Measure for Measure

The number of groups at a quarterfinal

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This week's topic: In recent years at ICCAs, some quarterfinals featured as few as five groups competing, while others boasted as many as nine competitors. In the interest of fairness, ICCA competitions should feature equal numbers of groups at each level of the competition.

True: Let’s do some simple math. If there are six groups competing at your average quarterfinal, and two advance to the semifinals, that means that, before assessing the quality of performance, each group has a 33 percent chance of advancing. Head over to the Midwest, and you’re looking at nine groups, competing, but still only two groups moving on. Suddenly, the chances of moving in the tournament are only 22 percent. This simply isn’t fair. Each group should have an equal opportunity to advance. While, percentage-wise, it could be fair to let three groups advance from a 9 group semifinal, this still skews the competition scene, and creates some shades of gray when shows turn out to have 7 or 8 groups. All in all, the simplest answer is for each show to have an equal number of competitors.

False: In an ideal world, each competition could have the same number of competitors. In reality, it can be difficult to organize venues, dates and hosts for a competition, and the number of competitors can’t always break down quite equally. Some regions can’t have as many shows despite a comparable number of groups. Some shows will see groups who were scheduled to compete end up backing out for whatever reason, meaning a competition shrinks to a smaller field of competitors. It may not be entirely fair, but that’s life.

Furthermore, letting two groups advance from the quarterfinals ensures that the best groups are progressing to the semifinal round. If your group couldn’t manage a second place finish in the quarters, I don’t like your chances of making a dent in the semifinals anyway.

Watching the competition

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This week's topic: In competition, groups should be able to watch all of the other competitors for the evening.

True: Participants in a competition should always have the opportunity to observe those who they are competing against. How else can groups benefit from the experience of seeing and hearing their peers? How else can groups know if they got fair shakes from the judges? This would be like having an Olympic event in which competitors cannot see what each other are doing. A competitor has to take the judge’s word that she was the best, or that he wasn’t worthy of placing? It wouldn’t make any sense in the Olympics, and makes little more sense on the competitive collegiate a cappella stage.

False: Oftentimes, it’s just not possible for all of the competitors to get to see every performance at an a cappella show. First off, seating is limited at a lot of venues, meaning seating for the competing groups could make it impossible for spectators to attend the show. Secondly, unless we want long gaps between each set, and/or to rob groups of the opportunity to prepare on their own before they hit the stage, it’s just not possible for every group to catch every performance live. Beyond these practical elements, it’s also worth noting that some groups benefit from not seeing all of their competition, lest they be distracted, and either intimidated by the formidable opposition, or lulled into a sense of over-confidence from other lackluster groups.

Who should get to be judges?

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This week's topic: If you’re going to be a judge, you should have experience with what you are judging. It is important for ICCA adjudicators to have prior experience performing in collegiate a cappella before they work a competition.

True: The A Cappella Blog prides itself on making collegiate a cappella accessible to a mainstream audience, not lingering on musical or adjudicating technicalities, but rather on what everyday people can observe and enjoy in an a cappella show. With that being said, our core staff members have not handed in applications to be ICCA judges. We were not a cappella performers. When it comes to actually judging a competition, we will openly acknowledge and embrace that that work is best left to the experts—those who have done it themselves. Without such experience, a judge may have musical expertise, or an eye for good performance, but he or she will never be able to see the bigger, holistic picture, and that’s what competitions should be about.

False: No judges are perfect. Some aren’t quite as qualified musically as their peers. Some aren’t quite so qualified to judge visual presentation. There are some who spectators will perceive to have biases, because they’re from the same state, city, or even home institution as a competing group. That's not even touching upon the potential bias (perceived or real) that a past performer brings to the table--bias against a rival school, bias against a specific type of group, an unconscious bias against groups that try to do the same songs their groups once mastered.

In an ideal world, the judges would have all of the pieces of judging, including experience, well in hand. They would be ready, available and eager to travel across the country to judge competitions in which they couldn’t possibly have a stake. In the real world, these factors will never all align—or, at the very least, not on a consistent basis. The ICCA production staff does a remarkable job, as is, of just finding people with the musical qualifications to accurately judge a show. Adding prior collegiate a cappella performance experience to the screening process would likely make it impossibly hard to staff every show. Taking this all into account, it’s not realistic, reasonable, or necessarily even ideal for judges to all be collegiate a cappella alumi.

When should a group start competing?

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This week's topic: For new and developing collegiate a cappella groups, it is a good idea to start performing in competitions.

 True: There are so many ways in which competition can be good for a young a cappella group. First and foremost, participating in a competition gives a group the opportunity to test itself, and get honest, unbiased feedback on its work. It’s easy to listen to friends and fans tell you your group is great. It’s far more meaningful to get real feedback from experts in the field. Your new group actually is as great as you had hoped? ICCA adjudicators will tell you what made you great, and where you still have room for improvement. Your new group isn’t as strong as you thought? Get a point by point analysis of your areas for improvement, and figure out how you can take your group to the next level.

