Not So Different

Not So Different: Don’t Be Afraid to Break Bad

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

Note: If you are not caught up on Breaking Bad and intend to watch it, I discourage you from reading further. This post contains spoilers.

Not So Different: Develop a Distinctive Identity, Like Firefly

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

There’s a defining moment in the second episode of Joss Whedon’s short-lived television series, Firefly. Nathan Fillion stands at the edge of town, talking to a community leader. Fillion’s character—the captain of a small spaceship that makes ends meet through odd jobs that more often than not involve smuggling or illegal trade—has just returned a shipment of crates that he stole on behalf of a third party. He returned them because he learned that they were medicine that was vitally needed by the community from which he stole.

The community leader approves of the decision and tells Fillion that when a man recognizes what he has stolen he then has the opportunity to make a conscious choice about what to do.

Fillion shakes his head and intimates that in matters of pure right and grave wrong, no, a man does not have a choice.

In this culminating moment of the episode, says a great deal about the overall culture and identity of the show. Yes, it’s a sci-fi show about space travelers. And yes, it’s an old-fashioned morality play where good men make responsible decisions, even when the decisions are made at their own detriment.

Not So Different: Be Ubiquitous, Like Glee

When the Glee debuted, the show looked like a bit of a gamble. Was America ready for a weekly, primetime musical? Could cast with nary an established star (besides Jane Lynch in a supporting role) find a way to thrive? Would anyone really download glee-club-style covers of contemporary songs; much less pay to see the show’s principals live in concert?

In retrospect all of the questions seem absurd. Of course Glee was going to be successful. With a combination of catchy pop melodies; fresh-faced, talented young actors; and a healthy dose of energy and optimism the show represented exactly what America was waiting for as the bastard-child-evolution of teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek and Gossip Girl infused with the musical stylings of the new establishment in reality TV—the American Idol generation.

Not So Different: Tell the Other Side of the Story, Like Wicked

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

Wicked is one of the most popular musicals of recent years, and there are plenty of reasons for it. The music’s great, the setting is compelling to the say the least, the background story of the The Wizard of Oz is universally familiar, and of course the stars who have most famously played the lead roles—Idina Menzel as Elpheba, Kristen Chenoweth as Glinda—delivered on a remarkable level.

But what may be most attractive about Wicked is not the story it tells so much as the story it doesn’t. The Wizard of Oz, for all its fanfare and remarkable imagery is not a complex story. There’s a good girl, and her good friends. There’s an evil witch. The only truly layered piece of the story we get to access is the eponymous wizard himself, who’s more smoke and mirrors than substance.

Not So Different: Deliver Unexpected Messages, Like Calvin & Hobbes

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

For the duration of its decade atop the funny pages, Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes entertained fans with a stunning mix of satire, intellectualism, sight gags, story arcs and intrigue. The strip may have been most impactful, though, when it put the laughs aside and took a surprisingly profound look at serious philosophical issues from the perspective of a very bright child.

Not So Different: Tell Stories Through Your Music, Like Ben Folds

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

Long before he cemented place in the hearts of a cappella enthusiasts through his hosting gig on The Sing-Off and even before the University A Cappella project through which he first developed in-roads with the a cappella community, Ben Folds was offering up valuable source material to the a cappella universe.

Sure, his piano-driven, intricately layered songs lend themselves well to a cappella. Beyond that point, though, Folds has long cultivated a unique ability to tell compelling stories through music. A part of it's the lyrics, through which Folds has woven many-a-story about the likes of Fred Jones, Annie, Tom and Mary, and any other number of characters. Folds so often transcends the line of writing from personal experience to writing original stories within songs.

Not So Different: Reinvent Yourself, While Remaining True to Your Core Like Train

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Train emerged as an unlikely radio favorite, recording music with pop sensibilities, hints of rock and folk, and a heavy dose of piano. Songs like “Meet Virginia” and “Drops of Jupiter” earned them a deep-rooted place in the pop culture lexicon and the fair share of fans.

Not So Different: Incorporate Your Natural Elements, Like UC Santa Cruz

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

For the last few years, I’ve had the good fortune of spending several weeks of each summer working at The University of California-Santa Cruz. Maybe I’m just a northeast boy, easily impressed with some west coast nature, but I’ll be darned if the redwood trees, the views of the ocean, and all those deer running around the university campus don’t strike a bit of awe in me upon each visit. Equally impressive to the nature itself is the way in which it’s so seamlessly integrated with the campus at UCSC, with roadways that weave up and around hills of green, and academic buildings standing in the shadows of massive trees.

UC Santa Cruz’s lay out runs completely contrary to so many of the paved-over, brick and mortar schools I’m accustomed to seeing in the northeast. It’s not about a stodgy, professional academic atmosphere, or mowing down greenery to erect statues to celebrated dead white guys. It’s about taking the natural environment and complementing it to form an equilibrium that celebrates both human innovation and that which the land provides us.

When it comes to a cappella, consider what’s naturally available to you. On the most base level, there are your vocal talents. Are you allowing everyone to test the limits of their range to develop a complex, sprawling sound? Are you allowing everyone a chance to do what they do best in the context of performance, rather than pressuring them into preconceived roles?

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