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You guys may recall in the fall that I wrote a post about why I was looking forward to AcappellaFest. Well, Chicago’s got two amazing a cappella festivals this year and here’s what I’m looking forward to at the new addition to the SingStrong family, SingStrong Chicago.

1) Doing some good beyond music. Some of you may be familiar with the SingStrong story, but this is an event for charity. Here’s what SingStrong.org has to say about the event:

SingStrong is an international a cappella music festival with over 200 Singers and presenters! Beatbox, barbershop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, doo-wop, classical, throat singing, comedy and more! This year, 100% of SingStrong’s profits will be donated to charity. The overwhelming majority of the money raised will support the Alzheimer’s Association while a smaller portion will be donated to support the local choral program.

So all of the aca-knowledge you’ll absorb during the weekend and amazing concerts you’ll see will not only benefit you, but they’ll help others.

2) Aca Idol. Some of you may know that I’m coordinating this event this year, but that’s not why I’m so excited about it. This is one of the few competitions that has both collegiate and post-collegiate groups competing and has a cash prize. Plus, three judges have a great equalizer in determining the winner – a 4th vote coming from a call in vote by the audience after all of the groups have performed. I bet there’s a lot of ICCA performers who wished they had that.

Also, I’ve heard all of the groups that are performing, and I gotta say, they’re good. Real good.

3) I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it’s going to be to see Nota, Swingle Singers, Julia Easterlin, Blue Jupiter, THUMMp, Traces, New Tradition Chorus and a bunch of amazing VPs rock the SingStrong stage. (I’ve most certainly forgot someone. Suspension will be there too.) I’ve only ever seen most of these groups on TV or YouTube and can’t wait to experience each act live. Even without the classes a weekend pass is so worth it.

But of course,

4) WHY WOULD YOU NOT GO TO THE CLASSES? Let’s just talk about who will be talking about arranging. John David Maybury, Tom Anderson and Ben Bram. In case you think you’re unfamiliar with their work, here’s a youtube video with some snippets of just a couple of Ben’s achievements:

I got a chance to chat with Tom Anderson at AcappellaFest and see him host an arranging panel and I must say, if you arrange for your group or are thinking about arranging for your group, this guy has quite a mind. And he’s now the president of CASA. Oh yeah, and John’s talking about the future of arranging and rehearsals with some pretty impressive technology.

Coincidentally, if your group is thinking about auditioning for the Sing Off, you’ll probably be able to pick up some helpful tips from one of the dozen or so people that either performed or worked on the show that will be at SingStrong.

There’s so many other things that I can’t even begin to explain them all. Just go check out the schedule: http://chicago.singstrong.org/index.php/seminars

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Yeah, it’s going to be an incredible event and you should probably be there. For more information on all aspects of the event, visit http://chicago.singstrong.org

ICCA season is upon us again and this year it is full Pitch Perfect references and new groups rising to collegiate a cappella glory. I haven’t had the opportunity to attend enough ICCA events in my lifetime thus far, so when I had the chance to head down to Normal, IL for the event at ISU, I had to take advantage. Here’s a quick review of the performances.

Host Group: ISU Acafellaz. This classic all-male group (with a classic all-male group name) had some of their best moments during judging deliberation but gave us a good warmup for the night and a heads up that the mic’ing for the hall was going to be less than adequate for most of the groups. More on their performances later.

In Competition Order:

The University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) Xtension Chords. Same outfits they’ve been wearing every year that I can remember, these guys opted not to run out on stage this time around. The choreography, arrangements, and set order all felt really familiar from the last time I had seen the Xchords perform at ICCAs. The started off their set with Babel (Mumford & Sons) using a bass soloist. I’ve been recently thinking about some Mumford arrangements and the “jim ba da” syllable choice seemed to be a good one, if not the common one. It worked for them and the opener had great energy. The Xchords opted to key change at the end of the piece, rather than stop and take a new pitch from the pipe. This is a great way to literally connect your set together, but make sure your change is clean or it will do more harm than good. A tenor soloist stepped out for Swallowed in the Sea (Coldplay) and based on the range he showed in his background parts in the first song, I was more excited to hear what he would do. Unfortunately the key was just too low and the song took a long time to let him really get in his wheelhouse and flex some vocal muscle. Closing with Some Nights (Fun) could have been a bold choice this year, especially since they ended up having to perform first (again), but the lead carried them to close out a very solid all around performance.

