Not So Different

Keep the Big Picture in Mind and Enjoy the Journey; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Not So Different

In this special, seven-part series, we are working through the Harry Potter series, book by book, to discuss the lessons each book can teach a cappella groups. If you haven’t read the books before, beware—this series does include spoilers.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows removes us from the comforts of Hogwarts, as we join Harry, Hermione, and Ron on a search and destroy mission in pursuit of the Voldemort’s horcruxes, to culminate in the elimination of Voldemort, himself.

Along the epic journey—which includes a bank heist, a term of captivity in Malfoy Manor, and an unexpected trip back to school, there’s plenty of room for the crew to lose its way. Heck, Ron actually does go AWOL for a bit, fed up with pace of the journey and his perception of Harry moving in on his girl (not to mention a Gollum-like reaction to a horcrux). But out of all of this turmoil, the gang does pull together and muddle through and destroy each and every piece of their foe, which in turn allows Harry to rid the wizarding world of the Voldemort threat, once and for all.

There’s another, quieter lesson that JK Rowling embeds of denouement that follows the climactic duel between our hero and villain. Harry holds the elder wand, and with it the potential for immeasurable power. Rather than keeping it for himself, he places the wand at Dumbledore’s grave (or, in the movie, snaps it in two), in so doing reasserting his own focus—not to achieve ultimate power himself, but dispose of the evil Voldemort and make room for peace, safety and happiness for those around him.

There is no shortage of distractions available in the realm of a cappella. It seems each year yields two or three new compilation CDs and noteworthy live competitions. As much as it’s great that the a cappella universe is constantly expanding, it can be tempting for a group to chase any shot of glory, taking a scattershot approach that leads to hurt feelings when the group doesn’t succeed, as well as a failure to enjoy the sweetness of any victories they do achieve.

Big picture—and I’m talking really big picture—every group’s goal should be to offer its own unique voice to the a cappella melting pot, and to leave the a cappella community better for their having been a part of it. Sure, it’s great to earn some recognition along the way, but the a cappella alumni who end up looking back on the experience most happily tend to be those who can contextualize their groups’ places in a community, and the value of the a cappella journey over any set destination. In other words, they aren’t as concerned with having been one of the greatest a cappella groups in the world, as they are with having been a part of a musical genre and movement that they love.

This concludes our seven-part look at what the Harry Potter series can teach a cappella groups. We hope you enjoyed it, and please check back for the rest of our content in this 2015-2016 publication season!

Don’t Be Too Quick to Judge; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Not So Different

In this special, seven-part series, we are working through the Harry Potter series, book by book, to discuss the lessons each book can teach a cappella groups. If you haven’t read the books before, beware—this series does include spoilers.

Extra warning—this post is particularly spoileriffic, as we spill into The Deathly Hollows as well. Be forewarned.

At the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince we arrive one of the most truly shocking moments of the series—the death of Dumbledore. The old wizard serves as a mentor, guide, and protector for so much of Harry’s journey, that it’s difficult to imagine a whole leg of the journey without him. This makes Harry, and us readers, all the more passionately disposed to loathe the man who kills the headmaster—Severus Snape.

Yes, as we turn the corner from book six to book seven, Snape rivals Voldemort for the title of most loathsome character in this fictional universe, if not for sheer magnitude of evil, then for his capacity for treachery. After all, Dumbledore trusted and endorsed Snape as a reformed man, who had legitimately left his allegiance to the dark arts behind. When he turns around to slay someone who trusted him so, it marks an absolutely reprehensible decision by a seemingly reprehensible man.

Until we learn he killed Dumbledore at Dumbledore’s request.

Indeed, over the course of a seven book arc, Harry learns a lesson he, and we, the readers, probably should have learned over the course of Snape’s trials in The Sorcerer’s Stone, the seemingly good nature of Tom Riddle in his diary in The Chamber of Secrets, from Sirius Black’s apparent evil-doing in The Prisoner of Azkaban, and the imposter Moody’s act in The Goblet of Fire. The lesson is simple: looks can be deceiving; don’t judge someone on one occurrence, out of context.

