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.
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.
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!
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.