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Every a cappella group needs songs to sing, otherwise they’re just a group of people awkwardly standing in a curve. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve made the decision to sing and now the question is what. Allow me to help guide your decision process.

If you’re group is a vocal jazz group, a hip hop group, or some other genre specific type of group, most of this will still apply to you, so you can keep reading.

Over the years I’ve have many members come up to me and say, “I want to sing [insert song requiring a Beyonce/Steve Perry type soloist]” with out a thought of who in the group would be able to sing that song. Now it’s not to say that you can’t sing Halo just because you don’t have a Beyonce, but it certainly helps.

Example: My most recent group, Lake Shore Jive, decided that we wanted to sing the now over covered and played Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye back in February. Avant garde, I know. I put together a solid arrangement in part based on the Pentatonix and Peter Hollens versions. (What can I say, I appreciate great arranging.) The only problem was that Jive didn’t have a male lead capable of singing that song in the original key and the arrangement I put together didn’t lend itself to dropping a step or two. Our solution was to have a male sing the verses and have a female sing the choruses. It works and provides an interesting dynamic, but it was not the original intention of the arrangement.

Well, you say you want to do Somebody That I Used to Know, but you don’t have a tenor who’s comfortable on high As and Bs? Well here’s my advice. Bring the song before the group in a rehearsal before you’ve arranged it. Discuss the groups desire to do the song and pick a soloist. Then figure out where the soloist sounds best and feels most comfortable and arrange the song in that key.

Somewhere along the line people decided that a cappella groups should try their hardest to always sing songs in the original keys. I challenge you this semester to never sing a song in it’s original key. Whether it’s because you’re having a guy sing a song that traditionally has a female lead or because the range of Titanium is actually to high for your power soloist by a whole step – change it up to what works best for you group.

The founders of my new group, Suspension, are meeting tonight and one of the things we’re talking about is songs and musical direction. We’ve already planned to take this approach to most of our songs.

Take away: Plan and pick songs around the vocalists you have, not the vocalists you wish you had.

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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.

Usually I do event reviews after the fact, but today I’m going to take a minute and talk about why I’m excited for A Cappella Fest 2012.

Some of you may have read my review of A Cappella Fest Chicago from last year, and if you have you’d already know that I’m a huge fan of this event. At a base level, what’s not to love about learning in masterclasses from some of the biggest names in the game and then seeing some a top professional group (or two) tear up a stage?

Here’s a breakdown of my excitement:

1)   The Competition:

In the past the competition section of the event has been a high school event, but this year they’ve upped the ante by taking it collegiate. I can truly appreciate fostering contemporary a cappella programs in high schools, and I am a huge supporter. However, I would choose watching collegiate programs over high school ones most days of the week.

More importantly, the Midwest is finally closing in on having a SoJam or LAAF style even. Something the numerous collegiate groups in the area can easily travel to and look forward to outside of spending a whole year preparing for ICCA’s. Anytime you can compete, your group will get better. That said, if you haven’t signed up to compete in A Cappella Fest this year, what are you waiting for?

2)   The Masterclass Schedule:

I had a lot of fun in the masterclasses offered at A Cappella Fest last year. This year they’ve taken it a step further and given me more options of which to attend. Way more options. So many options that I’m actually wondering how I’ll get to everything that I want to see.

That, my friends, is a great problem to have.

Do I learn Aca-Jedi Mind Tricks from Matt Caruso or hear Chris Rishel teach groups how to gain a following in his talk Zero to Hero? Group Motivation or Group Improvisation? Songwriting or Beyond Basic Engineering? I could not be more excited for most of the talks – even ones that I know I probably won’t be able to see. I’m excited for you to learn these things from these people.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Arranging Panel with Tom Anderson and featured performers Sonos and Edge Effect.

3)   Professional Showcase:

Last years event had a matinée concert and an evening performance. I was only able to see the matinée, which was a professional (plus Voices in Your Head (who are we kidding, they’re professionals)) (order of operations shout out) showcase. It was good, but it left something to be desired.

This year they’ve opted to have to shows – The Competition and The Professional Showcase. I think this is great and I am beyond ready to hear Sonos live.  Hopefully we get some quality MC work this year as well.

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So have you bought your tickets yet? Why not? Go do it. Right now:

http://acappellafest.com/buy-tickets/

My ticket said that the After parties are included. Sold yet?

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

There are many questions you must ask yourself (and your fellow founders) before you start an a cappella group. In this series, we will explore some of those questions.

What is the charter of this group? (Why am I starting an a cappella group?)

In the spring of 2008, I was finishing freshman year of college and had decided to start the first a cappella group at my school. After quickly deciding that I had no idea what I was doing, I decided to reach out to a couple of groups who had had a great deal of success after being around just a short while. At the top of that list was BYU Noteworthy who, after just a couple years of existence, had recently won the ICCA Championship.

The director of Noteworthy at the time forwarded my email to Dave Brown, then President of CASA, now one of the brilliant voices of the Mouth Off podcast. Dave’s formula for perfect auditions is to date one of the most brilliant pieces of a cappella knowledge I’ve ever heard.

Brian, get to the point already. Alright. Here it is.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but most of what Dave told me was centered around one question that I answered at the beginning of the conversation:

Why are you starting an a cappella group?

This question may seem like an inconsequential one, but it is more important that many questions you’ll ask and be asked. This question will determine the direction your group takes for the foreseeable future and starting with the wrong charter is something that many groups never recover from.

This is not to say that there is a wrong answer to this question. The answer to this question can only be wrong if it is not what you truly want.

