Open Letters

Let’s Archive, People

Open Letters

Dear Competition and Festival Organizers,

Back in 2006, I had the idea of starting The A Cappella Blog. There were a lot of reasons to do so, but chief among them was a void in a cappella blogging. For while CASA and Varsity Vocals had great websites, RARB was doing an excellent job with reviews, and a handful of other outlets came and went, the a cappella world was missing a consistent archive of information, such as which group sang which songs when, let alone how well-received those performances or recordings were. So, we started our site on the idea of focusing on live event reviews and archiving as much as we could.

Fast forward a decade, and the Internet is a more comprehensive place. YouTube went from a fledgling video sharing site to the best-known of a group of user-friendly sites of its ilk, where, for a cappella purposes, a lot of groups have shared a lot of performances. Social media has advanced and aca-people have grown more adept at integrating their creative efforts with their Facebook and Twitter identities. On top of that, there are more a cappella-based websites, podcasts, and other media that have made an aca-world that is constantly expanding simultaneously feel smaller and all the more accessible.

Given that accessibility—that most of us involved in the a cappella world have some level of access and engagement with the Internet, we now expect to find access to information. And it’s maddening when we don’t have it.

For as the Internet has grown, so too has the field of a cappella festivals, competitions, and events. All great stuff, and I’d like to drive home that I so appreciate the folks who have invested countless, thankless hours to bring these events to life. But I’m here to ask you one additional favor.

In recent years, I’ve frankly been shocked at how difficult it is to find concrete information about a variety of shows. While some organizations like Varsity Vocals do a stand-up job of archiving who placed at competitions and won special awards, and the Contemporary A Cappella Society nicely publishes the results of the CARAs, there are a lot of other major shows and festivals that oddly enough don’t seem to keep a formal, public record of their results, including competition or award winners.

Neglecting to meaningfully archive results sells short both performers and the organizations behind shows. Taking the extra step to at least write a quick blog post that compiles results, if not building a sub-page in the organization’s site to archive this information, adds a sense of permanence and gravity to an accomplishment—it takes a sensational performance that resulted in a competition victory, for example, beyond the live audience and the group that earned the honor, to instead broadcast and maintain this result for the world to read.

Some food for thought.

Sincerely,

Mike

We Need a Sara Bareilles A Cappella Album

Open Letters

Dear Sara Bareilles,

I’m a big fan of yours. I think that your music is just great; I appreciate your candid, funny, compassionate social media presence; though I understand it was kind of miserable for you, I thought you were shining star on The Sing-Off; and I very much enjoyed your book. You’re on the shortlist of artists whose new albums I’ll pre-order without needing to hear a track. I think you’re that neat.

What’s more, when you wrote the music for Waitress, and went the extra mile to record all of the songs with help from Jason Mraz, I thought it was just awesome. A really good album, sure, but even better than that, it demonstrated an unusual level of creative ambition. This wasn’t just a concept album, but a gifted artist telling us a story well outside the wheelhouse and genre she’s known for, and I thought it was awesome.

So what’s next? As prolific and creatively gifted as you are, you probably have something underway, and I can’t wait to hear it. But when your schedule allows, I’ve got an idea for you: an a cappella album.

As a member of the a cappella community, I take great joy in “claiming” you. Before there was Pitch Perfect, name-dropping you as an alum of your college a cappella group was a way of both explaining and justifying the a cappella world as musically viable and something that legitimately talented, famous people were a part of. Moreover, hearing you taking the lead on “I Want You Back” for Straight No Chaser’s Under the Influence cover album offered one of my favorite tracks from the collection—not just the original professional artist singing an old favorite with aca-backing, but  a contemporary vocalist putting her own spin on a classic in about as fun fashion as possible.

You’ve proven your ability to not only experiment with but thrive in off-beat genre work via What’s Inside. I’d love to hear you take on another genre from your past, and offer another distinctive sound style to a mass audience by arranging and recording an a cappella album—returning to the kind of work you put in for the original recording of “Gravity” with Awaken A Cappella.

