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8 Contemporary A Cappella Coaching Tools

deke4Guest Blogger: Deke Sharon is the co-author (with Dylan Bell) of A Cappella Arranging. The following is an excerpt from his blog on Please pay them a visit for more a cappella news and discussions from Deke.

I looked at the clinician list for BOSS 2013 and thought “Holy moly! There are dozens if not hundreds of contemporary a cappella coaches now!” So encouraging, so exciting!

Alas, there’s literally no training program for coaches, no formal pedagogy. I assume they’re all just sharing the lessons they’ve learned as singers and directors, as I do.

To that end, I’d like to share with them, and with you, a few of the hard-leaned lessons and perspectives I’ve assimilated over 20+ years of working with groups. No need for me to mention the obvious musical techniques (tuning a chord, blending vowels, etc), as that’s easy to find. Instead, I offer a few thoughts to help round out a coaches approach, technique and toolkit:

The Big Picture

Music is communication, and as each piece of music has a particular message and mood, the myriad decisions there are to make around a particular song and arrangement should all point to the song’s central emotional focus. This is easy to conceptualize, but I find it alarming how often directors lose sight of this fact. Why did you choose this move? Why are you singing this chord in this way? “Because it looks/sounds good” or “because I like it” are not acceptable answers, especially in light  of a young director’s desire for perfection above (more on this later).

If I’m working with a group and I feel nothing when they’ve sung the song for me, my very first act is to make sure the group both understands the song’s meaning and has a clear emotional goal for the song. If it’s not clear, we discuss the lyrics, and I invite the singers to discuss their own related experiences and feelings. At the end of such a discussion, it’s very helpful to summarize in a few words, like “big crazy circus” or “gentle melancholy stream.” The specific words will be a trigger, something the director can mention when playing the pitch, just before starting the song, to help the group focus it’s emotional delivery.

Show AND Tell

There’s an oft-spoken adage in writing – “show, don’t tell” – that definitely carries an important message: use words to create a feeling rather than simply state what a character feels. Expanding this idea into coaching, I urge you not only to explain to your group how they should feel, but to reflect that feeling in your own tone of voice, your own gestures, your own mood. Create the moment yourself as you’re urging your singers to find it. In essence, you’re called upon to act while you direct, just as you’re asking your singers to do the same when they sing. Wave your arms and jump around, slump your shoulders and speak more quietly… whatever it takes. Change the mood in the room to reflect the song, and help your singers find the moment.

To read Deke’s next 6 tools, visit this blog post on!

The tone of the book is instructive and informative, yet conversational: it is intended to stand alongside any academic publication while remaining interesting and fun. A Cappella Arranging is a good textbook – and a “good read” – for every vocal arranger, whether amateur or professional; every vocal music classroom, and any professional recording studio.


The Truth About Vocal Style

Tim Carson is the author of The Worship Vocal Book. Below is an excerpt from his new book as provided for by Live 2 Play Worship. Please see their site for the entire excerpt.

Vocal style is one of the most powerful tools we have to help us express our hearts through song. Style is the palette of colors that we use to express emotion. When style is used at its best, we capture the essence of a song, connect our hearts to what we are singing, and find a full spectrum of colors that will communicate to our congregations. Style not only allows others to hear the language of the heart, but invites them to engage their hearts in the same way. But style can alienate and distance our congregations as much as it can invite and engage them. The right song, the right message, and the wrong style can render all of our efforts in rehearsal and preparation (and even in vocal development) a profound waste of time. Our voice can sound amazing, and we can develop all of the range, dynamic control, and technical ability in the world, but if we do not have control over style, we may as well be a pastor at a church in Texas, preaching in Japanese. That pastor could have passion and skill, and the right heart and motivation, but people just aren’t going to get it. The inability to effectively use style can be just as much of a hindrance to our ministry in worship. For most singers I begin working with, style is an elusive aspect of singing that they feel they have very little control over. They would explain style as the unique quality that defines their voice. It’s what you hear when they sing—it’s their style. Other people on their worship team have their own style. Someone on their team sounds really good on a certain type of song because that is their style. Another person sounds best on another type of song because that is their style. But style isn’t something they feel they have any control over. Style is what defines them.

But this is not the case for those vocal artists who see style as a tool bag of resources that help them communicate their hearts through their voices. Style serves vocal artists but does not define them. Style is the palette of colors that they get to use as they create a work of art, painting a picture and communicating a message through song.

