Event Review: ICHSA Finals 2016

Event Reviews

On Friday, April 29, Town Hall in New York City played host to the 2016 ICHSA Finals. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.

The Competitors:
The ICHSA Midwest Champions, Centerville High School Forte
The ICHSA Southeast Champions, The Cypress Lake Center for the Arts A Cappella Group
ICHSA Wild Card Champions DeKalb high School Enharmonic Fusion
The ICHSA West Champions, Cheyenne Mountain High School Crimson
The ICHSA Northeast Champions, The Masters School Dobbs 16
The ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Champions, The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices
The ICHSA Northwest Champions, West Albany High School Rhythmix
The ICHSA South Champions, White Station High School Key of She
ICHSA Wild Card Champions, Port Washington High School Limited Edition
The ICHSA Southwest Champions, MacAurthur High School PFC

Guest Group: VXN

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Bill Hare
Ed Boyer
India Carney
Julia Hoffman
Sean Patrick Riley

After VXN opened the night with a slick performance, ICHSA Director Andrea Poole made her announcements, and emcees Cooper Kitching and Courtney Jensen warmed up the crowd. This was the entertaining transcontinental duo’s return to Finals weekend after presiding over the ICCA Finals last year, and I particularly appreciate that each of them has the extra credibility of having competed as ICCA Finalists, besides working behind the scenes with Varsity Vocals in recent years.

Forte was the first competing group. Forte has, in large part, established its name on recorded a cappella excellence, including multiple celebrated albums that have consisted entirely of original music. That’s not to diminish the group’s live performance credentials, though. They’ve opened for the Sing-Off tour. And no, this was not their first visit to ICHSA Finals—a consistent contender and top runner up when they’ve competed over the last five years. For the 2016 Finals, the co-ed crew took the stage in black and purple threads and kicked off their set with “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked" by Cage The Elephant. First and foremost, this performance featured scintillating solo work—not just a vocally adept lead, or one that demonstrated good stage presence, but a charismatic, <i>performed</i> solo that was irresistible to the audience—almost to the point that you could easily miss the big, full sound behind him. But make no mistake about it, Forte was firing on all cylinders for this performance, boasting intricate and exceptionally well-executed backing vocals, not to mention a strong visual show. As I tend to write at this time of year, groups legitimately hoping to win a championship need to look at their sets as having ten minutes to make their case they are the greatest high school a cappella group singing in the world today. This was a tremendous opener that clicked all around to immediately establish Forte as contenders.

The set continued with JoJo’s "Say Love," a nice, emotionally resonant contrast to the first song, sold with great sincerity from the not only the soloist, but the rest of the group—paying attention to the little things and always emoting on stage.  The backing sound swelled toward the end of the second verse, and this was where Forte really had the chance to shine—growing louder, evoking feelings, but keeping their mechanics pristine throughout. The best groups take you on the type of emotional ride that allows you to forget you’re watching a staged performance, and that’s exactly the confluence of creative plotting and what I’m sure was <i>hours upon hours</i> drilling this music in the rehearsal room that we saw here, to allow for such challenging, clean vocals to come across as afterthoughts to the more theatrical elements of the big finish. In the final stages of the song, parts fell away to pave the road for a six-woman union at the end.

Forte closed with "Barton Hollow" by The Civil Wars. This is a song that’s been covered pretty exhaustively in a cappella circles these past few years, and so regular readers will probably foresee that I’d be hesitant about bringing it to this level of competition. The corollary to that hesitation is that if you can make an over-exposed song truly your own—recreating it based around your own vision and strengths, it has the potential to let a group a shine not in spite of, but because the audience can compare it to less unique interpretations. The members of Forte fetched stools from off stage and staggered themselves across the performance space before beginning on a slowed down, deconstructed riff on the “if I die before I wake” lyrics, before powering their way into the first verse. The group gave me goosebumps at that moment, and just kept going, including showing their patience in slowing way, way down on the first chorus, and introducing an artful scream-like sound in the background to further push the drama of the piece, and further make it their own. The song finished with the duel soloists facing off for a wonderfully intense moment. Competitive a cappella sets—at any level, let alone high school—don’t get much more impressive than this. Forte had set the bar sky high to open the show.

