The Round Table

The most important thing an a cappella group can do to be successful

The Round Table

For this Round Table, we pose the question:
What is the most important thing that a collegiate a cappella group can do to be successful?

The participants for this session of The Round Table are:
Wayne Scheck, a member of Rutgers University Deep Treble.
Eric Talley, an alumnus of Appalachian State University Lost in Sound, a cappella recording producer, and the author of The A Cappella Blog’s “Recording Rant.”
Mike Chin, content manager of The A Cappella Blog.

Wayne Scheck
If I had to pick one thing an a cappella group could do to lead to success it would be networking. Creating good, solid relationships, whether it is with important business contacts or with other groups around the country, getting a groups name out there is very important. Firstly, a well-known group around campus usually leads to better attendance at concerts. These audiences are not only large, but good audiences usually add an extra dynamic to a concert. A really fired up and really excited audience can make or break an a cappella concert.

A successful a cappella group not only has support at their home school, but also creates relationships with other groups around the country. Touring and visiting other schools is one of the most amazing aspects of collegiate a cappella. The instantaneous bond that all collegiate a cappella singers/enthusiasts share is hard to explain, but amazing in so many ways. Getting to sing and just hang out with other groups is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Mixing with another group can also benefit with sound and stability. You may discover a new warm-up, a new business practice, or may even get inspiration for a new song or arrangement. Overall, networking is probably the most important aspect to a successful collegiate a cappella group.

Eric Talley
The key to success is album production. The state of recorded a cappella is at a very exciting, and unsure place at the moment. For quite some time, the technology that is used in the process has grown exponentially every year. As with any technology, one must wonder if there is a plateau approaching, or will software companies continue to come out with new effects or will the frequencies on high end microphones continue to grow? Take a listen to any number of recent a cappella albums and take note of the lack of mistakes. In past years, you could listen to even some of the best groups and find one or two things that could have been done better if there was technology available. Now? The only corrections that could be made to albums are those relating to personal taste. You may not like the effect that is present. You may think that the guitar solo is out of place. One thing that you must admit is that what is there sounds incredibly like the real thing. I reiterate that I am referring to the high-end albums that are being produced by the top guys in the country. I refer to the ‘Bubs and Hyannis Sound albums right now, because they are lately the most complete that I have heard personally. Those of you not working on this level yet could stand to give yourselves the chance.

Now, imagine that a cappella remains at the exact place that it is right now. We get so spoiled by something new and innovative every year. What if we reach a place where there is nothing new and innovative production-wise? There will always be new music to cover, but those of you producing this music must have had this thought at some point in your careers. On a good note, every time you have this thought, you stumble upon something new and amaze us all once more. Every year, this thought becomes more and more of a possiblity. I hope that the day where innovation runs out of pavement is far from here, and that I am never around to see it. The challenge is now left up to you, music directors, to come up with arrangements and continue to hand us those moments in songs that make you sit back and say "Wow". You will be our last resort if technology does plateau. Time to step it up!

Mike Chin
The most important thing a collegiate a cappella group can do to be successful is to focus on the music. Don’t get me wrong, because I love the bells and whistles attached to contemporary a cappella. Choreography can make the visual presentation pop, and well coordinated, sharp attire can go a long way toward making a group look more professional or more fun. Recording effects can blur the line between the human voice and full-on instrumentation. Really performing music, as opposed to just singing notes can engage the audience and assert a group’s personality. But when push comes to shove, what really matters is the music. As serious musicians, a cappella performers should be in tune, and should blend. They should stay on tempo. They should show variation in their dynamics. They should take advantage of the fullest, unique potential of the human voice, rather than settling for gimmicky imitations of guitars or full brass sections.

All in all, I would relate an a cappella group to a basketball team. Sure, the culture has come to celebrate lighting fast crossover dribbles, no-look passes and tomahawk slam dunks. But any successful coach will tell you that, for a team to win championships, it’s all about mastering the fundamentals first--making open shots, playing defense, completing chest passes, boxing out for rebounds, and so on. The extra frills are entertaining, and cool for fans to take in, but they are best left to folks who already have their fundamentals covered. In the a cappella world, a group that doesn’t master the basics can quickly become a dance troupe or musical theatre club that just happens to sing a cappella; or a sound engineer’s experimental project that centers on singers rather than an accomplished group taking advantage of technology to maximize its recording potential. Keep the music first, and you’ll be well on your way to a cappella success.

