Contemporary A Cappella Coaching Tools

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2013-02-18

I looked at the clinician list for BOSS 2013 and thought "Holy moly! There are dozens if not hundreds of contemporary a cappella coaches now!" So encouraging, so exciting!

Alas, there's literally no training program for coaches, no formal pedagogy. I assume they're all just sharing the lessons they've learned as singers and directors, as I do.

To that end, I'd like to share with them, and with you, a few of the hard-leaned lessons and perspectives I've assimilated over 20+ years of working with groups. No need for me to mention the obvious musical techniques (tuning a chord, blending vowels, etc), as that's easy to find. Instead, I offer a few thoughts to help round out a coaches approach, technique and toolkit:

The Big Picture

Music is communication, and as each piece of music has a particular message and mood, the myriad decisions there are to make around a particular song and arrangement should all point to the song's central emotional focus. This is easy to conceptualize, but I find it alarming how often directors lose sight of this fact. Why did you choose this move? Why are you singing this chord in this way? "Because it looks/sounds good" or "because I like it" are not acceptable answers, especially in light  of a young director's desire for perfection above (more on this later).

If I'm working with a group and I feel nothing when they've sung the song for me, my very first act is to make sure the group both understands the song's meaning and has a clear emotional goal for the song. If it's not clear, we discuss the lyrics, and I invite the singers to discuss their own related experiences and feelings. At the end of such a discussion, it's very helpful to summarize in a few words, like "big crazy circus" or "gentle melancholy stream." The specific words will be a trigger, something the director can mention when playing the pitch, just before starting the song, to help the group focus it's emotional delivery.

Show AND Tell

There's an oft-spoken adage in writing - "show, don't tell" - that definitely carries an important message: use words to create a feeling rather than simply state what a character feels. Expanding this idea into coaching, I urge you not only to explain to your group how they should feel, but to reflect that feeling in your own tone of voice, your own gestures, your own mood. Create the moment yourself as you're urging your singers to find it. In essence, you're called upon to act while you direct, just as you're asking your singers to do the same when they sing. Wave your arms and jump around, slump your shoulders and speak more quietly... whatever it takes. Change the mood in the room to reflect the song, and help your singers find the moment.

Fear of Imperfection

Everyone wants to be great, and everyone wants to be right. In music, the default is to focus on the elements that are easily measured and graded: tuning and rhythmic precision. Those are important elements of a group's musical performance, but an over-emphasis on them can seriously skew perspective. If a group is thinking about the notes and rhythms, then they're essentially singing about nothing, having turned the song into a dull exercise in musical execution. I've seen too many directors spend the vast majority of their rehearsals on tuning, the results of which are largely lost on the audience, as only a trained musician will care about the frequency of audible overtones in a particular piece of music.

Think of it this way: if you're coaching an individual to give a speech, would you spend most of your time on diction? Probably not. You'd make sure the words were pronounced correctly, but you'd think about the emotional impact first and foremost. Do you believe the speaker? Are the points well made? Are you convinced? Excited? Don't let precision destroy passion. You may find yourself working with the group's director more than anyone else on this point.

Moreover, there will be tradeoffs, and you should be willing to make them. A big stage picture might sacrifice tuning for a moment, but have a larger impact on the audience's experience of a piece of music. Go for it. Perfect tuning isn't and never will be the point of a piece of music (especially since there's no such thing as perfect tuning in our Western musical system!) Don't sacrifice "musicality" willy-nilly, but neither should you be a slave to it.

The 90% Problem

Fact is, no matter how good a group is, you're going to spend almost all of your time focusing on problems and fixes. It's the nature of coaching, the nature of directing. This can have a chilling effect, as a group that is working with you for a short while might have the impression that they're not doing a very good job since you're constantly harping on them, delivering a litany of things they can do better. If a group's 95% of the way to perfection, you'll still spend 95% of the time focusing on the 5% that needs fixing... which can create the impression that they're only 5% of the way to their goal.

The only thing you can do is to mention this fact directly, and offer significant ongoing encouragement, so the group realizes how much they're doing well. People thrive on positive feedback (so long as it's genuine), and delivering compliments alongside the suggested changes will help correct this imbalance.

The Unspoken Message

You're coaching a men's college a cappella group, and they're singing a song about driving fast, or hanging out with friends in the summertime, or trying to find the right girl. Focus on the message, make sure they're on point... but realize there's usually a deeper message conveyed by a group, especially a collegiate a cappella group. That message is: we're young, we're happy, and we're having fun.

Trite? Not at all. It's a deep celebration of life, and I'd argue there's no single more powerful message for a bunch of college guys to share, because it's true, and it's universal. You can and should make choices reflecting the song's lyrics, but you should also reflect who the singers are and where they are in their lives. This goes for every group of people you work with. The subtext in every DeltaCappella performance is, roughly "look at our group: men aged 20-75, from all corners and strata of Memphis' diverse community, coming together to create something, and loving it." You might think it obvious, but there is no organization in the city that so powerfully and effectively delivers that message. While delivering it in such an entertaining manner. A rather socially and racially segregated Southern city has their posterchildren for the future, spreading and showing harmony through harmony in the most literal sense.

Help a group find its larger message, and weave it into their performance and presentation. Don't be didactic. There's no need to be. The joy of singing and the power of music will bring people along effortlessly.

Encourage Dialogue

The older I get, the more I realize how little I know, how much there is to learn from others, and how complicated communication can be. Before starting, I make sure the group knows I welcome comments, questions, and dissent. If someone thinks an idea is stupid, I want them to say "that's stupid!" so I either have to defend my suggestion to their satisfaction, or come up with an alternative. A great coaching session is a dialogue between singers and coach, with ideas presented, considered, molded to fit a group's sound and personality. It keeps me on my toes, and ultimately ensures a more deeply rewarding experience for us all.

Change Anything

A chord isn't working in an arrangement? Change it. Don't like where the sopranos are standing? Move them. The group's making too much sound for a passage? Drop down to one on a part. Nothing is off the table, and nothing is sacred, especially in a coaching session. If you have a big, bold, potentially crazy idea you should most certainly try it, and sometimes it won't work. Good! The group will see you take a risk, fail, and rebound, which is exactly what you're asking them to do.

Remember: contemporary a cappella is young, even while a cappella is old. Every year popular music changes, and a cappella along with it. We're constantly testing and trying, changing and growing. As such, you will not always be right, and things you suggest will not always work. That's not a problem. The only problem would be to assume you always know best, or that one particular approach/technique will always work. Stay young and hungry, with open eyes and ears, and you'll learn as much from your session as the singers do.

Have Fun

There are times when gratification needs to be delayed, when a chord needs to be laboriously worked and reworked, but those moments are few and far between. Music is fun, singing is fun, a cappella is fun, and rehearsal really should be fun. As such, make your coaching sessions fun. Smile, laugh, crack jokes, don't take yourself too seriously. Bring your love of a cappella to bear. Get excited. Be stupid. Tell stories about stupid mistakes you've made. Remember that the singers will likely be a bit scared and worried about being judged. Remind them that you're not there to judge them, but rather to help them reach their greatest potential. Remind them that they can throw out all your ideas as soon as you leave, so it can't hurt to jump in with both feet and try them. Have fun, and one way or another make sure the singers are having fun.



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