Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lo & Flo present: A Transatlantic A Cappella Q&A

A cappella is obviously not limited to the United States. There is a whole world out there rich in vocal tradition. So I decided to discover it! And no better way than to truly do it 21st century style!

After a series of tweets between @vocalblog and @acalosophy (or maybe they were facebook comments), we decided to take a Transatlantic leap into understanding the global community of vocal music. This is a Q&A (question & answer) dialogue between Florian Städtler and Lo Barreiro. Man and woman. German and American. Blogger and Blogette. "These posts will be short and will be uploaded about twice a week on one or both of the blogs. So here we go, let the Lo & Flo A Cappella Q&A start, as a humble step to make a cappella people in the US and the EU aware of each other."

But first, let's learn a little more about the contributors. (I definitely took these right off http://www.vocal-blog.net/)

Florian Städtler lives and works out of Freiburg, Germany. After studies of jazz & pop guitar and working as a band leader, arranger and composer for several years, he slowly but surely moved from the microphone to the telephone. When he decided to found his company SpielPlanVier in 2003, he had worked for the pioneering Jazzchor Freiburg for more than ten years, organizing tours to Japan, South Korea, Russia and all over Europe. Today Florian has established his agency as one of the leading artist management companies for vocal music, working with groups like The Swingle Singers, The Real Group, Rockapella, VOCES8 and The Boxettes. In 2009 he started blogging about vocal and a cappella music via Vocal Blog and one year later started the process of founding the European Voices Association (EVA).

Lauren “Lo” Barreiro (y'all know me) – according to www.casa.org – is “a recent Boston transplant from Tallahassee, Florida”, who started studying voice at the age of eleven and fell in love with a cappella during college. At Florida State University, she studied voice performance and recreation management and directed the FSU’s first and only all-female a cappella group, the AcaBelles. Today she’s a CASA ambassador in Boston and has led workshops, panels, and masterclasses at SoJam 2010, became a team member of The Vocal Company as a consultant, producer, and arranger, and founded the all-female professional sextet Musae (@MusaeVocal). Not to forget, Lo writes about her teaching and singing experience on her own blog Acalosophy.

So, first question up!

Flo's question #1:
What made you join a vocal group instead of becoming the singer in a regular pop band?

Lo's answer #1:
It was a total fluke. Really, in the plan of what my life was supposed to be, I should be in grad school right now training to be the next Met or La Scala diva. Instead, at the beginning of my freshman year of college I was lured in by hot pink flyers that said "Like to sing?". I auditioned (with a jazz standard, mind you), joined Florida State University's AcaBelles, fell in love and the rest is history. I also went to performing arts school for middle and high school with an emphasis in chorus and did things like sing the entirety of Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" by the time I was 15 and at least four Whitacre pieces by the time I left high school, so vocal music was just a more natural fit for me.


Now it’s your turn: Tell us your opinion, give us your answer and let us know what makes US a cappella so different from European vocal music. We would love you to join the conversation, thanks for your comments!

Many thanks to Florian Städtler for this amazing opportunity and learning experience! Check Acalosophy and Vocal Blog regularly for more questions!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Whooooo are you? Who-oo....oo-oo?

So how often do you ask yourself this? Who are you?

I am Lo Barreiro. Daughter of a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother. Raised in the tropical heat (in temperature and attitude) of Miami, Florida. A Florida State University Seminole. And currently a Bostonian, singer, writer, a cappella producer, lover of all fried potatoes, and slightly obsessed with bright colors and floral prints.

So what does this have to do with a cappella? Well... nothing really. Except that sometimes your group needs to do just this! You often get lost in what you want be or achieve that you forget to see and discuss who you actually are. For example, when your group is just so trendy and edgy in look complete with spandex and mesh and then you walk on stage and sing the boppiest song off Sara B's latest album. Ummm discrepancy much?

A story for you:

I have recently put together my own all-female professional group, Musae. I decided to find the best of the best in female a cappella singers and just create some vocal awesome. Before we ever rehearsed we had all these great ideas. We wanted to be a SONOS-esque, super trendy, super smooth group... and we arranged and picked songs like it. Before we knew it (and still before we ever sang together) we had a repertoire almost entirely made up of slow tempo chill songs filled with add 6 and add 9 chords. We were going to be hott!