Where Will A Cappella Be in 5 Years?

The Round Table

For this Round Table, we pose the question:
Given recent developments and trends, where do you see collegiate a cappella in five years?

The participants for this session of The Round Table are:
Deke Sharon, the founder and current vice president of the Contemporary A Cappella Society, a past director of the Tufts Beelzebubs, and a co-founder of BOCA, the ICCA tournament and a successful professional group, The House Jacks.
Mike Scalise, production manager of The A Cappella Blog
Mike Chin, content manager of The A Cappella Blog

Deke Sharon:
This is an excellent question, asked at perhaps the perfect time, as we may well be at a significant crossroads for collegiate a cappella.

If you'd asked me this question two years ago, I'd have said "probably about where we are now, but a little bigger, maybe a few more originals, and some new studio effects."

Now, it's anyone's guess. A reality show devoted entirely to collegiate groups? The ICCA finals televised annually? The movie "Pitch Perfect" becoming the next "American Pie"? It's hard to know what will be the next big catalyst, and whatever it is, collegiate a cappella will be significantly affected.

All of the pieces are in place: Pitch Perfect (the book) lent a somewhat scholarly legitimacy to the scene, if only because people respect things they read in books. Straight No Chaser's amazing rise to 10 million YouTube hits, a deal with Atlantic Records and a top 40 Billboard album is showing the collegiate a cappella sound and style is not only ready for the big time... it's already there. And shows like Glee, as well as appearances in Scrubs and The Office are bringing a cappella to people on a weekly basis.

In my mind's eye I see more collegiate a cappella groups (will we reach 2,000?), I see better collegiate groups (with more high school groups being formed, resulting in more experienced singer/arranger/directors), and I see many more people watching and listening to collegiate groups (another major label signing? a TV show? group members making enough money to pay for tuition?)

I hope it's all of the above!

Mike Scalise:
My first true exposure to a cappella was eight years ago, when I was a freshman in college. I was passing through my alma mater’s auditorium, when I heard what I thought to be a typical band that the school brought in to entertain students on a Saturday night. Much to my surprise, Ball in the House was anything but typical. I wasn’t listening to drums or a bass guitar, but rather all sounds produced by human voices. I was actually shocked. From that point on, my interest in a cappella only grew.

With the creation of TV shows like American Idol and more recently The Sing Off and Glee, children, teens, and adults too have developed an affinity for the genre. This recent boost in popularity begs the question: “Is this a phase or a shift in culture?” I think this is a foresight into a much larger paradigm shift.

A cappella has an element of purity associated with it, and I think that’s appealing to society--the raw talent of people. If the green movement has taught us anything, it’s that people are prepared to embrace a “back to basics,” or minimalistic approach to real-life situations, which is the essence of a cappella music. In five years, I expect a cappella to have grown even more in popularity, to the extent that many of our favorite artists will be releasing albums in full a cappella. The ball has begun rolling to some degree, with Ben Folds’s University A Cappella, which is a compilation of the United States’ best a cappella groups performing his songs.

A point I want to make is that I don’t think there are a finite number of pieces to the pie. A cappella won’t overtake traditional music, but rather supplement it. Artists can, and in my opinion, will continue to write and perform music as they always have, but offer their fans new and unique versions of their songs, enabling them to reach a broader audience. This has other implications as well. I predict that there will be even more mainstream television shows focused around a cappella by 2015.

I’m very excited to see what the future has to offer for a cappella music. There are many directions it could go in, but as long as it remains in the minds of the masses, I believe it will continue to attract new fans, and ultimately create a market for the music, movie, and entertainment industries.

Mike Chin
There’s no question that the last couple years have seen a surge in interest in a cappella, from The Sing-Off, to the rise of Straight No Chaser, to Mickey Rapkin’s book and so on. With so many things going right for the form, there is a real chance that a cappella could make it big within the next five years.

