A cappella is a competitive medium. While there are plenty of groups that participate as an art form, this style of music has enjoyed growth primarily through competition—scholastic competitions like ICCA and ICHSA, The Sing-Off, and even Pitch Perfect as a film about competitive a cappella. With more and more groups entering competitions groups need to be increasingly conscious of how they present themselves in competition. While being a great musician is still the cornerstone of success, groups that don’t consciously think about the elements of their competition set tend not to meet their potential. In The Competitor’s Edge, we break down the key components of successful competitors in a cappella.
In this edition, the focus is song order.
The most traditional set construction sees groups starting with an upbeat number to catch the audience's attention, following with a ballad that showcases the group's capacity for emotion and musical chops, then closing with a barn burning crowd pleaser, in which groups tend to throw the choreography into overdrive and hit their highest volume.
There's a reason why this structure is the tradition. It makes logical sense. It provides an ebb and flow, and a sense of contrast that allows the audience to catch its breath between songs and appreciate exactly what is most impactful about each of the component pieces of set. To be honest, if a group isn't sure where to begin or how to best structure it's performance there's nothing wrong with following convention.
That said, there are also reasons to diverge. Groups that remove themselves from the traditional framework tend to standout. That can be a matter of sounding too melancholy (more than one ballad) or too one-note (the all-male group that only does pop songs in major keys). By the same token there is the potential to break new ground with something innovative and new, like The G-Men did with their 2014 ICCA Finals set in which they opened on woebegone "Skinny Love," and ramped up the tempo and on-stage vitality as the set moved on.
Audience members like to be surprised. Performances that feature dramatic shifts in performance style and timbre therefore have a lot of potential to shock and awe an audience into, at minimum remembering the performance.
That said, surprise for the sake of surprise, also has a way of alienating listeners. The key to an effective surprise is, therefore, intentionality--structuring unconventionally for the purposes of telling a story, or even to comedic effect achieve a meaningful purposes without feeling like pandering.
One of the dangers of starting big is that a group risks the rest of its set feeling like a letdown. While a group wants to make a noteworthy first impression, it also needs to think about how it will maintain the audience's interest for the nine minutes to follow. A group wants for audience members and judges to recall every step in their performance--that includes retaining attention for the full set and closing the set in such a way that leaves a meaningful last impression on the audience.
What set structure do you find most riveting? What mistakes have you heard? How did your group find unexpected success? Let us know in the comments.