Ask Deke: High School Arranging

Q: Hi Deke!

I was just at Camp A Cappella, and I had a blast! I can't wait to go back next year. I took advanced arranging as an aca major, and I learned a lot. I have a question, but just didn't get a chance to ask it:

My group is relatively new (five years in existence, four years as a serious thing). Our VP just graduated this year, but we don't really have anyone to replace him. Is there anyway that I can incorporate VP into my arrangements using percussive syllables? Or is it better to pick music that does not require VP?

Thanks so much,

Ivy L

A: Hi Ivy

Yeah, that was a great class, senior seminar style, with lots of excellent questions. Happy to answer one more:

Although this sounds snarkier than I intend (and I apologize for that): a cappella was just fine for thousands of years before vocal percussion. I started adding it because it was the only way I knew to fully replicate the rich, percussive textures of modern popular music, but now we know more about extended vocal techniques and interwoven textures.

More importantly, the first law of arranging should apply at all times: “Bring the song to the group.” What does that mean? It means you’re creating a version of the song that should fit a group like a custom tailored suit, and as such your choices should emphasize the strengths and deemphasize the weaknesses: the form, the key, the tempo, the soloist (or lack thereof), the number of parts, the style, the texture, the phrasing, the dynamics, the syllables… everything.

Women’s groups that try to sound like they have a male bass leave people wanting more, but those that embrace exactly who they are (Sweet Honey in the Rock, Zap Mama, Anonymous 4) are thoroughly satisfying and completely compelling. In your case, without a vocal percussionist for the year, you have several options:

• Choose songs that are less percussion-driven • “Flip” songs that require lots of drums, looking for a new feel or texture • Consider using body percussion, especially stomps and claps, when you want a big sound (closer, encore) • Choose percussive syllables and weave them into your inner voices (T’s and K’s) to create the effect of vocal percussion (eg your bass singing “dm-Tm-dm-Tm”) • Consider using some light vocal percussion (“tssss-t-t-tsss”) in vocal jazz songs. • Listen to great a cappella recordings pre-vocal percussion and see what they did. Also listen to modern groups like Straight No Chaser to hear 10 part modern pop harmony without VP. • Listen to how pop and rock tracks without drums generate momentum. Led Zeppelin is a good place to start.

Most of all, don’t lean away, lean in. Don’t apologize, embrace your current group’s sound. Craft each song and each set to take the audience on a journey that focuses on all you do well. You also don’t have a lead singer like Bono, or an electric guitar, or video screens, or live autotune. You’re used to focusing on what you have, this is just one more thing to consider.

And when you get frustrated, just remember: You don’t miss color in an Ansel Adams black and white photograph of Yosemite, do you?

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