The Competitor's Edge


The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is <b>rehearsal</b>.

Drill, baby, drill.

While it’s still not the ordinary state of affairs, it’s also not particularly uncommon to see a group win an ICCA quarterfinal and wrap up the show with an encore that reprises one of their competition songs. I have a buddy who <i>hates</i> when groups do that, insistent that any group worthy of competing at the semifinal level should have at least four songs in its back pocket. I respectfully disagree.

Sure, I enjoy it more when a group performs something new at the end of the night, but I also maintain that a group that is serious about competing is well within its rights to pour its heart and soul into the three or four songs of the competition set. After all, if you don’t have those songs as polished as they can be, what hope do you have of <i>getting</i> to perform an encore as champions?

Group members may complain about getting bored, drilling the same twelve minutes of music over and over and over again. They may say it’s not fun anymore. And that’s fine. Preparing for competition is about hard work, and the fun of succeeding in competition is a rich reward.

Put in the hours.

Most people who sing in a cappella groups are busy. If you’re in a scholastic group, you’re balancing long days of class and homework with your obligations to your a cappella group. If you’re in a post-collegiate or semi-pro group, you’re probably squeezing in a cappella between a full-time job and time with your family and friends. And if you’re in a professional group, you’re probably working your butt off to achieve a level of performance that allows you to sing full time.

It’s perfectly understandable for a group to only rehearse for an hour or two a week under normal circumstances. But when it comes time for competition, and assembling a brief, representative set of music that will show off the very best your group has to offer, there’s really no substitute for time: spending enough time to be truly focused on the music, working as a group to the point that you <i>know</i> one another and every quirk of how the unit sings, singing enough iterations to recognize and resolve every arrangement issue or point when the tempo or blend falls apart.

Stay positive.

Yes, this post has been heavy on the concepts of focus and hard work, and those principles are important when a group prepares to compete. The risk of long hours and many iterations of the same music, though, is that group can grow dispirited. If a group loses its passion for the music or for performing together it’s <i>very</i> difficult to get an audience to feel that passion either. Great groups not only work hard but stay positive: they thank everyone for the time and effort they’re investing in the process, they focus everyone on the same goal, and they remember to have fun—still joking with one another, grabbing a bite after rehearsal, and offering to support if they see someone getting too stressed out to enjoy the experience.

How have you gotten the most out of rehearsals? Where have you seen groups go wrong? Let us know in the comments.

How You Enter and Exit the Stage

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is <b>how you enter and exit the stage</b>.

<b>First impressions matter.</b>

Plenty of groups seem to think that their competition set starts when they sing their first notes. That may be when the clock starts on the set, and, for official purposes, that may be when the judges are supposed to start paying attention, but in reality the moment a group is heard or seen it is making an impression. Your group can bound onto the stage in high energy fashion. You can march with perfect professionalism. You can stagger your entry to build the drama. Whatever you do, don’t giggle, don’t wave to your girlfriend, don’t take the walk onto the stage as an opportunity to work out your last jitters—get <i>all</i> of that out of the way before you get on stage, unless your nervous tic is a conscious part of the set you’re using to set up a specific song or to subvert expectations.

<b>Think about how you’ll exit.</b>

Too often I’ve seen very good sets derailed when the competitors have no exit strategy. The close on a winning pose. They look at each other and the crowd awkwardly. Some of them bow. Some of them wave. They shuffle off stage, sometimes in different directions.

Just like how a group enters the stage, how a group leaves is an unofficial part of the set, indicative of your group’s identity, level of professionalism, and the amount of preparation that went into the performance. Well prepared groups bow together or strike a final, definitive pose or very consciously run off stage with the same energy and exhilaration with which they started the set, or that their final song precipitated.

How have you seen groups make positive or negative impressions at the beginnings or ends of their sets? Let us know in the comments.


The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is soloists.

Go with your best.

It sounds intuitive for a group to put its best soloists forth in competition, but you may be surprised with how many groups talk themselves out of that very scenario. They think that they need to show more range, or that they need to highlight equal number of male and female leads, or that they need to reward long-time group members with the opportunity to have a solo in competition. These ideas are all well and noble, but groups shouldn’t lose sight of the inescapable fact that judges and objective audience members simply do not care.

In competition a group gets twelve minutes to prove itself. Most of the audience won’t have the context of the group’s larger story and if the judges are doing their job, they’ll be judging based on what they hear and see—nothing more. The soloist is aurally and visually the most noticeable piece of most any performance, and thus a group needs to prioritize putting its best possible leads forward.