To qualify that, I’m not among the most optimistic of a cappella followers who think that a cappella is going to explode into the mainstream--getting featured on Top 40 radio, selling out stadium shows, garnering live network coverage of the ICCA finals, and so on. On the contrary, I think that the next five years represent a cappella’s time to quietly assert itself as part of the public consciousness.

While some might find the following analogy disparaging toward a cappella, I do not mean it as such. I would liken a cappella’s potential place in music to that of professional wrestling in the sports world. Wrestling has had its moments in the spotlight when Hulk Hogan surfaced on the cover of Sports Illustrated and when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin made it not entirely taboo for folks to talk wrestling in public. And outside of those peak periods, wrestling still has cable television airtime, profitable pay per view broadcasts and a thriving market for live shows. With all of that said, wrestling remains a form of entertainment that pure sport enthusiasts generally look down upon, and folks in the general public accept as, more or less, a guilty pleasure.

This is an imperfect comparison, of course, because, where professional wrestling’s fixed outcomes preclude it from being considered a legit sport, a cappella is, in its purest state, as real as music gets. In any event, I think a cappella has the potential to serve a comparable niche--to have a significant fan base, to enjoy moments of mainstream success, and to arrive as means making a real livelihood for a large, if not overwhelming, number of professional performers and associates who commit themselves to the craft. On the most simple level, I think we could arrive at a time when the average joe has a fairly accurate perception of what a cappella is--that, even if it’s not for him, he’ll know it’s music made with only the human voice and body, and will know that it’s not all barbershop.

If a cappella has not made it big in the next five years, to the extent I’ve outlined above, I’m skeptical that it will in my lifetime. There’s so much momentum now that the form needs to catch on or fizzle. If it doesn’t succeed, all is not lost. There are lot of groups and lots of fans out there today, and though the growth may not happen by quite the same leaps and bounds--by the quite the same percentages--there is very little to suggest that the community is about to shrink. Worst case scenario, I foresee a cappella--particularly at the collegiate level--being just a little more mainstream, with just a little large community in five years.

Here’s hoping for the best, and here’s to the future!

What Do You Want To Hear?

The Round Table

For this Round Table, we pose the question:
What are some songs you would you be most interested in hearing a group cover (well) in 2010 and why? What should groups be mindful of in considering these songs?

The particpants for this session of The Round Table are:
Mickey Rapkin, the author of Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory and GQ senior editor
Genevieve Chawluk, alumna of University of Rochester Vocal Point
Mike Chin, content manager of The A Cappella Blog

Mickey Rapkin:
I’m a big proponent of collegiate a cappella groups performing songs that the audience is intimately familiar with, songs their fans can name within two jeer-neers. I don’t have a lot of patience for collegiate originals, or obscure indie rock tunes. Not even your friends (or your parents) love you enough to sit through two hours of that.

A guideline: I think, too often, groups fall in love with a song, arrange it, learn it, and only then realize: Crap, none of our 16 members can actually sell that solo. Inevitably, you award the solo to the best of the worst, perform it once in concert, and then shelve the song indefinitely.

It’s a waste of (beer) time.

And so, the songs I’d want to hear in 2010, in no particular order:

1. “Rhythm Nation,” Janet Jackson
The onslaught of Michael Jackson tributes is coming. So wouldn’t a Janet retread be a nice surprise?

2. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” Michael Jackson
Because Michael Jackson deserves every last tribute.

3. “Anna Begins,” Counting Crows
I’ve never seen a band fall so out of favor with college kids so fast. But this song is a gem.

4. “Uptight,” Stevie Wonder
Long live Motown.

5. Anything by Alanis Morissette
While reporting Pitch Perfect, I remember watching an all-female guest group perform an Alanis Morissette cover. Some girl sitting me snickered at the song choice, leaned over to her friend, and said something rude about how “tired” the song was. She literally said something like, “It sounded as if it was lifted from a late 90s BOCA album.” The truth is, don’t hate the song, hate the arrangement. I’d love to see a group go back to the Alanis oeuvre, or the Coldplay catalog, and re-arrange one of those overdone songs, making it new again. That would be progressive.

