The 5s

5 Takeaways from Varsity Vocals’ First Open Finals

The 5s

Last month saw the finals of the very first Open—a tournament put on by Varsity Vocals that was not restricted to any specific scholastic level, but rather, as the name implies, open to groups anywhere, of any composition, singing any style. The results were an interesting brand of competition to say the least, culminating a widely touted show at Carnegie Hall.

While I pride myself on having made it to every ICCA Finals show since 2007, and most ICHSA shows in that period as well, I wasn’t able to make it to New York for this one. Nonetheless, I followed coverage via other great outlets like AcaVille Radio and FloVoice, and while I still have some catching up to do in learning more about some of the featured groups and giving them a listen, I nonetheless walked away with some distinct impressions from the event and about what it says regarding the future of a cappella.

1. All-Female A Cappella Is Thriving

While Women of the World may have been relatively new faces to Varsity Vocals fans, they’re a group that has operated at different sizes and in different permutations since 2008, and that had previously won the National Harmony Sweepstakes in 2014. In 2017, they etched their names in history as the first Open Champions.

That an all-female group would win the Open—a rare accomplishment in the collegiate and high school ranks—makes a bold statement about the quality of the group. It’s worth noting they weren’t the only all-female group to make it to Finals, either, joined by elite western group JANE, featuring alumni from college women’s powerhouses Divisi and Noteworthy.

2. New England Is Hot

OK, so Women of the World are, by their own definition, representatives of different regions of the world. Just the same, they won their way into the Open Finals via the New England Region. They weren’t the only group based in that area to appear at Finals either, as the top runners up in the competition were the Boston-based Northeastern University Nor’easters. Think about that. The top two finishers in a tournament designed to represent the whole a cappella world, both call Boston their home base.

Consider that Pitch Slapped wasn’t even in the competition, besides the bevy of other MIT, Northeaster, Berklee, Harvard-Radcliffe, Boston University, Boston College a cappella groups, and scads of other scholastic and post-collegiate groups that call that area home. For years, the west king when it came to competitive a cappella, but New England has come back with a vengeance.

3. Scholastic Groups Can Be Great in the Fall

For college and high school groups, the most high-profile competitions traditionally go down each year in the spring. That makes sense given that the spring competitions give groups months of time to gel—making up for key members who graduated and adjusting to new recruits. In the fall, a group might sill be shaking loose summer cobwebs, and may not yet know who it is or be truly prepared to put its best foot forward.

Or so we thought.

The reigning ICCA Champions, The Nor’easters and the reigning ICHSA Champions, Vocal Rush did themselves proud at the Open Finals, despite less than ideal timing on the academic calendar. Heck, The Nor’easters finished second, which is just plain insane at this level of competition for a scholastic group in the fall. And while we can only assume Vocal Rush would have been even better evolved and more equipped to thrive come fall, their skilled performance nonetheless demonstrated that artistry and hard work can prevail and lead to great a cappella even at the start of the school year.

4. The Varsity Vocals Crew Can Kill It Year-Round

I’ve always looked to the Varsity Vocals production team with a bit of awe for their ability to oversee tournaments throughout the spring, in a task that more often than not involved extensive travel weekend after weekend after weekend (not to mention the tremendous volume of organizational work that goes on long before a show happens.

The Open tournament on the whole confirmed that this team can go year-round, and further substantiates rumors that they just might be cyborgs sent to annihilate the world of instrumental music by exposing how awesome a cappella can be.

5. Collaboration Tops Competition

The Open was, of course, a competition, but underscored like all of Varsity Vocals’ offerings the value of collaboration, exposure, and learning. Over the course of this tournament, hundreds of a cappella singers got to sing on the same stage as people they likely as not would never have otherwise met, were it not for this series of events. The Finals in particular drew in singers from around the country and abroad to assemble a unique collection of talent.

In his infinite wisdom, Deke Sharon has spoken in the past about competition drawing audiences, and how shows like The Sing Off need to competition to sell themselves, but are much more about bringing artists together and getting more ears and eyes on them and on the a cappella genre itself. That’s exactly the vision that the Open realized in my estimation, assembling a phenomenal collection of talent to help influence one another and make the a cappella world at large that much better for the experience.

