As with any art form, one of the primary goals is emotional manipulation. Manipulation is a dirty word that suggests an imbalanced power dynamic, but that’s what artists are trying to do — they alter your mind from its current state to a new one. Perhaps looking at a work by Picasso from 1904 gives you new insight into clinical depression, watching a performance of Macbeth changes your view of career politicians or a contemporary dance on Auschwitz concentration camps helps you better understand psychological torture. Through art, we perceive new reality. Emotional manipulation is essential to creativity, and although a cappella music is not famous for asking deep philosophical questions, challenging norms or fomenting social upheaval, it gives us the opportunity to change how people feel.
People want to leave a music performance with at least slightly different emotions than they did when they walked in the door, or else that means the performers failed to reach them, to shake them within their shells. Collegiate a cappella in its current form strongly emphasizes positive emotional buildup and release. That moment of release is arguably the most important because it’s an excellent way to provoke a strong emotional response, building a genuine connection. That connection between performer and audience member, although fleeting, needs to be strong enough for people to temporarily let down their guard: to absorb rather than analyze. Even after someone’s been dragged through the fire and flames of hell week, a broken relationship or rising debt, we artists need to be that balm from Gilead.
Passion, anticipation, excitement and empowerment are ideas all groups reinforce through song choice, style and movement. While a cappella is clearly not limited to portraying only positive emotions, with songs about lost love, losing control or being on the outside, the net effect of the performance is meant to be positivity. We can ride out to the Pelennor Fields and shine a ray of positivity through the Nazgûl of cynicism and banality, and that’s what makes music a great escape. The harsher the reality, the more ceilings we bump our heads on, the more we need that jolt of positive vibes to tell us to get back up again.
These are all ideas that I take into account when arranging, because if I know that I can’t feel anything from my own notes on a page, the audience won’t either. It generally doesn’t pay to be emotionally vulnerable, and asking that from people who just sat down for a brief performance is a tad demanding, but the difficulty of reaching that goal does not in any way reduce the importance of eventually reaching it.
For me personally, the idea of hope is one that I want to see channeled into a cappella music more; that motivation has played an increasingly important role in how I brainstorm arrangements and bring them to fruition. The human voice, as it happens, is an excellent conduit for expressing hope. Whether this is symptomatic of my indefatigable millennial idealism or the deity-shaped vacuum in my soul, I do not know. But hope is something we all need, something I believe I need to bring to every performance.