PLEA - To all creators of a cappella music.

From gear to techniques to finished song, it’s all here.

Postby s.phypers » Fri Jan 08, 2010 10:27 am

Hey DJ,

I hear you and I agree with you. I think it's tough for most groups to create that arc. We finished our CD recently and there were some very strong opinions about track order. Granted, our album is more of a collection of songs and not a "journey" as you mentioned earlier, but even so, we wanted the album to flow well. I think what we came up with was good, but ultimately, not everyone is going to agree! It's all personal preference.

I openly admit to having a soft spot for the MIT Logarhythms, but if you haven't checked out their most recent recording, "Give Us Back Our Spy Plane" you might enjoy it. I know that one of their goals was achieving that arc and I think they did a pretty darn good job.

Keep the convo going! I'm home sick eating saltines and sipping flat ginger ale and watching HGTV and Platinum Weddings (aka... I'm bored!)

Shannon Phypers Choral Director, Marlborough High School Ithaca College '07 - Current slave to BU's M.M. online degree program

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Postby D.L.P.A » Fri Jan 08, 2010 11:44 am

Thanks! I'll check it out.
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Re: PLEA - To all creators of a cappella music.

Postby colton » Fri Jan 08, 2010 12:39 pm

DJ Littell wrote:3: Collegiate a cappella, for me, is 2 things. It is fresh, and it is humorous. Both of these do not have to be apparent in an album, but I would appreciate it if at least one of them were. Collegiate a cappella is humorous by its very nature. The groups are taking hit songs and mutilating them, singing "wop doo-chu bow wow" and trying to pass it off as original music. I say this not to mock, but to implore you to see the inherent humor of it. I'm asking groups to stretch their creative muscles in a way that recognizes this inherent ridiculousness. The reason I prefer a cappella to regular music is because it often tells two stories. The first is the story that the song itself was originally telling. This is what the original artist intended. The second story is the one that the group is telling to get you to listen to their song INSTEAD of the original. The Bubs seemed to ignore this concept with their latest album because, when I listen to it, I can only hear one story. It is not fresh, or humorous. It is a cover of a song. I'm looking for more than just a cover of a song. I'm looking for an original expression within this ridiculous world of covers.


They are not a collegiate group, but if you're looking for something that's fresh & humorous, be sure to get Suade's album Homebrew. Here's the recent RARB review:
http://www.rarb.org/reviews/974.html

Nearly all tracks are original songs, and nearly all contain contagious, subtle bits of humor. Or not-so-subtle humor in some cases!
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Postby D.L.P.A » Fri Jan 08, 2010 12:45 pm

I already have some of Suade's music. They're a fun group!

Their cover of 'For the Longest Time' is very smooth, and I also like their cover of California Dreamin.

Thanks!
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Re: PLEA - To all creators of a cappella music.

Postby soundslikedrums » Mon Jan 11, 2010 10:05 am

DJ Littell wrote:Collegiate a cappella is humorous by its very nature. The groups are taking hit songs and mutilating them, singing "wop doo-chu bow wow" and trying to pass it off as original music. I say this not to mock, but to implore you to see the inherent humor of it. I'm asking groups to stretch their creative muscles in a way that recognizes this inherent ridiculousness.


Yeah, here's the thing ... a lot of us take this very seriously. Saying in this forum that collegiate a cappella is inherently ridiculous and by its very nature mutilates other people's songs really takes some marbles.

That being said, I have two particular questions about your perspective, and I'm interested in your responses because you are obviously a very articulate and thoughtful cat.

First of all, how is singing nonsense syllables as backs for cover songs different from what a professional a cappella group does? (The debut album from one of the best pro groups out there is sub-titled "doo be doo wop bop").

Secondly, how would you have them sing backing parts to better suit your tastes? You're essentially saying that changing the instrumentation of a song is inherently ridiculous. I'm curious how that squares with the idea of ANYONE doing a cover song with a different orchestration than the original.

Thanks for contributing a different perspective in an intelligent way. We can all use more of that!

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Postby D.L.P.A » Mon Jan 11, 2010 1:47 pm

Hi Tom,

First of all, thanks for your comment. I'm delighted to hear that you think I'm an articulate person. I try to be, even if I don't exactly know what I'm trying to say. I think that this came across in the original post because I used some words that I don't think conveyed what I really meant.

The words "ridiculous" and "mutilate" should not have been used. I used them to illustrate the point but they are not what I really meant to say. I love a cappella music. I think it makes the music better. I don't think it's a silly genre at all. I apologize if you reacted negatively to my poor choice of words.

Now, for your questions:

1: There are some professional groups that are not very different from college groups. I recognize that, and yet I still view them with a different perspective. To me, they sound like a more mature sound (understandable, given that they're all older people) It is a perspective that might be false, and I don't know why I view it that way.