5 All-Female Groups I’d Like To See in the International Championship of A Cappella Open

The 5s

Earlier this week, Varsity Vocals announced the launch of the International Championship of A Cappella Open—a competition that will culminate New York next fall, featuring (should they choose to compete) the ICCA and ICHSA champions, plus up to eight other groups that may come from the scholastic ranks, but also may be alumni groups reuniting, all-star groups converging, post-collegiate groups already performing together, or full-on professionals.

There are a lot of intriguing permutations out there. I’ll be the first to recognize that some of these groups coming together, much less entering this competition, is easier said than done, but for the sake of argument, in this edition of The 5s and I’m looking at five groups I’d love to hear in this unique competition. To narrow the scope a bit, I’m going to focus more precisely on five all-female groups (maybe I’ll come back later to touch on all-male or mixed ensembles as well).

1. The Loreleis, 1996

In 1996, an all-female group out of UNC Chapel Hill became the original ICCA Champions. Twenty-one years later, how about getting the band back together for another run at aca-glory, aiming to etch the group’s name in history for another important first? If nothing else, this group might add a sense of scope to the competition, reflecting a style from an earlier stage of competitive a cappella, and perhaps lending a sense of tradition to the show.

2. Divisi, 2005

In 2005, Divisi threatened to become the first all-female group since The Loreleis to win the ICCA tournament. They wound up in second, in a turn that many in attendance considered in an injustice. The upshot may have been all the more important, however, as the turn of events provided a cornerstone for Mickey Rapkin’s <i>Pitch Perfect</i> book, which loosely inspired the films to follow that helped a cappella explode into the mainstream, featuring the all-female Barden Bellas. I can think of no better way to honor that whole legacy than bringing Lisa Forkish and company back for one more shot at a championship victory on the big stage in New York.

3. Vocal Rush, 2012

For those following the ICHSA tournament over the last five years, it’s well-established that Vocal Rush is a high school a cappella franchise in a league of its own, winning three championships to go along with successes like thriving on <i>The Sing-Off</i> and win in the high-school/college inclusive Los Angeles A Cappella Festival scholastic competition. Vocal Rush is, typically, a co-ed group, but the version of the ensemble that traveled to New York to decisively win ICHSA Finals in 2012 was just seven young women who carried themselves like professionals, under the aforementioned Forkish’s direction, and driven by Sarah Vela’s virtuosic solo work. While I’d have no problem hearing any version of Vocal Rush from any year bring it to the Open, if a particular all-female unit were to bring it, this would be my pick.

4. The AcaBelles, 2012

From a resume perspective, this is the most outside-the-box pick out of these five—a group that did compete in ICCAs, but didn’t make the Finals, let alone place. So why do they make the cut?

I’ve been covering Varsity Vocals tournaments for ten years. Out of those ten years, The Florida State AcaBelles’ 2012 Semifinals offering stands out to me among my top five all-time favorites—a seamless emotional rollercoaster of a set that finished second in its region, third in the Wild Card though, in my estimation, it very arguably could have won Finals. I’d love to see this group come back together five years later, if for no other reason than that I’d love to hear this particular set or an updated take on it live one more time.

5. GQ

When this quartet first formed in 2011, its members were all students at Towson University outside Baltimore, MD. They never took their act to ICCAs, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t compete. Instead, they won the competition at SingStrong 2012 and their region in Harmony Sweepstakes (besides finishing second overall in that tournament). The foursome went on to thrive in Sweet Adeline competition, place music on a Sing! compilation and appear on A Prairie Home Companion.

Much of the buzz about the Open has surrounded groups from diverse eras competing, or group members from different years coming together into one unit. GQ represents another possibility—bringing their unique blend of barbershop training and contemporary sensibilities to a new audience and diversifying the style of the competition.

So, who's up for the challenge? And who would you like to see? Anything looks possible, and on this Thanksgiving day, we're very thankful for that.

