The Competitor's Edge

Song Selection

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is on song selection.

Forge an identity.

The songs a group sings go a long way toward defining a group’s identity for the night of a competition. While there’s certainly an argument that some identities are a better fit for competition than others, I maintain that some identity is better than no identity. Groups benefit from selecting a style of performance and, inevitably some songs will fit more comfortably in their wheelhouse than others—or they’ll reinvent songs in clever ways to make them fit.

Consider the example of The NYU N’Harmonics in 2014. Their set, featured songs by Laura Mvula (an up and coming British soul singer), The Dirty Projectors (an NYC indie rock band, and a Yes song that was a forgotten single from the early 1970s. No group sounded like The N’Harmonics, weaving a sense of counter culture and chic for a totally distinctive identity via song selection.

Be distinctive.

No two groups sing the same songs at competition.

Let me rephrase that: no two groups should bring the same songs to competition, outside the rare and impossible to foresee coincidence.

There are top 40 songs out there that everyone who goes to an a cappella competition expects to hear covered. And then there are songs no one expects to hear.

A golden oldie reinvented. A deep cut from a major artist. A song off an indie label. For every group out there, there are thousands of songs they could potentially perform, and unless you’re a group of the caliber of Pitch Slapped or The SoCal VoCals, you’re taking a real gamble if you just assume that you’re going to sing a mainstream hit better than any other group that happens to bring it to the same competition. Making unique decisions when it comes to song selection makes your group more memorable and avoids the possibility of unfavorable comparisons

Show your range, but think about flow.

While a cohesive identity and style are worthy goals for any competing group, it’s also worth thinking about how the group will show its range—that the group isn’t just fun, just emo, or any other one-note dimension of music, but rather can excel in different genres and by different means. A group that goes high octane all the way may be a crowd favorite, but just as easily leave the judges wondering if they didn’t have the chops to pull off a ballad.

While a group considers range, it must also evaluate how it will switch between different gears in a way that eases the audience in, or uses abrupt shifts for a purposeful dramatic effect. See the previous edition of The Competitor’s Edge on transitions for more on that topic.

How have you seen song selection make or break a competition set? Let us know in the comments section.


The Competitor's Edge

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

Telling a Story

While a group should undeniably bring its A-game to competition, and settle for nothing less than the twelve best minutes of music it can bring to the stage, there’s also something to be said for telling a story. If a group can cultivate a sense that they are taking the audience on a cohesive journey with them, it builds emotional engagement with the performance, makes the set more memorable, and keeps the performance feeling streamlined. The last thing a group wants is for audience members to be looking at their watches in the dim of the auditorium, thinking, really—they’re going to sing another song? The group’s objective should be for songs to build upon each other, riding waves of emotion, and developing an arc such that every single piece of the performance feels indispensable.

Not Breaking the Illusion

Every time the audience breaks to applaud, it breaks the illusion of the performance. Think about the experience you had the first time you watched your favorite movie. Were you consciously thinking about the fact that you were watching a movie, or were you so wrapped up in the presentation that you felt like a part of the movie, and temporarily forgot about your normal life? By the same extension, you want for the audience for your competition set to get so wrapped up in the performance that they forget about time, space, and uncomfortable seating, you want for them to exist within your music. Transitioning between songs fluidly—not stopping to reset your formations, hand mics to new soloists, drink water, and blow a new pitch between each song is an excellent way to preserve that illusion.

Seamless Sets

Some groups have taken fluid transitions to the extreme by embracing completely seamless sets—no breaks between songs, just one piece bleeding into the next. When it’s done well, the results can be pretty phenomenal, lending the sense of a twelve-minute expertly woven medley. When done poorly, it can feel like the song that never ends.

If your group can get away without blowing pitches, awesome. If you can’t, you shouldn’t sacrifice your tuning for a more fluid set. Similarly, if you can hand off microphones to new soloists and percussionists in an organic or unnoticeable way, that’s great. If you can’t, you shouldn’t force something that’s going to look contrived. A seamless set for which audience members can hear and see those seams, isn’t really seamless at all.

What sort of transitions have you seen work in competition. Let us know on social media @acappellablog.


The Competitor's Edge

In this addition, the focus is on attire.

Does it really matter?

The biggest question about attire in collegiate a cappella may well be whether it really makes a difference at all. After all, if a groups sound sensational, and incorporates a professional-grade visual show via choreography and staging, is anyone really going to care about how a group dressed?


The thing about attire is that it goes a long way toward making a first impression and informing the audience’s understanding of group's identity. There are opportunities to play with and subvert such expectations. For example, consider the seemingly stodgy group wearing tuxedos with tails that proceeds throw down a high-octane set with a hip hop bent. Even if you’re not trying be satirical, it is worth thinking about what message your group’s attire is sending.  


It’s exceedingly rare to see a group in t-shirt and jeans compete in the ICCA Finals.

Don’t get me wrong, casual attire is fine and perhaps even preferable for a casual show on campus. But when a group takes the stage in competition, the choice of outfits should reflect thought, preparation and coordination. Professional threads tend to play better with grown-up judges, and communicate a tone that a group takes itself seriously.


There are exceptions, but, in general, if a group doesn’t take the time to coordinate at least a general color scheme or min/max standard for how formally they will dress, the group ends up looking sloppy on stage, and are often more difficult for judges and audience members to distinctively remember, because they can’t point to “the women who wore black dresses” or “the mixed group that wore purple.”


Within the context of uniformity, it’s ideal if a group can find opportunities to celebrate individual characters—the hipster, the nerd, and the jock can all co-exist within a color scheme of black and yellow; group members can go with or without ties, and in blue skirts or blue jeans and still look like a unit, without looking like clones.


Can you perform your choreography in those blazers? In those heels? Does your director have a pocket to carry her pitch pipe? Is that skirt too short to be anything but distracting on stage?

Attire does more than communicate group identity—when a group doesn’t carefully consider its threads, it runs the risk of hindering the groups ability to effectively perform by becoming a functional inhibitor or distraction for the performers or the audience.

How have you seen attire affect a group’s performance in competition? What helps? What hurts? Let us know in the comments.


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.

Song Selection
How You Enter and Exit the Stage
Song Order