Are you starting a group for the camaraderie and the friendships? A cappella people are a lot of fun to hang out with (especially if you like drunkenly singing showtunes.) If you are, be prepared to start rehearsals late and for learning music to at times be slow and unfocused. These are generalizations, but it is harder to keep discipline amongst friends and people who come to rehearsal to hang out with friends.

Are you starting a group because you want to express yourself as a musician? Better make sure that you find other people that are there for the music first. Rehearsals will be tense when you’re prepping for competitions or big shows, but you’ll sound good. Perhaps you’ll record a CD that gets nominated for a CARA and is purchased by more than just your family.

Undoubtedly there are pieces of each that sound good. Everyone wants to have a group of friends who they cannot only hang out with but also produce amazing music with. Most college groups start out attempting to walk this line – few succeeding in producing amazing music. The post-collegiate world is most likely a similar case, although the intention to hang out and sing tends to be the prevailing feeling that I’ve seen.

So again I ask, why are you starting an a cappella group? This question can very well change the path you take and the success you have. Once you know what you’re looking for in your new group, you’ll have to make sure you follow through, but knowing is half the battle. We’ll discuss that and other questions later in this series.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know my feeling about the University of Chicago Voices in Your Head ICCA set this year and the first track off of their new EP – David Guetta and SIA’s Titanium. For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter – Why not? But also, I absolutely love them. Now the second track off of the Voices in Your Head album has been released, another track from their much-acclaimed ICCA set, We Found Love by Rihanna. I’m going to take a moment this morning to talk about my favorite moments from the set, the currently released tracks, and what I hope is coming.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video of this year’s Voices in Your Head ICCA set which took home the Midwest ICCA Semifinal as well as multiple performance awards.

First, couple of notes on the performance. I’ve always been fascinated by Voices’ decision to use all available solo mics and distribute them through the sections. I’ve heard it harm them a couple times when a soprano lands on a truly soprano pitch, meant to act as an overtone, but ends up louder than the bass. Most of the time, however, the blend is remarkable considering half of the group is mic’d and the other half is under their own power. I’ve always wondered if the alto with out the mic is insulted by the choice, or just how that decision is made. Any Voices in Your Head members or insiders care to share?

The choreography in this set is some of the best I’ve seen from Voices in Your Head, and one of the few times I’ve heard non-comedic choreography get cheered in a cappella.

I am a huge fan of Chris Rishel’s arranging, and this set took my adoration one step further.

Top 3 Favorite Moments:

3) The Voices’ take on We Found Love has many great moments, from the bell tones that open the piece to the massive walls of fantastically dissonant sound built at various points in the work. The one part that I consistently click back to here again and again is the final break down before Titanium. The men singing to the women “Let it go!” and the women echoing the title lyric, plus the addition of vocal percussion for the first time in the set is very effective and feels like it should have been in the original. I also love the progression that leads into this section. Really, I loved all of We Found Love.

2) I mentioned earlier in this post that this choreography for me was some of the best I’ve seen from Voices. I’ll take that one step further and say that it’s some of the best I’ve seen period. I’m at a loss to find many other ICCA sets that were on the level of this. We Found Love has this fantastic male/female divide, but the top moment for me is the choreo that makes the audience cheer during Titanium. I’m going to describe it as a set of equalizer bars. The group lines up in columns and with the members doing a specific arm motion, column by column does an in sync knee bend, creating a rolling effect across the heads of the group. That description should make it clear that I have no dance training and am not a choreographer. Hoping it made some sense…

1) The bridge of Little Lion Man by Mumford and Sons is epic. Just by the nature of what they’ve written, it should be. However, as one of the most covered songs of last year, few groups seem to capture this. Chris Rishel nailed it. (Was there ever any doubt?) I’ve clicked back and listened to this roughly minute long section close to 20 times and have found myself having to pick up my jaw off my desk even now. On top of the great arranging, it’s sung well and with great emotion – an essential piece of this song that is frequently missed by other groups.

The first two tracks from the EP have been the first two songs from this ICCA set and I can only hope Little Lion Man will be following soon. I’m going to save a full review of the tracks for after the full EP is released, but you should pick up the first two today. Probably right now even. Here’s the link.

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Thanks for taking the time to read this and I apologize to those of you who have been hoping for more posts. I’m going to be attempting to post more in the coming weeks, including some posts on arranging and group dynamic. Also, my Twitter followers are aware I will be looking for a new post-collegiate contemporary group in Chicago soon – or perhaps I will be starting one. Help finding a musical home or building one is greatly appreciated.

All my 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.

Listen to the Music is the section of AcaMidwest in which I’ll let you know what I’m listening to each week, both videos on YouTube and songs in my iTunes. I’ll also include reviews of different albums as they come out.

Playing on my iTunes this week: For Christmas this year I received a lot of iTunes gift cards. They’ve almost all been spent by now, mostly on college a cappella. I fully understand how cool that sounds. First, if you haven’t picked up the studio tracks from The Sing-Off, do so. Immediately. Apologize, Landslide, and Creep are all top notch. I also picked up my copy of BOCA 2011. This week’s track is off of that album – Coming Home, originally performed by John Legend, covered by Northwestern University’s Purple Haze. This arrangement just feels good. From the swelling dynamics to the perfect syllable choices that help tell the story carried by the song, this track is fantastic. The soloist makes this song his own, and while his voice has a similar sound to John Legend, it’s clear that he’s not trying too hard to sound like the original.

What I’m Watching on Youtube: Remember when I said that University of Chicago Voices in Your Head was going to do some big things this year? Check out this video.

Additional notes:

I fully understand how outdated this post is. I felt the need to post it as it had never been published. Check out those songs and then check back for some more updates coming soon as I have graduated college and have some free time while I search for a job.

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