Five Things Aca-Things We’re Thankful for this Thanksgiving

The 5s

Call us traditionalists. Call us cheeseballs. Here at the ACB, we’re gearing up for Thanksgiving and trying to tap into the spirit of the day. No, not stealing land from indigenous people, slaughtering them, and eating turkey—but rather the worthwhile aftermath of all of this—that we have a day of thanks for that which we have.

With that, I give you a (far from exhaustive) list of five things I’m feeling particularly thankful for in the a cappella world in this moment.


​1. Pentatonix​

Sure, this pick is obvious and not entirely original. It’s also undeniable.

When Pentatonix won The Sing-Off, there was plenty of reason to feel optimistic about the group’s potential. Just the same, there wasn’t exactly a clearly defined road for them to follow. Don’t get me wrong, because I think NOTA and Committed are fantastic groups that have done some cool things since their big victories on NBC. Just the same, they never quite broke the aca-glass ceiling to cross over and become sustainably successful acts for a mainstream audience on a national scale.

Pentatonix remained relevant. Rather than fading away, the group built upon its fan base and reputation with clever and musically pristine covers on YouTube. They toured. They released EPs and Christmas albums that sold very, very well.

2015 may go down as the year when Pentatonix advanced from red hot to nuclear. They (and Ben Bram) won a Grammy. They released a documentary. Oh, and their latest album, centered on original music? It sold its way to the number one spot on the Billboard 200 Chart.

Pentatonix has, therefore, transcended the role of great a cappella group, to emerge as the definitive ambassadors for a cappella for their generation. They are talented. They are cool. They are prolific. They are putting a cappella into a national spotlight. For all of this, I am so thankful.

2. ICHSA Quarterfinals

This summer, Varsity Vocals announced the addition of International Championship of High School A Cappella quarterfinals this year. An additional round of high school competition bespeaks the rapidly burgeoning roster of uber-talented high school groups around the country. Moreover, in talking with Executive Producer Amanda Newman, I learned that one of the driving factors for the tournament expansion was the groups, directors, and families, who had previously been reticent to add more events to their busy students’ calendars, who by 2015 were the most eager supporters of moarrrr a cappella. The bigger and better high school a cappella gets, the better it bodes for collegiate a cappella, which bodes well for professional a cappella, which all adds up to bright future for the form. Thanks, Varsity Vocals!

3. The Vocal Company

Particularly since The Vocal Company and Sled Dog Studios joined forces, some strange things have happened. You hear an awesome aca-album. You see an awesome aca-video. The live sound at an aca-show is pristine.

More often than not, you come to discover that The Vocal Company is involved.

With all due respect to companies doing similar (and similarly fantastic!) work, like our friends at Liquid 5th and A Cappella Productions, The Vocal Company has emerged at the fore of the most happening happenings in a cappella. They arrange. They record. They mix and master. They do live sound. And perhaps most impressively, they educate, under the leadership of aca-ed virtuoso Ben Stevens, providing in-person and video conferencing and their popular Next Level workshop events. The Vocal Company is among the key forces pushing a cappella forward in variety of directions.

4. Pitch Perfect 3

As I wrote in my review of Pitch Perfect 2, the sequel was weaker than the original. Just the same, it did have its moments, particularly when it comes to celebrating the value of original music to the a cappella world and getting that message to a mainstream audience. Now, part three is in the early stages of production, with writer Kay Cannon and director Elizabeth Banks back on board, and cast members including Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, and Hailee Steinfeld all signed. There is the possibility that the Pitch Perfect franchise will fall into the trap of movie series that overstayed their welcome into truly awful cinema, the likes of The Hangover or Godfather. But I remain cautiously optimistic that we’ll get a part three that’s worth our while—perhaps leaving the college a cappella scene behind in favor of a post-collegiate group? Regardless, a cappella is coming back to a national audience of moviegoers in 2017, and with that reality comes the potential to attract even more fans and practitioners of the a cappella form.

5. Our readers

I conceded that we’re cheeseballs, right? Here’s the deal—The A Cappella Blog is a passion project. It has never yielded a significant financial profit. It has always been rooted in the principles of making information and insights about a cappella accessible to a general audience, and fostering a love of the form for anyone who might come across the site. That model only works if we have people coming to the site and checking out what we have to say. So thank you to our readers, our Facebook fans, our Twitter followers, and everyone else who has passed some time with our aca-musings. We appreciate you and wish you the best this Thanksgiving!

