When I started this Mr. Toad's Wild Ride of a career in a cappella 21 years ago, there is one statement I thought I'd never hear myself say:
"People in a cappella have become too concerned with tuning."
It's easy to get people to agree with this statement nowadays, with so much pitch correction in recordings, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about too much focus on tuning during live performances. And I'm not talking about the use of live pitch correction.
I think I just heard most of you jump off the bandwagon. Let me explain.
A cappella is the oldest music, and throughout history has incorporated musical styles, both secular and popular. Most recently, that which we we currently term "contemporary a cappella" is incorporating an ever-widening variety of musical traditions and styles - bluegrass, jazz, pop, R&B, hip hop, soul, reggae, gospel... you name it.
None of these put a particular emphasis on tuning to the extent that it alters the style and presentation of the music. You can argue that it's easier to tune when you have a keyboard or fretted guitar in the mix, but as soon as you get one string out of tune, mix in a fiddle or trombone, anything can happen. it only takes one note for a chord to be askew.
Perhaps it's the prevalence of pitch correction in recordings and pop music, but groups seem ever-concerned with their pitch, and moreover judge other groups as if tuning is the point. It has never been the point. Wanna know what happens if you make it the point?
Exhibit A: Barbershop
Backstory: Over a century ago, "barbershop" (which didn't yet have that name) was largely improvised. In fact, it was created by and initially popularized by African Americans. Some guys standing around, jamming on the pop tunes of the day. Same as now, right? Yup. And, for the record, so was doo-wop, circa 1950. Same as it ever was.
Much later, in 1938, when OC Cash formed SPEBSQSA (now the Barbershop Harmony Society), he was trying to revitalize a musical style that had come and gone. It would be as if someone started the Doo Wop Harmony Society fifty years later... so, now. A nobel act which has immortalized him in the annals of vocal harmony. As well it should.
However, over time, the music shifted. Changed. It went from guys hanging out with friends and singing the old songs in the old way to a codified form with guidelines and rules, perhaps in large part due to the increasing importance of the organization's annual competitions. Groups were judged, and judges needed criteria. This makes sense, as the organization's historical mission couldn't allow unlimited flexibility in all musical choices (lest the P in SPEBSQSA - preservation - be discarded).
However now, over 100 years later, our barbershop has become its own style, with a litany of rules for acceptable chords and chord voicings, with the emphasis during performance on "ringing" chord after chord. Tuning.
Judges are trained to judge like each other, and coaches "teach to the test" when working with groups, all aiming at a specific aesthetic, with tuning a significant (albeit not only) priority. The music has gone from loose to tight, the sound from improvisatory to highly scripted, and the performances from natural to highly stylized. And, perhaps as a result, the organization has been shrinking rather significantly for the past 20 years... even as a cappella in general has exploded in popularity.*
Now, I wasn't around in 1890, so I'm just surmising, but my instinct tells me the music was more loose, less concerned with overtones. Music is communication, not some kind of olympic sport, and all that should matter is how you make the audience feel.
You don't agree with me? Modern social science does.
Take, for instance, the fact that people do not make decisions with their minds. They make them with their hearts, and then they justify them intellectually. That's been proven time and again, and is at the core of everything from political campaigns to grocery store product placement.
To bring it closer to home, do you remember when Ben Folds said to the Beelzebubs in Season One: "there were some tuning issues, but I didn't care!" That's exactly what I'm talking about.
Do you know who else doesn't care? You don't care. Do you hate all Motown music? Most likely not. But the vocals are well outside what would be considered "in tune" nowadays. And they're beautiful. And real.
Moreover, if you're focusing primarily on tuning on stage, you're not performing and you're not communicating. You're manufacturing sound.
People love it when the House Jacks perform and we improvise a pop song. They don't care if it's perfect. And think of your own shows - sometimes the screeching high notes and rumbling low notes that made the audience go nuts were not in perfect tune, but they got a much bigger response than that delicate passage you worked hours on.
