HomeAre We Professional?

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A friend of mine recently asked me whether or not I thought he should advertise his singing group as a “professional a cappella group.”  Seems like a pretty normal question, right?  After all, everyone wants to know how they stack up these days in the music scene.  Being a “professional” means you make the big bucks, that people respect you, and that the opposite sex finds you irresistible.  The only trouble is, this friend of mine is still in high school!  The oldest member of his group is less than 20 years old.  It’s official; the world of a cappella has gotten way too competitive.

To be fair, it’s not really just the world of high school a cappella that has fallen victim to what I’ll call “professional mania.”  High school bands of all instrumentations are out there day in and day out trying to be the next big thing.  In fact, some of them probably will be.  Groups like Maroon 5, Paramore, and Panic! at the Disco are out there right now proving that high school bands can make it to the big time.

So, if it can be done, why then you may ask am I stressing so much?  Well first of all, if you’ve ever met me, you know I’m a high-stress person to begin with.  Beyond that though, I worry about what it does to a young person’s experience with music when the goal goes beyond enjoyment.  What happens when a 16 year old is making music for the sake of getting famous, rather than just having fun?

I remember when I was a kid my mom was always openly opposed to the idea of me being in the limelight.  A natural ham from the time I could walk, I don’t think she ever doubted I would one day find my way to the stage, and she was always supportive.  At the same time however, she wasn’t the kind of mom who was inclined to dress me up and drive me out to Hollywood to try and make me a star.  God bless her.

I doubt I would have had the talent to make it anyway, but by denying me the fleeting riches of glamour and stardom, my mother gave me a much more precious gift; a normal childhood!  Looking back on my teen years, I can see clearly how much I learned from all the things that child stars miss out on.  High school chorus, class trips, and even eating in that greasy cafeteria exposed me to social situations that have proven incredibly valuable as I have continued to grow.  Even more importantly, they have influenced my songwriting, giving me inspiration I would not have had otherwise.

So, that’s my life story, but let’s get back to the world of a cappella for a moment.   We swim in a very interesting pond in the community that we have built for ourselves.  Like the music industry at large, we like to categorize who we are and what we do.  We are not simply groups, but instead we are “high school” groups and “college” groups and “semi-pro” groups, and so on.  Each category carries with it a certain expectation of quality and style.  It is at this point we need to ask ourselves two important questions.  First, what separates these different levels of groups, and at what point does one’s group become “professional.”  Second, who the heck cares?

Ok, so maybe the first question isn’t so important.  One could argue that a group is “professional” when they quit their day jobs, or when they make a significant amount of money from performing (who’s to say what a “significant amount of money” is anyway?), but really I think we need to be asking ourselves why the label of “professional” is so important to us in the first place.  When it comes down to it, aren’t we all in this for fun?   

Now, if you’re like me, then a lot of what makes a cappella music fun for you is doing it really well.  That’s wonderful, and if thinking of yourself or your group as professional allows you the focus to make the best music you can, then more power to you.  However, my advice is not to lose sight of what’s really important to you about the music you’re making.  Take your music seriously, not yourself.  Don’t get hung up on whether or not you’re good enough to be “professional,” just make the best music you can in a way that’s fun for you. 

Especially if you’re still in high school, there’s no need to lock yourself in to the life of a career musician just yet.  Enjoy your group and your music, and enjoy your success, but leave yourself open to other roads in life.  You may find that following a different path will actually strengthen your music making in the long run. 

Most of all, don’t worry about what to call yourselves!  If someone asks how old you are, tell them proudly that you’re in high school.  Enjoy your music, share that joy with your audience, and let them make up their own minds as to whether you’re professionals or not.  My guess is they’ll be too busy having fun to care.

About the author:
Robert Dietz is currently a senior at Ithaca College in upstate New York pursuing a dual major in music and business. He began singing in high school when he founded the CARA (Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award) award winning male quintet, Ascending Height. Since entering college Robert has had the pleasure of performing with and conducting Ithaca College’s only all male a cappella group, Ithacappella. Along with Ithacappella, Robert has had the honor of twice advancing to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs), as well as sharing the stage with the internationally renowned rock band, Incubus. Outside of Ithacappella, Robert occasionally performs with All About Buford. In addition to his CARA awards and nominations, Robert also holds three ICCA awards for outstanding vocal percussion, and his 100th arrangement received the award for outstanding arrangement at the ICCA semifinals at Rutgers in 2009.


Fascinating topic

and well considered, Robert. 

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

Good Stuff

I like this topic, Robert! I think that "professional" means that you get paid regulary enough to call it a job. Calling yourself professional gives the person auditioning the expectation that they are going to be paid to sing, like it is a real "gig" if you get what I mean.

I think semi-pro usually means a group that gets paid some times when they sing but mostly they just sing out on occassion for fun.


That's just my take on it though. I'm sure there are many MANY different interpretations out there.