Maybe this would involve forging an all-star a cappella team with a roster of contemporary artists filling in the appropriate vocal parts. Maybe it would involve collaborating with an existing pro group, or even a scholastic group. Maybe you hit the road, sort of akin to Ben Folds’s University A Cappella project and record different tracks with different groups. I’m not here to tell you your business--OK, admittedly, I sort of am given the nature of this column; please forgive me that and do what you will with the germ of an idea I’m offering you.

You’re wonderful and you don’t owe the a cappella world anything. But, it would be pretty awesome if you went for this.

Sincerely,

Mike

Let’s Stop Giving Out Best Choreography Awards

Open Letters

Dear A Cappella Competition Organizers,

There was a time when I heard a lot of groups roll their eyes when they heard the word choreography. The complaints went something like this: we’re singers, not dancers. We’re not wasting our time learning a dance routine to every song.

Times have changed. As the audience for live a cappella has grown, there’s more and more demand for groups to not just vocalize, but perform their material, and that’s particularly true in competition settings.

To over-simplify, let’s look at this hypothetical case: Group A and Group B give ostensibly equal aural performances—their pitch, rhythm, technique, and level of difficulty is all about the same. The difference is that while Group A stands in an arc with a soloist at center stage for every song  and barely bobs, let alone dances, Group B stages a full on production, complete with grapevines, back flips, hand motions to align with the lyrics, and, of course, a big wall of sound moment on the finish. Again, assuming the aural properties are on the same level, Group B probably comes out ahead in this pairing for being more entertaining, not to mention executing at an extra level of difficulty for maintaining their sound amidst all of the challenging physicality of the performance.

Over the past few years, the times have changed all over again. We went from groups rejecting or begrudgingly embracing choreography to the opposite extreme of everyone choreographing every second of every competition set (not to mention plenty of non-competition songs). It got to the point that a set like the one that won Pitch Slapped the 2015 ICCA Championship was refreshing for sheer naturalism of showmanship—that the performers on stage came across as genuinely breezy because we weren’t watching musical theater, but rather professional-caliber musicians simply emoting, and looking comfortable in their own skin.

The funny thing is, in the past couple years, there doesn’t seem to be much of a divide about over-choreographing being undesirable in contemporary a cappella. We all agree less is more and we don’t want a non-essential box-step or Charleston. So why do groups keep doing it?

We chalk up some of the over-choreographing to a fad. True excesses will weed themselves out over time, just like the No Fear t-shirts my friends wore in junior high or folks playing Pokemon Go while driving last summer. Some of what comes across as excessive choreography is a matter evolution—what we think of as too much now may well be the new norm in ten years. But there’s also a more simple, accessible root issue at play here.

Time and again, I’ve heard competition organizers and adjudicators themselves belabor the point that we need to all chill on the choreography. And yet, in addition to the more ambiguous “visual presentation” being a part of so many competitions, why do so many competitions also still give out awards for Best Choreography?

Why do we do this?

The simple answer is that we do want to reward great staging, and a group that does a truly magnificent job with staging may not place in competition, but still ought to earn some recognition. Just like we give awards for top soloists and top vocal percussionists. Fair enough. But we do not have an epidemic of groups sacrificing sound, or over-saturating our senses via great solo or VP work.

We do have that choreo problem.

I’m not suggesting that we stop recognizing compelling visuals altogether. Organizations like Varsity Vocals rightly include on their score sheets visuals like professionalism, cohesiveness, and stage presence—in other words visual elements that actually enhance a performance. Moreover, if you want to have a special award for visuals, careful readers might notice the subtle tweak that I started including in my live event reviews years back—I don’t recognize best or outstanding choreography, but rather give a nod to best visual presentation.

Reframing the conversation from choreo to a stricter focus on how staging furthers the music places the emphasis where we all want it—on purposefully planning an engaging show. No, “Most Appropriate Movement” is not as sexy as a “Best Choreography” prize, but let’s all be the change we wish to see in the world and start the conversation by no longer rewarding that which we don’t really want to see.

Sincerely,

Mike

Let’s Archive, People
We Need a Sara Bareilles A Cappella Album
Let’s Stop Giving Out Best Choreography Awards