So how do we make that shift? How can we develop the ability to be served by style rather than defined by it? Can style be learned, or do you just do the best you can with what you’ve got?

Breaking Down the Mystery of Vocal Style

The first step in mastering style is to break style down into manageable pieces. We all have a broad understanding of style. We like certain styles and dislike others. We recognize when we move from one stylistic genre to another. But what are the specific characteristics that really define style? Nearly all of what defines style can be broken down into four stylistic tools:
• Diction
• Tone Color
• Vibrato
• Pitch Fluctuation

Keep reading this excerpt on Live 2 Play Worship!


At a wide range of conferences and sessions, the principles presented in The Worship Vocal Book have proven to produce better singers, time and time again. The techniques in this book draw on four-hundred years of classical, foundational vocal instruction and yet they are fresh. Tim presents them in a way that is different from any other method available today, particularly as it pertains to the contemporary worship singer, leader, songwriter, or performer. The information is presented in a way that is easy to follow, and it works!

The Quick Vocal Performance Guide

Guest Blogger: Bobby Owsinski is the author of How to Make Your Band Sound Great and The Music Producer’s Handbook. Below is an excerpt from his blog The Big Picture.

The voice is just as much of an instrument as any other instrument in the band. Like other instruments, it needs regular maintenance to stay in its best shape. Here are a few tricks compiled from How To Make Your Band Sound Great and The Music Producer’s Handbook to not only get the best vocal performances, but to stay away from a sore throat as well.

1. Remember the 3 P’s – Pitch, Passion, Pocket. You need all three for a great vocal.
2. You’ve got to hear yourself at the correct level to stay in tune. Unless you have a lot of experience, you’ll most likely sing sharp if you’re not loud enough, and flat if you hear too much of yourself.
3. Avoid alcohol, dairy products, tea, coffee and cola before recording or a gig. All will make it more difficult to sing by either drying your throat or increasing your phlegm production.
4. Choose the best key for the song. Better to change the key than hurt yourself or sound bad trying to sing something that you’re not capable of.
Keep reading this post on Bobby O’s blog, The Big Picture.
This book explores every aspect of playing with other musicians, including the equipment, hardware, and software used in today’s increasingly complex technological world, and the principles of sound every musician needs to know to work at the level of a professional band.
The Music Producer’s Handbook (another book in Bobby Owsinski’s successful Handbook series) describes in detail the duties and responsibilities of a music producer. In his thoughtful, down-to-earth, and savvy style, Bobby O. brings his wealth of experience to bear in answering the questions faced by all budding music producers: How do I become a producer? How do I get the best out of the musicians or vocalist? How do I get a great mix? How much money can I make?

R&B, Blues, and Jazz: Kissin’ Cousins!

Guest Blogger:
 Terri Brinegar, author of Vocal and Stage Essentials for the Aspiring Female R&B Singer (Hal Leonard Books). Read this and more posts on her blog.

I’m writing this Note in response to a post yesterday I saw from a talented, professional musician who wrote negative comments about a Smooth Jazz artist, insinuating that this artist was not a “real” jazz musician because she played Blues-inspired licks in her soloing. I was trying to decide how to respond to this, since I myself am a Blues-inspired artist, currently learning about Jazz. I am also a lover of Smooth Jazz for the very reason the person was criticizing the other: it is a hybrid of Jazz, Blues-riffs, R&B, and Funk grooves – all the stuff I love! So I just have to defend the genre and the artist who was being criticized.

Let me start with a very, very brief history of Blues and Jazz.
Jazz and Blues both started around the turn of the century. Supposedly W.C. Handy discovered the Blues in 1903 and then wrote the first published Blues tune, “Memphis Blues” in 1912. Around the same time Jazz emerged in New Orleans around 1900. “In 1924 Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York City, pushing the band in the direction of a hotter, more improvisatory style that helped to create the synthesis of jazz and ballroom dance music that would later be called swing. Although big bands relied heavily on arrangements of popular Tin Pan Alley songs, the blues—with its 12- bar structure, three-chord pattern, blue notes, and call-and-response patterns—also remained a mainstay of swing music. Of all the big bands, the one most closely associated with the blues tradition was led by the jazz pianist William “Count” Basie (1904–84)….

Keep reading this post on Terri’s blog!