We're all over the country, so our first rehearsal was going to be in the same weekend as our first photo shoot. Again, we wanted to be oh so trendy and  have an almost Boston hipster vibe to go with our rather chill and "duh, we only listen to Mozart and dubstep" music. Lots of layers, almost muted and neutral tones, and just too cool for school. We had this in the bag.

Finally, all of the Musae ladies descended upon Boston in mid-March and it was far too much fun... until we started singing. We attempted our first already arranged slow song and to be honest... we sounded like dying cats. What? These are the BEST female vocalists in a cappella and nothing clicked...NOTHING! I knew this couldn't be true and so it was time to figure out who Musae was.

We are Musae. We are six very loud and very different women. We are everywhere and come from everywhere like Miami, Boston, Texas, Oregon, Atlanta, New York City, and California. We are the girls that choir directors always said were too loud and find that overloading microphones is just  a regular occurrence. We are also the goofiest, funniest, and silliest group of ladies you will meet and can't ever take ourselves too seriously even when men literally chase us down the street. (This actually happened.) What the hell were we doing singing slow, soft, chill songs and trying to wear neutral tones? That's just not who Musae is!

So, later that day we turned to disco, pop, soul, and dance tunes and our photo shoot was full of bright colors. There seems to be at least 4 girls belting at any given time in our arrangements and we totally capitlaize on how obnoxiously loud we are.

So, see what I'm getting at?

I think every group can take a step back and check that your image fits with your music and your music fits with your image. Also, you don't have to be the same group you were even a year ago. You may have grown up, dealt with some tough things, are generally happier... it doesn't matter. But a cohesive image is so important to the success of a performance and group or you risk leaving your audience confused.

One of the best examples I've personally seen is the group Fork, or as I like to call them "Finnish A Cappella Rockstar Superheroes". Seriously, this fighter jet of an a cappella group gives Charlie Sheen a run for his money for how much #winning they're doing in the image department.

From the moment they walk on stage, each of the four members of Fork (in their leather, mesh and thigh high boots) just embody "bad ass" and never let go of that image. They are intense from belting sopranos to pounding bass and make you feel as if you're at a legit rock concert. When you meet and talk to them off the stage, they are the sweetest, most intelligent, and most inherently musical people. It's then that you realize that their entire group persona is a very calculated image leading to much of their success... and they know it.

So who are you? Are you the cute boppy group or the in-your-face group? Who is your audience? Do you only want to sing top 40 tunes or tunes that are not so mainstream? Or do you want to sing mainstream? What are your strengths and weaknesses? These and so many more are questions you need to ask in deciding your repertoire, how you're going to approach arrangements and even what you're going to wear. Just think about it... or get "Who are you?" stuck in your head... or both.

Until the journey continues...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Than Just Singing

Well hello there! I guess it's been a while, but I promise that I have legitimately been busy finding inspiration for this next blog to make sure it was just perfect for you! No, for real.... c'mon, would I lie to you? (the answer should be that I wouldn't)

So what have I been up to? Well, working with some of the best collegiate a cappella groups the Northeast could offer! I've been going to lots of shows, teaching lots of workshops, writing for other websites, and overall trying to reconnect to why I started Acalosophy in the first place. And it has hit me:

I don't care about music!

Ok, that's a lie. Duh! Of course I care about music! But notes on a page can only mean so much. Your sheet music (or whatever arranging style you use) should serve as the foundation of any song you perform rather than be the entire house. (This analogy will be expanded later) Really, the notes aren't everything and no matter how intuitive your arranger is, they will never be able to tell a full story.

Story? But you're singing... Ok AND telling a story. You are a storyteller. No matter if you sing the solo, do the percussion, sing bass, or sing soprano. It is your job as a performer to convey the story of the song. Even if the story is "well I got drunk, I got married, and now I don't remember", I mean THAT is one heck of a story to tell. Are you angry? Are you sad? Do you think it's funny? Do you even have feelings? Uh...are you a robot? (You don't know how many groups I see in my daily life that I'm convinced are made up entirely of robots... too many. Far too many...) And think about it, there are (most times) already words to your story. PAY ATTENTION TO THEM!

