Simply A Cappella

Do What Scares You Most

Simply A Cappella

When so many of us reflect on our lives, we find that the choices we've made, the actions we've taken have been dictated less by what we want and desire, and more by what we fear and seek to avoid. Whether it's fear of failure, fear of the unknown, or fear of heights, we let these feelings keep us from experimenting or from reaching our full potential.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Maybe your group is afraid of competing because the members don't think you'll stand a chance against more established groups. Maybe you fear recording because you don't think the CD will sell, and the group will end up losing money. Maybe you're afraid of going on tour because you're not sure you'll be able to connect with an audience. Maybe you're scared to cover a particular artist, because you don't think you can do the solo justice.

In each of these cases, a group will never know what it can accomplish until it tries. Competing, for example, doesn't really get much easier for sheer time spent waiting. If anything, the intimidation can grow for each passing year of inactivity. Once you have gotten started, though, the group will have the experience of singing on the competition stage, will have the concrete feedback of judges' scoring sheets, and will have the wisdom that comes with seeing other groups thrive in competition. On top of all of this, for all you know, the group may fare far better than you'd ever imagine when they actually get out there and try to compete for the first time.

In a sense, the fact that a group has trepidations should be a positive indicator that the group should do something, in that it means the group takes that item seriously. Look at your fears as challenges. Stop shying away from them and start strategizing how you might overcome that which is most daunting.

Don’t Let Success Go to Your Head

Simply A Cappella

So you just won your first competition, or just got rave reviews on your new CD, or just got some high profile recognition in the local media. You’re feeling good, and your group should celebrate its victories.

Your group should not, however, let success go to its head.

Modest is a virtue, and particularly so in the performing arts, where the stereotype of the musician as diva is alive and well. Let your success speak for itself and focus on actually getting better, as opposed to making yourselves look better and you’re sure to be a stronger group for it. Furthermore, if you direct more attention to praising other groups than bragging about your own, it will make it much easier to form collaborative relationships, as opposed to being seen as elitist.

Keeping a level head also helps to moderate expectations. While every group should aim to rise as high as it can and set lofty goals, the group should also keep perspective on where it stands right now. One victory in an ICCA quarterfinal does not mean that you’re bound for the International Finals. A positive review on the RARB does not equate to a CARA award later in the year. I bring up these points because groups that grow too accustomed to success are often the ones most devastated or embittered when they confront disappointment down the road. By not letting success go to the group’s head, you are setting yourself up to appreciate your well-earned successes, but also able to take any pending disappointments in stride and not get down-trodden, but rather learn from your experiences and come back all the stronger the next time around.

Refusing to let success go to your head will make your group more likeable and better prepared to enjoy continued success. Be confident, rather than cocky, and the group will reap the benefits for years to come.

Don’t Overbook Your Group

Simply A Cappella

One of the most common mistakes that good a cappella groups make is to over-extend themselves. They start with an end of semester show. Fair enough. They decide to compete as well. OK. They decide to sing at the campus Relay for Life Event. Then Multicultural Night. Then the Take Back the Night March. Then as a guest group at a neighboring school. So the snowball builds, rolling downhill.

It’s great for a group to get its name out there and connect with a variety of audiences. At the same time, you need to recognize the toll performances can take on your group—particularly when you’re performing a lengthy set and or traveling to do it. Performing multiple times per week on a consistent basis can burn members out on a cappella and keep them from tending to their personal lives, the cumulative effect of which will make them less passionate, if not actively resentful of the group in general.

In addition to tiring the group out, performing too often places an emphasis on quantity of performance as opposed to quality. If you narrow your number of performances a bit and convert that performance time into time spent rehearsing, it can mark a step toward refining your sound, and being all the stronger when it comes time to the take the stage. It can also mark extra time for learning new music, and so present a fuller range of material when you perform.

Limiting the number of gigs your group takes on also allows you to refine your obligations down to performances the group actually wants to do. Rather than performing just for the sake of doing so, or to make someone else happy, when you put your group first, you can whittle down to engagements the group is actively excited about , and the performances will probably be all the more consistently strong for that.

By resisting the temptation to overbook your group, you will keep your group fresher, give yourself more time to prepare, and be able to focus on those performances that are most important to the group.

Figure Out How to Make Your Whole Group Want to be a Bunch of Workaholics

Simply A Cappella

A simple principle applies to how people work, and more specifically to how people work in groups. If people are motivated—if they actively want to do a good job, then they will, in general, work harder, longer, and/or smarter to get the job done well.

In terms of a cappella, think about when your group was most successful over the course of the last year. For most groups, this will probably be a time when the group most enjoyed one another’s company, and most enjoyed making music—and, not so coincidentally, it probably overlapped with a time of great success for the group.

Think about it—is anyone in your group happy when you aren’t working hard? You might say that you have lazy members who would far rather socialize than re-work a section of a song. But laziness generally comes from a lack of motivation and investment. While some people will always have a propensity for socializing, you may be surprised that the same group members will actually be happier when they’re working harder under terms that they enjoy and consider to be worthwhile.

And so, if you want for you group to want to work harder, you need to think about what gets them motivated.