Next up, The A Cappella Group (TAG). Like Forte, this group is no stranger to the world’s stage, having appeared at ICHSA Finals before and earned accolades for their own recording efforts. One of the pieces to TAG’s identity that has continued throughout the years is the sheer size of the group—I don’t think I’ve ever seen them perform with fewer than twenty bodies on stage, which opens up tremendous possibilities when it comes to complex staging, not to mention delivering a big sound. It’s also a testament to this group’s preparation that they can corral that many voices and people to deliver a cohesive performance. For this show, the group took the stage in black and white garb, and opened with a mashup of Karmin’s “I Want It All” and “How Deep Is Your Love by Calvin Harris & Disciples. Really tremendous female lead on this one, and I appreciated how seamlessly the group wove these songs together. The choreography was on point to communicate the sensation of a full-blown musical theater production, and I really enjoyed the way the group broke down the sound in the final movements.

TAG continued with Rihanna’s "Stay." Good, soft opening here, and great patience and control from the soloist. This was the first point in the set when I felt like the number of voices on stage could be a detriment as the backing harmonies were lovely but a bit overwhelming, and twenty-plus people singing pianissimo on a stage like this can still come across as a power vocal and threaten to overtake the lead—I’d love to have heard a similar take with about half the backing vocals left out to achieve a bit more intimacy and give TAG more room to build to moments later in the song. I did like the staging choice to keep this one largely stationary with the group in a double-arc to focus on the music. Very nice creative choices in the end game with an incremental addition of voices after a fall out moment before everyone was in again on the chorus, and a deft un-mic’ed breakdown, riffing on the word “stay.”

TAG closed its set with an original—a song written by alum Gabrielle Macafee called “Burn It Down.” We could have an entirely separate conversation about original music in a cappella and the value of bringing it to competition—I’ll briefly address that I think it’s a tremendous choice when a group has solid original music it can use, allowing them to ensure they’ll deliver a performance unlike any other that night (literally, no one will duplicate the song choice) and allowing a group to tap into its identity and strengths in ways that are difficult to replicate when you’re covering someone else’s music. The soloist on this one demonstrated excellent power and charisma, and the staging was dynamic and well-conceived, featuring a moment when the group lined the back of the stage then moved forward in a staggered formation to form a triangle with the soloist at the point closest to the audience. The group looked cohesive there and communicated a sense of standing behind that lead vocal. In the final stages of the song, the group went for a well-earned clap-along to close out the set in crowd-friendly fashion.

Enharmonic Fusion was up next, another group returning to the ICHSA Finals stage and that came across all the more prepared, polished, and altogether ready based on that institutional memory. They opened their set with "She Came to Give It To You" by Usher with sample of “Motown Philly” and other throwbacks as the set went on. This was an entertaining, high energy opener, though I would suggest that the faster transitions late in the song risked teetering out of thematic control and the group may have been better served to have pared down a bit there rather than expanding so aggressively.

The group transitioned fluidly into "One Love" by Marianas Trench. Terrific, mature solo sound on this one. I really liked the visual presentation as well, which included a segment of one group member reaching for another, only for that group member to slip away right before he or she was touched—a memorable visual that seemed to communicate a sense of people just missing or losing one another. The group fell out nicely at end for a soft finish on the solo to round out a solid middle song.

Enharmonic Fusion closed with Sia’s “Alive.” After another slick, seamless transition the group entered into its most dramatically intense performance. Really nice visual presentation on the “I’m still breathing” lyric with the group members sagging and then bobbing up and down, expanding and contracting. The solo work for this one was really excellent—well restrained early on to give it plenty of room to develop over the course of the song until the male and female leads delivered on their phenomenal chemistry all but belting as the sound really opened up in the late stages. This was a terrific off-beat closer that left a powerful last impression on the audience. Enharmonic Fusion demonstrated really impressive range and was quite arguably at its very best on this most emotional and, frankly, loudest of their songs.