Five Reactions to the First Episode of Sing It On

The 5s

In this edition I’m looking at five of my reactions to the first episode of Sing It On.

1. How cool is this? I just saw actual collegiate a cappella get a full one-hour (minus commercials) treatment on national television. I heard the term ICCAs thrown around on national television casually with a very reasonable understanding of what the tournament is.

What?

Equally important, this treatment of a cappella was objectively entertaining. Just as the success of Pitch Perfect hinged on a compelling plot, acting, and direction, Sing It On felt artfully shaped to tell a cohesive and genuinely interesting story, without compromising the integrity of the material at stake. This is reality-based television at its best. And that’s pretty cool.

2. The struggle is real. The depiction of The AcaBelles as a representation of all-female groups everywhere, striving to earn proper recognition and get the members they need was a nice microcosm of an important issue in collegiate a cappella. In my nine years of attending ICCA Finals, I’ve seen only four all-female groups make it to New York, and only one of those groups won the tournament. Moreover, stigmas still exist about all-female a cappella being less entertaining, powerful, or compelling than all-male or co-ed a cappella.

In the world of fictional a cappella, The Barden Bellas are functioning as high profile role models for what women’s a cappella can be, and I’m hopeful that The AcaBelles, who have been performing at such a high level since the late 00s, can be that same type of real-world role model for all-female groups on the whole, and that they might inspire individual female college students to consider joining the all-female ranks.

3. I agree with Michael. With the caveats that The AcaBelles have been one of my favorite a cappella groups since I first saw them at ICCA Finals in 2009 and that I dug their representation on this episode…

…gulp…

I agreed with Michael from All-Night Yahtzee.

Spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet watched the show—one of the key points of dramatic tension in this premiere was The ‘Belles and ANY nearly coming to blows during Aca-Council negotiations, over female auditionees that each group wanted, and, in particular, Amanda.

Amanda auditioned for, and successfully wowed both groups. The overwhelming majority of voices on the show sided with The AcaBelles—that as an all-female group they needed Amanda’s specific talents more than All-Night Yahtzee. Michael, the musical director for ANY, suggested that wasn’t his problem—that he wanted Amanda in his group, and, moreover, it was Amanda’s preference to join his group, and so she should be an ANY-er.

I totally get the argument that it was for the betterment of the a cappella community at Florida State for Amanda to be a ‘Belle. Just the same, I have to say that I don’t understand wedging a singer into a group she’s less interested in, when a group she’s more interested in also wants her.

Michael felt cast as something like a villain in this first episode, but I have to say that I just don’t see it. I’ve got your back, bro.

(Note: I’m sure there’s more to the back story here, and I’m not one hundred percent convinced that there wasn’t some drama conjured for the sake of TV in this instance. That said, I’m making my call based on what Sing It On presented to us.)

4. I can’t take my eyes off The Nor’easters. To put it plainly, I’m a huge fan of The Nor’easters. Watching them on Sing It On only reinforced my love for this group. Watching them go through their selection process for new members felt so real, so agonizing, and ultimately so rewarding.

That, and there was a Shams Ahmed sighting. One of my great fears about featuring The Nor’easters on this show in 2015, is that the timing might cut Shams from the spotlight, and I was so glad to see him find his way onto the screen in a godfather-like turn. Phenomenal.

And then there’s Kevin Mayer. It’s at once heartwarming and heartbreaking to see him in his element with The Nor’easters at this early stage of the school year. I recognize that some readers/viewers may not know where his story is headed, so I’m going to leave it at that for now to avoid spoiling anything for anyone. If you are interested in learning more about this remarkable young man, though, go ahead and Google him to fill in the blanks.

5. Where is Pitch, Please? The Florida State groups and The Nor’easters got ample attention in the premiere. No Comment felt as though it got short shrift on this first episode, but I know they have some bigger, more controversial stories ahead of them (alluded to in the show’s opening montage).

But where is Pitch, Please?

Did I blink and miss them?

