We were all young once, and in our youth we dream big and expect the world. We traced drawings, played dress up and clowned around, as onlookers smiled approval.
But we're no longer children. Contemporary a cappella is internationally recognized, and with 20 years under our belts, we've graduated to books, television and feature films.
With adulthood comes maturity and increased expectation. To reach our full potential, it has come time for us to put away childish things.
Children learn by copying. As they should. And we marvel at the sight of small children who sound just like adults. However, no one marvels at the sound of an adult who sounds like an adult. It used to be enough to sing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". More recently, it was enough to sing "Let's Get It Started". No longer.
There's a thick bandwidth of imitative YouTube videos and iTunes tracks, both a cappella and instrumental. Within days of Maroon 5 releasing "Payphone" the deluge began, and it won't stop anytime soon. Same key, same style, same groove. So many children dressing up like grownups, seeking approval and attention that it becomes a wall of white noise.
A great musician can cover another great musician's song and create something special, but that's only because he or she has taken the time to carefully develop a style and a following. When Joe Cocker sang "A Little Help From My Friends" he had a Voice (with a capital V), a sound, a feel, a message.
This is not the case with most a cappella. It's enough to garner attention on your campus if you sing a song in the same key, with the same groove, and that's fine. But if you want to play with the big boys, and get the respect of the music industry, you need to find your own voice, and this means leaving the highway and blazing your own trail, which sometimes means paving your own road.
We all dreamed of being astronauts, firemen, ballerinas. The glamor of the limelight is intoxicating. Many of us transferred that directly into our love of vocal music, and have several memorable moments on stage that have fueled our fire over the years.
But those memories of cheering third grade parents or a chapel full of collegiate cohorts who treated us like rock stars become memories as we graduate into reality. And in reality, the expectations of the public greatly increase. Which means our expectations need to readjust.
Perhaps it is a cliche that every new generation is considered self-absorbed and unwilling to work hard, and perhaps that reputation is not unwarranted. We learn as we grow older that those who try too hard to avoid the bottom rung of the ladder often fall back down and never recover. I remember the deluge of feel-good messages that began in preschool, telling us all that everyone is exceptional, everyone is destined for greatness. But, of course, we're not. Another fairy tale we need to leave behind, as we start at the bottom rung, hopefully with a clear eye and a firm grip.
Performing at the level of a professional musician takes significant work and experience. If the adage is that it takes a decade to become great, then let's start with that as an estimate: Ten years of professional performing experience, 150 shows a year. Anyone can have a great night; how do you turn a mediocre situation into a great night? Playing an audience is like playing an instrument, and there is absolutely no substitute for experience. But don't allow this to dissuade you, as the journey requires a first step.
They come, and they go. In waves. Those with fantastic natural gifts, and those with a fire in their belly and their eyes. So many hopes, so much potential. But the journey is long, and many can't make it. Or won't make it. For myriad reasons.
Those who do make it have one thing in common: persistence. The slow growth of a sound, a style, a reputation, a catalog, a name.
"How can I be great?" I'm asked. Weekly. My answer is always the same: do it, and keep doing it. There might be another method, but I don't know it.
We fight on the playground. We wrestle with pecking order in high school. We can find our attentions consumed with our position in our community, and in the world. All of it wasted energy.
A cappella is not a zero sum game. Not by a long shot. There is "plenty of room at the salad bar" for all of us. And many more.
It's easy to assess another group by their shortcomings, and it's easy to assemble a list of faults, errors, misdirected choices. You can certainly judge a band by their worst track. But why?
The Dali Lama wrote a book about happiness that I can summarize for you in one word: compassion. Having understanding and compassion for others brings you more happiness. And it will bring our community more happiness as well. Not to mention success.
If you lift others up, they will often lift you. It's the rare artistic community that has great communal support. Much of the music industry is horrifically cutthroat. We can avoid that by refusing to accept the rules of the playground. Make your music, help others make theirs. Offer support and guidance. Their success will indeed help you. Directly.
Because we very much need more great groups. Adult groups.
Contemporary a cappella has gone from unknown to punch line to its current status now somewhere between entertaining novelty and flavor of the month. We now need more fantastic, creative, mature a cappella groups to overwhelm the status quo and push our image across the final border, into the realm of significant artistic subgroup.
Children will grab attention occasionally and get a pat on the head, but at age 20, we want more. But we won't get it just by asking.
It's time for us to grow up.