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Rehearsing Effectively

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Nancy Cheng is an English major and pre-med junior at Duke University, where she is also a member of the group Out of the Blue. She enjoys shower-singing, hemiolas, and funk. Nancy writes Members Only once a month for The A Cappella Blog.

I know a lot of groups that fit many hours of rehearsal into one week. I’ve heard of everything from 2 hours for the casual group to 6 hours for the more dedicated. Regardless of how much time you put into your group, putting more into one rehearsal makes your rehearsals fun, exciting, and (most importantly) more productive.

Recently my group elected me music director for the next year, and one of my priorities is making sure that rehearsals go smoothly and as efficiently at possible. I plan on improving things ranging from big to small: from the logistics of running rehearsal to learning music more quickly.

To ease both rehearsals and performance, I’m going to try and wean my group off of getting each starting note for each part for each song. It wastes time and effort on the music director’s part, and the group should have a good enough handle on relative pitch (in fact, it’s part of OOTB’s audition process) so that they only need one note and the tempo to get started both in and out of rehearsal.

Speaking of which, whether members are in or out of rehearsal doesn’t mean they can’t help rehearsal become more efficient. I arrange using Finale, and my university gives each student some free web space, so I plan on putting up MIDIs of each part and the entire score so the girls can listen anywhere they like: they can download the MIDI onto their iPod, listen to them for five minutes before bed or in between classes. They may not be able to learn the whole thing, but simply getting the melody of their part down or the rhythm really speeds rehearsal along, especially if they listen and learn with their part printed out.

These are just a few tips I’m going to try and implement next year, and I hope they improve the efficacy of rehearsals and performance, especially because we have a lot of ideas for songs, and the less time spent on songs means that more can be learned. If you have any ideas or already use some policies that help in terms of rehearsing and learning music asap, please feel free to comment.

Boom Boom (Vocal Percussion)

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Nancy Cheng is an English major and pre-med junior at Duke University, where she is also a member of the group Out of the Blue. She enjoys shower-singing, hemiolas, and funk. Nancy writes Members Only once a month for The A Cappella Blog.

I was playing Out of the Blue’s version of Just for Now (by Imogen Heap) that’s going to go on our next CD for my music teacher the other day, and we got to talking about a cappella in general, and how he really isn’t a huge fan of it. I asked him why: was it the syllables, the sometimes silly blocking, the weird arch to which most groups default? Nope. The one thing that made him completely unable to stand a cappella was the percussion.

His main criticisms were that people tried to make sounds that didn’t fit the songs, or that all they did was make weird sounds that rang hollow, without any conviction behind it. So, maybe my music teacher is the odd one out of the bunch of casual a cappella listeners, but I think he has a few good points, especially if you’re new to making mouth sounds, or as Wes Carroll puts it, mouthdrumming.

One of the problems facing new vocal percussionists (or beatboxers, whichever moniker you prefer) is building up your repertoire of sounds so that when you need to make a good snare or bass kick, you don’t have to worry about the mechanics of actually getting the sound out. Although professional beatboxers can dazzle crowds by wickedly spittin’ lickety splickety, I can tell you from experience that you don’t need a wide range of sounds to get a good groove going.

There are three basic sounds: the bass kick, the snare, and the high hat. Of course there are many more, but getting these three down and playing with the combination will enable you to percuss nearly any song your group might choose to perform, from rock to pop to whatever. You can start looking up “how to” websites (like humanbeatbox.com) to learn more.

Ultimately, though, you should consider that there are more ways than one to make a sound: I once came across a guy who did a lip snare INWARDS (sheer madness), and the percussionist of Naturally7 also makes his snare by inhaling (though his forces air past his inner throat as opposed to his mouth).

In one song, you might be expected to do a snare dozens (maybe hundreds) of times. They get very tiring, and you have a responsibility as the percussionist to maintain a steady beat. Once you get the kind of sound you want, prepare to practice it to a metronome. Personally, I think the shower is one of the best places to practice, even if you can’t take your metronome with you: there’s crazy good echo *and* the shower keeps your lips wet so the sounds are easier to make. Speaking of, don’t forget to bring water and stay hydrated when you perform: licking your lips not only helps you maintain a consistent sound, but it makes you look sexy too!

I know that’s a lot of information, but basically get your sounds, experiment with them, PRACTICE, and make sure you drink enough water.

People who are new to actually doing VP (as opposed to listening to it) won’t have much experience (especially females, since unlike males, we probably weren’t encouraged to make rata-tat noises while growing up). Don’t let this discourage you. Keep practicing, and you’ll get it in no time!

Picky, Picky – Song Selection

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Nancy Cheng is an English major and pre-med junior at Duke University, where she is also a member of the group Out of the Blue. She enjoys shower-singing, hemiolas, and funk. Nancy writes Members Only once a month for The A Cappella Blog.

I'm in a group called Out of the Blue at Duke University. We have won CARAs, most recently in 2008, for Best Album (RED), Best Song ("Magic Tree"), and Best Soloist (Sharon Obialo), so it's obvious we tend to take recording pretty seriously.