The Northwestern University Undertones. I was looking forward to seeing this group perform after hearing good things about their set from the year prior. The came out strong with the first Pink song of the night in Raise Your Glass. The soloist had a fantastic sincere quality in her voice and backed by the rest of the 17 member group, they put out quite a sound. The shout out to the tv show Cheers to close it was clever. Next up was Follow Me Back Into the Sun (The Rescues) and there was a trio that surrounded a single female lead who would turn out to be one of my favorite soloists of the show. The arrangement had some great moments and flowed smoothly into the closer, another Rescues song, You’re Not Listening. As I noted during my live tweeting, they took a note out of the Voices In Your Head playbook from last year by bringing the songs back together to close out the set. There were some pitch issues here and there, but it was overall a good set.  Many (good) sets don’t have 3 songs that truly fit together, but in this case the final two were so melded that I couldn’t help but feel like the first song didn’t fit in which may have hurt them overall with the judges.

Illinois State University Secondary Dominance. Clear hometown favorites from the second they stepped onto the stage. Leading off with a Jessie J song in Domino, was one of the many head nods to Pitch Perfect by the all-female groups in this competition. Warwick Avenue (Duffy) was the second song of the set and one of the things that was really clear about this set was that these girls knew how to end a song. The final chords of both of the first two songs were aca-awesome (couldn’t resist). Closing with Hate (I Really Don’t Like You) (Plain White T’s) left this set with lots of power belting and high hopes of what would come from the rest of the all-female groups in the evening. Side note: There were 4 all-female groups and only 1 all-male. Feel free to fact check me on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s a first in an ICCA competition. What hurt Secondary Dominance the most in the end was the typical all-female troubles – lots of highs and not enough lows – something which the next group would handle spectacularly.

The University of Illinois (Champaign Urbana) Rip Chords. The second of 4 U of I groups to hit the stage, these girls made their low altos and strong VP known from the get go with Valerie (Amy Winehouse). I rarely notice costuming unless it’s a groups standard (Xchords) or terrible, but the ladies of Rip Chords looked extremely classy in their matching tops, dark jeans, and blazers. We All Need Saving (Jon McLaughlin) was the slow/tone poem piece of this set. One thing I noticed in the first two arrangements was the gaps when the soloist wasn’t singing. I don’t think everything needs to have a filler, but We All Need Saving felt very square and at times empty. These concerns were all but forgotten when the Rip Chords entered their closer, No Light, No Light (Florence + The Machine). An outstanding soloist rose back by a very full arrangement and some outstanding percussion made this one of my favorite all-female performances of all time.

Intermission – I’ll take a moment to comment on how strange it was to see an All-Illinois quarterfinal. With separation of the Midwest Region into Great Lakes and Midwest, logical grouping of universities was sure to follow. It will probably make for several rough quarterfinals this year with the U of C groups all going head to head, and likewise for Illinois, Michigan, Missouri State, WashU, Northwestern, and other traditional midwestern powerhouses I’m forgetting about at the moment.

Illinois Wesleyan Silence Interrupted. The first of two groups form Wesleyan rounds out the Illinois school represented in this competition. I heard this was this group’s first year, and they should be commended for getting accepted to and putting together solid ICCA set after just one year. While this set wasn’t quite of the same caliber of the rest of the groups (partially hampered by only having 10 people vs. the normal 15), there are definitely big things to come from this energy filled bunch. One comment on the set was that they performed A Team by Ed Sheeran which I’ve been expecting to hear all year, but had not heard before this show. I’m a big fan of this song, so if anybody else has done a cover, send me a link.

