HomeAsk Deke: When should I choose more fluid vocal lines over more rhythmic ones?

DekeSharon's picture

Q: When is it appropriate in an arrangement to opt for echos/trios/duets/very fluid vocal lines, over more rhythmic parts like doos and dms. It's clear that winning collegiate groups are moving away from the latter and I was wondering if you had any comments on this currently popular arranging style.
~ Nick

A: Before I answer your question, let’s do some math:

There are approximately 3,000 collegiate a cappella groups (this is an estimate, no one has a complete list), and of those only about 10% compete in any given year (300 enter the ICCA, and other competitions are few and far between, so maybe a dozen more, as there is overlap). So already we’re looking at 10% of the collegiate a cappella community. Then, when you tease out the actual winners, be they from a regional round or the finals, you’re looking at only 10% of that number, roughly. So in essence your theory is based on a trend that you identify in 1% of the community.

Then there’s the clustering illusion, which is the very human tendency to look for patterns in statistically small amounts of data. Drop a hundred raisins on the ground and you’ll notice some clusters and others spread out. Is there more gravity in those areas? Of course not.

All of this is to say: the appropriate time to make a creative choice that works for your group is not necessarily because others are doing it. If they even are doing it. The time to use more rhythmic patterns is when it will provide the desired effect, be it emotional, motivational, exciting, and so on. Languid phrases should be used when the lyrics or mood call for them. It’s almost like you asked me “I’m noticing more of the color blue in modern art paintings this year, should I be using more blue?” and I can only say “use blue when blue is the right color to use.”

You have instincts that have been subconsciously honed your entire life, listening to pop songs, movie scores, and the like. From symphonic arrangements to sparse acoustic solo singer-songwriter performances, you have a sense of what works when, even if you don’t realize it. There is no book, no blog, no reference that could possibly lay out for you all of the right choices. If it makes you feel any better, the greats struggled with the same desire for a clear road map as you do, but in the end George Martin decided to use a flute here, a sitar there, and on another day cut up pieces of a recording, toss them in the air and then reassemble them. Why? Not even he really knew or probably knows. It was what felt right at the time. And if once he did it it didn’t feel right, he’d try something else.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t listen to and be inspired by winning performances. Collegiate groups that choose to compete are very serious about their craft and the choices made by winning groups often have a great deal to say about the current state of the art. All important. But never forget that in the end it’s just some folks in a dorm lounge deciding when to use the color blue, and they got it right. Tomorrow, when you’re the one choosing colors, remember what they did, but then follow your own instincts.