Lots of people draw motivation from competition. I’m not just talking about competing against other groups, but more so about competing among themselves (in a good-natured way) amidst the group. Consider throwing out the challenge of who can come up with the best choreography. Give a set of choreographers, or potential choreographers, each a song and give them a week to work out the moves. If the parties involved are, indeed, motivated by competition, they just might come up with some truly original ideas, and, regardless of which is actually best, you’ll walk away with multiple songs with great choreography schemes in place. If the end results aren’t as strong, you may still be able to cull the best ideas from individual efforts and mash them together for a fun set of moves to apply elsewhere.

Other folks are motivated by notoriety. Consider assigning a particular segment of your membership the task of getting your group’s name out by any means necessary. You may be surprised that efforts will start to exceed simple Facebook posts and flyers into people working their connections to draw bigger crowds, sending press releases or organizing flash mobs.

If all else fails, there’s also the simplest method of all for motivating musicians—making great music. As fundamental as this idea should be for an a cappella group, it can also be a tricky one to focus on as group members get tired and a lose focus. Think about where you’re rehearsing and performing these purposes—perhaps keeping a certain spot with phenomenal acoustics on reserve for times when you need for the music to reenergize the group. You may also consider inviting a music expert—a professor or a local professional to come in and here the group at intervals to help push the group further in this area.

As groups are made up of a number of individuals, the approach to motivating your group will most likely need to be multifaceted and to vary over time. Think about what will most make your group want to work in stages and set to. The reward will be a happier, harder working ensemble.

Ask the Right Questions

Simply A Cappella

Over the years, the audition process for collegiate a cappella has evolved wildly. There was a time when the norm was for hopefuls to just walk into a room and sing a minute of a solo; maybe do a couple tuning and range exercises, then leave and hope for a callback. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for groups to use questionnaires and interviews; to have mixers where they try potential members on for size; to have hopefuls sing with segments of the group to test blend.

On the whole, it’s good that groups are more careful and more selective, and it’s good that groups are looking beyond a few tests of vocal prowess and considering how a new member will affect group dynamics. There is also, however, merit in boiling the process back down to what a group most values.

Outside of a basic evaluation of musical ability, if a group seeks to gauge someone’s personality fit, it should consider what one or two questions really matter. Some groups will ask hopefuls to tell them their favorite pizza toppings or what super hero they most identify with, and these aren’t necessarily bad questions, but let’s focus in.

Consider the case of Southwest—an airline known for the fact that the staff regularly has fun with the customers, for example singing songs and telling knock-knock jokes over the intercom. Reportedly, one of their core interview questions for new applicants is, “Describe a time when you used humor to defuse a tense situation.” Sure, this question might seem a bit loopy at first, but when you think about both corporate culture and practical expertise, what better question could you ask if you hire for a light-hearted company that deals in a fast-paced, high stakes business?

How do you use music to serve your local community? How do you maintain perfect intonation when something threatens to distract you? What dance move will you bring to the a cappella stage? All of these questions are potentially valid depending on the culture of your group, and the type of group you’re planning to build.

Think about what matters most to you, identify the right questions, and figure what sort of answers you’re looking for.

Find Your Group’s Home

Simply A Cappella

Most of people have some place that they would call home. It may be the small town in which they grew up. It may be the big city with which they most identify. Regardless, home tends to be a place that’s relaxed, that matches a person’s ideals, that offers any range of familiar comforts.

The concept of home might sound like a funny one for a collegiate a cappella group to consider. After all, college tends to mark a transitory time between leaving a childhood home, and choosing where to build the home that will follow. Nonetheless, members of an a cappella group will typically be together for at least one year—often longer than that. It’s worth thinking about laying some roots.

An a cappella group’s home may be its favorite performance space in which the group is accustomed to singing and fans are accustomed to coming to see them. Home might be the rehearsal room where your group meets night after night, singing in circles, drawing stage formations on chalkboards. Home might be the diner where you all grab a bite to eat after a show, or the apartment where the aca-after parties tend to go down. It might be the place where your group goes for an annual retreat before the year or over spring break.

Having a group home adds to a sense of group identity, culture, and tradition. It lays the foundations for group members to view one another as more than just colleagues, but rather friends, or even family. It creates a comfort zone, and offers the group a space around which it can center itself.

Where possible, a group’s home space should be unique to the group—not just the big auditorium on campus because that’s where all of the groups sing their big shows, or the only room you seem to be able to reserve for rehearsals. Think about what a home says about the group—is it comfortable? artsy? dimly lit or bright? Is it a place where the acoustics seem to hit every voice just right, or a space that has character and that you begrudgingly appreciate because of just how unfit it objectively is for your purposes?

Where do you call home?

Do What Scares You Most
Don’t Let Success Go to Your Head
Don’t Overbook Your Group
Figure Out How to Make Your Whole Group Want to be a Bunch of Workaholics
Ask the Right Questions
Find Your Group’s Home
Arrange a Song from Your Childhood
Silence Your Inner Critic
Put Your Goals in Perspective
Sing Like Michael Jackson Did as a Child
Sing Like A Muppet
Arrange a Song for Your Father
Dance, Don’t Choreograph