This is the featured group I know the least about—I’m eager for them to get some exposure, and to have the opportunity to hear more.

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As I hope has come across, I was super-jazzed about and super-invested in the Sing It On premiere. I can’t wait for next week!

Five Reasons for A Cappella Groups to Develop Farm Teams

The 5s

In this edition I’m looking at five reasons to develop a “farm team”.

Some background before the list: To my knowledge, no high school or college groups currently have a formal “JV” or “developmental” system in place, though there are a handful of elite, longstanding groups absorb experienced members from other groups in a non-systematic way. (For example, The Whiffenpoofs at Yale are a seniors-only ensemble, and thus other a cappella groups on campus have, in some instances, unofficially groomed future members for the elite group.) Therefore, think of this post less as an endorsement of an existing practice, and more as “a modest proposal” for how your group might look out for its own future.

I write this list with full acknowledgment that many schools would not have sufficient interested parties or talents to make such a system work. Similarly, the a cappella world, and performing arts in general, has its share of big egos (warranted or not)—many of whom would not abide placement on the farm team. This solution is not one-size-fits-all for every school, group, or singer, but would have the potential for success with the right factors in place.

The Modest Proposal: Scholastic a cappella groups should consider forming a secondary a cappella group to act as a developmental roster and feeder system to the main group.

1. Retain the fringe. A cappella groups decline auditionees for any number of reasons. Some folks get turned away because they simply don’t have the vocal chops to cut it with the caliber of the group, and it’s fine to cut them loose. But then there are the fringe talents. Say you’re turning away freshman tenor because you already have three other group members who bring the exact same talents to the group. Maybe you don’t need him now, but what about two years from now when all of your current tenors have graduated? Sometimes you’re rejecting someone because her personality seems like a wild card. Might you be interested in seeing how she turns out after she’s had a year or two to mature and settle into her better developed identity? Same with the singer whose confidence isn’t quite there yet or the talented vocalist who hasn’t sung in a formal setting anymore and doesn’t yet know the technical side of music or how to blend effectively.
A farm team allows you to keep these fringe players in the fold, instead of watching them join a different a cappella group or slip off into a different extracurricular outside the realm of a cappella. A developmental group can focus on giving them time to find their footing and see how they blossom with someone teaching them the fundamentals in relatively laidback rehearsals and low stakes performance settings. Think of the fringe members’ participation in the farm team as an extended audition in which you can really get to know them and see if they fit the group, while simultaneously preparing them for success. Speaking of which…

2. Teach them your way. Anytime someone joins a new group, there’s a learning curve. No two groups rehearse in quite the same way, nor do they have precisely the same identities or aesthetics. Grooming talent on your farm team gives them a leg up on learning the values and norms of your group, so if they do join your main roster in the years to follow, they’ll be far better prepared for the transition. Moreover, you may even get your farm team singing the same arrangements as the main group, so can call them up to the big leagues with a sense of institutional knowledge already in place.

3. Cultivate more leaders. There are plenty of different options for who directs your developmental group, but one of the more appealing ones is to delegate the responsibility to young leaders from your main roster. Giving them extra responsibility and experience running rehearsals grooms them to eventually lead the main group; furthermore, it gets the developmental talents accustomed to listening to and learning from someone who will likely be directing them for years to come.

4. Give singers experience. Have your farm team perform local gigs. Heck, have them compete. There’s no substitute for the actual experience of performing for a live audience, and if you can have singers join your main roster with exactly that sort of experience already under their belts, you can go a long way toward defeating first-gig jitters and breaking down any aura of intimidation around competition.

5. Have backups. People get sick. They have personal problems and need to temporarily leave the group, or even school altogether. Politics and drama happen and a group member might elect to take his ball and go home. If you have a developmental system in place, you’re affording yourself the opportunity to call up substitutes or replacements, which will lessen the chance of missing a gig or having your hopes at competition trounced by factors beyond your control

What US A Cappella Can Learn from European A Cappella

The 5s

In this edition, I’m looking at five things US a cappella can learn from European a cappella.