University of Illinois (Champaign Urbana) Girls Next Door. Try and find this group on twitter some time – NSFW. Just sayin. First Adele tracks of the night, and with all of the all-female groups, I must admit, I was expecting many more. These girls lead off with a mashup of Duffy/Adele with lots of energy. I don’t have a whole lot of notes on this set except for their second song. Hide and Seek (Imogen Heap) came out in 2005 and was consequently performed by every a cappella group in America (and other nations as well) for about the next 5 years. Then Jason Derulo sampled it for a song and people started singing mmm whatcha say, again. The Girls Next Door sang a very clean and beautiful version of this song, but there was nothing original about it and it’s place in a 2013 ICCA set is borderline unforgivable. They closed with I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not a Soldier (The Killers) wrapping up a well sung, but very long feeling set.

Illinois Wesleyan Touch of Class. The final all-female group of the evening. Leading off with a very strong version of Mama Who Bore Me, I could help but think the VP was unnecessary. I recalled a moment in the pitch perfect book where someone was talking about whether or not to have VP on a Beelzebubs track and they decided that they would quietly mix the VP in the background, which was “no decision at all.” This song left me wanting to hear it again without the drums, which speaks to the quality of the singing, rather than against the quality of the VP. The next song was Bottom of the River (Delta Rae) and it was mashed up with Skyfall (Adele) – a mashup which thematically made a lot of sense. The soloist on Skyfall was really outstanding as well and made this one of my favorite songs of the night. Touch of Class closed their set with Perfect (Pink) and swapped soloists about every 8 bars. This is great for showing off your groups talent and making people feel involved, but I feel like it often hurts continuity (unless you do it like the SoCal Vocals). All around I was very impressed by the all-female groups of the evening, despite my initial uneasiness that one of them would come out as the first version of the Bellas. (Enough with the Pitch Perfect references already…)

University of Illinois (Champaign Urbana) No Comment. I heard good things about this group’s sound check and had been looking forward to their set all night. I was not disappointed and consequently took very few notes on the set because of it. They lead off with Dance with Somebody (Whitney Houston) and all I wrote down on the page was “Damn.” Great soloists and great arranging made this set all around amazing. Those of you watching my live tweeting probably saw my commentary on the set, but the second song Breathe Again would’ve made Sara B proud. The final song included an unnecessary dub step drop, but it didn’t take away from song.

As the judges deliberated, the Acafellaz came out and sang a short set before bringing some random audience members on stage to play a funny a cappella version of Don’t Forget the Words (with the songs they had just sang). The soloists for the Acafellaz were very strong across the board, especially their bari-tenors. The judging deliberation was pleasantly short, thanks in part to the length of the evening I’m sure. Here are the results (as written on VarsityVocals.com:

1st: No Comment, Univeristy Of Illinois Champaign-Urbana (423 points)
2nd: Xtension Chords, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (369 points)
3rd: Undertones, Northwestern University (311 points)

Outstanding Soloist: Kelsey Stanker of No Comment for “Breathe Again”
Outstanding Arrangement: Xtension Chords of Alex Blomarz for “Swallowed in the Sea”
Outstanding Choreography: No Comment for the entire set

No Comment was the clear winners, but that second place slot could have gone to any number of groups in my opinion. The judges opted not to give out best VP but it could have easily gone to either Rip Chords or No Comment. In general, poor mic technique hurt what were probably perfectly capable beatboxers and I encourage all groups to make sure you get in some good practice with mics. I’m sure I missed some things that I’ll think about later and I have some additional thoughts on the ICCAs and competing that I will try and get down in the coming week. For those of you that have tweeted/messaged me in some way about the live tweeting, I’m glad I was able to connect you to the event, even minimally. I will be at the U of C quarterfinal, but this time as a judge, so I won’t be able to tweet up a storm like last time. Hopefully somebody else is willing to take my place – I’ll even offer up my handle. This post as a lot of words. Maybe some videos in the next post…

I spent the day yesterday at AcappellaFest at University of Chicago. A full day of masterclasses and acabombs (mini-performances) topped off with a Professional Showcase with Sonos and The Edge Effect. Jealous yet?

