I have always hated singing. I was introduced to it as the son of two concert pianists, trained at Juilliard and winners of international competitions, one of whom eventually became a voice and choir teacher (along with international baccalaureate music theory/history and other subjects). But growing up in my so-called "classical" music bubble, I was always taught -- well, not taught, but maybe steered towards the notion (well maybe that's just my fiction...) -- that singing, especially choral singing, especially casual choral singing, wasn't the same sort of feat as playing a Brahms piano concerto.
I grew up playing violin, piano, and staying away from the chorus kids. They were just different. For one thing, they seemed to like each other. For another, they had fun. I, meanwhile, attended numerous All State festivals and conservatory rehearsals to find cutthroat, anti-social personalities woven throughout every string section. Sure, the brass guys were fun drinking buddies. Yes, those woodwind players, with all their crafty tools, knew how to make cool stuff -- say, devices from which one might inhale a certain brand of smoke. But string players were mostly Type A's. And the singers -- well, they just didn't fit. They didn't seem to read as complex music, to listen to the same stuff, or to care about the precision we were drilled to provide. (This was, of course, before I was to meet opera singers in college-level conservatories -- but these personalities came with another set of qualities, as you can imagine, and I don't want to address them here.)
I eventually went off to a double degree program between a liberal arts research university and professional-level music conservatory. I cut-off from the high-school music scene and moved up (or so I thought), never to ponder again what became of so many of those local choir kids down the hall from the high school orchestra room.
Well, in Mickey Rapkin's dramatic, funny, and heartfelt new book, Pitch Perfect, I have learned what happened to some of these human pitch pipes. They may not have tried to make money in the concert music scene like me, but that doesn't mean their forays into the intensely competitive, collegiate a capella scene, weren't frighteningly hardcore. On a recent Current TV video, we see a college a capella singer running through her scales in the shower before driving nine hours to an international competition. As Rapkin's book tells it, a capella doesn't get bogged down in the overly artful; it's more about having fun with pop and the essence of making music in this overtly nerdy but pervasive subculture that can get just about anyone, regardless of music pedigree, addicted to four-part harmony. Think 1200 groups, nationwide, and bands, like that of Harvard, that keep active alumni.
On Rapkin's blog, there's even an interview with Ben Folds. Wouldn't you know that a capella groups do John Mayer, Vampire Weekend, Ozzy, and Madonna? Is it terrible? Well, sure, in one way. But not really. In fact, a recent NPR story garnered tons of write-ins doubtful that the sounds heard were really sung by amateur a capella groups. And Hollywood has its own secret a capella mafia. More than a few top producers and actors come from this world. That may be why the book's becoming a movie with nearly as much pre-production hype behind it as a Christopher Guest joint. Pop culture can be done well -- all I had to do was one day accept that my mom's choirs worked really hard, and see them sing after high school to learn what this kind of group sport can do for a band as well as its fans.
If we are to learn anything from collegiate a capella it's not that singing is a lower form of musicmaking -- and no, my mother, the pianist and choral teacher, doesn't believe this old, incorrect impression of her confused kid. It's that it's the most direct way the every-musician can get closer to sounds he or she can't stop hearing in his or her head. Would it be better if Rhianna covers were less prevalent than Benjamin Britten concerts? Sure. But maybe they're equal. Maybe that's good. And maybe it's great that there's a group of young people who don't intend to go into pro music careers out there, simultaneously trying to outdo each other with the most kick-ass version of the cheesiest song you've ever heard. Making music, when it's best, brings people together. It's collaborative. And if it inspires healthy -- and at times funnily unhealthy -- competition, well, all the better. What, we can have it in the political arena, but not on the community concert stage?
I have never seen an episode of American Idol. I'm not kidding. I avoid it. But I do know that I've seen clips of some of the jokers who win this competition, and I know I'd rather see a good group of collegiate a capella freaks have their way with an infectious pop song. It's a way to participate in and comment on popular culture while having a good sense of humor about yourself, even if you occasionally take the harmonic progression of the moment a little more seriously than you should. There's great comedy here. But this is also a great story that Rapkin found, a fascinating private world that isn't as private as some of you may think. These musicians--and you *can* be a respect-worthy musician without being able to play Paganini Caprices; I am proud I have believed that for the past 15 years -- know how to use their vocal chords and their collectives as instruments even if they never had a chance to master a box of wood or tube of brass.
They're the weird, wacky chorus kids. But read a little bit about them, and maybe you'll wonder why you chose art, band, or worse, private violin lessons in the city with a Juilliard taskmaster. Hell, maybe you'll learn a little more about your boss.