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I'm on tour in Europe this month, and have had a chance to get a snapshot of the local "state of the art," hearing a variety of other a cappella groups. Good news: a cappella is alive and well in Northern Europe, with many great new groups.

It appears the traditional a cappella model remains strong: find similar singers and create single unified sound. Safe, effective...but limiting.

Limiting? A cappella for the past 100 years has been all about blend and unity, from barbershop through doo wop through close harmony and vocal jazz. Make your group sound as though you're all one powerful, unified voice. What could be wrong with that?

Nothing... but what if you could sound like a different unified voice, a different group, from song to song?

I first came upon the concept in college when learning about a Pierrot ensemble. Rather than a string quartet/quintet, the ensemble has one violinist (who also plays viola), one flautist (who also plays piccolo), one clarinetist (who also plays sax), one pianist (who also plays harpsichord)... you get the idea.

And then each piece calls for a different combination of instruments, stacked and doubled in a variety of ways, such that any two pieces can sound as if they're coming from a different ensemble. With just 5-6 musicians you can sound like a different group on every piece.

Translating this idea to a cappella means building a group around singers with different vocal tones, different backgrounds, different sensibilities.

A cappella groups for decades have sung music in a variety of different styles, from the Comedian Harmonists to Take 6, but when they do, they always sound like themselves. The Persuasions singing Frank Zappa sound like the Persuasions. The Kings Singers singing the Beatles sound like the King's Singers.

When forming the House Jacks, I realized I didn't want a group with only one sound, so I found the best graduating collegiate singers and we worked to create a blend and sound upon which we could build, and then another, and then another. Naked Noise, our first album, reflects this philosophy, with songs ranging from rock to r&b, pop, folk, metal and rap.

Most recently, when looking for 2 new members, rather than take a new vocal percussionist and a new tenor, we took 2 switch hitters: Nick Girard (mastermind behind Overboard), with a smooth, soaring high tenor and tight rock vocal percussion kit, and John Pointer (a cappella/stomp pioneer of Schrodinger's Cat) who has a screaming rock tenor (think Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar) and deep beatbox groove. This change means all kinds of new hassles involving finding the right microphones, dealing with monitor mix issues and the like, but the upside is worth it.

What upside? Well, for example, the House Jacks have provided most of the background music for "The Sing Off" for the past 3 years. Those a cappella ditties you hear behind each group's interviews? That's the same 5 guys (or sometimes fewer) in different combinations, jumping from one style to another, from North Shore to Groove for Thought to Committed to On The Rocks to Talk of the Town.

Caveat: this is not a guaranteed formula for success, and in fact quite risky if you're working with singers who don't have a lot of a cappella experience. As talented as the individual singers are, both Kinfolk and the Collective struggled this season on the Sing Off, as a unified sound and blend were elusive, despite fantastic lead vocals and great performing chops. I believe both groups are very capable of finding a world-class core sound, but it sometimes takes longer than a few weeks, especially with singers new to a cappella.

On the other hand, Delilah, comprised of experienced female a cappella singers, has been a huge hit with the public, judging by YouTube hits, Twitter mentions and iTunes downloads. Part of their appeal is that they have so many lead singers with different vocal qualities, which on background parts means they can sing a classic rock song like Aerosmith, then shift gears and kill an Alicia Keys song. Both in their wheelhouse, both with a different texture and sonority.

Nota is another group with a stylistic range which they play to great effect: shifting from a very pop interpretation of a song to a latin jam. They can shift sensibilities from Puerto Rico to Mexico to Brazil, which might sound similar to some uninitiated ears in the US, but to a fan of Latin music it's akin to shifting from country to hip hop to the blues.

And those are just two examples. Many other modern groups follow this model to great success.

Don't misunderstand: some of the greatest a cappella groups ever are built around a unified sound and blend, and create fantastic music by interpreting each song within their own style. Crystal clear sound and approach, they carve out a niche and define it. A beautiful thing... but not the only thing.

For young singers raised on the collegiate model who are looking to form a new a cappella group, I suggest you consider this model. More work initially, but more flexibility down the stretch. This doesn't mean you can't have a core style; you should. A group that's pure doppleganger will never have its own identity. Ideally you want to always have a core element that's identifiable through the varying textures, timbres and sonorities.

No one accuses the Beatles or Queen or Jellyfish of not having a sound or style; they have a core sensibility, a recognizable voice (in the broad sense of the term), and use a wider array of sounds to craft each track, each musical moment.

All of this is hypothetical, of course. In the end you have the singers you have, and as a director or arranger work to maximize their potential. To this end, once you have a strong central sound, I recommend you push the limits, crossing voices into unexpected ranges, developing extended vocal techniques and textures, to search for and expand your group's limits.

Or not. I don't expect everyone who reads this to think it's for them, and that is how it should be. Northern European a cappella tends to favor precision, and bless them for that. I wouldn't change a thing about the Real Group and their kin. We need gorgeous, crystalline a cappella perfection.

But if you're the kind of person who, upon reaching two roads diverged likes to choose the more difficult path, it can indeed make all the difference. Or not, as if you do choose this path you'll doubtless at time curse your decision as I do, with all it's crazy, messy, confusing chaotic uncertainty. Each new song brings great potential... and great potential headaches, as you try to figure out how to move one guy's sharp falsetto down into his chest range while not overpowering the low fifth... actually, forget what I said above. Don't do it! Turn away!


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You'll hate it and hate me for ever suggesting this. Stop reading now.


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Close your browser.


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I'm not kidding.


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Last chance! Don't look at the Ark, it'll melt your face!


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Still reading? Ah, good... good! The force is strong in you. I'm reminded of a t-shirt I once saw: "Come to the dark side, we have cookies."

Lots and lots of different kinds of cookies. Yum!

Comments

Wait....

You mean there should be diversity in how we go about forming and running groups?!

You don't say....

Also, did you mean "...don't look at the Ark?..."

Fixed the spelling -

Fixed the spelling - thanks

 

As for the thesis, if you're just being cute/snarky, fine. But if you're being serious, actively searching for a wide spread of vocal styles for a small ensemble is clearly not the norm in professional a cappella worldwide, and flies in the face of the last century (at least) of vocal music tradition.

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

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