Across the next couple weeks I’ll be posting a review and multiple posts around tips and topics discussed at the event. I had chances to speak to Charlie Friday and Amanda Aldag about mic technique and purchasing sound equipment, Tom Anderson about arranging, and Matt Caruso about the psychological side of music. Those are just some of the bigger names I picked up tips and tricks from. The other people – amazing people that you just haven’t heard of yet – asked wonderful questions and created remarkable conversations ranging from why we should document everything in contemporary a cappella to why (or why not) to bench your altos for half a song if you don’t have something good for them to seen. Yes, that second one was a very specific conversation.

Here’s the main point:

If you find yourself with an opportunity to go to a major a cappella festival, take it. SingStrong, SoJam, LAAF – to name a few of many amazing festivals being put together by CASA and others this year – provide amazing opportunities to sing, learn, and network.

I’ll put together a longer post on the numerous benefits of these festivals in a later post, but it was on my mind and I thought I’d say hello to my 5 readers (counting my family). More soon, everyone.

Best,

Brian

Overboard is perhaps best known for their Free Track Tuesdays where, every week for a year, the group released a free download of a newly arranged and recorded track. Several of those tracks remain staples in my a cappella collection. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to see the group perform live when they were on their midwest tour this past week. I must admit that, as a fan of their recorded work including tracks like Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, I was some what doubtful about the live performance that this group would put on. I was pleasantly surprised.

First, Uncommon Ground (on Clark in Wrigleyville) has a great personal feel to their performance room and great food and drinks. I would definitely recommend it for either a nice dinner or a show.

Now for Overboard

For those of you unfamiliar with the current version of Overboard, the members that performed on this stop of the tour were founder Nicholas Girard, Hyannis Sound alum Alfredo “Fredo” Austin III, hilarious Bari-tenor Caleb Whelden, local deep bass Donovan Davis, and the newest member of the group, Alex Margarite. Each of these guys was amazingly talented and I’m now convinced that being a member of Overboard requires you to have a massive range. I’m not 100% sure on these pitches, but I’m pretty sure I heard Nick sing a low E and a high B in full voice – not too mention his awesome VP solo.

The set list contained everything from a mashup of a majority of the top 40 hits of the past 5 years, to lesser known (but better) tracks like Skullcrusher Mountain by Jonathan Coulton (if you don’t know him, check him out), to a song sung entirely in Icelandic. The balance of the set was great for non-a cappella fans, and the different takes on well known songs kept it more than interesting for those of us who have heard a million versions of You Give Love a Bad Name. (By the way, if you want your group to massively expand your repertoire, learn a song a week for a year.) Most of the set was sung with mics, although my favorite pieces were done au natural. This photo is of the group performing “Freebird” as their encore.

Overboard performing “Freebird” live in Chicago.

The soloists of Overboard are truly impressive and that is what really made the evening. At times the bass and vp (by virtue of the mixing) overpowered some of the intricate backgrounds, but their soloists really took control of the room. Alex has some amazing talent and is a great pick up by Overboard. His duet with Nick (who sang bass and played his body as a drum set) on Watching You Watch Him by Eric Hutchinson was one of the best moments of the evening. See a youtube video of it here. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Fredo’s series of incredible solos, including rapping some Ludacris on How Low early in the show.

It was a great night of fantastic music and if Overboard ever comes to your town, don’t miss an opportunity to see these guys perform. Also, check out their tracks on iTunes. Their all-Beatles album “Help!” is one that should be apart of every Beatle and a cappella fans collection alike.

So since I last posted information about auditions, some things have changed. First, the date and time. The new audition date and time is:

Saturday, September 15th at 2pm

Additionally, the location has been moved. Some of you who have inquired were told that we would be hosting auditions at one of our member’s homes in Andersonville. Now auditions will be held at Vocomotion Studios in Skokie. What’s more, this will be where a majority of our rehearsals will be held.

