Sunday, February 13, 2011

Where has all the singing gone?

Alright, this is the first time  all weekend I've been able to sit down with a stable internet connection and I can admit that the topic I was going to write on has changed approximately 4307927972 times. But after watching last night's Varsity Vocals ICCA Northeast Quarterfinal #2, it came to me. Where has all the singing gone?

Disclaimer: This is the beginning of the philosophy portion of Acalosophy. These are entirely my own sentiments and opinions that I have formed over the years I have been involved in and watching/listening to contemporary a cappella. However, I hope that though my readers may not take all of what I am about to say to heart, that it will plant a seed of inspiration and thought provocation.

"Wait, all we do is sing...what does she mean where has all the singing gone?" 

If I had a nickel for every time I heard "You have to be a piano now" or "C'mon, you're the guitar here".... Ummm....I hate to break it to you, but...YOU WILL NEVER BE A PIANO OR A GUITAR!!! And if at any point in your life you find yourself in that slightly awkward situation, please contact the witch  that put the spell on you and tell her you'd like to be human again because to be quite honest, singing is one of the most emotive and effective forms of communication and performance, so being human is way cooler.

What I'm trying to say is, why are we trying to emulate instruments? (Of course awesome vocal horns and strings and flutes aside....because if you can pinpoint an instrument like that, well, you're just cool). Why are we not just singing or SANGIN', for that matter? Why has"zhin" and "zho" replaced the natural beauty of the voice? And to be the most  honest, what the hell instrument goes "zho" anyway?

Personally, I think the voice is the most versatile, warm, beautiful, and misused instrument. I just don't think enough people truly explore it's capabilities. The beauty of humming, the timbres you can create by just placing it differently, the depth of pure vowels like "oo", "oh" and "ah". The voice can do so much more than the average person gives it credit for. And seriously, when was the last time you heard The Swingle Singers, The Real Group, Take 6, Sonos, Basix, Naturally 7 (ok there are far too many amahzballs you get the point) sing "zhin"? No, you don't have to think about it...never. They all focus on the singing, they all focus on getting the message of the song across, and while some may use some nonsense syllables or words to get the sounds that they want out, I'm sure if you asked any of them, there is intent and purpose behind each of those sounds and they are by no means arbitrary.

Now, I am probably the most instrumentally challenged individual you will ever meet, so I just can't think like an instrumentalist. As an arranger I always think "How does this line make sense for the singer?" "Can a singer even do this?" "What could someone sing this on to make it easy for them?" THINK LIKE A SINGER! In more beginning arrangers, you can almost tell what instrument they play because that's how they arrange. I have seen many a pianist, trumpet player, violinist, saxophonist and so on include unrealistic rhythms and intervals because they put their musical prowess to work rather than remembering that people are going to be singing this and that no one, i repeat, NO ONE wants to or can do octave jumps on quick sixteenth notes! So rather than trying to get someone to sound like your violin, why don't you just have them sing? If you can't sing it, there's probably a 98.9% chance that they won't be able to. And that's why I love the aforementioned groups. Because they have garnered decades of success from just some plain old, jaw-dropping, tight harmonies and singing.

So, what about last night's quarterfinal made me think of this? 2 words: NYU N'Harmonics. 

I am not one to say that I am absolutely in love with any collegiate group. Even when I was in one, I looked to traditional choral arrangements and professional groups for inspiration. But the N' there was some sangin' or shall I say SCRELTING! (a delightful mix between a scream and a belt) Everyone else fussed with choreography and outfits and "blend" and nonsense, while they just showed up and sang, and showed that they loved every second of it. It was by far the most refreshing performance I had seen in a very long time. They didn't care who was watching and there was not a single "zhin" in sight. But with a series of "oo", "ah", humming, "WOW", using lyrics, and just overall groove, they oozed passion. They explored every facet and dynamic of the human voice and their passion while doing so was felt all the way to the rafters. (No really, last night's competition was in a church.)

Their short 12 minute performance reminded me of what I had been missing in live a cappella for months now. The singing. Really, where has it all gone? 

I obviously have plenty more to say on this topic, and will....but start thinking about it. Is your "doh" "zhin" "ba da" really the most effective way of singing and telling the story you want to tell? Is it really necessary to cram every single note that's in the original track of a song you're covering into an arrangement? Or would just an "oo" serve you better? Go listen to The Swingle Singers and The Real Group and check out videos of the N'Harmoncs and see what they do. It's obviously gotten them far.... (Grammy awards and big deal...) Find your voice or maybe, rediscover it.

Until the journey continues...

P.S. It's competition season! Don't forget to check out an ICCA, ICHSA, or Harmony Sweepstakes event near you! Support the art! 

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