Crimson hit the stage next—a group of six young women in red and black. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a variety of incarnations of this group over the year, including my very first two ICHSA Finals experiences in 2007 and 2008 (and on a recurring basis since then), back when the high school and college finals were rolled into the same night. Crimson is a group that, despite not winning the ICHSA Championship since 2005 or appearing on The Sing-Off, has more quietly built remarkable longevity as a top-tier high school group, and I was really pleased to get the chance to hear them again this year. They opened with “Confident” by Demi Lovato, a good song choice in part because it allowed them to head off some of what the audience might have been thinking about the first all-female group to the stage, and the smallest unit we would see all night—that they might be overwhelmed in the face of all of the squads with at least twice as many members. No—as the song title suggested—this group came across as confident. I was particularly impressed with their control of dynamics as they really varied their sound including some shrewdly placed fall out moments to go small before exploding later on.

Crimson continued with “Get Here (If You Can)” by Oleta Adams. One of the keys to succeeding at the upper levels of a cappella competition is making choices that fit a group’s individual identity. While this group could not hope to generate the flurry of motion or sheer volume of much larger groups, their limited number of group members and ability to harmonize afforded them much more potential to create an intimate, heartfelt performance and, for me, that’s exactly what this song accomplished, compelling the audience to lean in a little closer and listen while they told a quieter, emotionally earnest story.

The group wrapped up with "Locked Out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars, which was a showcase for a high-attitude solo and opportunity for the young women to cut loose and dance at the front of the stage. Another nice use of fall-outs here as the group faded out for the soloist and rhythm section to operate independently, before coming back in a staccato fashion that really built the electricity en route to a big finish. Really good song selection from Crimson here, and another in an increasingly long legacy of strong showings for them at Finals.

The Dobbs 16 were up next. another group that has made it to the Finals stage a number of times, though a larger one with—as you might guess—sixteen members, all clad in black and red baseball tees. The opened with “The High Road” by Broken Bells. The group demonstrated a really good, full sound here and excellent vocal percussion. Strong solo work, too, to start the set with an all-around polished number.

Next, Ellie Goulding’s "Hanging On." This one was an excellent platform to show off a deft, and emotionally rich solo. I was particularly impressed with not only the vocal quality there, but the complex imagery the group established with the soloist apart from the group, pulling them in, pushing them out, being pulled in and sliding, creating a real sense of dramatic tension and striking at the heart of this song about trying to pull away from a destructive situation, and the sense that it was not an even tug of war, but one individual working with and against a much more substantial force. Nice middle song.

The Dobbs 16 closed with Coldplay’s "Princess of China." Another solid showing for the group, with particularly strong staging including a few moments of the group clustering and then spreading the stage in explosive fashion that really commanded the audience’s attention and enhanced what was going on musically. My only subtle knock here is that the sound seemed to suggest the group was selling this song as dark, brooding, and intense, and, indeed, most of the group members seemed to reflect that in their facial expressions and bodies, but there were a few group members who openly smiled and bobbed in a fashion directly at odds with that tone.  To be fair, I completely understand the rush of making it to Finals and of performing a set this well on the Finals stage, but it is little details like that that can <i>break the dream</i> so to speak, reminding the audience it’s a performance and that the pieces aren’t all pointing in quite the same direction at that moment. This minor criticism aside, this was a good, big closer that helped ensure audience members would remember The Dobbs 16.

