HomeBlogsdb1bulldog's blogThinking Inside The Box (A Little Bit)

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Late last year, I wrote about the need to think outside the box when choosing a cappella repertoire, and I suggested groups stay away from the songs populating Billboard charts and Top 40 radio. Now, I’m here to tell you I was wrong. Not wrong, exactly, but my analysis was incomplete. You see, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to learn some of the most ubiquitous radio pop music. It may even be a good idea.  It’s all about what you hope to accomplish and achieve with your group.

Over the past twenty years, there have been a few contemporary a cappella groups or bands who have focused almost entirely on crafting original music.  The House Jacks, Duwende, Rockapella, and The Bobs are examples of some American groups that have traditionally written their own music and sprinkled in covers (yes, I know Duwende’s last album was all Michael Jackson covers and Rockapella’s was Motown covers). On the other end of the spectrum are American groups that have traditionally performed all covers, like Hyannis Sound, Straight No Chaser, or Overboard. The vast majority of high school, collegiate, and amateur groups are in this mold, and they are the ones who need to be smart and careful in choosing their music.

Groups looking to perform mostly or all covers may face the choice which I wrote about previously: radio pop music versus slightly more obscure pop/rock/R&B music. While my orders last time were to stay away from radio pop, there are two big reasons why this was incomplete at best.  First, it assumes that your goal as a group is to perform vocal music which may be new and interesting to the audience. The reality is that not every audience wants something new and interesting. If you are going to be performing for a group of die-hard a cappella fans, they may be bored or tired of another “Some Nights” cover. They probably don’t mind hearing your group perform a song they’ve never heard before, so long as it sounds good (or interesting). Other audience members, however, will be searching for a true cover band.  They’ll just want to hear how a vocal group can perform “Some Nights” without instruments, and they likely won’t have heard any other a cappella group perform it previously.

So, how do you please both audiences? It is reason 2 why my prior advice was incomplete. Your group is a performing ensemble, and the best way for performing ensembles to get better is to keep pushing forward. Your group should always be arranging, learning, and singing more music.  If your group is content to learn just 4 or 5 songs really well, good for you…but that group probably isn’t going anywhere. The more you arrange- the more music you have to learn- the more singing you’ll be doing together. The more singing you do together, the better you’re going to sound, and faster. Deke even said so! (see http://www.casa.org/content/quantity-quality). I think you could look at a group like Pentatonix, with their frequency in learning new music quickly and then throwing a live performance onto YouTube, as proof. They were good, even very good, on “The Sing-Off”.  After seeing them in concert last month and listening to their albums, it seems to me that they are significantly better now than they were in December, 2011, when they won “The Sing-Off”.  Being part of a performing ensemble is all about chemistry, and developing chemistry requires shared experience (and engagement/commitment).  More music means more shared experience, which means better quality.

Where does this leave us? The big answer is really quite simple. You should be choosing both kinds of songs, because the more music you arrange and rehearse, the higher the ceiling for your group.  If you decide to do a fairly straightforward arrangement of “Some Nights” (sorry, fun. fans…it is one of most-covered songs among male groups right now), try to balance that with an Elbow tune. That way, when you show up for your gig, you’ve got both ready to go. See a lot of your aca-quaintances or fans in the audience? Give them something new and fresh. See a lot of people you don’t know? Go with fun. That audience will thank you for it. Then hit ‘em with the Elbow song that has the cool cascades and dissonant harmonies. Or better yet, an original tune.

One last note about repertoire: I’ve explained that you should be learning as much music as possible. In my opinion, you should go broader than I’ve already discussed. For example, you should absolutely be learning some version of The Star-Spangled Banner, Happy Birthday, and some “oldies” (but goodies) like “In the Still of the Night,” “Stand By Me”, or “My Girl.”  These are songs which allow you to sing for various events and for a broader audience, and they aren’t very difficult to learn.  In fact, you could probably learn a handful in a single rehearsal. I think it was incredibly smart that Overboard put together an entire album of a cappella standards or oldies (“Castaways”) because it gave them something to draw in those baby boomers in the audience, and it couldn’t have taken long to learn most of those arrangements. Plus, it gave them a physical product to market to that audience.  Most importantly, taking this approach gave them more music to sing together, which surely helped their blend and skills as a group. They subsequently released the brilliant concept album “Help!”.

I still want you to search for lesser-known songs and artists to cover, and I’d still rather hear you sing those songs, but you should remember not to fully exclude or ignore radio pop music. Learn ‘em all, and become a better and more versatile group for it.

About the writer:
Dave Bernstein is the founder of NYU's all-male group Mass Transit, a former music director of the Potsdam Pointercounts, and (sadly) current member of no a cappella group. After studying music business in college, Dave co-founded Liquid Productions, a small recording studio in Long Island, New York, which produced a handful of collegiate recordings, demos, and commercial projects before going under. Eventually, he went back to law school where he worked for the famed Innocence Project. He currently works as a public defender in New York. In October 2011, he started acatribe.com, a blog devoted to news, analysis, and general love for all things a cappella.  In summer 2012, he joined The Recorded A Cappella Review Board as a reviewer.  He continues to sing in various classical choirs in the New York metropolitan area, and hopes to someday rejoin the active ranks of the post-collegiate a cappella community.