This same lesson applies to many aspects of an a cappella group’s journey. At some point there’s likely to be a slacker group member who doesn’t seem to carry his weight. More often than not there’s something going on with him to keep him from investing in the group whether it’s personal or family struggles, or feeling overextended, or finding the group itself overwhelming. In such cases, it’s easy to write off someone; it’s more useful to take the time to get to know him and talk about what’s going on. Maybe the group isn’t the right fit for him. Maybe there’s something the group can do to help him. One way or another, seeking out the heart of the matter and dealing with it is far more productive than talking behind someone’s back or waiting until things reach a boiling point.

Similarly, plenty of groups have a history of getting involved in petty rivalries with other groups be it because of the perception of a group stealing a song, costume, or choreography idea, or because one group unfairly beat another in competition. Maybe I can’t speak totally fairly on this because I haven’t been in a collegiate a cappella group personally, but from having spent time with members of many groups—including groups that profess to not like each other—it’s striking how similar and equally likable these folks are, despite their perceived differences. It’s fine to be competitive, but don’t forget that, after the competition is over, there’s no harm in making new friends.

It’s also easy for a cappella groups to demonize judges or critics who knocked their performances or rated other groups ahead of them. To quote the great Randy Pausch, “You may not want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you, and want to make you better.” Individual criticisms will be hit or miss, but if someone takes to the time to suggest how you might improve, you’re a fool not to listen.

As human beings we’re often quick to make judgments are rarely have the benefit of seeing the whole picture as clearly as readers of the final two books of the Harry Potter series do. The next time you’re cultivating hate in the a cappella universe, consider the case of Snape, and how far reality can veer from perception. You just might change your mind.

Don’t Let Anyone Bring You Down; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Not So Different

In this special, seven-part series, we are working through the Harry Potter series, book by book, to discuss the lessons each book can teach a cappella groups. If you haven’t read the books before, beware—this series does include spoilers.

It’s unusual to find a Harry Potter fan who will call this volume her favorite in the series—and with good reason. Much of the driving force behind the story comes in the form of Dolores Umbridge’s hostile takeover of her classroom. Umbridge is a confounding woman who refuses to teach in line with what Harry and friends, or we as readers would expect from her—all theory no practice; plus she has a nasty habit of punishing folks by making them magically carve up their own hands.

Rallying up against Umbridge and the larger institution of The Ministry of Magic that seeks to yield of crop of impotent students who can’t help Dumbledore if he rebels, Harry starts his own Defense Against the Dark Arts class where his contemporaries successfully learn a bevy of defense tactics that ordinarily might have been considered beyond their current potential. These newly learned skills are crucial in the group holding off an onslaught from the death eaters until the cavalry arrives.

In Harry’s most plodding and one of his most apparently hopeless adventures, we learn the value of perseverance and refusing to settle for what is, if what is isn’t good enough. Harry and company could easily have been crushed under the weight of Umbridge’s cruelty and domineering approach to class management. Instead, the students rise above their circumstances and emerge the stronger for it.

A cappella groups face countless challenges—whether it’s competing with class schedules and the other external commitments of members, or fighting to find a decent performance space, or finding funding with which to enter competitions, travel, or record. The easiest thing for a group to do to scale back as far as possible, performing irregularly and in non-ideal spaces and never introducing their sound to anyone beyond the limited audience that might show up at their campus shows.

Then there are groups that fight.

Group members can make sacrifices—staying up later, hustling between commitments, and carefully planning their time to squeeze in the rehearsals and gigs they can. Groups can call upon their student government associations or music departments in search of funding, or turn to fundraising through the sale of show tickets, CDs, and merchandise. They can aggressively use mediums like Facebook and Twitter (mediums that don’t necessarily cost anything) to further their brands online.