Beyond word from the judges, competition can be a great opportunity to see what other groups are doing. Great writers need to read great books. Great athletes need to watch game film. A new group doesn’t need to copy more experienced groups, but is going to be useful to watch veterans, to get a handle on what kinds of songs work for what kinds of groups, where choreography works, what’s already overplayed. In addition, other groups can be a great source of informal feedback on your set.

Lastly, there’s something to be said for the sheer experience of competing. Competition can give your group a new and much larger audience than group’s often get on their own campuses. Beyond that, it’s a high pressure situation, that can bring the group together, and bring out the best in its members. It’s a way of testing the group, to find out just how great the group is. For a new group, each passing year in competition can demonstrate how the group has improved and matured.

False: While there’s a lot that a group can learn from competition, competing shouldn’t be a high priority for new ensembles. Just picture it—your group has come together, learned a respectable selection of songs. You’ve got your soloists. You’re figuring out perc. You’re starting to incorporate some movement…

You take your group into competition, and you get stomped.

Your members are nervous, and choke on the stage. Another, more experienced group performs the same songs as you, and their arrangements rock the socks off your own. You find that the movement you thought was so innovative, is actually played, and only the most basic piece of another group’s choreography.

Competition is a great place to learn, but for a brand new group, the experience can be discouraging, if not flat out embarrassing. This experience may scare a group off from competing again. If the competition was at or near home, it may make your group less appealing to potential auditionees. All in all, the experience can set your group back a full year or more.

Beyond that, a new group needs to focus on rounding out a full group, establishing an identity, building a repertoire. Focusing on three or four songs to bring to competition limits what a group has the time and energy to do. Competition gets a group too focused, too soon, on too limited a number of pieces, when a group should be experimenting, and discovering itself.

Recordings

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The increasingly produced sound found on many a cappella recordings takes away from the art form that is a cappella.

True: When I listen to a cappella, I want to hear a cappella. If you can’t make the sound with your own body, it doesn’t have a place in the music. Some talented groups can make you forget there’s no instrumentation by how good they are, and that’s an awesome thing. However, when I can’t make out a human voice in the background of a song because of just how produced the recording is, it means that it isn’t a cappella for me anymore. Listening to a recording, I want to hear the same nuances, creativity and tricks a live performance will bring. If you’re going to fudge that, you’d might as well bring in the guitar, keyboards, and drum kit as well, and call yourself a band.

False: The beauty of a recording over a live performance is that you can clean up the messy parts of a song, and enhance the overall quality accenting what’s good, and covering what doesn’t work. When you’re listening to a recording, you shouldn’t be expecting the same sound you’ll get at a live show. You should be expecting an optimized listening experience, for which professionals have tweaked the music to make it better than the human voice could ever manage on its own.

Who should be allowed to compete?

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We welcome you to weigh in on the topic at hand by posting a comment.

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In response to allegations during last years ICCAs that some groups had formed for the sole purpose of winning competitions, ICCA should institute stricter rules about who can compete—setting minimum amounts of time a group must be together before it can compete, or a minimum repertoire.

True: Ideally, walking out of a competition as the winner should represent that your group was the best group in the competition. But if a group only knows how to perform three songs, can it really make a claim to being the best? And what of groups drawn together by music faculty, taking cream of the crop singers from the music program, and inserting them into a group for the express purpose of winning competitions?

From what I know, there’s no proof that any groups have been formed in such a way (in fact, I’ve heard groups accused of these practices come forward to refute the claims). Regardless, why not take away the speculation and set up some guidelines? Competitive collegiate a cappella groups should be consist of teams of students pulling together to form a group that performs on and maybe off campus. It should be a student group first, and competitive second. Stricter rules would help insure that this was the case.

False: To set up minimum standards of repertoire and longevity in competitive groups is to venture into some very gray territory. Do groups need to have 10 songs in their repertoire to compete? If they only know nine, does that mean they are less reputable as a group? Furthermore, if a faculty or staff member is willing to contribute the time to help recruit for, direct or advise a group, is that such a bad thing—especially if it results in a better overall product of a cappella?

All in all, if a group of students can put together a better 12 minute set than any of the opposition, they deserve to win a competition. Such a group may deprive itself of some of the joys of being a more conventional group—the camaraderie of experimenting with a wider array of songs and performing outside the confines of competition. This that groups own loss, as they will have less fun. This should not bar them from having opportunity to compete on an ICCA stage.

The number of groups at a quarterfinal
Watching the competition
Who should get to be judges?
When should a group start competing?
Recordings
Who should be allowed to compete?
Splitting ICCA
Collegiate A Cappella Compilations
The arrangements groups use for competition
Blake Lewis and the a cappella world
Competing at home
All-female groups