6. “Relator,” Scarlett Johansson and Pete Yorn
Within the a cappella community, there is some hatred of co-ed groups that I never quite understood. I think people just assume these co-eds are more interested in giving each other back massages than making good music. Whatever. The Scarlett Johansson/Pete Yorn album of covers, “Break Up,” is pretty dope. And a co-ed group should get on this song—the album opener—now.

7. “Rosalita,” Bruce Springsteen
Best second set opener ever.

8. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Tears for Fears
When I was singing in college, the 80s was the nostalgic go-to decade. Nowadays, I suppose it’s the 90s. But if there was one 80s song an a cappella group should resurrect, it’s this one. It’s so repetitive you could learn it in a single rehearsal. And it’s so good you could sing it until people get nostalgic for the aughts.

9. “American Idiot,” Green Day
Not the song. But the whole album. I recently saw the rock opera/stage adaptation of Green Day’s “American Idiot” album out in Berkley. I was sitting in the audience thinking: Some adventurous a cappella group (with way too much time on their hands) should attempt this same thing.

10. Whatever Beyonce’s next monster hit is.
Don’t fight it.

Genevieve Chawluk:
I was in an a cappella group for all four years of college, so it goes without saying that I have put in many, many hours at “listening parties”--where group members would bring in a song (or five) to suggest to the group, and we’d discuss whether a song was “arrangeable”, and more importantly, whether we could pull it off. Things we learned: you have to jump on a popular song quickly, if you love an obscure song that doesn’t mean the audience will, and there has to be at least one person in your group who can tackle a song with a challenging or unique solo (if you have Mariah’s range, congratulations! Not many do.)

Given my “experience” (which besides the aforementioned just involves hearing songs on the radio and thinking “this might sound neat a cappella”), I've chosen a small handful of possible songs I’d want to hear this year. I hope I get to hear at least one!

1. “Uprising” by Muse
Driving beat. Intense. This song would be best for an all-male, or maybe mixed, group. The VP has to deliver. The background chords have a repetitive, driving rhythm, and I have to admit, not much else, but a creative arranger could definitely beef up the song and make this a really full, exciting show opener. If you’re thinking, “yeah, we’d like to try Muse but we’re worried that everyone will be doing the first single from the album,” then another suggestion is the track “MK Ultra.” Same idea (intense, driving, complex), maybe a bit more challenging, but done well even audience members who have never heard of Muse will be blown away.

It is possible to tackle Muse and do it well, as demonstrated by the University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers:

2. “I See You” by Mika
I have had the pleasure of hearing Mika’s song “Happy Ending” performed fabulously by an all-female a cappella group that shall remain nameless lest I seem biased, but what this ultimately proves is that Mika songs translate very well to a cappella arrangements. His sophomore album was released in September of this year, and he doesn’t disappoint. For an a cappella group looking for a slower number that still has that pop appeal and full-group sound, I recommend “I See You.” Added bonus: it was recently featured on a Gossip Girl episode, so even though it’s not the album’s first single, I can state pretty confidently that people will recognize it (do I download music after hearing it on Gossip Girl? Am I admitting to watching Gossip Girl? Guess so.). This song is beautiful, and offers interesting parts for everyone—solo, duet, overlaid vocal melodies in the third chorus, strings and piano, and (if you so choose) some well-placed clapping. Dynamics are a must in this song—the shift between full choruses and sparse verses adds to the drama of the song. I would be so psyched to hear this song performed this year. I think it would fit best with an all-female or mixed group.

3. “Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga
Okay, I totally realize that this song might be overdone this year. But, I love it. Sorry. First and foremost, I’d love to see an all-female group tackle this, because I see Lady GaGa as a strong, creative, confident woman, and even if you don’t want to admit it, a few Youtube searches will show that she is actually a very talented musician (if you caught her SNL performance from October 4th, you know it’s true). This song needs insane percussion, energy energy energy!!!, and could definitely benefit from some sick choreography. The soloist should totally wear sunglasses. So, this is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, but you know you’d get an audience response.