So, that house that I believe is music. What do you need for a house? The foundation, a floor, some walls, and a roof. (cue the music for "A House is Not a Home" and get all your mushies out.) So think of it this way, the foundation is the notes because you can't have music without the notes. The floor is kind of how all of the parts fit together, the walls are dynamics, and the roof is the final touch. The roof is expression and emotion and though I know some may disagree, the roof is what makes a house... emotion or storytelling is what makes your music. What good does an empty piece of foundation do for anybody? (The answer is, unless you intend to build a strip mall...nothing.)

"But Lo, this stupid arranger (trust me, we think we're stupid too) has me singing nonsense and  oo's the entire time." So? What's your point? There is still (most likely) someone in front of the group pouring their heart out to the audience, tell their story. One of my newest sayings in workshops is "It's just as much your solo as it is the soloist's solo". If I, as an audience member, ever took my eyes off the soloist, everyone in the group should be telling the same story through their faces and body language. Now THAT is captivating. THAT'S going to make me remember you.

So where do you start? Talk about it. Have a discussion within your group about the song means in general and to individuals. And I totally understand that not every song is dripping with emotion, so just decide that the song is meant to be fun and everyone should look like they're having an awesome time because chances are Awkward McAwkwardsauce in the back will probably rather be thinking about what he at for lunch than how he is supposed to look on stage. At the end of it all, everyone should be on the same page about what you'll be conveying on stage. You'd think it would just come naturally and people would get it, but most times background singers don't even pay attention to the lyrics.

Speaking of, hey if you're a background singer, why don't you just take a couple minutes to take a look at some of the lyrics that are happening in front of you. Maybe knowing that the pretty ballad you're singing is actually about heartbreak or losing somebody could save you from looking silly and smiling. Also, everyone has a line. Even if you're singing incredibly annoying repetitive eighth notes, you have a  line... or phrasing. Find the emotion in your line. How it ebbs and flows and helps tell the story. You can totally emote while singing "din do den do" as long as you somehow find the connection in your line.

So that's it. Do more than just singing... be a performer. Be a storyteller.

Until the journey continues...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Curtain Up!

I was once told that the key to being a good performer is to never let your audience worry about you. Genius...right? Well because if you DO let the audience worry, you're uncomfortable, they're uncomfortable, it's just going to be a bad situation for all parties involved. Unfortunately, I have recently been to far too many shows where all I did was worry, so this is Lo's Tips to Being on Stage Part 1:

1) Look Good

It says a lot when a group comes on stage and I say "Damn, they look good!" Why does it say a lot? Because it doesn't happen very often.

Usually I notice the one guy that didn't iron his dress shirt, the chick whose dress is so tight and so short that I'm positive I will see her crotch at any moment, the horse stomping of ladies that can't walk in heels but thought 5 inchers were appropriate, smudged make up, un-brushed hair....

Generally- Guys, stop being slobs and if you can't seem to dress yourself, ask a girl... or a metrosexual. Ladies, THIS IS NOT THE CLUB!!!! Must you look like you're about to get your Ke$ha on? Because the #1 thing I find myself worrying about at EVERY a cappella show is who's boob or crotch is going to pop out first.

The classical singer in me says unless your group decides to wear gowns on stage, bare shoulders are never appropriate. Why? Well to be honest, you are probably far less tan than you think you are and pasty + bare shoulders + stage lights = ghost. You are now a ghost on stage. Even further (and slightly more...well...you know...) your arms are probably not as thin or toned as you may like and trust me, the lights are NOT helping. But if you reeeeeeally feel like you are Gwyneth Paltrow in stature and can pull off a bare shoulder, at least make sure you have straps on your dress or top to hold those puppies in. There has been far too many times I've thought a paparazzi-worthy "wardrobe malfunction" was going to happen on stage because someone aca-bopped a little too hard and their top started falling. And if you're on the smaller side of the endowment scale, you KNOW you have nothing to hold a tube top up and it is inevitable for it to fall...so...straps.

