The Most Important Thing

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2009-02-17

Let's just say you're in an a cappella group, and you're getting a nice, warm reaction from the crowd, but it's nothing amazing. No stomping, no screaming, no undies thrown on stage. You'd like a bigger response, but you're not sure why you're not getting one.

Let's figure it out.

Is it your tuning?

Groups do spend lots of time working on their tuning, which is probably a holdover from their days in chorus. It's nice to have a group that sings in perfect tune, but you know what? 98% of your audience can't tell, unless your tuning is absolutely atrocious. You don't need to spend any more time on tuning.

Is it your blend?

Do you think your audience notices blend if they're not able to notice nuances in tuning? Try again.

Is it your dynamics?

Dynamics are good, and most groups would benefit from quieter quiets and louder louds, but with the exception of a couple nice moments, this isn't gonna bring home the bacon. Keep looking.

Is it your appearance? What you're wearing? Your blocking on stage?

Those things actually have more of an impact than most groups think, but it's not central. It's more like having your cupcake in a nice patterened foil wrapper as opposed to plain paper. Steps it up, lets people know you're serious, but isn't gonna make the cupcake taste better.

Is it your song choice?

You're getting closer... not every group is going to be as effective singing every song. Are you choosing your repertoire based on what you like to sing, or what you think will really deliver to an audience. Getting warmer...

Is it your arrangement?

Ooh - getting colder. Sorry. I'm a professional arranger, and I'm gonna tell you that the arrangement does have some subtle importance, but ultimately a simple, obvious arrangement can get a better reception than a brilliant complicated one. Heck, most people don't even know what arranging is. Go back a step and keep looking.

Is it your voices?

So close! But not exactly. The voices in your group are important, but as with any chorus, they're melded together into a unified stew, which rounds out the sound. Together, your edges will be rounded, individual characteristics will be restrained, and you'll strive for unity, which is a good thing for the backgrounds. Now can you figure it out?

Is it the solo?

Yes, yes, yes. The solo. The single person standing at the front of the stage. The emotional and musical focal point of every pop tune for the past century.

A cappella groups are too often focused on creating a tight sound, and spend their rehearsals on everything related to the background. But when you're looking at the Mona Lisa, you're not staring at the bridge in the background, are you? In fact, I'll bet you didn't even know there's a bridge back there. Well, your audience doesn't realize the color note your tenor is singing in measure 23. They don't know what a color note is, and don't care.

They want to be taken on a journey of notes and words. They want an emotional and musical tour guide, and your soloist is that person.

Now there is a problem: the kind of person who joins an a cappella group is sometimes less interested in singing the solo and more interested in the background notes. The first step is to recognize this face. Second, realize that there is a great solo for every person in your group, without question, just as there are a limitless variety of songs, styles and meanings. It's about finding the right match. If you're looking for ideas, try heading to a karaoke bar on a quiet night, and get crazy, inviting members of your group to step out of their comfort zone and try some songs they wouldn't normally consider for themselves. There's a good match for everyone.

Then it's a matter of practice and focus. If most groups spent 10% of the time working on solos that they do on the background parts, I'll bet their concerts would be twice as compelling. Song after song would take on a new energy and focus, as the entire group would be on the same page as to the song's meaning, and making musical choices to help support the soloist, all the while giving the soloist center stage. Help that person shine - that's your job as a background singer.

What's that you say? Your group doesn't have solos? Everything is sung by sections? Well, now I'm gonna have to give you a little tough love. There are devotees of barbershop groups and lovers of classical choral music, but they're hardly the norm. 99% of the world is looking for that one person they can relate to, listen to, fall in love with. Lead singers are our Amercian royalty (along with movie stars and sports heros... and the movie stars and sports heros often want to be lead singers!), and people love singers because they help us understand ourselves and the world. They take us on journeys, and take emotional risks so that we don't have to. We can sit back, nod, love the music, and smile, empathizing quietly.

A group of people is just not as capable of creating the same nuanced emotional statement. Don't believe me? Have you ever seen an ancient Greek play, where the chorus speaks as one? It's a jarring experience, and they're only capable of putting across a couple of broad, unified emotions (anger, pathos). Can you imagine if an entire scene were just groups of people talking? Well, alas, that's group singing for you.

There is, without a doubt, some gloriously effective choral music of all styles... but it's insanely difficult to get right, and more often falls short of its mark. A song like this belongs in every a cappella group's repertoire... but you should not expect the audience to leap out of their seat time and again for choral pieces. It's just not gonna happen.

What will make your audience go crazy is having the right song sung by the right member of your group... and having that person pull no punches. The crazy, energetic tenor in your group should be singing a song that lets him run wild, and your introverted alto should have a spotlight moment with a quiet, heartfelt ballad. Match the song to the person, and then make your performance all about helping that person bring the song to its utmost level of emotional expression.

No, don't cast away tuning. That's not what I'm saying. But the next time you're in rehearsal, think about how much time you're spending on things your audience will likely never notice, and how little time you're spending on the solo. And then flip it around.

Your audience will thank you. Profusely.



related articles