To be clear: I'm not chastising anyone, perhaps the Real Group, for their excellent tuning. It's a wonderful thing. But neither am I going to dock the Persuasions for having a wider bandwidth. There's not only room for both, we need both. And, in both cases, the groups have a lot of heart in their music. That's what connects with people, most of all.
Which all brings it back to you:
• Are you a studio editor, making a living "cleaning" tracks? First of all, don't tune everything. Some things sound better raw and untuned. Secondly, when you are tuning leads, back way off. Let the notes take a little time before they lock in, and leave some moments imperfect. Far more emotional impact in many cases.
• Are you a singer? Yes, work on your pitch, but don't go out on stage thinking about it. If you're thinking about tuning while performing then you're giving the audience a very cold, calculated performance. Channel the emotion and trust your training. When you're saying something, SAY something, and don't worry about your pronunciation.
• Are you a music director? Drill fundamentals in rehearsal, and make performing about the big picture. Get your singers into an emotive space instead of a perfectionistic one before they march on stage, and if you're conducting do everything in your power to keep their focus on the song's message and not worrying if you're going to chastise them on Monday at rehearsal.
• Are you a judge, perhaps of competitions, or recordings? Don't get caught up in the idea that the more precise group is the better group. It isn't. The better group is the one that makes you leap out of your seat. The audience favorite. They might be the most technically accomplished, but they might not. Please don't reinforce the notion that technical proficiency equals excellence, because groups will chase that trophy all the way down whichever path you open.
• Are you an arranger? I've said it once, I'll say it again: arrangements are roadmaps to help singers communicate with an audience. Every time you choose something that's technically difficult for a student group, it had better be in service of the singer's emotional delivery, because if you're just showing off, you're selfishly making the arrangement about yourself and are in effect forcing the group to focus on their technique rather than the mood, and it often backfires. Stretch them in a way that pushes them to higher emotional impact. Oh, and stack your chords ala the harmonic series (big gaps on the bottom, smaller ones on top) to make it easier for them to tune, so they can spend less time worrying about locking chords.
* Are you an a cappella insider? I'm guessing the answer is "yes" if you're reading this. OK, let me level with you, because I'm one of you. We like our 13th chords, and we love to hate the same ol' songs sung the same ol' way. And we should be pushing our own to pioneer, with original arrangements, original sounds, original songs. But we also need to lose any snobbery we have toward groups that are less than perfectly polished. There is only one Bobby McFerrin, and the rest of us are at least 3 solo albums and a minor 11th behind him. There is no perfect. Ever. And if that's what you're striving for, or what you look for in groups, you're missing the point. There are things a cappella does extremely well - like intimate, honest audience-performer connection. And there are ways in which a cappella has a harder time, and tuning is high on that list.
Recent articles have been written about individuals and success, trying to find the best way to maximize both happiness and productivity in the workplace. Our parents were taught to strive to be good at everything, and to spend their time working on the subjects in which they had the most difficulty. Modern studies have found exactly the opposite to be a far more effective path: focus your time and energy on your strengths, and let people who are good in other ways help you.
So, don't worry about being "pitch perfect." Instead, focus on kicking ass.
*A note to my Barbershoppin' friends... those that remain after the paragraphs above: I love barbershop music, and started my first quartet as a barberpole cat back in High School. I think the tradition is superlative, and there is much that all styles of a cappella can and should learn from you and yours. But maybe you should loosen some of the regulations and minutia, and instead create some different criteria: Who can create the most viral video? Who can get the biggest response from a theater full of non-barbershop insiders? Any art form that caters primarily to its own will find itself dying off. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with music from 100+ years ago. People listen to classical music every day. But remember that they listen to it because of how it makes them feel. That's all there is, in the end.
Deke Sharon founded CASA (and other stuff), makes TV shows ("The Sing-Off"), movies ("Pitch Perfect"), sings (The House Jacks), produces albums (Straight No Chaser, Street Corner Symphony, Committed, Nota, Bubs), wrote a book (A Cappella Arranging), publishes sheet music (Hal Leonard),and custom arranges music (over 2,000 songs). You can find him at www.dekesharon.com