IS vs. ISN’T

SBO Staff • November/December 2016The Practical Conductor • December 13, 2016

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By Brody McDonald

Take a look around, and find an object near you. Look at it. What is it? Say the answer out loud. How long did that take? A second? Now look at the same object and list what it isn’t. List everything that object is not. It’s OK, I’ll wait…

How far did you get before you gave up? How many things did you list that the object isn’t? 10? 50? 100? The fact is that there is an almost infinite list of things the object is not.

So many times, singers fail to identify what they’re singing exactly. Consider every variable at play when singing: target vowel (formant), pitch, rhythm, diction, dynamics, syllable stress, tuning, blend, balance, position in chord and more all come into play. Each aspect of desired outcome must be taken into consideration while singing.

Therefore, for your singing to be successful, you must decide what it is. When you know what it is, it’s much easier to avoid what it isn’t. Singing towards what is allows you the freedom of saying no to everything it isn’t. 

There is only one answer, and being close doesn’t count. 2+2=4, so 3, 5, 6, and even 4.1 will be considered incorrect. You see what I mean? There are only two ways to do things: one right, and an infinity that are wrong. If you’re singing a solo, you can likely pass off something close to the audience, but when you’re singing in any type of group, you’ll need to have very specific targets in mind. 8, 16, or 40 people each doing their own version of close can get messy in a hurry.

Consider you are going to make a sculpture. You wouldn’t just start mashing clay together and hope for the best. You would visualize the completed sculpture in your mind, and then begin the process of creating it. This is not to say that you will succeed, but it’s important that you get as close as you can. If you visualize the sculpture of a horse, and lack the technical skill to create what you saw in your mind’s eye, you’ll still end up with a horse (or at least something resembling a horse). You’ll also clearly see where you fell short and be much more equipped to get closer on your next attempt. If there’s an aspect of your sculpting you can’t improve on your own, you’ll know what it is so you can seek help from someone more proficient. And so it goes with our singing. When we identify what it is, we are by default identifying what it isn’t and therefore accelerate the process of improvement.

This article is an awareness builder. It isn’t a cure-all, quick-fix, guarantee, or magic potion.Singing better isn’t the responsibility of your section leader, director, coach, mentor, fellow tenors, Oprah, Deke Sharon, or the late Robert Shaw. It is up to you.

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of a cappella studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella which took place at Wright State University. For more information, please visit and

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