HomeBlogsDocac's blogHow to compete in a Riff-Off Part 1

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My favorite part of Pitch Perfect was the "Riff-Off." I loved the spontaneous nature of the performances. I loved the attitude. I even loved that projector attachment the dude had for his cell phone.

For the love of a cappella, someone needs to invent this app that has spinning categories for riff-offs. PLEASE! AHHHHHH!

Sorry. [deep breath] Where was I?

I've been reading a few articles on how Pitch Perfect compares to the "real a cappella world," and in almost every interview, one thing is agreed upon: The "Riff-Off" scene is completely unrealistic and could never happen in real life. Songs can't be spontaneously composed in groups.

Here's my response to that:

WRONG. WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG. YOU SIR ARE WRONG! MADAM, YOU ARE VERY WRONG! YOU ARE THE MAYOR OF WRONG CITY. IF BEING WRONG WAS A SPORT, YOU WOULD WIN THE WORLD SERIES.

I've been trying to push groups to improvise since 2005, when Bobby McFerrin himself taught me the art of creating a circle song. Learning the art of the circle song leads to improvisation. Improvisation leads to chord recognition. Chord recognition leads to riff-offs!

You (me?), yes YOU, can do a riff-off. I'm not going to lie...it will take some time and training before you can do it. For example, I'm a guy who rarely runs. Could I get out of bed and run the New York Marathon tomorrow? No. I'd die. But people have run the New York Marathon and finished without dying, so it's entirely possible that I CAN do it...I would just need to train for a while (and lose 50 pounds).

On the flip side, only one person a year is physically fit enough to actually win the marathon. So will it be years (possibly decades) before a group can create a near perfect a cappella arrangement on the spot like the groups in Pitch Perfect did? Probably. But we need to start somewhere.

I'm invested in the belief that things like ear-training, sight-singing, vocal technique, and improvisation are skills and any skill can be taught. Having had the success of teaching tone-deaf students to match pitch, I understand that some need more training than others. On the other side of the fence, some people believe that musical talent is musical talent. You either have it, or you don't, and if you don't, then you never will. There's nothing wrong with that belief, but as someone who has had to work hard to become the musician I am now, I fundamentally disagree.

I have divided the steps necessary to train your group for a riff-off into five components. Today, we will discuss steps one and two. Next week will be step three (the most difficult one), and the week after will be steps four (how to put everything you've learned together) and five (how to actually run a riff-off competition).

Step 1: How to build a circle song.

In classical music, repeated patterns are called ostinatos. In techno music, these patterns are loops. In rock music, these patterns are riffs. Essentially, these are all the same thing. Most pop songs today are built over the structure of loops/riffs/ostinatos. Even more common is the fact that most pop songs (I'm looking at you Carly Rae and Ke$ha...) feature the same four chords, the same riff, the same loop over and over and over. First your group must be comfortable building these loops from scratch, or as Bobby would say, building a circle song.

1) A circle song begins with one member of the group singing a 2-4 measure pattern. It can be any melody, in any key, usually with scat syllables. Another member of the group, or the next person in the circle, adds to the loop with a separate, independent loop of his/her own. It can have the same rhythm as person one, it can be person one's loop in harmony, or it can be something completely different. It doesn't matter. This continues, with each member of the group adding his or her own loop to the collective song, until all members are singing something.

Still don't understand? Think about it like this: If you were a techno artist building a new song from scratch, what would you do? You'd probably start with a repeating bass line that's short and easy to play. Next, you would add a pattern over it--something that compliments the bass line. You would keep adding new patterns until you had a full song that repeated over and over. Basically, you are doing the same thing, except a cappella.

2) Once a circle song has been established, ask one of your singers to improvise a melody over the repeated song. No lyrics, just scat syllables. This is similar to jazz improvising, except that this is not jazz. No one is asking your singer to be the next Ella Fitzgerald.

3) If your group sings at least one circle song per rehearsal (which really only takes 3-5 minutes), then over the course of a month, your group should be able to significantly improve their loop production and start to hear what loops fit and what loops don't. This exercise trains your group's ears, your group's ability to be musically creative, and your group's ability to identify right and wrong notes.

The ability to produce a circle song is the foundation for improvising a popular song from scratch. Next week, we will learn how to build specific circle songs using specific chord progressions. But for now, step 2!

Step 2: Familiarize your group with material

In order to compete in a riff-off, you will need a large pool of music to draw from, songs that can belong to multiple categories, and most importantly, a large pool of music that everyone in your group knows. Here's an improvisation game that both familiarizes your group with large amounts of material and quickly establishes what songs are familiar amongst your members.

The game is called "Hot Spot." Ironically, it was a theatre improvisation troupe, not a music group, that taught me this game.

1) The group stands in a circle and one person "jumps" into the middle of the circle.

2) Whoever is in the middle starts singing a song. Any song, from any genre, from any source, ever. This could be a popular radio hit, musical theatre song, television theme song, commercial jingle, rap, jazz standard, Italian aria...ANYTHING!

3) The moment someone else in the group recognizes the song, he or she starts singing along. Unison, harmony, back-up...it doesn't matter. All members of the group join in as soon as they recognize what the person in the middle is singing. Hopefully, everyone in the circle will be singing along by now.

4) At any moment in this sing-along, any group member can "jump" into the middle of the circle and tag out whoever is already there. As soon as someone new jumps in, he or she starts a new song, any song, and this sing-along process continues.

5) If it so happens that someone in the middle of the circle starts a song that nobody else knows, the person in the middle MUST continue singing until someone tags him/her out.

6) The game ends whenever the music director decides to end it. There is no way to "win" and there is no scoring system. The goal of this game is to determine what types of songs the majority of the group is familiar with, inspire song choices, and expand the group's repertoire of music.

So that should be enough to get you started. Next week, I'll expand on creating back-up parts to songs and how to recognize chord patterns in popular songs.

Oh and quick plug...If you want to learn about this in a workshop, it just so happens that I'll be teaching this very topic at Acappellafest! Come and join Group Improvisation!

Marc Silverberg
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