Sacrifice, hard work, and careful planning aren’t necessarily fun, but earning the end-product can make the achievement all the richer—winning an ICCA quarterfinal you didn’t initially think you could afford to attend; singing in front of a packed auditorium you never thought you could even get reserved. As Harry Potter teaches us, a little gumption and persistence can go along way toward building up our defenses, and ultimately achieving great things.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Not So Different

In this special, seven-part series, we are working through the Harry Potter series, book by book, to discuss the lessons each book can teach a cappella groups. If you haven’t read the books before, beware—this series does include spoilers.

At a quick glance, and for the first 4,852 pages or so, Goblet of Fire seems like a departure from the rest of the Harry Potter series. Sure, the focus is still on Harry, but not as much his origin story or his ongoing struggles with Voldemort, as it is on a wizarding institution—namely, the Triwizard Tournament—a competition among student wizards from different schools. Against the seeming odds, but well in line with reader expectations, Harry is selected to represent Hogwarts, and the pages that follow recount his challenges and triumphs in the field of competition.

But then we arrive at the end. On the cusp of victory, and surefire wizarding glory, Harry and Cedric find that winner’s cup is no ordinary trophy, but rather a portkey that brings them to Voldemort for his deadly shenanigans.

JK Rowling is very shrewd in this book about not only diverting the reader’s attention from the series’s key plotline, but also Harry and friends, who are so absorbed in the competition that they do not looking beyond the tournament, or notice that Harry’s mentor is steering him toward destruction.

There’s an important lesson for a cappella groups to take away from this book. Throughout your time singing together, you’re more than likely going to have opportunities to do pursue a lot of different forms of performance and recording. While I’m all for a group diversifying its resume and learning from experience, there’s also a lot to be said by letting the group’s primary goals determine its direction.

Is your goal to be ICCA champions? Then you might want to turn down a series of last-minute invitations for one-off performances at campus events the week before your quarterfinal, and you might not want to spend an inordinate amount of time re-recording sections of your CD and selecting the perfect cover art.

Is your goal to raise as much money for charity as possible? You might want to think about scaling back that costly tour across the country, and consider in-house production rather than paying a top-tier professional to master your CD.

This is not necessarily a plea for groups to do nothing but work toward their number one goal; on the contrary, I’m suggesting that they prioritize their commitments and focus on activities that will deliver them where they want to be.

Is your goal to be ICCA champions? Practice your set in public, in front of audiences that will give informed, objective, critical feedback. Zero in on subtleties like how you make your transitions between songs, dynamics, and visual presentation. Study YouTube videos of what has and has not worked before.

Is your goal to raise as much money for charity as possible? Perform both at school and in your surrounding committee. Plan road trips to places where you can get free lodging. Identify out of the box ideas like selling group serenades or private performances to drum up some extra revenue.

When we get consumed by our side projects and passing fancies, we risk giving up time and resources that we can and should devote to achieving our most important dreams. Just think how much trouble Voldemort would have been if Harry hadn’t been caught off guard, but rather had a six pack of Avada Kedavra ready when he arrived in that creepy graveyard. Focus and prepare, folks.

You Can’t Be In Two Places at Once; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Not So Different

In this special, seven-part series, we are working through the Harry Potter series, book by book, to discuss the lessons each book can teach a cappella groups. If you haven’t read the books before, beware—this series does include spoilers.

Overachievers of the world unite, and bask in the audacity of Hermione Granger, Harry’s plucky friend who dares to use magic to travel through time so she can double up on her course load at Hogwarts. Indeed, Hermione’s ability to seemingly be in two places at once ultimately unlocks the happy ending of the third volume of the Harry Potter series as our heroes time travel to save the day for Harry’s misunderstood godfather, as well as Hagrid’s misunderstood pet, narrowly evading the injustices the book promises will come to fruition leading up to that point.

Unlike Ms. Granger, the rest of us need to make choices. We can’t be in two places at once, and we can’t go back in time to fix grave mistakes. Unlike other lessons we can derive from the Harry Potter collection, this one is not so much about showing us what we can do, as what we can’t.

It’s tempting for an a cappella group to book itself up, singing at campus events, competing, touring, and recording, besides maintaining a full college course load. The reality of the matter is that very few groups are able to excel at so many endeavors. Most of the elite groups, by any measure, are specialists first and foremost, who pick a time and method for success.