Last year we picked both "Nude" by Radiohead and "Ain't Nothing Wrong with That" by Robert Randolph for our next CD. Coincidentally, a little birdy told me that UNC's Clef Hangers (also multiple CARA winners) did the exact same thing.

We at Duke prefer to think that UNC sent out a spy down Tobacco Road to steal our awesome ideas for CD songs, but I suppose it's possible it was just luck. Our groups wouldn't be in the same categories for CARAs, if that ever came up, since we're an all-female group and the Clef Hangers are all male. At the same time, however, you don't really want to pick songs you think may be very popular on a cappella CDs across the country.

CD song selection requires a certain amount of cognizance concerning what's hot in music now so that people will buy the CD based on what they know, what will sound just as good or better in an a cappella version, and what you can offer your prospective audience that no other group can. This includes the song choices, amongst other things like kick ass soloists or gorgeous arrangements. If you can rock a somewhat popular song (say, by Muse or Keane) then it would probably be a good pick for the CD. Unknown songs that are fun to sing and offer new things to the a cappella genre should be considered. Be wary, though – those effects you may want on your track that are on the original song may be costly to mix.

Putting popular songs on your CD is a good way to attract listeners outside of your normal audience, but keep in mind that by doing do, you definitely won't be pushing the envelope when it comes to a cappella, since those songs have been and will be covered many times over. If you're only making a CD as a keepsake of your college a cappella years, then it'd be fine to pick any songs you like to put on your CD. It'll be for you, after all.

That being said, don't be afraid to pick songs for your live set that are popular. For guy groups, classics by the Beach Boys or Boyz II Men are sure to please a crowd, and girls can't go wrong singing oldies like "Love Will Keep Us Together," something by the Pointer Sisters, or even The Supremes, if you can pull that off. Mixed groups--take your pick.

The wide appeal of a cappella is that people can hear their favorite songs in a voices only version, and they're more likely to enjoy your performance if they can recognize songs and bob their head along. My group personally has a little trouble picking mainstream songs—partly because a lot of them will have boring backgrounds or because we worry people will already be sick of listening to them on the radio once we learn how to sing them. But, like many other groups, we have to learn how to strike a balance between popular songs and songs we would put on a CD.

Roles--play your part

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Nancy Cheng is an English major and pre-med junior at Duke University, where she is also a member of the group Out of the Blue. She enjoys shower-singing, hemiolas, and funk. Nancy writes Members Only once a month for The A Cappella Blog.

As a member of an a cappella group at Duke University, I am no stranger to the possible troubles student-run groups can tangle with. From setting up concerts to learning music and CD sales to coordinating the group, the group has to learn how to take charge of things and take care of itself.

Here's a quick overview of roles, both official and unofficial, I think are absolutely vital to maintaining and promoting your group on and off campus.

The President should be good at administrative duties. They should answer rogue emails about try-outs, book venues on campus as early as possible, and help the music director rein in rehearsals when they aren't going as smoothly as planned. In Out of the Blue, the President is usually a senior, since seniors are generally easily respected and tend to have the experience to get through sticky situations.

The Music Director (and possible assistant) should also command the respect of the group. How will the group learn music if it doesn't respect its teacher(s)? A music director should at least know how to read treble and bass clef, and a background in music theory is very helpful. Those who have played in band or orchestra or sung in a choir will find that those skills are easily translatable to the a cappella world. The better ones I've seen are able to coax different sounds and emotions from people, allowing for a better rehearsal and later performance.

The Business Manager is responsible for all things fiscal. If you're in an a cappella group like me, you know yours is poorly funded (or not at all) by your college or university. Currently we are in the laborious process of applying for "nonprofit" status at Duke, which will help tremendously in terms of donations. It's easiest for the Business Manager to mail out CDs and keep the group's account(s) balanced, especially during recording season. Somebody has to pay for all that studio time!

The Concert Manager manages concerts. Duh. The girls in my group who take charge of this love to be on top of emails, schedules, and phone calls, and they're on the lookout for any venue we can been seen (and paid). I know most groups already have the national anthem down pat, so good places to start out with would be sports games! Duke basketball, anyone?

The Secretary takes down notes during rehearsal and keeps track of upcoming events and concerts. Ours likes to use bright colors in email to color-code and organize our agenda. If you're on a listserv, it's easy for the secretary to email and gently remind people of the Christmas concert next week or a mixer with another group the next day. Speaking of which…

The Social Chair arguably has one of the most fun positions in the group. Ours generally sets up party time with other groups on campus. Of course, it's very important that you spend some QT with the members of your group outside of rehearsal. Being fellow musicians is all very well and good, but when you're friends as well, rehearsals become much more fun!

The unofficial roles, like "show-taper" or "ticket-maker" or "choreographer" don't necessarily have to be relegated to just one person, but it will definitely help make your shows better. You can upload videos to YouTube and impress the parents who visit, increasing the likelihood of donations, and increase your visibility both on and off campus!

Rehearsing Effectively
Boom Boom (Vocal Percussion)
Picky, Picky – Song Selection
Roles--play your part