For me, the difference is that oftentimes college groups are taking an existing canvas, or an existing song, and creating a new painting with it. Duh. This is obvious, and some professional groups do little more than this as well. I rarely hear and/or enjoy a cappella originals from college groups. That doesn't mean that their song selection and approach to their covers isn't original, but generally they differ from many professional groups in this way. I see the difference between pro and college as being that pro groups tend to create their own canvas, their own independent work of art. Thus, the nonsense syllables are not simply imitations or ways of getting around the fact that you don't have instruments, but instead they are their own unique elements of a new work of art. Of course, there are many exceptions to this. I don't think that college groups are very different from professional groups, and yet for some reason I listen to a lot more collegiate than I do professional. I'm not sure why, other than the fact that there are more college groups out there that sing contemporary a cappella.

2. This is a particularly tough question for me because I have not actually performed in a contemporary a cappella group. I've sang in choirs, but those aren't contemporary. So it's difficult to explain techniques when I have not actually tried my own hand at them. I formed my opinions based on the fact that I have listened to enough a cappella that I believed that I could form a fair opinion based on what I've heard. That being said, here's what I can come up with:

What I think that I am looking for are groups that take full ADVANTAGE of the voices in the group, rather than trying to cover them up. It is cool to break this mentality, but not to abuse the fact that you can make a voice sound completely unlike a voice. This is preference, and I don't wish to continue having that particular discussion (about studio effects and blah blah blah.)

What I mean by taking advantage of the voices is this:

The human voice is by far an easier instrument to control than any other instrument. Only the best musicians have complete control over their guitar or piano (I know this because I've played the piano for 12 years.) I might not have a good singing voice, but I can more easily control the use of legato, staccato, volume, and rhythm. It's still difficult, but I think that it lends itself to more expressive music when you can really take advantage of this control. With a group of singers, the magic can really happen. With a simple cover band that uses instruments, their guitars are guitars, but not THE guitars used by the real bands (and thus it is clear to see why there are very few famous cover bands. I can't think of any) A cappella groups shouldn't be fretting this, but instead taking advantage of the human voices used.

The method by which a group can do this, I think, is to focus less on the sound and more on the intensity. You can't often capture the sound, but you can almost always mimic the aggression. This is why so many different syllables are used by so many different groups; it's to more accurately capture the subtleties of the rhythm and intensity of the song. Of course, complete reinterpretation can also enhance the song and move it in a new direction, but that's a whole different ball game. So, to better suit my tastes, I would say that groups should strive to mimic the intensity of a song while at the same time taking advantage of the fact that voices can be more dynamic than instruments. This requires much experimentation, but when you find the right syllables, and are really playful with what you are doing, the fun can enhance the song and make it much better than anything that can be done with standard instruments (if you're into that sort of thing. I'm not trying to say that a cappella groups are straight up better than bands with instruments.)

Is that what you're looking for? I hope so. I tend to ramble sometimes, and those were hard questions. The nonsense syllables are not nonsense to me. I love all of it.

Thanks!
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Postby colton » Mon Jan 11, 2010 2:20 pm

DJ Littell wrote:The human voice is by far an easier instrument to control than any other instrument.


Wow. I seriously disagree with that, especially in the context of the *unaccompanied* human voice.

As an example: last month I played trumpet in a 10-15 piece ensemble, accompanying people in a "sing-along" performance of the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah. We (the ensemble) met just before the event and practiced for only about 20 minutes together. We weren't perfect in the performance, but we were pretty good. Conversely, can you imagine a 10-15 singer group getting together as a group for the first time just 20 minutes before a public performance of an a cappella song? Especially a song comparable in difficulty to the Hallelujah chorus?? It's hard for me to imagine that.(*)

As another example, I sing in a mainly a cappella community choir (the Utah Baroque Ensemble). Periodically we do things accompanied by a string quartet, or other similar group. We typically practice together as singers for 4-5 rehearsals before ever inviting the strings in. Then, the strings practice with us for just 1-2 rehearsals. The reason: it's much MUCH easier to get the strings to sound good then it is to get the singers to sound good.

Mastering an instrument takes a lot of work, granted, but once some degree of mastery is achieved, instruments are far easier to control than voices. At least that's been my experience.


(*) Come to think of it, I did just that with some Christmas carols for a church function last month. But those were well-known carols without particularly challenging arrangements. So I don't think it disproves my point.
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Postby D.L.P.A » Mon Jan 11, 2010 3:21 pm

They're both very difficult. That wasn't really the point. They are both difficult and easier in various ways.