But how should a group decide what to focus on? It’s a tricky question, but the best starting places are seeing where the group’s talents are, and what the group members most enjoy. Does your sound really only jive when you’re feeding off a live audience? Then don’t waste time couped up in the studio. Do you have a bunch of technological wizards who can piece together a perfect video for YouTube consumption? Maybe that’s the more beneficial route than killing yourself refining a competition set that isn’t ever going to be perfect.

This post shouldn’t be misconstrued as a suggestion groups should sell themselves short, or limit themselves, but should rather be taken as encouragement to specialize, focus, and really excel in selected areas, as opposed being jacks of all trades and masters of none. Think it over. Even Hermione quit time traveling after this book.

Help Will Always Come To Those Who Ask for It; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Not So Different

In this special, seven-part series, we are working through the Harry Potter series, book by book, to discuss the lessons each book can teach a cappella groups. If you haven’t read the books before, beware—this series does include spoilers.

In a theme that would recur throughout the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore tells young Harry that help will always be available at Hogwarts to those who ask for it. The lesson is proven when this, the second volume in the series, closes on Harry in dire straits on the verge of death via giant snake, when he pleads for assistance, and Dumbledore’s trusty phoenix saves the day.

What JK Rowling doesn’t explicitly write, but that’s fair to derive from the text is that the benefits of asking for help in a time of need transcend the walls of Hogwarts and the realm of fiction. Indeed, they extend as far as your very own a cappella group.

It’s easy to slip into a mindset that your group needs to make it on its own, and that its victories will be all the sweeter for shoving it in the faces of doubters, and for surprising everyone around you with your hard work and talents. Self-made success stories are great—they’re the very stuff of the American dream. But the fact we too often overlook is that success is all the more accessible when we have someone give us a helping hand.

Are you starting a new group without a bank of arrangements to work from? Find a group you admire and ask if you can borrow some of the stuff they aren’t using anymore to help your squad learn the form. Is the role of musical director your first real leadership position? Don’t be afraid to ask group alumni, or the leaders of other student organizations for help. Having trouble booking a venue for your show? Head on over to the student activities office or make an appointment with the head of the music department to talk over your options.

On the one hand, given the combination of inexperience and busy schedules, there are few greater challenges than making a collegiate a cappella group work. On the other hand, colleges and universities are environments set up for the very purpose of helping people learn. Take advantage of the resources around you and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Dumbledore may not send you a phoenix, but just the same, you just might be pleasantly surprised with the warm reception you’ll get when you ask for a little help.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind and Enjoy the Journey; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Don’t Be Too Quick to Judge; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Don’t Let Anyone Bring You Down; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
You Can’t Be In Two Places at Once; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Help Will Always Come To Those Who Ask for It; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Discover a Better You; Lessons from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Big Victories Don’t Resolve All of the Little Problems; Lessons from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Some People Never Change; Lessons from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Embrace Unlikely Heroes; Lessons from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Go All Out Like Jimmy Fallon
Don’t Be Afraid to Break Bad
Develop a Distinctive Identity, Like Firefly
Be Ubiquitous, Like Glee
Tell the Other Side of the Story, Like Wicked
Deliver Unexpected Messages, Like Calvin & Hobbes
Tell Stories Through Your Music, Like Ben Folds
Reinvent Yourself, While Remaining True to Your Core Like Train
Incorporate Your Natural Elements, Like UC Santa Cruz
Emulating the Complexity of The Walking Dead
Building a Mythology, The Vampire Slayer Way
Like The Dark Knight, Be the Hero A Cappella Deserves
Like Barack Obama, let others be a part of your success story
The Wire made us confront our fears. How is your group doing the same?
Make like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Turn the Volume Up
Watch Closely; Lessons from Mockingjay
There Are No Happily Ever Afters; Lessons from Catching Fire
Play By Your Own Rules, Lessons from The Hunger Games
If your a cappella group is JD, who is (or what) is your Elliot?
Who is your LeBron James? Who is your Dwyane Wade?