And then, it was time for Highlands Voices, returning for their sixth consecutive ICHSA Finals appearance (including a tournament win in 2014). It’s a pretty remarkable feat given that six years is enough time for a high school to, necessarily, have a total and complete overhaul of its roster. The group also underwent a challenging experience with the Pitch Slapped TV show (well documented in other platforms for those who are not familiar), and was open about entering a “rebuilding year” after some significant turnover coming out of last year. In any event, arriving back at finals is a testament to the skill and care of their faculty leader Tom Paster, and all the more so the hard work of the current crop of students. On to the set itself, Highlands Voices led off with Bea Miller’s "Fire N Gold." The soloist had a really nice command of the stage, projecting her personality over the performance. Moreover, it was clear throughout this song that the group was actually having fun. While that dynamic isn’t appropriate for every song or context, on a song like this, I’d argue that it makes the presentation more entertaining and easy for the audience to connect with—there wasn’t a sense of nerves or militant precision, but rather an overwhelming sense that the group was, intrinsically, enjoying the experience of making music as a group of friends. Frankly, that’s the heart of what scholastic a cappella should be, and it was fun to watch.

Highland Voices continued with Bea Miller’s “Paper Doll--a stark shift to a soft, tender sound. Whereas the first song was a chance for this group to highlight itself as performers, this song gave them an opportunity to emote, and they really sold their facials while delivering a fundamentally sound aural performance.

Last up, Bea Miller’s "We’re Taking Over." While covering just one artist over the course of a set runs the risk of feeling one-note and not showing a range of what a group can do, I felt as though these selections lent a sense of continuity to the full set and fit the group’s pop-oriented sound, not to mention that the individual song picks did afford the group an opportunity to run the emotional gamut and create a consistently engaging stretch of music. This closer was particularly well-chosen as an epic message song, and one that lent itself brilliantly to this group’s sincere demeanor. I was particularly impressed with the creative choice on singing the “this is for the ones who took their lives” when the group took an informal beat of silence, in tribute, before carrying on. In the hands of a lesser group, or placed in a lesser moment, that could sound like pandering. In the case of Highlands Voices, it felt like an honest tribute and an organically emotional moment. This all paved the way to a very big sound on the finish and a fun clap-along moment with the audience to seal the deal on a set that was quite competitive for placement at the Finals level.

Rhythmix opened things up after intermission. I had the pleasure of catching this group at their semifinal in the Northwest, and was pleased to get to hear them again in New York. One of the pieces that most stood out to me was their approach to the contemporary a cappella style—largely going choral, and doing so impeccably, rather than going straight to soloists in the style that most groups use at this point. It helps the group stand out and compels the audience to hear the mechanics of the larger group as opposed to the soloist overshadowing them. The group opened with a mashup of Imagine Dragons’ “Roots” and Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” Very sharp choreography and, again, the choice to take this one choral, and inflecting it with a jazzy style really helped the group deliver a divergent sound from the rest of the night’s competitors.

Rhythmix carried on with Kelly Clarkson’s "Dark Side." They opened this one chorally, too, before transitioning to a single soloist—a move that really helped that lead stand out when she came to the fore. A part of what I appreciated about this handling of this song is the way in which everyone singing the lyrics at points and the many points at which the group physically clustered on stage mirrored the content of the song—a communal sense that <i>everybody</i> has a dark side that struck through to the core of the lyrics

Panic! At the Disco's "This Is Gospel!" Similar to the preceding song, everyone was on the lyrics early on before the soloist popped out. She got a couple of really nice visual moments, first walking forth out of the pack and to the front of the stage, and later stepping literally upward, onto the bent knees of two group members to rise above them—a good way of differentiating and escalating these big moments in the song. In the end, this was an entertaining number, particularly well-chosen to finish the set for its inherently epic sound and the group delivering nicely on that promise by cutting a little looser and going all out at the finish.

Key of She was up next, making their debut at ICHSA Finals after making waves as first runners up at the National A Cappella Convention competition last month. They were one of only two all-female groups, and led off with our first dose of Taylor Swift for the evening--"Shake It Off." I really enjoyed the slowed down groove on this song before the vocal percussionist keyed in to push the tempo on the first chorus. All in all, this was a fun opener—high energy and engaging, not to mention that these women selected a song uniquely suited to them. Competition at this level is all about picking songs that play to a group’s strengths and personalities and this was very good opener for those purposes, and particularly to lure in the audience with a current radio hit before going less mainstream.

