I attended a recent a cappella festival this weekend on Long Island. It was here that I began to think about a strange phenomenon that occurs at every a cappella concert/festival/performance…something that I call "Pavlov’s a cappella."
For those of you who are confused, let’s start with Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist who was famous for his theory of classical conditioning. In other words, he’s that famous scientist who rang the bell every time he fed his dog. The dog was so used to hearing a bell every time it ate that, when Pavlov rang the bell, the dog began to salivate.
This experiment of classical conditioning could apply to a cappella. See if this scenario “rings true” for you (pun intended):
You put on an a cappella concert. It doesn’t matter how good your arrangements are, how well you rehearsed, how great your blend is; the only the thing the crowd really responds to is “high notes.” When one of your soloists sings a high note, the audience goes nuts.
Is this classical conditioning of the audience? Are they so used to high belting notes that they now expect them? Are those the only kinds of things audiences care about? Does that diminish the arrangement or the effort of the group? Should we cater to the audience and give them lots of high notes, or try to re-write their brains to care more about the musicality of everyone?
There are many factors to consider as well, before you investigate this phenomenon:
-How much a cappella music has the audience been exposed to?
-What is the average age of the audience?
-How many audience members know the people on stage and how many are strangers?
Try an experiment: At the next a cappella concert you go to, try to listen for the phenomenon. Does the audience go crazy for every high note or only certain high notes? Is it just high notes that trigger that kind of response?
Once you have your data, then you need to decide how to wield this awesome weapon. Should you pack your arrangements with belting and riffs, or should you try to hold off the cheers for something particularly worthy?
This is not to say that audiences are idiots, though there have been audiences that each of us has felt particularly discouraged by. Audiences are not the performers. They only hear the finished product, and the finished product is a combination of things, from visual to aural signals. Personally, I believe that you can cater to both and still maintain your musical dignity. If you have an amazing soloist, let them cut loose and win some favor with your audience, but make sure the cheers don’t cover up something else you want heard.
Consider this for your next show: What will the audience cheer for, and will it be a genuine cheer, or a Pavlovian response?