I will follow up by email with those of you who have already contacted me about auditioning. If you’re interested in being part of the group, please email us at suspensionacappella@gmail.com.

Finally, we settled into a musical direction last night. Our goal is to sing more indie style/lesser covered music as well as different takes on more popular songs. An imperfect simile is to think Sonos with 10 people or so. We’ve got a bit of talent in our founding members including a cappella producer Freddie Feldman on vocal percussion.

Audition Information

So I’ve been talking about starting a new a cappella group for a couple weeks now. Well, it’s happening people. Here’s some information. (Finally, I know.) We’ve got a name:

Suspension

Pretty cool right? Ok, coolish. We’ve also got an audition date and time:

Sunday, September 16th at 6pm. 

We have a charter and we’re finishing up the final details of the group itself. If you’re interested in auditioning, or aren’t sure, but would like more information, please don’t hesitate to email us at:

SuspensionACappella@gmail.com

Also, follow the new group on twitter for updates:

@SuspensionVocal

Once again, thank you for all of the support you’ve provided me in this adventure. I hope that I can return the favor with great music and more (hopefully great) a cappella information.

Best,

Brian

Quick post this week and the topic is a simple one. Pitch Perfect – The upcoming major motion picture “about” a cappella. I’ve known this was coming for a while, but completely forgot about it until a couple weeks ago when I heard about the preview in Chicago. Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to that preview and I’m now waiting impatiently until October 5th. This movie is Fired Up meets collegiate a cappella. There will undoubtedly be people in the a cappella community that hate this movie and what it stands for and all that. I’m just jazzed that I can see some real a cappella music in a major motion picture that’s not the Warblers.  Check out this trailer and let me know what you think in the comments.

Hey Everybody,

First, thank you for reading this blog. Second, thank you for all of the support I’ve already received about the news that I will be starting a new coed a cappella group in Chicago, IL. While I don’t have many specific details about auditions and such just yet, I can assure you I’ll be keeping you all up to date once the information is decided.

As of right now, it looks like auditions will be around the first week of September.

We are still writing a charter, but the intention of this group is to produce quality music and be active in the a cappella sphere. Performances, competitions, showcases, and recording an album (funded by gigs) are all part of the plan.

Stylistically, the group intends to work to push the bounds of the contemporary a cappella genre (wide as that already is) and to perform music from a wide variety of genres from classical to classic rock, punk to pop.

Ok, that’s some information, mostly generic. Point is,

1) We’re going to sing a lot of different stuff.

2) We’re going to sing it well.

3) We’re going to sing it in a lot of different places for hopefully many different people.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, and you live in or around the general Chicago area, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me about being a part of this adventure. Comment on this post, DM me on twitter. Once we decide on a name (still accepting ideas), I’ll have an email address for you to send information too, as well as new social media accounts. I like to be on top of my emarketing game, what can I say.

Until then, thanks again for all your support. I truly appreciate it.

Best,

Brian

First post back and I’m feeling good. Today in Arranger’s corner I’m going to talk about “The Art of the Mash-up.” I feel uniquely qualified to talk about this because I was labelled my Harmonic Uprising as the master of the mash-up. Wondering why? Watch this video:

Some of your minds may have just been thoroughly blown. Well, I can hope, can’t I? The real question is, Brian, how did you come up with something like that?

When I started thinking about this post, I was trying to decide if the ability to write a mash-up is nature or nurture. That is to say, can I actually teach someone to write a good mash-up. Every year I hear groups try to piece songs together that don’t really belong together or they take two songs that could be perfect together and botch the arrangement. Now I’ve arranged mash-ups in several different ways, but here are my keys to coming up with the best possible product.

1) Decide on a Song. Or a genre for that matter. If you pick one song to start with, it will make finding a second or third song considerably easier. Find a song that has a great, well-known beat or has a really great melody. Try to stray from anything too obscure or you might not be able to find a song to match up with it. For this example, let’s take Beyonce’s Halo. This song has a memorable beat, a solid melody, and a simple chord progression.