Key of She made a seamless transition to “It’s A Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown. Terrific all around sound on this one, and I particularly appreciated that the group was so unapologetically strong and raw on this one, really punching their sound. Above all else, though, this piece was a showcase for its strong soloist who steered the ship on this power number with power and conviction—easily one of the best leads of the night. By the time a group makes it to Finals, its incumbent on them to deliver a performance that is not only technically on point but that will be memorable to judges and the crowd by the end of a very long night of a cappella. Taking chances is key to thriving at that level and this song—which also continued a theme of empowered women—nailed that dynamic.

Last up, Naughty Boy’s “Runnin’ (Lose It All).” This one carried on with the power vocals, and the group did an excellent job of rotating between soloists to create some pretty electric transitions, not to mention highlighting the depth of talented vocalists at their disposal. And then there was the end of the set. Regular readers will know that I’ve called out groups in the past who look uncertain of themselves—bowing in a disorganized fashion or awkwardly waving to the crowd because they clearly haven’t thought about how they’re exiting the stage which is< part of the group’s presentation of their set. I loved the choice for this group to not pause, not bow, but rather march in powerful fashion out of sight, leaving the last image that the audience had as one of defiance and strength—a perfectly fitting ending to an excellent set.

The penultimate competing group and, like so many others on this night one with both a tradition of excellence at ICHSA Finals and a long list of other accolades. I’m talking about Limited Edition. On what may seem like a frivolous note, let me start by addressing the fact that the group looked fantastic—polished in a relatively formal, mostly blue outfits, dominated by a powder blue color. Particularly at the high school level, there’s a tendency to see groups dress completely uniformly and, particularly when dressing up, for them to look uncomfortable in clothes that are a little too big or too small. Again, this is a complete aside from the music, but this group looked professional from the get-go which invited the audience to take them seriously before they sang a note. Fortunately, when they started singing, the act only grew better, starting with “Passion Flower” by Jon Gomm. They started with an ominous deep hum, standing in a circle within a circle, before emitting a powerful harmonizing note over that hum. This opening was unique and grabbing—compelling everyone in the crowd to pay close attention before the group spread the stage into an arc. They gave way to a truly superb soloist who demonstrated terrific vocal control and poise on stage, backed by a recurring killer bass sound and sensational visuals from the group. This was a simply arresting opening number that really drew in an audience that’s attention easily could have begun to waver at this late stage of the evening.

The group continued with “Human” by Christina Perri. Really nice vulnerability from the group, and particularly the soloist here, and a real polish to the sound and the visual presentation yet again. I particularly appreciated the way in which the group let down its guard a bit and grew more intense in the late stages of this song for a big finish.

Limited Edition closed with “Hurricane by Misterwives. The group managed a killer seamless transition into this one, as the surrounding members dropped down and the final soloist emerged for yet another star-making performance out of this group. The transitions between verses here were exceptionally smooth and the group built so well to a monster finish, seeming to really sing for all they were worth and create an epic moment at that point. In a night full of really exceptional high school performances, Limited Edition shone for their all-around polish and command of the stage.

PFC closed out the competition. This group won the ICHSA Championship in 2011 and returned to Finals in 2012. It was great to see today’s incarnation of the group make another go of it in New York. I particularly appreciated the way this group kicked off, running onto stage and launching directly into Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The sheer immediacy of that intro immediately commanded the audience’s attention and set a tone that this group would be fast-paced and unpredictable. True to form, after executing the early stages of the song in excellent fashion, they slowed things way down for the spoken word bit of the song as two group members waltzed at center stage, before speeding back up into the chanting bridge before the final chorus. This was a really fun, engaging opener.