I partially think that the reason the singers rehearse for longer is because there are so many more possibilities that you can have with a voice than with a note on a violin. With singers, you have words. With words, you have pronunciation. This is an element of music that is unique to singing - the pronunciation of words. Also, the difficult part of a choir is less about vocal control, and more about blending, I think. It's easier to teach an instrument a single prescribed interpretation of a song, but teaching 100 singers to sing with the same musical phrasing is much more tedious. It's hard to explain, but I think that there are built in problems with choirs that don't occur with orchestras or bands, AND it has little to do with CONTROLLING the voice versus controlling the instrument.

Example: You have musical phrase A and phrase B.

"A" is sung quiet and legato. Then it crescendo's into "B," but suddenly gets even quieter than before, and switches abruptly into staccato. After you've already learned the notes, singing these musical accents almost becomes instinctual. You have to make sure you're interpretation is the same as the others, but controlling that specific dynamic individually is much easier, I think. A piano doing the same thing is harder, for me, because you can't feel the music, the notes and the tones, inside of you. It's NOT instinctual. It's very hard to perfectly start quiet, get loud, and then suddenly quieter and staccato. I can sing those notes much easier than I can play the notes perfectly and with the same musical phrasing every time.

Again, both are difficult in their own way, but the idea of controlling the instrument may be a bit different than learning how to play the music. I think you were thinking more about the learning process.

Then again, voices are harder because they are more fragile. You can re-tune a piano, but if your voice is hoarse for whatever reason, you can't do anything about it. The fragility is a factor as well...
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Postby colton » Mon Jan 11, 2010 3:46 pm

DJ Littell wrote:Example: You have musical phrase A and phrase B.

"A" is sung quiet and legato. Then it crescendo's into "B," but suddenly gets even quieter than before, and switches abruptly into staccato. After you've already learned the notes, singing these musical accents almost becomes instinctual. You have to make sure you're interpretation is the same as the others, but controlling that specific dynamic individually is much easier, I think. A piano doing the same thing is harder, for me, because you can't feel the music, the notes and the tones, inside of you. It's NOT instinctual. It's very hard to perfectly start quiet, get loud, and then suddenly quieter and staccato. I can sing those notes much easier than I can play the notes perfectly and with the same musical phrasing every time.


We'll have to disagree about that. I don't think doing that type of thing on a piano is any more difficult than doing that type of thing with a voice. And it's just a little harder to do it on a trumpet.

Again, both are difficult in their own way, but the idea of controlling the instrument may be a bit different than learning how to play the music. I think you were thinking more about the learning process.


No; while learning is part of it, I was mainly talking about performing. The fact that instruments are (semi) automatically in tune gives them a HUGE advantage over voices when it comes to controlling them. Especially in a cappella music, but not exclusively to a cappella music. That's one of the main reasons I disagreed with your statement.

Speaking of learning, though, here's something else interesting, and perhaps relevant. When learning challenging voice music, I find myself doing the trumpet fingerings as I sing the notes. The point is that if I had a trumpet, I could easily play the voice line--but without the trumpet it's MUCH harder to always jump to the proper notes, especially if the voice line has weird skips. When I do the trumpet fingerings, though, it helps me visualize(*) the skips in my head.

And even after learning the music, in performance I find it requires much more concentration to get an a cappella voice line just right, than it does to get a similar trumpet line right.


(*) audialize?
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Postby billhare » Mon Jan 11, 2010 3:50 pm

DJ Littell wrote:The method by which a group can do this, I think, is to focus less on the sound and more on the intensity. You can't often capture the sound, but you can almost always mimic the aggression. This is why so many different syllables are used by so many different groups; it's to more accurately capture the subtleties of the rhythm and intensity of the song. Of course, complete reinterpretation can also enhance the song and move it in a new direction, but that's a whole different ball game. So, to better suit my tastes, I would say that groups should strive to mimic the intensity of a song while at the same time taking advantage of the fact that voices can be more dynamic than instruments. This requires much experimentation, but when you find the right syllables, and are really playful with what you are doing, the fun can enhance the song and make it much better than anything that can be done with standard instruments


Wellll, you are basically correct, but we've already known that for a long time - the next thing I would have to say is "get a group together and YOU try it!" :-) Theoretically, it should be easy - in practice, it just ain't so.

