The Competitor's Edge

Soliciting Outside Feedback Before The Show

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is on soliciting feedback before the show.

Ask early.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of a cappella groups in my local areas ask me if I could sit in on a rehearsal to give feedback on their intended competition set. In principle, this makes a lot of sense—getting an outside, objective set of ears and eyes on your performance before you put it in front of the judges affords you the opportunity to fine tune and adjust, and sometimes someone from outside the group can “see the forest for the trees”—spotting big picture issues your group might be oblivious to because they’re just too close to the process of constructing the set.

Asking for outside feedback is great, but timing is key. First of all, there is sheer scheduling. We live in an age when people live by the calendars on their phones, and asking someone to come in with a just a few days’ notice to the final rehearsal before a competition means that you’re minimizing the chances of actually getting that guest to come due to scheduling conflicts and perhaps not even getting the message in time.

In addition to scheduling, you’ll want to get feedback in enough time for you to actually do something with the feedback. While there are a handful of perennial ICCA Finals contenders who can be confident that they have a solid set nailed down and really are looking for fine-tuning, rather than holistic advice, groups with less experience and more room to grow really ought to be looking for feedback sooner so that an outside voice who can point out a significant tuning issue that will take time for the group to correct, a point when the choreography is overwhelming the music, or, even more broadly, that that twelve-minute medley of every Michael Jackson song you can find might be a cool concept, but you probably want to put it on the shelf for competition. These are the kinds of changes that will take more than few days to plan around, so soliciting some of that feedback weeks, if not months before competition (rather than days, or hours) is key

Have questions in mind.

While general feedback is great, it can also be scattershot. Oftentimes, the best move is to have just a small handful of key points that you want observers to zone in on when they’re observing, to keep the feedback more focused and ensure you’re actually getting the kind of feedback you were interested in in the first place.

Be receptive to criticism…

The main reason to invite in outside observers is to get honest feedback. (Note: there are exceptions, when a group might legitimately just want a morale booster, in which case the group should make those interests clear.) Too often, I’ve seen groups shake off criticism from master classes or judges’ scoring sheets, citing aesthetic differences or that the expert didn’t know what she or he was talking about on a particular point. While I can understand that impulse, it’s also important to consider that groups rarely evolve and holistically improve in a vacuum. Groups should take feedback and think critically about it. Even if you don’t agree with every piece of advice, that advice might still point out significant areas in which the group should focus its attention.

Additionally, to head off non-credible feedback, it might make sense for the group to invite people it trusts, exclusively. If there’s someone whose feedback the group will dismiss anyway, it’s disingenuous bother asking for that person’s advice. 

…but don’t let feedback overwhelm you.

Everyone has an opinion, and the group that tries to serve every single critic likely will not be able to hone in and really respond to individual criticisms meaningfully.

As alluded to in the previous point about being open to criticism, it’s beneficial to keep the pool of critics limited—not inviting too many voices into the conversation. Moreover, while it’s important that groups be receptive to critique, it’s also fair for the group to decide you’re going to focus on no more than three large-scale criticisms in revising the set, to keep from growing too scatter-brained or from changing so much that the set loses pieces of its intrinsic character that are important to the group.

Creating Moments

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is on creating moments.

Be remembered.

In reviewing a cappella performances, and determining whether a set really worked, I rely most upon the dominant impression—the biggest thing I’ll take away from a given performance. Sometimes the dominant impression has to do with a group’s ability (or inability) to blend, to use dynamic variation, to choreograph, or to execute a complex arrangement. Other times it comes down to a moment.

A truly sublime moment in a cappella can go a long way toward making or breaking a set. It’s that moment that truly gives me chills. That makes me want to stand up and cheer. That makes me laugh out loud. These are the moments that stick with audience members and judges alike and that are disproportionately likely to shape everyone’s overall impression of your set.

Be organic.

You can’t force moments. I’ve seen groups go for dramatic bits of showmanship—inserting acrobatics or over-the-top choreography; belting for no clear reason—that are more confusing that vocally or visually stunning. Truly great moments feel like organic extensions of the set up to that moment—mashing songs together, building a upon movements or star players that were only hinted at earlier in the performance, or even something as seemingly simple as a fully realized climax to a crescendo. Groups that build upon the raw components of their set to result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts have a chance at achieving something truly remarkable on the competition stage.  

Get the timing right.

Ideally, a group wants for every song to be spectacular in its own way. When we talk about arriving at a defining moment, though, you need to be cautious about not peaking too early. Groups that arrive at their best moment in their first song run the risk of having the next eight minutes of their sets feel like a disappointment. Conversely, if a group can find a way to create the sensation they are continuing to build and build and build, arriving at spectacular point in the final song is a great way to give the set a feeling of wholeness and leave a memorable impression.

How have you seen groups make moments in competition? Let us know in the comments..


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.

Soliciting Outside Feedback Before The Show
Creating Moments
Making the Most of Your Time
Engaging the Audience
Vocal Percussion
Song Selection
How You Enter and Exit the Stage
Song Order