The group continued with “Run, Run, Run” by Celeste Buckingham. This was a well-selected spotlight song for its soloist who proved particularly adept at breath control and precision on what was a very challenging part from a rhythmic perspective. Nice build in the background, which started out subtle and quiet before settling into a groove. I particularly appreciated the contrast between these first two songs, each extremely impressive in very different ways.

PFC shut it down with “Let It Be” by The Beatles. They started with a haunting, chilling intro, which the soloist sang over with a really pristine vocal quality. The VP entered the mix and the tempo picked up after the first verse, and I was really impressed with how effectively the group channeled so much emotion into this off-beat closer—less a barn-burner than an almost-spiritual experience. Toward the finish we got a big exhale and a final unaccompanied “let it be” from the soloist for a powerful finish to a consistently surprisingly, and strikingly well-executed set.

While the judges faced the unenviable task of picking a winner and award recipients, professional group VXN entertained the crowd. Their set included a particularly impressive take on “Natalie” by Bruno Mars that featured some extraordinary seamless transitions between soloists, “Chains,” “Settle Down,” and “I’m With You.” I love hearing professional groups perform at shows like this, both because they tend to deliver a different character from high school groups that helps differentiate the listening experience for the audience, and because they tend to give high school groups a set of role models to look up to—not only for their quality of sound, but for having continued to make a cappella part of their lives beyond the scholastic setting. VXN made a stellar showing to cap an extraordinary night of a cappella.

While VXN performed, I made my picks for the night. There were, naturally, no real weak points in the slate of competitors. I really appreciated Rhythmix’s unique style that focused on the group sound, Crimson’s ability to command the stage and play to its strengths with such a small group, and The Dobbs 16’s fullness of sound and strong soloists.

I felt that the race for third place was particularly tight. While all of the aforementioned groups were certainly in the mix, I had narrowed my field to a choice few. Enharmonic Fusion for their sheer emotional intensity, particularly on “Alive,” Highlands Voices for their sincerity and commitment to delivering an engaging performance, and PFC for their range and particularly pronounced personalities of their leads. In the end, though, I kept coming back to the group that, out of this cluster felt the most well-defined in terms of personality and most ready to <i>attack</i> the stage at this level of competition—the inimitable Key of She.

I had Limited Edition placed squarely in second place. In a lesser year, a group performing with this level of polish and precision would have a cakewalk to a championship, delivering one unforgettable, grabbing performance after another with three extraordinary soloists.

But then there was Forte. Always a bridesmaid never a bride after a number of appearances at Finals. This was the year when I felt everything really came together for this group with scintillating leads, unbridled emotion, and that positively unforgettable new take on “Barton Hollow” to cap their set in truly unique fashion. In an increasingly competitive world of high school a cappella, 2016 will go down as the year when Forte stepped out from the pack to deliver a clean and captivating performance like no other group, truly arriving as champions of the world.

Lo and behold, the judges and I were on point for placement this evening, and largely in agreement on superlatives as well. It was joy to see Forte and their fans look <i>so</i> excited for their well-deserved accomplishment and close out the night with one last song.

That’s a wrap for the ICHSA Finals. Check back in the next few days for my thoughts on the ICCA Finals!

​Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night

Overall Placement:
1. Forte
2. Limited Edition
3. Key of She

Outstanding Soloist:
1. Forte for “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked”
2. Enharmonic Fusion for “Alive”
3. Limited Edition for “Passion Flower”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Forte for the full set
2. Key of She for the full set
3. Rhythmix for the full set

Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Forte for the full set
2. Limited Edition for the full set
3. The A Cappella Group for the full set

Outstanding Arrangement:
1. Forte for “Barton Hollow”
2. Enharmonic Fusion for “One Love”
3. Crimson for “Confident”

The Official ICHSA Results

Overall Placement:
1. Forte
2. Limited Edition
3. Key of She

Outstanding Soloist: Enharmonic Fusion for “Alive” and Limited Edition for “Passion Flower”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Forte for the full set

Outstanding Choreography: Forte for the full set

Outstanding Arrangement: Crimson for “Confident”