HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogHow To Be An A Cappella Genius

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What would you say if I told you that genius is within your reach?

Seriously. The latest research shows that genius is not magic, and not primarily talent. It's primarily the result of carefully focused work:

People ask me all the time how to make a career in a cappella. Well, that now seems closer than ever, if you're willing to put in the time. I recall crossing paths with a young, eager kid a decade ago who wanted more than anything to be a professional a cappella singer, and just read yesterday, on RARB, that he's going to be performing with Bobby McFerrin across Europe next month. At the time, he had meager beatboxing skills and little knowledge, but a huge desire. He turned that desire into a decade of listening, learning, studying, practicing, and now he's an amazing professional beatboxer.

So, if you're serious, and really want to make a career of a cappella, here's what you do:

1) Start singing as much as you can, wherever you can. If you're in elementary or high school right now, join every chorus and musical theater production you can. You need to train your muscles to sing on pitch on demand, learn repertoire, learn to blend. It might not be a cappella, but it's hugely helpful.

2) If you're in college, in addition to singing in the university choir, join a contemporary a cappella group. There isn't one? Start one. And as soon as you can, audition to be the group's music director. President looks good on your resume and business manager will be helpful down the road in getting gigs, but music director is without a doubt the center of the action. You learn how to run rehearsals, deal with sensitive musical issues, choose repertoire, direct a group. What you don't know, you'll quickly learn (by fire!).

And if you've graduated already, you could always go back to school for a masters degree in music, at a school with a couple of great collegiate groups. Many groups admit grad students, who sometimes have a significant impact on the group (in some cases they get a PhD, allowing for a longer-than-undergrad-four-year tenure). Collegiate a cappella is serious business nowadays, with 6 figure budgets, world famous albums, and rapidly increasing media exposure. Consider it the minor leagues.

3) At the same time, learn music. Most of all, learn music theory. Your eyes might glaze over at the notion of diminished chords and plagal cadences, but believe me, you'll find it helpful down the road. Understanding chords, intervals, and form is integral to arranging and composing. You will use all of it. And if you have room in your schedule, take some music history classes as well.

4) Listen, listen, listen. Get your hands on every award winning a cappella CD you can, and learn them all by heart to the point that you can sing along with any part. I hadn't heard "One Size Fits All" for at least a decade, but at a recent Nylons concert I stood in the back and quietly sang along with every song. Make this music your music, so that it's in your bones. And if there's a specific style that appeals to you more than others, great. Focus on it. Become an expert in that specific style: every group, every album, every arrangement of a specific song.

5) Speaking of arrangements, crack open your laptop and arrange. Don't know notation? See step #3 and learn it quickly. Then start by transcribing existing arrangements and studying published arrangements. How can you tell bad from good? Simple: the ones you like are good. The ones that sound good to you are good. Learn to arrange a song just like them, and then arrange another. Ray Charles started his career by imitating Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, and he learned to play all their songs in every key, phrasing them just like the masters.

6) Graduated and ready for the big world? Excellent. Find an existing group and join it, or start your own group. Or two groups. Or six. Tim Jones is one of the most successful a cappella businessmen in the midwest, and he's not resting on his laurels.

The music industry is notoriously difficult, so you'll have to work harder, stay up later, underbid, sweat, toil. Remember, the current theory of genius is that it's hard, focused work, which means you can do it, but you have to do it. The harder you work, the luckier you are.

In the van this afternoon, I could hear Jake drumming away, coming up with cool new patterns grooves for his drum solo tonight, which will continue to be different from every other night. He saw a group back in 1994 (the House Jacks, ironically enough), and decided to start a vocal band (kickshaw), then joined M-Pact, toured the world, and now he's a Jack. He's one of the best vocal percussionists in the world, doing it professionally, and yet he's still honing his craft, learning from other drummers' youtube videos, pushing himself to be better.

It doesn't end, for anyone. Tiger Woods can stop trying to improve on his historic career as the widely lauded greatest golfer ever, but the motivation that brought him this far continues unabated, and that is what keeps him great. A genius, if you will.

If this all sounds incredibly daunting, that's OK. Not everyone needs to devote their life to a cappella. I believe everyone should sing, and casual recreational singing is a wonderful thing.

But if that is not enough for you, it's empowering to know that genius is within your reach... if you start now.


Minor leagues

"Consider it the minor leagues."


--Dave Brown

now: Mouth Off host | ICCA & CARA Judge

then: CASA president, CASAcademy director, CASA Bd of Directors | BYU Vocal Point | Noteworthy co-foun

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