Also, ladies, if you're singing on a raised stage and you're wearing a really short dress, trust me that the first and second rows of the audience are getting a show they did NOT pay for. Oh...but you're wearing tights, it should all be ok.... WRONG! Please take those tights of yours, stretch them a little, and hold them to the light. Ah yes, there's still a free show. If tights are your solution to the crotch watch problem, you HAVE TO make sure that they're very opaque because of the lights or wear Spanx under your dress.

Basically, stage lights are not forgiving. The audience can see through anything that's white or not very opaque, they can see every roll and dimple if something is too tight, and they wash you out completely (even the ethnic folk). Then, can you please look like a group? No, everyone doesn't have to wear the same thing, but establish an image and have a dress rehearsal to make sure that everyone falls in line with that image. Also, just stop looking like you jumped off a school bus and into Schlubs R' Us or like you've spent the last three days drinking in a sketchy bar. Trashy is trashy...not classy and immediately can turn an audience member off.

P.S. The sooner I stop seeing collegiate groups where all black with red accents...the better.

2) Get the water bottles OFF the stage.

First, I really don't care to know who in your group prefers purified water over spring water. I just don't. I also don't think Aquafina paid for the free advertising or care who has made the decision to be green and buy their own water bottle.

Second, do you reeeeally need it? Besides just being tacky, is there really a reason for you to need a sip of water after every song? I don't think so. I'm almost positive that your high school choir director or even college choir director didn't let you bring a water bottle on stage to sing the entirety of Handel's Messiah, so why, may I ask, do you need it to sing a 6 song a cappella set? Answer is... you don't.

Now, vocal percussionists needing water bottles, I totally understand. It's all about avoiding dry mouth and I get it. But singers? YOUR BODY KNOWS WHAT IT'S DOING!! And can surely take care of itself for half an hour. In fact, your body is constantly lubricating your vocal folds while singing and by drinking water you are pretty much flushing away that natural lubrication. (that is not a good thing.) Of course your body needs help every once in a while, so just keep water bottles to the side of the stage, if you really need it. But if you feel like you've just run a mile and lost approximately half of your body's water after every song, then you are clearly just doing something wrong and need to reassess how you're singing.

It's just not a good look or very professional for everyone to walk on stage with a water bottle. I'm sure your set design for whatever show you're singing did not include 15 water bottles, so you could imagine how almost sloppy it looks to an audience.

3) Stop being awkward

Ok, I understand that there are just some awkward people in the world, but they don't have to actually be awkward on stage. Rehearsals are not only meant for music, they are meant for exactly what is going to happen during your show or set. Practice who is going to talk and when and exactly what they're going to say. You may think you're clever when speaking off the cuff...but you're not. It's almost 98% guaranteed you're just awkward and stumbling over words and alienating your audience or just plain old being offensive.

Then, movement. USE A MIRROR! You may think you look awesome on stage, but you don't. That thing you do with your hand while you sing, is really just distracting. And everyone bopping in the same direction, is really just going to make your audience sea sick. Here's the real truth:

You are not as cool or sexy or smooth or engaged or anything else you may think on stage. You actually look silly, need to calm your hands down, are making an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable "sexy" face, and 9 times out of 10 you just look bored.

So...stop that. Your entire group needs to practice in front of a mirror or videotape a rehearsal and call out the people that are a detriment to your stage performance.

More awkward things (especially in scholastic performances): the ever shuffling of your group. Do you know how weird it is to watch people literally shuffle themselves around and bump into each other to go from one double arc to... another double arc? Why do you do that? Why can you not sing in the same places for more than one song? This is what I normally see:

Boring performance of some song followed by a quick and not thought out ending, then no acknowledgement of the audience's existence even though they are clapping for you, with a FRANTIC shuffling of people from one side of an arc to the other side complete with shoulder bumping and people stepping on toes.

Ummm...strange. Now, if you acknowledge the audience and have someone speaking while the mass amounts of shuffling happens, this is a whole different story because they won't be focusing on people literally bumping into each other. Also, if you practice your set order everyone should know where they're going and when. That way the franticness of the whole shuffling situation should be eliminated, no one gets stepped on and it looks far more professional.

