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.