. Moreover, particularly for high school groups, it gives them the opportunity to test their limits. A high school group that can outscore other high school groups is impressive, but they set a new bar for themselves when they compete with the collegiate ranks.

False: Competitions pitting college groups against high school groups create an uneven playing field between groups with unequal resources and different experience levels. College groups are more mature and generally have more time to rehearse together. High school groups often have the benefit of faculty directors. When you look at the end products, you’re comparing apples and oranges. On top of that, from the perspective of college groups, on paper, there’s little to gain by topping a high school groups, but plenty to lose in the form of hurt pride.

Next Page
The Pros and Cons of The Sing-Off Season Five
Should You Record Individually or as a Whole Group?
Should You Dress Uniformly for Competition?
Should Your Group Have Only One Music Director?
Is Humor Bad in Competitive A Cappella?
Should High School and College Groups Compete With Each Other?
Women in The Whiffs
Should Everyone Get a Mic?
Was 11 Episodes Too Long for The Sing-Off?
Is the Pitch Perfect Holiday Album a Good Idea?
Gender Divisions in ICCA
Is Subjectivity OK in Judging?
Should You Buy Professional Arrangements?
Was it OK for UNC Psalm 100 to Kick Out Gay Senior Will Thomasen?
Covering Coldplay
Keeping the ICCA and ICHSA Finals Separate
Original Songs
The Use of Costumes and Props
Inside Jokes
A Cappella Is Getting Cooler
Preparing against your competitors
Professional groups at collegiate shows
A cappella helps communities overcome adversity
A cappella scholarships?
Has a cappella hit a ceiling?
ICCA tournament structure
Dress to impress?
A cappella shows with special attractions
Should groups only perform new songs?
A cappella on YouTube