Basically, practice EVERYTHING you do on stage from the moment you walk on to how you bow.

4) Don't let me worry

Be confident on stage and never let the audience know that there is room for something to go wrong. Don't tell us you're sick or apologize for missing members or say that you JUST learned whatever song you're about to sing because natural human instinct is to find the mistakes. If you tell me you're sick, I'm going to look for what note you didn't hit or if you tell me you tell me you're missing members I will leave the performance saying, "I guess they were good, but I wonder how they'd sound if they had all their members." Instead of focusing on how actually good you are, I am now focusing on how you could be better.

Then it comes down to practice again. If you look worried or not confident on stage, the audience will be worried for you, and it will no longer be an enjoyable experience. If you're constantly pulling your skirt down, that's what they'll focus on. It's your job as a performer to make the audience feel welcome and safe and like nothing will go wrong. Why do you think Beyonce fell down those stairs and just got right back up and sang? Because that's her job, to make the audience feel like it's all ok.

Overall, take a step back and assess what exactly you're doing on stage. Your performance is just as important as the notes you sing and most likely more memorable for the audience. Are you really living up to your performance potential? Are you as professional as you could be or are you settling for amateur mistakes? Every second counts on stage.

Until the journey continues...

Please send feedback to acalosophy@gmail.com. I'd love to hear your thoughts and know who's out there reading. Also any subject suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you everyone for all of your support!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Listen to Your Mom...

Bundle up and get some sleep!!

Sickness seems to be all around right about now. In fact, I was even plagued with fever and a horrendous chest cold this week, so I thought it was a good time to talk about staying healthy.

In my opinion, the one thing most groups do wrong... actually, most singers do wrong... actually, most people do wrong is push themselves to the point of becoming unhealthy both mentally and physically and just plain old don't take care of themselves. Well, to that I say: YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN!

It's cold outside and everybody is sneezing and coughing and generally being walking petri dishes of sick. So, it's your job to protect yourself. While you can wash your hands a million times and tell your coughing best friend to not visit you for a week, that's just not enough. You have to make sure you're eating right and getting the vitamins you need, constantly hydrating your body, keeping warm, and getting enough sleep.

But above all, don't stress you or your singers out!!! Stress is the gateway to sickness. Let's be honest, you're probably balancing 349979379 things in your life on top of your singing obligations. So it's the week of the big show and you're running from place to place, probably grabbing whatever you can get on the nearest dollar menu (sugar-filled soft drink included), getting home late, attempting to finish whatever you possibly can before you absolutely pass out, and wake up at 8 AM to do it all over again. Riiiiiiiight... stop that.

What you're actually doing is depriving your body of the vitamins and minerals it needs, disrupting your metabolism and that, combined with your lack of sleep, has now forced your body to run completely on adrenaline. Add dehydration and you have now become the number one candidate for becoming sick. On top of that, running around like a chicken without a head does not constitute exercise and you have those Big Macs you've been eating for lunch for the last 5 days just sitting in you. So, what's your body's response to toxins (read: anything bad for you including that last trip to the BK Lounge)?


Yea...it's not pretty. So why push yourself to this point? Or even better, why push your singers to this point? I know that (at least in the collegiate world) there are far too many times obsessive amounts of ridiculously long and late rehearsals are scheduled the week of a show or competition. Well, I have two thoughts on that. A) If you're still learning music the week of the show, you should probably just not sing it and figure out how to do a better job of learning enough music next time. B) You have now forced all of the members of your group to run the gauntlet of illness. Will they get sick? Who knows. But it sure seems like you're asking for it.

Recap: Make sure you're eating well, bundling up so your body can focus on fighting infection rather than retaining heat, drinking lots and lots of water, and get plenty of sleep and downtime to not stress yourself out! 

But what if you already have the cold and performance day is coming up? A) Act fast. B) Help the mucus.

Remember that your body produces mucus in order to flush toxins out, it's a good thing. So while over the counter medicines like anti-histamines and decongestants will take away the congestion, they inhibit your body's natural healing process. They will also dry out your body's mucus membranes (like your vocal folds) and can cause you to lose your voice. So you should really just be drinking more water and natural juices to help the mucus flush everything out and/or taking supplements to replenish any vitamins that are depleted from being sick. (Vitamins C and B complex are the first to go.)

