I occasionally listen to advice columnist Dan Savage's podcast and have noticed that he regularly comes back to a piece of advice in regards to relationships that we've all been hearing since we were children. Use your words.
It's surprising how well Dan's advice applies to relationships. A little honesty when its difficult <to be honest> can go a long way to strengthening a relationship.
This bit of advice is just as effective when talking about recording a cappella because lets face it, there are many relationships involved when you consider a cappella groups. You have friendships, you have romantic relationships, people end up getting married, people leave the group because of breakups, etc. An a cappella group (any performing group really) is a family and family dynamics can vary greatly.
In these close-knit groups, we aren't only building close relationships... we are singing too. We are using our voice. The most personal of all instruments. It's part of our body... and the same self-image issues we have with our body are connected to our voice as well.
So just like in a relationship, we often have a hard time being honest in an a cappella group. The person singing flat might be our friend or lover. They might be dealing with any number of problems outside the group that you're concerned for them about. Heck, you might just be a really positive person that doesn't like to make anyone feel bad.
However, when there's a performance issue or other problem in the group, not being honest hinders the group and the singers individually.
Here are some tips to help you use your words, become a better group, and get better recordings.
The best way to help you avoid any discomfort in the first place is to do these two things.
1. Strive for a common goal. Some of the most successful and consistently awesome a cappella groups start with a common goal. Each year (or more regularly) they discuss their goals as a group. What they want to do, who they want to be, what they want to be known for, etc. Really its a mission statement of sorts. This informs all their decisions. It also helps them during their auditions. The group keeps their goals in mind when selecting singers. If a singer doesn't agree with or support the groups goals or they don't meet the level of quality the group has set for themselves, the singer doesn't get in the group (or doesn't audition in the first place).
2. Create an expectation of honesty within the group. Along the same lines as goals, you can discuss the importance of honesty as a group and set an expectation for it. Establish that honesty in rehearsals is not bad. It's never meant to be a personal attack or negative. It's constructive and always in support of the group goals. And then back it up.
Be blunt... often.
Be honest in a matter-of-fact way so that everyone gets used to the freedom honesty can provide.
If everyone is always being honest, everyone will get used to hearing the truth and won't freak out when someone tells them they are singing a syllable wrong. Face it... it is hard to hear exactly how you sound or if your section is in tune with the entire group on a certain part. The director or the people standing across the circle from you are in a better position to help. Trust them.
The Benefits of Honesty
1. Honesty will make your group and your singers better. When you are constructively made aware of issues with your and/or others' performance(s), you will become a better singer (your instrument) and a better musician (your art). You'll also understand more about how you fit into the group's sound, the arrangement, the energy of the song, etc.
Additionally, you'll trust each other and grow to become an organism instead of just a bunch of individuals. This is a big component of why some groups are amazing.
2. Honesty can save you time and money. What if someone who normally sings tenor on most songs isn't sounding right on the tenor part of a new song? If you have a culture of honesty, asking that person to switch down to baritone hopefully won't crush them emotionally. (never know with tenors though...)
Specifically as it relates to recording (after all, this is a recording blog), honesty can limit the amount of wasted time in rehearsal or in front of a microphone. If you are recording yourselves and someone just isn't getting a part or showed up sick or unprepared, a group with a culture of honesty can easily tell that person to come back at another time and prevent the lost time that happens as you struggle through a take or two with that person. If you've hired an engineer to record you, this can save money by not wasting time.
Use your words... :-)
Thanks for reading! Have fun making great music!