Think about fit.

While it’s important to put your best soloists forward, it’s equally important to find the appropriate vehicles to showcase why they’re the best your group has to offer. Giving your animated showman a soft ballad will squander the gifts that make him stand out; similarly, assigning your most gifted soprano a largely spoken-word or rap lead fails to show off what makes her special in the first place.

Think about your soloists’ signature sounds—the music that they sound at home with, that they seem to have a connection to, and let the group build around that lead.

Aim for unique.

With the exception of a very small handful of groups in the world, you cannot count on your soloists being flat-out better than the soloists from any other group. But you can make strides toward making your soloists unique. Whether it’s the timbre of their voices, a cool audio effect they’re capable of, or something as seemingly negligible as their hair or the way they dress, unique soloists are memorable and that can make all the difference when judges are making their subjective placements and when audience members are talking after the show.

What have you found to be the best practices for a cappella soloists? What are the best solos you’ve heard? Let us know in the comments.


The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is dynamics.

A demonstration of skill

While the ability to increase and decrease a group’s volume may seem somewhat elementary to a spectator, the ability to coordinate shifts in dynamics fluidly among an ensemble can be tricky business. Doing so successfully is one of the clearest ways in which a group can demonstrate its precision, level of practice, and cohesion as a unit.

Making moments pop

A group that wishes to compete at the highest level shouldn’t vary its dynamics at random, but rather think about what dynamics will mean to a piece. Many groups want to arrive at a big moment in their sets—the point at which group members line the front of the stage and hit the audience with a wall of sound. That’s all well and good, but can only be so effective if the group hasn’t earned its moment by starting small and affording themselves someplace to build from.


In a New Year’s themed episode of How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney comments on how the perfect playlist isn’t about rises and falls, but rather a constant, steady build from loud and upbeat to even louder and upbeater. The point is debatable and subject to personal opinion, but in the context of an a cappella competition, the group that doesn’t switch things up threatens to bore an audience with their quiet, mellow sound or irritate them by making too much noise and ostensibly yelling at the crowd. Dynamics facilitate a group presenting different sides of itself and taking each audience member on a nuanced journey with them.

Why do you think dynamics are important to a competition set? How have you seen them used? Let us know in the comments.


The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is choreography.

There came a critical point in the last 15 or so years when choreography transitioned from a novelty and a nicety to a borderline necessity for competitive a cappella groups. After all, Varsity Vocals, the largest a cappella competition body, instituted the practice of 40 percent of a group’s score being evaluated on visual performance, and went so far as to make Outstanding Choreography superlatives an institutionalized part of most shows.

But does that mean that successful competitors should all choreograph?

To choreograph or not to choreograph? That is the question.

Plenty of groups find themselves asking if it’s better to choreograph, knowing that movement isn’t their greatest strength, or to not choreograph and risk losing points for appearing static or uninteresting.

For me, this question comes down to end, net result. If your group looks uncomfortable or self-conscious with it’s movement and especially if the movement takes away from the group’s aural performance, that’s a huge red flag that choreography is more distracting than valuable at that point.

On the flip side, if your group can really move, inspiring excitement with its choreo, energizing the group itself, or perhaps even hiding musical shortcomings through an awesome visual presentation, than the group had might as well choreograph away.

How much is too much?

The question groups need to ask themselves is why they are choreographing in a given moment. If the movement is complementing or enhancing the music, then it is doing exactly what it is supposed be doing. If a group is choreographing just because they think they “should,” due to today’s conventions, that tends to result in a performance in which the movement that is transparently tacked on and not adding inherent value to the set.

Groups should also be wary of overly literal or repetitive choreography. Not every lyric needs a gesture to illustrate it, and regardless of how impressive a movement may be, if it becomes predictable or redundant, it will quickly lose favor with the audience.

Visual presentation over choreo

In my reviews of a cappella competitions, I’ve started renaming my superlative for staging to “Outstanding Visual Presentation” rather than “Outstanding Choreography.” To me, visual presentation encompasses choreography, but it’s also about creative staggering on stage, and reconfiguring in ways that service the music. It’s about telling a visual story without necessarily putting on a musical theatre number.

What are your feelings on choreography in competitive a cappella? Do groups need to do it? How do they succeed? Let us know in the comments

Song Order

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is song order.

Traditional 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.

Subverting expectations
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.

How You Enter and Exit the Stage
Song Order