Ask the Experts: Contemporary A cappella in Collegiate A Cappella

Meet the Expert:

Dr. Marc Silverberg has established himself as one of the leading voices in a cappella education today. He has served on the executive board of as Director of Education and presented workshops on vocal improvisation at several AEA sponsored festivals, SUNY Purchase, The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, The New York State School Music Association, the Nassau County PEAK Festival, the National A cappella Convention, and the American Choral Directors Association’s 2013 National Convention. In spring of 2018, Dr. Silverberg became the first guest conductor for the Suffolk County Music Educator Association’s All-County Contemporary A cappella group. Beginning in 2020, Dr. Silverberg pioneered two new breakthroughs in a cappella education: A cappella Masterclass ( and VocaVersity, the world’s first, certified online school for contemporary a cappella. He is also the creator of Acappellapparel, the online a cappella-based clothing store. In spring 2020, Dr. Silverberg released first published book, co-written with Deke Sharon and Dr. J.D. Frizzell, with GIA Publications titled Teaching Music Through Performance in Contemporary A cappella. As the former Director of Vocal Music at Five Towns College, he was instrumental in re-writing the music education curriculum and preparing students for the New York State Content Specialty Test. At the college, Dr. Silverberg developed a contemporary voice curriculum for vocal performance students, so that they could be educated in pop and jazz vocal pedagogy. Under his direction, the Five Towns College Chamber Singers performed at the 2019 Association for Popular Music Education’s national convention and the 2020 New Jersey Music Educators Association’s state convention. Listen to his group, Docacappella, here!

Describe your average rehearsal. What rehearsal techniques do you use to make your group shine? 

Silverberg: Rehearsals, in my opinion, are not for learning notes and rhythms; that should be done on the student’s own time. However, that is usually not realistic for most groups, either because they lack the numbers or lack the skills to learn by ear. If I do have to teach notes and rhythms, I ask everyone to sing every part as they learn it. This way, they get a brief understanding of how each part fits into the whole, and it keeps them occupied so they don’t lose focus. When you have an ensemble that comes to rehearsal prepared, that’s when you can start making music. I use a combination of techniques, picked up from studying some of the great teachers like J.D. Frizzel and Brody McDonald: if you stick with one game plan all the time, it won’t work. Rehearsal techniques have to be as adaptable as the singers are.

The best rehearsal technique is to make the students perform, right away, even if the song isn’t polished yet. A live performance teaches a student so much more than a closed rehearsal does.

Some techniques I use frequently are:

-Have each section stand in a circle facing each other so that they can hear each other’s vocal quality and match.

-Use bodily movement to demonstrate an accent or articulation

-Ask the students to write copious notes in their scores so I never have to repeat the same direction twice

What is your advice for directors wanting to do contemporary a cappella or vocal jazz with their ensembles? 

Silverberg: Make sure you understand the style first. This will take some dedication on your part. Inspire your students by taking them to a professional concert, so they can see what a polished, finished product looks like. If you initiate an ensemble without knowing the ins and outs of the style, you could actually do more harm than good. Also, start small. Start easy; it’s okay for your first concert to be all Pentatonix arrangements, as long as you branch off after that.

In what ways do you feel that this genre of music can connect to today’s audiences?

Silverberg: As I’ve learned in my studies, A cappella itself is not a genre. Pop music, jazz music– those are genres. Pop music is relevant: it’s more exciting, it’s more recognizable, it’s more accessible. Jazz music, although not true, seems to be more out of touch. Performing a popular song in a jazz way (like Postmodern Jukebox for example) will help audiences understand and appreciate the characteristics of jazz. Pop music has no trouble connecting with audiences, because it is the music they most frequently hear. Jazz music needs to bridge that gap as well, just until audiences begin to appreciate the sound. 

As many teachers say, pop a cappella gets kids in the door. Once they’re in, then we can expose them to unfamiliar genres of music. Many traditional choral directors say that pop music is the “dessert” after the meal. Once they’ve sung their oratorios, then they can feast on Ariana Grande. I feel that it’s the other way around. I think pop music needs to be the appetizer, the entree, and the dessert for as long as it needs to be until the director can find a way to slip in a few vegetables from different genres.

What are some unique challenges about teaching a cappella at the collegiate level and how do you address them?

Silverberg: The a cappella ensemble at my previous college was primarily established to give any and all singers a chance to sing in an ensemble with music they enjoy listening to. This meant that my ensemble was non-auditioned, and the roster changed every semester. At first, I basically started over every semester, introducing students to the characteristics of pop a cappella. Once I found that a majority of students returned each semester, I was able to skip the introductions and move forward with more challenging music.