All of that water is also going to help make sure the mucus doesn't get to your lungs and prevent coughing. Other things to do is inhale steam. (Please don't burn yourself...or blame me, if you do). A good hot shower usually works pretty well to loosen the congestion and will actually soothe your vocal folds.  I'm also a huge fan of a Netty Pot to help get any congestion stuck in your nasal and sinus passage ways. As a victim of chronic sinusitis, I have sworn on one for years and seriously don't think I could live without it. Another trick (that is far cheaper) is to hold a warm, damp washcloth over your nose and mouth for a couple minutes while taking some good deep breaths.

Of course teas, honey, and other soothers may take the edge off soar muscles, but won't necessarily aid in the healing of your vocal folds. Now, if you turn to cough drops, make sure you get the right ones. Mentholated or cough drops that boast "Vapor-action" may help clear your sinuses but are quite drying. And if they say they're medicated or have an oral anesthetic...STAY AWAY! Letting you talk through your pain will almost definitely cause more damage. I would suggest buying herbal/lemon cough drops or cough drops that also have vitamin supplements like Vitamin C (as I already said), echinecea (to help out your immune system), and zinc (to overall help your body fight infection). Try  Halls Defense (R) in Harvest Cherry.

Finally, be gentle on your vocal cords. Do not use them excessively and try to avoid talking, yelling, and loud singing. However, very light and soft humming is a good way to loosen your voice in preparation for your big show. Make sure you get plenty of sleep leading up to it, but day of, don't spend all day sleeping. Wake up, take a hot shower, and get your body moving.

Don't forget to listen to your body. If day of it's telling you that you shouldn't be singing, don't. It's that easy. And music directors, never ever ever push your singers if they're sick! Just let them relax and maybe observe rehearsals (if they're not going to infect everybody). Day of, you have to respect their decision to sing or not.

So, put down your Whopper and go grab an apple and a water bottle. Oh and take a nap later!

Until the Journey continues...

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 groups...so 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'Harmonics....now 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 such...no 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! 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Y'all just might hate me...

...or you won't. But I HATE the word "blend". Hate hate hate hate HAAAAATE. Though, I promise, for good reason.

Webster defines the word blend as "mix; especially : to combine or associate so that the separate constituents or the line of demarcation cannot be distinguished". So in the vocal and a cappella world this would mean to unify the group's sound. (I agree with this so far.) Unfortunately, there is often not enough discussion on what makes up a group's sound or how to achieve a "good blend". It is usually assumed that your singers will automatically understand what you mean. Well, this is where I hate "blend".

For some reason, many singers and directors believe that blend is achieved by everyone sounding the same and that Susie now has to give up her own personal tone and voice to sound just like Sally. Ummm wrong. Your body, for the most part, knows what's up and knows the only way for you to be singing healthy. So whatever Susie is doing to sound like Sally is probably wrecking her voice and ultimately sacrificing how long she will be able to sing.

DISCLAIMER: I will always preach that the vocal, physical, and mental health of your singers is number one! If your singers are sick, then they can't sing, and you will have no group. So always promote healthy singing! ALWAYS! I will harp on this many, many, many times! Allow for an open environment in which your singers feel like they can say whether or not they can't do something or  if it hurts, never FORCE them to sing something they don't feel comfortable with. As I said, your body knows best.

Plus, you let Susie into your group because of how she sings, not for her ability to sing like someone else or the rest of the group. Her tone and vocal quality obviously have something to offer your group, something you liked, and something you thought would be a good fit. Let's be honest, why would allow someone into your group because you don't like how they can sing but think you can change them to fit better? That seems...well...counterproductive. So rather than falling victim to the "Blend Monster" of unhealthy singing, why not break it down into concepts your singers (and yourself, as a singer) can grasp easier?

I like to break it down into three main concepts: voice matching, vowel unification, and tuning. While all three make up what should be understood as blend, they are far easier to understand when isolated. Here is how:

Voice Matching

This may seem like the most abstract concept of the three, however when mastered, voice matching will help lead to ease in vowel unification and tuning. Therefore, I like to address it first.