In Vocal and Stage Essentials for the Aspiring Female R&B Singer Brinegar shares with her extensive stage experience, her success as a bandleader to some of the greatest musicians in the world, her skills as a musician and songwriter, her training in classical voice, and her years as a vocal coach. Brinegar believes a strong foundation of vocal technique is necessity to success in any style of singing. She is probably one of the few teachers with both a classical background and years of stage experience singing blues and R&B. While there are many books on technique, few, if any, have been written with Brinegar’s broad and comprehensive take on the contemporary music industry.

R&B Melismas (runs, riffs)

Guest Blogger: Terri Brinegar, author of Vocal and Stage Essentials for the Aspiring Female R&B Singer (Hal Leonard Books). Read this and more posts on her blog.

OK, a lot of R&B singers get a lot of flak about using too many notes in their singing. I’ve heard the term “over-souling” which implies “too much.” Haha!


I do believe sometimes it is too much, especially if it over-shadows the melody. I guess it seems that some singers are more interested in showing off their voices than concentrating on the melody of the song or focusing on the lyrics of a song. And these elements are important to conveying the emotion and/or beauty of the song. But really melismatic singing is not such a new concept, and R&B singers are not the first to “show off” their chops.

Let me first define “melisma” – it really means to sing multiple notes over a single syllable. There are other terms used, such as riffing or runs. Either way, it’s a bunch of notes!

Keep reading this post on Terri Brinegar’s blog!

In Vocal and Stage Essentials for the Aspiring Female R&B Singer Brinegar shares with her extensive stage experience, her success as a bandleader to some of the greatest musicians in the world, her skills as a musician and songwriter, her training in classical voice, and her years as a vocal coach. Brinegar believes a strong foundation of vocal technique is necessity to success in any style of singing. She is probably one of the few teachers with both a classical background and years of stage experience singing blues and R&B. While there are many books on technique, few, if any, have been written with Brinegar’s broad and comprehensive take on the contemporary music industry.

Great Singers and Great Actors? Yes, please!

Guest blogger:  Alan Hicks, author of Singer and Actor: Acting Technique and the Operatic Performer. Available from Amadeus PressAmazon, and Barnes and Noble.

Illustration by Cliff Mott

In the last ten to fifteen years, many changes have occurred in the operatic profession largely due to a dwindling audience and a need to attract the next generation of operagoer. The most obvious example of such a change is the advent of the high definition broadcast – for an eighth of the price of an orchestra seat at the Met, opera lovers can go to their local movie theater (maybe “theatre” is more appropriate here) and see the latest operatic offering.

In addition to changes in marketing and the diversification of mode of presentation (and perhaps, because of these changes), artistic directors are now looking for the “total package” performer – one that can sing, looks the part, and (hold your breath), can ACT.

Most people think opera is a musical art form. Well, they are only half right. When the Camerata met in the late 1500’s, they were not setting out to create a new musical art form – they were setting out to create a new theatrical art form. It was Greek theatre and the use of the voice in Greek theatre that inspired the first operas. Letters from the great composers including Verdi, Mozart, Gluck, and Wagner (to name only a few) prove their desires for singers to be not just great singers, but also great actors. Gluck and Wagner went so far as to say that drama was more important than music. And these guys were no slouches.

So, why did we get away from the theatre of opera? There are likely many reasons, one of the most interesting being the advent and mass distribution of sound recordings, which allowed consumers to listen to the music of opera devoid of the theatrical spectacle. Whatever the reason or reasons, operatic theatre (and by association, acting) seems to be making a comeback.

Available now from Amadeus Press

Singer and Actor demystifies theatrical acting technique stemming from Stanislavski’s Method of Physical Action and provides singers at all levels a roadmap with which to complete character preparation, using a clear and organized progression based on the work of Franchelle S. Dorn and exercises and examples (recitatives, arias, and ensembles). Singers (including choristers) are given the necessary tools to prepare auditions and inhabit a character from rehearsal to final performance.

Singer and Actor also provides a history of acting from its beginnings to the present day, including a survey of acting techniques from Stanislavski, Meisner, Hagen, Strasberg, Larry Moss, and others. Drawing additionally on the writings of composers and other creators of opera, the book deals with the misconception that only the singing matters in opera and includes a discussion of previous approaches to operatic acting.

Alan E. Hicks, in nearly twenty-five years in the arts, has worked as a professional opera singer, award-winning stage director, and teacher of musical theatre and opera. He is a former faculty member of the Actors Studio Drama School and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as well as schools of music across the country. His students have found success from Broadway to network television and from opera to major motion pictures. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.