One of my favorite comparisons I used to make was that a cappella was like Super Mario Bros. All Mario games were designed so that anyone, from the very experienced player to a beginning player, can pick up a game and start playing instantly. Pop a cappella is the same way. Because of the repetitive nature of chord progressions, looped phrases, and familiar songs, it is the perfect entry point for beginning singers. Because of the novice nature of students, and that pop music isn’t considered “real music” by more serious musicians, a cappella consistently has the stigma of “oh we’re fun, but we don’t accomplish anything.” As a hardcore a cappella fan, I’ve dedicated my life to proving that mentality wrong.

Do you teach beatboxing/have a beatboxer? How do you go about teaching that?

Silverberg: As part of my dissertation, I designed a Vocal Percussion class. The more I interviewed beatboxers for content, the more I realized that the types of sounds a beatboxer made is far less important than the grooves a beatboxer can produce. I originally designed my class to teach new sounds every week, but I ended up changing this to understanding new grooves every week.  Rehearsing with a beatboxer is about establishing a comfortable groove and always performing with a metronome. The specific sounds are secondary to the role a vocal percussionist really plays: the backbone of the group. Depending on the songs we were performing, I would ask the beatboxer to listen to the original recordings and try to imitate the grooves being played by the drummer.

Do you compete with your group? What do you see as some of the advantages (and disadvantages if you feel comfortable) with that?

Silverberg: When I first formed my adult group Satellite Lane, I was hell bent on competing every year and winning. The more we lost, the more frustrated and determined I became. We never placed in a single competition. Eventually, the group almost broke up because I pushed too hard.  One year, I decided not to care at all. All we wanted to do was design the most fun set possible, go on stage, make complete fools of ourselves, and have a blast doing it. That was the year we came in second at Harmony Sweeps and the ACA-Open. The point of the story is: if you’re competing to win, you’re doing it wrong. Competing should be a way to challenge the group to perform on a bigger stage, to travel to a new state, to increase their determination. But winning should never, ever be the priority.

Life isn’t like Pitch Perfect. The ICCA is not the be-all, end-all determiner of who’s the best. 

What are your thoughts on “teacher run” vs. “student run” groups?

Silverberg: Obviously I’m biased, but I like teacher-run groups. Student-run groups really only work if the group has a music director, and that music director takes complete charge, like a teacher would. Too many student-run groups want a democracy, and that just isn’t how choirs are run. This is why so many student-run groups fail or fall apart: they don’t have a leader with a clear vision or direction. On the other side of the coin, teacher-run groups create a massive disconnect between the teacher and the ensemble. A cappella is primarily a social activity, and that can’t really happen between an adult teacher and young students, so in that regard, student-run groups have an advantage.

What is your advice for any college students who may want to pursue a career in music with a focus in a cappella? 

Silverberg: Don’t. I’m kidding. Sort of.

The world of a cappella is still in its infancy. We had a massive surge in the 2010s, then sort of a crash after Pitch Perfect 3, and now it’s starting to rise again. There’s really only four avenues to pursue: perform in an a cappella group professionally, compose and sell a cappella arrangements, edit and mix a cappella recordings, or get a teaching job and teach a cappella in schools.

Because the field is so small, and so many people want to be a part of it, you have to work harder, be better, and stand out amongst the crowd. Find a niche that hasn’t really been filled and focus on that. I often use this metaphor when this question is asked: For every open teaching position, there are 500-1000 applicants. If you want the job, you can’t blend in with the crowd. The same goes for a cappella.

Where do you find your arrangements/sheet music? What are some of your “go to” arrangements you could recommend to other teachers?

The number one thing people can do to expand their arrangement library is listen. Go on Apple Music, go on Spotify, and listen to as much a cappella as possible. Then, when you hear an arrangement you really like, search the web, find the arranger, and contact them directly. That’s how I’ve built my arrangement library from the ground up.,, and have lots of a cappella arrangements that you can legally purchase. You can also contact arrangers directly; many of them advertise their services on Facebook or Instagram.

The best arrangements, the ones that people really want, are usually only available through direct contact with the arranger. Of course, you could always just arrange the song yourself…

I don’t really have “go-to” arrangements, because I very rarely ever repeat an arrangement. I mean, with so much music out there, why would you ever repeat a song?

However, that really doesn’t answer your question. So, here are some of my favorites:

“Poor Wayfaring Stranger” by Tom Anderson

“Better” by Shams Ahmed

“Ave Maria” by SONOS

“I Want You Back” by Rob Dietz

“Killing Me Softly” by Gene Puerling

“Fluffy’s Master Plan For World Domination” by Amy Englehart

“True Colors” by Kelly Kunz and Amanda Taylor

“I Will Wait” by Hannah Tobias

“Cherry Pie” Brianne Holland

“Drive” by Tracy Robertson

Anything else you would like to add that you think is important for collegiate directors to know about a cappella? 

Silverberg: A lot. But I’ll leave you with this: if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.