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Jake Smith from Wilton, ME asks:
Alright. I have a problem. I've been to one of your sessions, it was the Vermont A Cappella Summit last year; I was in one of the competing high school groups, the Mt. Blue Voices. My director, Dennis Hayes, has based a lot of his own work with us on the House Jacks, and especially in talking with Deke. MY problem is that in - so far - 2 of the songs in our repertoire, I provide vocal percussion. These are the only two songs that use any percussion. We are totally acoustic, which means I have no microphone to aid me. In the song "Fragile", the group is mellow, and I can produce enough volume acoustically. However, in our arrangement of "Telescope Eyes", the group is producing a lot more sound, and with my normal percussion I cannot provide enough sound. What are some different ways to provide a louder acoustical sound? Particularly the snare. Thank you.


Thanks for writing. This is a winner of a question.

First off, congratulations on your work so far. It sounds like you're all set for the song "Fragile", and I'm glad to infer that it's going well. I imagine that your contributing vocal percussion to a group that doesn't usually use it is well-received by audiences.

Regarding the other song, my answer is a bit complex, because it has to be.

To create more sound in a non-amplified situation, your choices are limited. There are three factors to consider: (1) everyone in the group has a volume limit, and yours is probably much lower than the combined limit of the other singers combined; (2) some frequencies are perceived by the ear as louder than others, even when they are at the same sound pressure level, and (3) some sounds and frequencies cut through the sound of singing better than others.

Because of (1), the sonic balance you have in mind between voices and percussion simply cannot be achieved reliably in the situation you describe. A decent compromise is to include foot stomps or (light!) hand claps for everyone, to provide most of the sound you envision. Because of (2) and (3), your most significant contribution is likely to be cymbal work, especially hi-hats. Though a snare can be heard through singers, it takes months or years of practice to get to that point, and it usually isn't that clean a sound at that volume level anyway. (It's just a matter of producing enough back-pressure at the lips that your (strong!) diaphragm can provide a lot of force, which translates into more sound). And as for kicks: just forget it.

Generally, I don't create percussion acoustically when performing with more than a handful of people, and even then, it's difficult and often disappointing.

So, unfortunately, my answer is that you've given me a near-impossible situation. Your best solutions are all difficult. In my order of preference, they are:

* Get microphones. This could be a great excuse to push the evolution of the group! But, of course, it's expensive, and mics can be a real pain, particularly when you have to handle all the technical issues yourselves.

* Lose the percussion on that song, and re-arrange if necessary to keep the vibe that the song is supposed to have when the percussion can be heard (i.e. in rehearsal, but never in performance).

* Incorporate foot stomps (for kicks) and LIGHT hand claps (for snares) into everyone's part, and concentrate only on hats and cymbal work, since that's all anyone would be able to hear anyway.

Wish I had a more satisfying answer for you, Jake. I'm afraid sometimes the best you can do is just to know when you're overmatched by the considerable power of traditional vocalists.

Best of luck!