It's actually pretty simple, some voices sound good together and some voices don't. I'm not talking about an entire group of people, I am saying literally two voices. Whether it's physical proximity or singing the same part, certain voices due to color, clarity, speed of vibrato, etc. just complement each other or some seem to naturally fight each other giving the illusion of being out of tune. So what you need to do is identify the groups of voices that just work together. Sometimes if two voices seem to fight each other, adding a third voice that seems to "bridge" the two is all you need.

How do you put this in practice? I often like to have the group sing in a circle around me on an "oo". First I have them sing tonic (or scale degree 1) and shuffle voices around (literally tell people to move their bodies to where their voice is a better match) as I see fit. Then I identify the group of singers that will be singing the top part of a four part harmony, and have them sing tonic up the octave. After some more shuffling and once tonic is locked in, I choose singers to add the fifth of the chord and then the third. At this point, I can ask a singer to switch notes, where their singing, play with dynamic contrast to establish a sound, etc. and then use different vowels and make minor adjustments. I suggest "ah" or "oh" to contrast the sound of the closed vowel you just used. This is a 10-20 minute exercise that will save you oodles of time down the road.

Once you've set vocal matches, you can now grasp an idea of with whom, what part, and where each of your singers should be singing for each piece.

Vowel Unification

While I am of the school that enjoys taller and more classical vowels (mostly due to my classical voice upbringing), it doesn't really matter what vowels you use, as long as you decide on something. I do think that the taller and more pure vowels are easier to unify, especially in large groups, however they may not play well into your group's style or sound.

I have found the best way to unify vowels are through unison exercises. Demonstrate the vowel you would like, ask your group to observe the color and shape of what you are singing and have them try to replicate what you are doing without trying to sound exactly like you. Then use words like rounder, darker, brighter, taller, thinner, etc. to describe how they should think about the sound you are trying to achieve. Often i have found that words associated to something tangible work best.

Now, I have seen and heard some pretty incorrect ways to achieve different sounds and vowel colors. One example is to tell your singers to put more air or breath in their tone. While this technique seems to work towards an immediate unification of sound, it is horrible for vocal health (told ya' I was going to harp on this a lot!) and in fact, makes unifying sound more difficult because it robs the voice of its full overtones. Furthermore, adding air or "more breath" to one's tone fosters poor breath support habits, as well as leads to the swelling of the vocal folds from their inability to come together and can result in many vocal problems including the formation of vocal nodes. Basically, DON'T DO THIS!!!!!!!

Also, pay attention to how your singers are creating the color you are asking of them. Often, when a taller or darker color is asked for, untrained singers tend to focus their tone towards the back of their head and their throat which results in tongue tension , or the tensing of the root of the tongue. It is pretty easily identifiable when your singers tongue seems like it is in one big wad in the back of their throat. This habit will usually result in pushing the sound and many other poor techniques.

Try to be wise in how you ask for the vowel shape and color you are asking for. Again, sacrificing one's natural tone for the sake of "blend" is NOT what you want.


To be quite honest, once you have the first two concepts, you will find that you are faced with far fewer tuning issues. However, that is not an excuse for a lazy ear. Find exercises that challenge your singers to actually listen to the rest of the group instead of just themselves. Seventh chords, add 9 chords, and add 6 chords are great for this because of their built in dissonances but also because of the impact they have on your singers once tuned. They will be floored at the sounds and overtones they are able to make. I also suggest the exercise discussed in voice matching. You can't place the fifth of the chord until tonic is completely in tune and then you can't place the third of the chord until that is in tune. Just constantly find ways to have them use their ears and become aware of tuning issues themselves. (I will be discussing other tuning exercises at a later time.)

Wrapping it up, I think exploring "blend" in the three isolated concepts will make it infinitely easier to create a consistent and unified sound. I still think using the word "blend" can be dangerous simply because of its connotation to sacrifice a singers individual tone and suggest that you use it with caution. Basically, beware of the "Blend Monster"!

Until the journey continues....

p.s. Don't forget to leave me your comments or send your questions and suggestions to acalosophy@gmail.com!