Don't judge a Doctor Who by its cover...
Try as I might to resist, the temptation of Doctor Who was too strong. After years of painful resistance and the persistence of my friend Alex, I forced myself to watch and, as much as I don't want to admit it, I love it. It's a great show.
So why did I resist? It's the same reason that more and more people complain to me about how they don't want to try a cappella music. I understand. If someone wanted to hear "Moves Like Jagger," why would they want to listen to a cover of it sung by someone who wasn't Adam Levine?
I resisted Doctor Who for a long time because I was aware that each episode followed the same basic formula. In fact, a recent article in Entertainment Weekly confirmed what I had already suspected:
"The show swiftly established a dramatic template that remains intact today. A typical adventure starts with The Doctor hanging out in the control room of the TARDIS with his companion...The Doctor usually assures said companion that their next destination will be somewhere nicely free of imminent danger but...he is always horribly wrong...But no matter what peril the pair encounter, it is ultimately overcome...Cue credits and crazy, futuristic theme music." (Collis, 32)
With the knowledge that a show is unlikely to change its format after forty-nine years on the air does not a curious viewer make.
The same problem can be compared to hesitant a cappella fans, whose expectations of a cappella arrangements are just as predictable:
"A pop tune appears on the radio and becomes an instant hit. Singers, college students the majority, wish to live out their fantasy dreams of becoming a rock star, but due to the harsh realities of the music business, their efforts go horribly wrong. They seek solace in companions who feel the same way and they realize together that they can live out their dreams without ever having to learn a single instrument. They use their voices, imitating the sound of the original recording and covering the song live in front of an audience. Fans go crazy. Cue credits and crazy, futuristic theme music."
Now we, the a cappella performers, arrangers, and singers know that this is not accurate. A cappella music is an art form that evolves like the progression of Rock and Roll or Jazz. But lately, even a cappella fans have struggled to break from the mundane formula plaguing many a cappella groups:
"The arranger finds the sheet music, a chord sheet, or transcribes from a recording. The arranger writes the bass line out first, throws in a ton of doo's and dah's, gives back-up harmonies to the belters, and maybe throws in a mash-up for good measure. Cue credits and crazy, futuristic theme music."
Where is the next evolutionary moment of a cappella music? Have we fallen into a rut that we can't get out of? Is there a way to innovate a cappella to a place that it has not yet gone?
I do not have a definite answer, but I believe it starts with these suggestions.
1) Train Your Musicians.
I believe the most common cause of a cappella fatigue is that arrangers and directors don't challenge their singers often enough. We still hold on to the belief that the song we select is more important than the arrangement, as if singing "Call Me Maybe" is enough to stand out. Truthfully, I believe audiences would rather hear a unique version of "Don't Stop Believing" that they had never heard before.
But really, the issue is time. Doctor Who has all the time in the world. But we are not The Doctor. With note learning, choreography practice, socializing time, and competitions/performances to prepare for, the exercises required to mold and shape your singers into advanced musicians (sight reading, improvisation, vocal technique) are not the priority.
But what if it was? What if, for just a couple of months, your a cappella group drops off the face of the Earth, locks themselves in whatever room you practice in, and commits to becoming better musicians? I wonder what your arrangements would look like then...
2) Educate Your Advocates.
A cappella is still in the young, developing stage. Many believe that a cappella music is fun, but serves no educational purpose. Choral teachers, especially high school teachers, can counter this belief by convincing the non-believers that a cappella is a career-making musical genre. We can release and sell a cappella records. We can teach others about a cappella. We can become recording engineers. We can be professional arrangers. We can study a cappella law. We can write books about a cappella. We can produce festivals to promote a cappella.
This is no different than working for the music business.
3) Expand Your Palate.
I am desperate to hear more Weird Al a cappella covers. That's a personal choice, but he represents a sub-section of music that is largely overlooked. As a past and current member of a cappella groups, I know how hard it is to convince your group to sing something they never heard, especially from a band that is mostly unknown. But do we really try hard enough to make them listen? Do groups push hard enough for new material? What if every group designated one or two spots in their repertoire list for new, and totally unheard of, music. Or even [gasp] original songs?
Doctor Who is a show about opening your mind and discovering new possibilities, new worlds, and new cultures. A cappella music should be the same.
Collis, C. (August, 2012). "The doctor is in." Entertainment Weekly, 1218, 29-35