2) Figure out what to mash it up with. This is easier said than done, I know. Often times the best mash-ups come to you in a dream (see video above) or completely on accident. For example, you’re listening to the radio and your friend driving with you starts singing a song that is not the song playing because that song has been stuck in their head all day. Sometimes the best mash-ups are discovered as a gift from the a cappella gods. Right now you’re probably saying, “Brian, that’s not very helpful.” You’re right. So try this. Figure out the tempo/beat of your song and memorize how it goes. Then listen to the radio in that same genre, or shuffle through your iTunes. Try singing your chosen song along to other songs. You’ll feel stupid at some point when you try to sing Halo along to Put Your Records On or something by Reel Big Fish, but eventually you’ll find something you like. (Note, if using iTunes, don’t waste time singing anything Beyonce along to anything Reel Big Fish.)

For this example, I’m going to take Kelly Clarkson’s Already Gone. I know, it’s an easy way out, but there’s a point. This song has the same beat as Halo and fundamentally the same chord progression. Both were written by Ryan Tedder and they have the same number of bars and are nearly the same tempo as well.

3) If you find more than one song that fits with your original song, try them all out, then try them all out together. This may require the help of a friend. Pick one who is either in your a cappella group or is musically inclined.

4) Once you have your songs picked, figure out how to put them together. This is crucial. You may have picked three of the most awesome songs that anyone has ever heard and in your head they all mash-up together perfectly. If you can’t translate what you hear in your head to paper so your group can learn it, it won’t matter. This will vary, but as a general rule, I like to use the standard “(Intro) Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus X2” method of writing songs and apply it to my Mash-Up. In my example, I’ll take the Intro and first verse and chorus from Halo, then I’ll take the second verse and chorus from Already Gone. Then in the final chori I’ll layer them over the top of each other and create the actual “Mash-up” part of the song.

5) Sometimes the bridge is what makes the song. Ex. In Her Eyes by Josh Groban. Not iconic, but the one that first comes to mind. In this case, I have a great set up for the rest of my song but I don’t really have an outstanding bridge plan. I could use the bridge from either Halo or Already Gone, but then the song might not feel balance. This is where your third song can some in handy (if you found one.) Or you can do what I did, and figure out what ties the previous two together. In this case, it was Ryan Tedder. So I listened to a bunch of songs by One Republic to figure out one that had a similar chord progression and just all around felt similar. Say (All I Need) was my final choice.

6) Once completed, go back and take little sections (licks or rhythmic patterns) and move them in between songs. This might be the bass line or a certain part from the intro. Don’t be afraid to try and fail, just make sure your end product works.

Remember, the best mash-up ideas in the world and often the best singing can’t save a terrible arrangement. Make sure you make each piece of the mash-up solid and don’t neglect a section because of lack of ideas or spite. (Some of you will know what I mean.) Below I’ve posted what the mash-up described above sounds like. Here’s wishing you luck on your next great mash-up.

Hey guys,

It’s getting to be finals time. That means that I am swamped with class work, final concerts, finishing up an internship, and then end of my volleyball preseason workouts. Needless to say, I’ve been really busy and haven’t found much time to write posts. I apologize. Here’s what is going to happen in the very near future. There will be a new “Listen to the Music” post coming soon featuring some newly posted videos from this semesters concerts. Did I mention that I love this YouTube time of year? I do believe so, yes. Also, and perhaps more exciting, I will be writing reviews of the Sing-Off. I had to watch both episodes after the fact this week due to dress rehearsals and Harmonic Uprising’s final concert of the semester, but I found time to catch up on Hulu. That said, I’ve started writing my review of the first two episodes. There will be a post for each, hopefully close to the day after the episode is released.

Thank you for all of the support you have provided to me across this semester. This blog was started as a multimedia journalism project, but I will continue to post and hopefully reach a higher frequency of posts in the coming semester. Thank you for you patience and your following. I truly appreciate it. As always, don’t hesitate to ask for what you want to read, suggest new things I can talk about, and invite me to your show so I can support you and also write a review. Happy Holidays to all.

Happy Caroling,

Brian