1. Focus on the music. In 2012, many attendees of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals questioned the judges’ decision to rank Kings College of London’s All the King’s Men as the third-place group over crowd favorites like Voices in Your Head and The Accidentals. While we can debate the relative merits of these groups’ performances all day long, the simple fact remains that the adjudicators focused on music, and the tuning and blend of the British group was without peer.

Taking things a step further, consider professional ensembles like The Real Group out of Sweden. I’ve heard some American fans say that they don’t connect with the group because few of their song selections come from the contemporary American pop catalog, or because not all of their music is in English. While folks have the right to personal preferences, I’d contend that any groups that want to hear a pure a cappella sound, and strive toward that end themselves are doing themselves a disservice if they overlook The Real Group.

2. Have a distinctive identity. This point goes out, first and foremost, to all of the small semi-pro groups out there emulating established acts like Pentatonix, Arora, and Ball in the House. Yes, the cream will rise to the top, and if you can merge elite talent with a solid work ethic, you’ve got as good of a chance as anyone to achieve a measure of success. But how many small groups that are kind of funny, kind of sexy, and have a run-the-gamut repertoire are grasping at YouTube attention and gigs on college campuses? What’s setting one apart from the others?
While note every European act has a well-defined niche, consider an act like Denmark’s Postyr Project that so clearly defines itself as “the electronic vocal group” or Finland’s Fork with it’s rough edge rock sensibilities. These groups look different, sound different, and boast repertoires that revolve around the group identity, minus the “fat” of extraneous songs one group member happens to like.

3. Get outside of the a cappella box. There was a time when England’s Boxettes operated outside of the a cappella universe, as we think of it in the US. They thought of themselves as a singing group and cobbled together music by innovating sounds via their mouths and mic technique well outside the sphere of what their contemporaries were doing. While there’s certainly value in studying the greats, there’s also something to be said for blazing your own trail and just making music without borrowing syllables, elements of performance, or song ideas from groups around you.

4. Look abroad and travel. Pop quiz: how many musical artists or groups, not from North America, are you familiar with who have never appeared on US Top 40 radio? The kind of folks who read this blog are probably disproportionately prone to know at least a handful of acts from abroad, but the fact remains that most of us don’t have much consciousness of what’s going on outside our own borders. Any number of European groups are pulling material from elsewhere in Europe or from the US and Canada, in so doing adding depth and richness to their set lists, and more importantly allowing international influences to help mold their aesthetics and become more interesting artists.

5. Play festivals. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe hosts over 2,000 shows with performers from over 40 countries each summer. Without fail, the festival includes dozens of a cappella groups, many of them made up of UK university students. I’m not necessarily suggesting that US college groups hop a flight for Scotland each August (though, if you have the means, why not?), but I am suggesting that it’s worth looking for performance opportunities beyond a cappella competitions and festivals, and your own campus shows. Seek out music and arts festivals in your region—ones that already feature a cappella, and better yet, those that do not. Expose yourselves to a brand new audience and you might be surprised at what new opportunities can follow.

5 Takeaways from Varsity Vocals’ First Open Finals
5 All-Female Groups I’d Like To See in the International Championship of A Cappella Open
Five Things Aca-Things We’re Thankful for this Thanksgiving
Five Reactions to the First Episode of Sing It On
Five Reasons for A Cappella Groups to Develop Farm Teams
What US A Cappella Can Learn from European A Cappella
The Five Songs You Shouldn’t Bring to the ICCAs
The A Cappella Education Association
Pitch Perfect 2
The New Season of The Sing-Off
Five Books for the A Cappella Enthusiast on Your Holiday Shopping List
Why Team Building Is Important to Your Group’s Success
David Rabizadeh
The A Cappella Book
Five ICCA Quarterfinals to Keep an Eye on in 2012
Five Songs to Convince a Non-Believer
What To Do and What to Avoid in the ICCAs
Co-Ed A Cappella Groups
The A Cappella Holiday Season - Gift Ideas & Video Selections
Five Reasons for the A Cappella Community to be Thankful
Five Ways to Save The Sing-Off
Why You Should Watch The Sing-Off Instead of Dancing with the Stars Tonight
The ICCA Finals
All-Female A Cappella
All-Male A Cappella
Viral Videos