4. “Your Love” by The Outfield
Awesome solo, awesome song, awesome decade (the 80s - which I actually remember, but if you're in college and reading this it terrifies me to think you most likely don't). If I heard this song, I’d probably jump out of my seat because I’d be so excited. If you’re looking for a song for an all-male or mixed group that has a soloist with an amazing upper register, then this would rock. The guitar chords in the middle, the percussion that comes in during the second verse, the opportunities for fun back-up vocals—this song has it all AND it’s a “classic” (at least compared to the other three songs I’ve suggested), so you don’t have to jump on any bandwagon or assume that “everyone” will be covering it this year. If your group decides to do this song and you are coming to Baltimore, please let me know because I will be there with bells on. And by “bells” I actually mean legwarmers and blue eye shadow.

As an added bonus, I’d like to throw out a few suggestions of what not to cover this year (or ever, preferably). All-female groups, please don’t do Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift. You know that you’re going to hear those covers at every a cappella jam or fest or –ooza that you attend, and you can come up with much better popular songs to entertain your audience (see above). And (shh) you’re probably much more talented than the current pop princesses, so why put yourselves in the same category? Challenge yourselves!

All-male and mixed groups: I predict that Kings of Leon songs are going to be this year’s Coldplay. The songs have potential, but you also have the potential of sounding like everyone else. Dig around, and you’ll find something unique and fun to show off your talented soloists.

And, as always, under no circumstances should anyone cover Nickelback. But you already knew that.

Mike Chin
There’s a lot of great music out there, ripe for a cappella translation. One of the great things about collegiate groups is that they can get away with all sorts of different genres and styles, mixing it up between the bubble gummiest of the pop to indiest of rock, and all points in between. With these points in mind, I give you a shortlist of songs I would love to hear done well this year.

1) “With You” by Chris Brown
After David Archuleta ventured a try on this hip hop love song on American Idol, I thought for sure I would be seeing it on the collegiate scene. Alas, no dice last year. Maybe Archie’s borderline embarrassing performance scared folks off, or maybe Brown’s poor decisions in his personal life steered groups away from it. In any event, this has tremendous potential for a crowd pleasing, sweet song for an all-male or mixed group. I especially love idea of working in body perc and stomps. Sure, this wouldn’t be overly complex, but it would be a great song to win some hearts and have some fun on stage.

2) “The Chain” by Ingrid Michaelson
Besides crooning songs about sweaters for Old Navy ads, Michaelson has putting together some truly inspired melodies, and this is perhaps her finest work. One of the things I always try to tell all-female groups is that they need to use their natural abilities to their fullest advantage. The thing is, only a very small handful of women’s collegiate groups can hold their own when it comes to the sheer volume, energy and aura of their male counterparts (groups like BYU Noteworthy and Oregon’s Divisi would be examples of the exceptions). But where most female groups can match, if not exceed the field is in making us feel songs written for and by female artists, and nailing it with musical precision. “The Chain” boasts, among other things, all sorts of nuance and a nifty three part round at its close. In the hands of an able all-female group, this could be a real masterpiece.

3)“1492” by Counting Crows and “Stuck Between Stations” by The Hold Steady
I lump these two together as a pair relatively recent, seriously rocking songs that I’ve never heard a group dare to try. True, they would each be tremendous challenges in their own rights, but I just love the idea of an all-male powerhouse sinking its teeth into one or the other. Each are up-tempo, lyrically complex, and just downright exciting. Among the challenges in mastering either one would finding a soloist who can put his own spin on the solo—-the guy isn’t going to match the original in either case, but if he can put just the right spin on it, there is absolutely room for him to sound better than the original lead.

4) “Under the Surface” by Marit Larsen
Like the Michaelson song, I think this is a song for which all-female groups have all the potential in the world to steal the show with an emotional winner. Larsen’s Norwegian song-stylings aren’t unheard of in the States, but aren’t exactly mainstream either, making this a good pick to wow audiences by giving them the sense you’re telling them an original story. I would especially love to hear what groups do to interpret the string section.

5) “Gives You Hell” by The All-American Rejects
This would be your barnstorming, sing-along, get the crowd clapping closer for any group under the sun. While the original, of course, features a dude singing, it could easily enough transition to a female soloist as well (and may actually fit more comfortably in a woman’s range). Not terribly complex, but tons of fun guaranteed.

The most important thing an a cappella group can do to be successful
Where Will A Cappella Be in 5 Years?
What Do You Want To Hear?