Those of us who have been part of this scene for decades have seen all the arguments and tips from those who come in years later and say "hey, just do this and all your problems will be solved!" Not to say that new people can't have new ideas (because they do - that's how we evolve and stay fresh), but for some reason in A Cappella I see a lot of people wanting us to go back to 1985, and I've already been there! :-)

-B
Last edited by billhare on Mon Jan 11, 2010 9:01 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby brianhaverkate » Mon Jan 11, 2010 4:23 pm

I agree with DJ Littell in many, many regards. Personally, I'm bored with most of what I hear today and it ultimately doesn't come down to what we normally argue about (too much production), but what is rarely touched upon, creativity. Arranging in collegiate groups is pretty bland these days. It's so bland that you can almost predict the arranging style for the entire album just by hearing one track. This would be okay if the arranging style gave the listener something to look forward to in how the group makes it their own, but that's hardly the case in my listening experience. Of course there are some exceptions (as stated at the opening of the thread), but a LOT of it is downright yawn-inducing. I don't want to go back to 1985 production-wise but I can't say I'd be disappointed to see groups take a page out of the early 90's groups in terms of arranging, which I think DJ Littell is referring to in regards to making a song fresh for the listener. Note-for-note recreations were fun the first time around, but they become less exhilarating the more spins around the track (and especially with lesser groups who don't have all the tricks of elite groups to make them sound decent). Arranging is a way to even the playing field and it's blatantly being ignored by most groups. Collegiate a cappella on the whole is boring these days.


In regards to the human voice, DJ Littell is mostly correct in that the voice is much easier to manipulate multiple sounds out of than, say, a trumpet. Voices can't sing as complicated of rhythms as instruments can play and vocal parts (at least those performed live) require a semi-repetitive nature to perform well.

I can see both sides to this conversation but this poster has touched upon what's been getting under my skin about a cappella lately, so thanks for letting your opinion be heard.
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Postby Ed Boyer » Mon Jan 11, 2010 8:23 pm

Don't want to be argumentative, but I can't let this comment go...

The human voice is by far an easier instrument to control than any other instrument. Only the best musicians have complete control over their guitar or piano (I know this because I've played the piano for 12 years.) I might not have a good singing voice, but I can more easily control the use of legato, staccato, volume, and rhythm.


Rhythm is arguably easier with voice. I'll give you that. But it's debatable.

Changing the volume of your voice is easy, but doing it while maintaining pitch is extremely difficult. So I think you're off on that one.

Which brings me to...oh yeah...pitch. Definitely harder to control with voice than any instrument...except maybe musical saw or Theremin. Especially in a cappella, where the key center is prone to change over the course of a song.

How about timbre? While simply changing timbre is easy with voice, getting the right timbre is extremely difficult. Especially when you think about 1. The infinite varieties of vocal timbre a singer could be asked to reproduce and 2. How much more discerning humans are when listening to the human voice than when listening to an instrument.

Also...there are words/syllables. Singing involves controlling all of the musical characteristics mentioned plus language.

Add to all of this that learning to sing is far more abstract than learning to play an instrument. And that the most crucial muscles used in singing are completely involuntary. And that singers are affected much more by common sicknesses/physical conditions than instrumentalists. And that a person's voice changes constantly over the course of his/her life.

So, yeah, doing simple manipulations of your voice may be easy. And entry-level singing is much more instinctual than entry-level instrument playing. But I would argue that mastery of the voice is much rarer than mastery of an instrument, especially if you consider how many more people attempt singing than attempt playing.
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Postby D.L.P.A » Thu Jan 14, 2010 12:20 pm

In regards to the voice being easier to control than the instrument - Fair enough. I personally still think that I'm right, but there's too many disagreement for me to continue arguing.

Bill - Oh, I wish I could get my own group together. Oh I wish I could. I auditioned for 2 a cappella groups and I just couldn't cut it. I'm a pretty lousy singer, despite being in various choirs for most of my life. Plus, I think my musical tastes and overall personality tend to clash with other singers (just look at all the disagreement I got with a single post!). I know a lot about music, but I'll leave the music-making to the professionals from hereon.

I think my strong opinions on this topic are mostly due to bias and personal experience. There's not really much more that I can say. I've said all that I think I wanted to. I hate responding to things now because I always seem to say things that cause me to put my foot in my mouth. I debated on deleting this thread altogether, but that wouldn't be fair to the people who've responded to it.

Thanks for everything!
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Postby lunchbox » Fri Jan 29, 2010 1:50 pm

D.L.P.A wrote:Oh I wish I could. I auditioned for 2 a cappella groups and I just couldn't cut it. I'm a pretty lousy singer...


That's why I learned Vocal Percussion. :-D.

I can still sing bass when needed, but I am by no means a soloist when it comes to singing. :-)
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Postby D.L.P.A » Sat Feb 06, 2010 12:33 pm

LunchBox - it's funny you should say that, because it's exactly what I did. I've always admired the percussionists, and I personally think that I'm getting pretty good for being mostly self-taught. However, now that I'm older, I don't really have the time anymore to tryout again because I've moved on to other things and don't have the time. I'm glad it worked for you, though.

And sorry I haven't responded for so long. I lost my password for a while and was too lazy to get a new one.
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