Pandering to the Judges

Absurdist A Cappella

This time we discuss pandering to the judges.

Setting the Stage: So you’ve put in the time, the work, and the energy, and yet you still haven’t managed to advance in the ICCA tournament. Your pitch was perfect, your song choices impeccable, your choreography the stuff of legend. What’s left to do, and how on earth are the judges still placing other groups ahead of you?

The answer is easy. Other groups are pandering, and you aren’t—yet.

Song Selection: Through a combination of schmoozing your show’s producer and host, there’s a fair chance you’ll be able to figure out who your judges are. Once you have this information in hand, you can use it develop a set list that will directly play to the interests and preferences of your adjudicators. Elements to watch for—are the judge a collegiate a cappella alumni? Have they sung barbershop? Are they making music now? What are their musical preferences, as expressed on Facebook? All of these tidbits can help point you toward their musical leanings, which will assist you in selecting genres and styles in which to perform.

With the judge’s musical preferences in mind, there is still some need to be crafty. Just because one of the judges loves Billy Joel doesn’t mean you should sing “The Longest Time”—the judges have all heard it before and it will likely be difficult to exceed the bar set by top notch groups who sang that song long ago. Instead, think about a lesser known Billy Joel song that will resonate more personally with the judge and offer less basis for comparisons—a “Summer, Highland Falls” or “This Night.” You’ll win the judge over with your musical sensibility, and be forgiven some of your musical transgressions seeming innovative or unique with your song choice.

Setting: Though it’s not a universal rule, for most ICCA shows, the judges are local to the show setting, so you can use that to infer some things about the judges. If you’re performing in New York City, amp up the urban chic of your outfit choices, if you’re singing in South Carolina, don’t hesitate to let your southern drawl shine through. Keep in mind that, although the very topic of this article is pandering, you don’t want to come off as pandering—know your own limits and play to your surroundings the extent that your group is going to feel comfortable.

Choreography: This is where it becomes especially important to familiarize yourself with the judges own history performing in a cappella. We’re reaching a point at which a lot of collegiate a cappella alums are entering the judging mix, which means you can research what they used to do—see if their group choreographed, and if so, how. There’s nothing throwing in a judge’s signature dance move to warm the heart and sure up some favoritism.

Other Notes: Pandering to a judge with integrity won’t get you first place votes right away, but it is effective as a tie-breaker, or a way of standing out enough that the judge can more easily remember you when it comes time to make subjective rankings. Remember that subjective rankings play a huge role in final scores, so even getting multiple third place nods, while other groups’ votes are more scattered, could elevate you to a top two position for your overall finish.

Of course, when it comes to pandering, your actual performance hardly scrapes the surface of what you can do. Behind the scenes, don’t hesitate to have flowers or a batch of home-baked cookies sent to deliberation room. Even if the judges hated your performance, if you’re the one footing the bill on their deliberation time snack session, it can go a long way toward some sympathy points.