Combat A Cappella

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2014-02-05

Dear Arrangers,

Please sing your own arrangements. On stage. Repeatedly. 

Sincerely, Deke 

...not enough for a blog? OK, I'll explain: 

Since the tender age of 7, I've been performing in vocal groups in a variety of locations, in a variety of situations. Early in the morning, with a cold, after traveling all night, etc. I love gigging. It's in my blood, and I can't imagine ever stopping. Singing makes me whole, and a big part of my life's work is both to inspire others to sing, and create infrastructure, opportunities and materials that make that more possible for everyone.

And I would say my arrangements benefit from the experiences I have on stage, on the road, learning not only what the voice can do at its best, but what it can do on balance, wherever, whenever.

As a cappella has expanded around the globe, I've seen a tremendous growth in the number of contemporary a cappella arrangers, both professional and casual. This makes me very happy, as a cappella needs many, many arrangers. If you'll allow a food analogy, if we want everyone to eat, we need lots and lots of chefs, cooking meals all around the globe. Big, extravagant meals and simple dishes. Banquets and snacks. As it should be.

However, I've seen a growing trend that I fear might be taking us off course a bit: big, lavish arrangements that are performable only under the most controlled conditions.

Perhaps the proliferation of multi-layered studio recordings and carefully edited in-studio youtube videos and inspired and reinforced this ethic, with groups and solo singers trying to impress each other and a growing fan base with ever more dense and wide harmonies.

These ivory tower, crystal-delicate arrangements are indeed often beautiful when painstakingly recorded and edited, but undoubtedly difficult to sing live. There's a great tradition of dense in-studio a cappella reaching back to the Singer's Unlimited, but remember that they were never particularly well known, appealing primarily to a rarified fan base of jazz musicians and close harmony vocalists.

A cappella may be its most technically impressive and flawless when recorded, but the fact is a cappella is most impactful and most powerful when performed live. The audience-performer connection is second to none, and I know everyone reading this can harken back to their most powerful, most life-changing a cappella memories, and by-in-large those will be either as an audience member or a singer.

To this end, we as arrangers need to make sure our arrangements are not only performable under ideal conditions, but under reasonable, real life conditions. An amazing arrangement that is largely unsingable isn't an amazing arrangement, as the arrangement isn't the point, it's merely the road map that connects an audience and performer emotionally, experientially, spiritually. To continue the road map analogy, there might be a beautiful road through the mountains that's driveable under ideal conditions, but if it's often rained or snowed out and you need special tires, you're not likely to drive it often, and when you do it might not be the ideal experience you were hoping for.

Perhaps I'm having these thoughts because I'm writing this blog in the back of a van during an 8 hour drive from Germany to Italy, with a cold. Sound check tonight when we arrive, workshop first thing tomorrow morning, lots of singing all weekend. I don't want to take the long and winding road during this journey, and when singing this weekend, I don't want to have the show's most powerful moments reliant on the extremes of my vocal range and technique, achievable only under pristine conditions.

You know what's great? Whole notes. Some of the best choral moments ever written happen on the back of whole notes. And triads. A perfectly balanced triad is a beautiful thing. And it's not impossible to sing. In fact, most great choral music was not written to be supremely challenging, and those pieces that are end up rarely performed.

You know the expression "you don't go to war with the army you want, but instead with the army you have?" Same goes for a cappella.

So, what can you do to make your arrangements "combat ready"?

* Don't rely on extremes in vocal range. Your tenor may be able to chest a high B on a perfect day, but what can he do consistently? Same goes for your basses lowest notes: just because they can sing a low C first thing Saturday morning doesn't mean they'll be able to Saturday night.

*Don't make arrangements any harder than they need to be. Sure, you need variety in arrangements, but make sure when there's variety it's something that will really change the experience for the audience. Otherwise keep it the same, or make it easy to remember ("oo" first verse, "oh" second verse, "ah" third verse). No need to spend any more time in rehearsal than absolutely necessary, and easier to learn and memorize arrangements end up tighter on stage, and allow for a larger repertoire. 

* Make your arrangements fun to sing. Boring vocal lines or too much repetition, and your singers will go into "auto pilot", which will suck the life out of the performance. Weave in cool little bits, lyrics, and playful lines, especially in you bass lines. Basses most often get boring, repetitive parts. 

* Limit yourself and your singers to a reasonable number of challenges. I speak from experience when I say that there are things I wanted on paper and in my head, and as soon as I had to sing them I no longer wanted them. Some things are just too challenging on a daily basis, too hard to balance, too difficult to sing with repeated precision. This is not to say your arrangements should all be simple, but rather make them, for lack of a better term, "reliably singable."

* Stop trying to draw attention to yourself as arranger. Great arrangements create great moments, but not one will that take the audience or singers out of the emotional focus. If you're a movie director, you want beautiful shots, but not ones that take the audience out of the story repeatedly and make them think "wow, great cinematograpy", because every time an audience member goes "meta", it takes a while for them to get back to being fully immersed in the story, and when you're busy thinking about mechanics, you're usually not feeling.

* And, as I say above, join a group and go on a road trip singing your arrangements. Then listen back to show recordings and see if you like what you hear. It's always easy to blame the shortcomings of a performance on a group of singers, but my opinion is that the first place to assign blame is on the arrangement itself. A good arrangement sets a group up for success, knowing not only what they can do but what they will do.

A great strategy is one that will win a battle, not just look good on paper and appear clever, and a great arrangement is one that will win an audience, night after night.

Got it? Good. Now get back to the trenches!



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