The Competitor's Edge


The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is mashups.

Mashups aren’t inherently good or innovative.

Mashups are en vogue in the music world. More and more DJs are producing them and advances in music software have made it increasingly easy for amateurs to get in on the game. Thus, it’s only natural that the a cappella world would hop on board.

Enter Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off, each of which featured mashups prominently and all of a sudden a lot of a cappella groups are trying their hands at mashups.

Mashups are still both new and challenging enough that it’s easy for groups to assume that the very act of bringing a mashup to competition will come across as an innovative enough novelty to win the favor of audience members and judges. The fact of the matter is that with so many groups performing mashups, the novelty is all but gone. Don’t get me wrong—groups that can arrange and execute with excellence, or that can be truly creative about the choice of songs or how to combine them, can still make magic out of mashups. But a group shouldn’t think of mashups as inherently impressive to judges.

Think about connections.

When groups consider mashups, they need to consider how the songs will function together melodically, rhythmically, and thematically. If the songs don’t fit aurally, there’s a real risk of a group losing all sense of smooth transitions and the cool gestalt effect of songs coming together, instead winding up with cacophonous noise. Similarly, if listeners can’t understand why these two (or more) songs are being linked, it can lead to a moment of confusion—that moment breaks the illusion of your set. The goal is to make the audience take a journey with you and lose itself in your music. If the general audience member stops to think critically about your set while it’s happening, it usually means they’re distracted from your performance.

How have you seen mashups contribute to a group’s success? When have you seen them go wrong? Let us know in the comments.

Making the Most of Your Time

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is on making the most of your time.

Make your case.

I’ve repeated all too many times, but it when it comes to a competition like the ICHSAs or ICCAs, your group has twelve minutes to make its case why they deserve to move on to the next round of competition or be crowned champions. A group can’t depend on previous accomplishments, or its entire body of work to succeed in competition—it’s all about what happens in the minutes allotted to a competition set.  

Go the distance.

In my limited experience judging, one of the hardest calls to make can be between a group that performs amazingly well for eight minutes, versus one that performs very well for eleven and a half. You want to reward a group that achieved such a high benchmark and settled for nothing less than top quality. Just the same, it’s hard to reward them over a group that learned more music and put together and sustained a longer performance. Ideally, a group should strive for the best of both worlds—a full and excellent set. 

Don’t go over.

Competition rules vary, but going by the Varsity Vocals standard, going over time means getting docked a full place in competition (albeit with leadership indicating this rule is rarely invoked). With more and more groups competing each year, the stakes are high. Even at the ICCA quarterfinal level, in which two groups advance from each show, you don’t want to count on finishing second. If you’re invested in winning, you need to take care of every factor that is within your group’s control—you can’t necessarily control the work of the sound engineer, or the caliber of the groups around you, or what songs they choose, or if the stage is big enough to execute your choreography the way you planned it. You can plan your time and work in a buffer to ensure you won’t go over, thus staying within the limits of the competition, and not alienating your audience.

How have you seen groups manage time effectively in competition? How have you seen them squander it? Let us know in the comments.

Engaging the Audience

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is engaging the audience.

Bring the noise, bring the funk.

A too-oft-ignored reality of live a cappella performance—the audience wants to be engaged. Sure, most audience have their outspoken sources of snark, but in their heart of hearts the vast majority of people come out to shows because they want to be entertained.

Groups that thrive in competition capitalize on that desire. They take the stage with palpable energy, intensity, or verity. They take the audience for a ride. A competition is the absolute worst venue for any group to “phone in” a performance. Groups should leave everything they have on the stage to leave no doubt they made the best effort possible to engage the crowd.

Perform for them, not you.

Competitions have different target demographics. The ICCAs feature college kids, and while there’s a diverse body of judges, in my informal observation, the judges generally seem to reward performances that seem true to the group—youthful, edgy, innovative. Meanwhile, for Harmony Sweepstakes, the demographics tend to skew a bit more mature, and there’s a history of barbershop groups succeeding in the setting, meaning it’s not necessarily the optimal audience for a group to <i>attack</i> with wacky new vocal stylings.

Successful groups know their audience and perform to please their sensibilities. Moreover, they put the audience first. Groups naturally develop inside jokes, but great competitors recognize that those jokes are best left internal—in the rehearsal room, not on the performance stage when they run the risk of confusing or even alienating the crowd.

Interacting with the audience.

One of the purest approaches to engaging an audience is to get them actively participating in the performance. For example, when a group achieves something epic along the lines of a barn-burning closing number, it can be a huge advantage to lead the crowd in a clap-along to get them feeling the music and feeling like a part of the story. (On the flip side, going for a clap-along on the opening number or more than once in a set runs the risk of coming across as presumptuous, pandering, or just plain annoying).

Another way of interacting is to break the fourth wall. Mind you, not every performance space lends itself to it, but if a group can take advantage of the space available and work its way into the crowd (or start in the crowd and work their way onto the stage) it can surprise the audience, stand out, and bolster audience attachment to your act based on pure proximity.

How have you seen groups engage audiences in competition? Let us know in the comments.

Vocal Percussion

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is vocal percussion

Don’t isolate your drummer.

Call it a pet peeve, but in all my years writing this blog I’ve never understood why groups still insist on isolating their drummers. I get that a percussionist may not be able to participate in the full group choreography, but more often than not, if the movement is simple or rooted more in staging transitions than active motion, there’s no reason why the VPer can’t be part of the masses or at least directly beside them on one end. Isolating the drummer casts a spotlight on that performer, and more often than not, the effect seems to be unintentional—thus, more distracting than valuable.

The double-edged sword of the drum solo.

If your group features a truly exceptional beatboxer, there is value in giving that person room to operate as a featured performer in a full-on drum solo. The effect can help differentiate a group and make them more memorable. Just the same, time management is important—a lengthy drum solo risks putting your group in a time crunch. Moreover, while an impressive beatboxing performance can entertain the crowd, if it runs more than ten seconds or so, it risks boring the audience, or feeling like you’re just killing time to the judges, rather than the doing something more musical.

The other consideration in deciding whether to include a drum solo is whether your drummer is, frankly, good enough to justify that level of attention. Vocal percussion isn’t easy, but by the time you’re reaching the competition stage there’s a good chance that most, if not all, groups are bringing along competent percussionists. Thus, the questions is whether your drummer has a unique enough skillset and polished enough talents to truly stand out—not to mention whether a drum solo fits your song selections and the identity you’re projecting via your set.

How have you seen vocal percussion contribute to or take away from a competition set? Let us know in the comments section.

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.

Making the Most of Your Time
Engaging the Audience
Vocal Percussion
Song Selection
How You Enter and Exit the Stage
Song Order