PS My son's band just won a competition and the prize was to play a date on the "Vans Warped Tour". They just did the show last Sunday. They are all in HS except for one kid who is 20 years old.

Great topic

Good thoughts!  I find that there are times when that "professional" label causes a weird metamorphosis into "we're better than you and we have giant sticks up our..." - ok, well, never mind, you get the idea.  The concept that this is BIG FUN can be lost at that point, and that's sad, in my opinion.  If it weren't fun, I wouldn't really want to do it any more... and when a group is really having fun, they have a unique energy while performing that can't be underestimated.

"Take your music seriously,

"Take your music seriously, not yourself" - one of the best pieces of advice in the whole article.  It takes a lot more than raw talent and few paying gigs to be a professional group and it's rare that the full picture is found in high school students.  But if you take the time to have fun, continue to grow and really allow yourself to enjoy the benefits of being in a talented high school group, you are all the more prepared to be in progressively fantastic (and maybe professional) groups when the opportunities present themselves!

Opportunities do require being proactive and prepared, but when you put the cart before the horse in taking gigs only for money, you miss out on some fantastic opportunities to sing and share your talents.  I've watched many semi-pro groups miss out on great performance experiences simply because they didn't pay enough (or at all).

a definition, perhaps?

This is from Webster's dictionary:

Pronunciation: \prə-ˈfesh-nəl, -ˈfe-shə-nəl\
             Function: adjective

 a: participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs <a professional golfer> b: having a particular profession as a permanent career <a professional soldier>

If you make your living at it, you're a professional.  If, on the completely relative scale of accomplishment, you don't make your living at it but your group sounds like it could, you are professional sounding.  It's really simple.  The 'stick up the a$$ attitude' is very un - professional.  It's been my experience that the very best also tend to humility, but of course there are always exceptions.  What you call yourselves, or how you label yourselves might be important from a marketing standpoint, but the term 'professional' has been so abused that it is nearly completely meaningless from a qualitative standpoint, hence this discussion.  Most advertisers use it to connote a better, more expensive version of something, like 'professional scissors' or the 'professional' version of a software app. They mean for the word to be interpreted as meaning 'a cut above' or 'better than'.  That is not necessarily the case. 

Your age and level of schooling have nothing to do with whether or not you are professional.  There are teen virtuosi who run circles around older 'pros'.  I have heard 'non-pro' groups that sound better than some that cal themselves professional.  Dithering about whether or not to call yourselves professionals is lost time.  Is it your livelihood?  "Going pro" means getting paid for what you do.  Look at the Olympics.  Amateurs, even incredibly talented ones, are differentiated from professionals based on the criteria of payment - or employment, if you will.  Gold medalists are amateurs in the best sense of the word.  They have achieved the sublime without foul money as an incentive (unless you count endorsement deals, etc.).  You can't really argue that they are held to a lower standard due to their amateur status.  If anything, they are held to incredibly high standards. Are they less able than pros?  I doubt it. 

This may be somewhat of an oversimplification of a more complex issue.  In this instance, however, I fail to detect that subtlety.   And, btw, I believe that fun needs to be part of the equation, paid or not.  Professional doesn't mean grim any more than amateur means inferior.  Maybe the bottom line is this; don't be overly concerned with labels.  The time for that is when you're shopping for designer jeans.  Sing your hearts out and let your listeners decide how they want to categorize you. 


Indeed - whether or not one makes a living at this need not change one's attitude, which can be one of professionalism no matter what the level of performance.  Give me a group who's never made a dime off singing but does it with a professional attitude over one that makes their living at it but is hanging onto those sticks in uncomfortable places.

(wait, what?  never mind)

<<Sing your hearts out and let your listeners decide how they want to categorize you.>>

Dayum.  Why don't we just stop right there?  What else needs to be said?


Indeed, Kai! I think that the most important word in a working musician's vocabulary is 'gimme'. Not only must one establish one's worth, but more often than not one is then forced to collect, and learning to put one's hand out and say 'gimme' is crucial to survival. A friend of mine, one of the more successful commercial singers I know, is so adamant about getting what is rightfully his that he's been given the middle name "where's-my-money-bitch?"

Everybody is tweaked somehow about money. In this biz, you gotta get over it - get over any shame around asking for what you think you're worth, and any shame around demanding that a contract be fulfilled in an honest, timely manner. After all, once you establish a fee and provide a service, there is an obligation that you be paid. A distressing number of people who enter into agreements that involve artistic services feel no obligation or compunction to pay up, so you must provide reminders of the obligation and enforce due payment. Many artists find this aspect of the work degrading, distasteful, and tinged with guilt. Unfortunately, they make it easier for others to treat them poorly due to their reticence about saying 'gimme.'

If you have a hard time with it, practice saying it in front of a mirror. Either that, or get a job in retail sales for a while. That should remove and vestige of hesitancy around money. If you don't establish your worth and make sure you get paid, nobody else will.

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