ICCA Northeast Semifinal at MIT

Event Reviews

Irene Droney is a student at Simmons College in Boston, MA. She is an a cappella enthusiast and is the music director and business manager of The Sirens, the official a cappella group of Simmons College.

On Saturday March 23, The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Northeast Semifinal was held at MIT in Cambridge, MA. The competition featured 10 competing groups from three states across the Northeast region. Let me start off with a quick summary of the events.

The competing groups:

Skidmore College Drastic Measures
Suffolk University Ramifications
Northeastern University Downbeats
University of Massachusetts Amherst Hexachords
Northeastern University Pitch, Please!
College of Saint Rose Girls Next Door
Mass College of Liberal Arts Allegrettos
Brown University Brown Derbies
Northeastern University Distilled Harmony
Northeastern University Nor’easters

Host group: MIT Resonance

The energy and excitement was almost tangible walking into the ICCA Northeast Semifinal held at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. The 1,230 person venue was completely sold out and even arriving early it was difficult to get a good seat. Everyone in the audience knew that they were going to be in for a tough competition and a fantastic night of a cappella. The competition got off to a bit of a late start so the host group did not perform to start off the show and the competition started immediately.

The first group performing was Drastic Measures from Skidmore College. They came out wearing all black and looking very put together and they stood in a simple arc on stage. They opened the set with “Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening with a beautiful and striking solo. The arrangement was cohesive and simple, and picked up-tempo to create a vibrant energy for the rest of the set. I did notice that right off the bat, the dynamics and tone in the women’s sections sounded a little bit brassy and at times like they were shouting to be heard. Once the novelty of the competition beginning wore off as well, the simplicity of the performance began to get a bit tired. The next song that they did was “Mother Nature’s Sun” by The Beatles. Their appropriate and decisive choreography on stage gave them a very purposeful appearance. This was the song that they really showed how big their sound could be without sounding like they were trying too hard. The strength of this group was definitely in their full bass section, which rounded out the sound very well. They closed their set with “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell, another uncommon and refreshing song choice. The first female soloist began this tune, and sang her section sweetly and artfully. A male soloist took over shortly and increased the energy and tempo but seemed to cause a bit of a shock to the group and they had pitch issues while trying to adjust to him. He had great stage presence though and some entertaining dance moves to boot! Thankfully, after a few awkward moments, the group mostly recovered from their pitch issues and were able to end with a big sound and confidence. This group was an exciting way to kick off what would be an intense competition!

The second group of the night was The Suffolk Ramifications. They came on in striking black and white which can easily end up looking like choral attire, but worked very well for them. They opened up their set with “Some Nights” by Fun. Innately a great song to open, this song has been done by so many groups recently that it has become a bit tired and cheapened. Unfortunately for The Ramifications, the choice posed a big challenge for them to overcome. Regardless, it was a strong arrangement and the group had really vivacious energy. My biggest qualms were the balance problems. The treble voices greatly overwhelmed their lower counterparts and it sounded like this group needed some more power in the bass section and male voices in general. They then transitioned very smoothly into “The Parting Glass” as performed by Ed Sheeran. I personally love when groups make their performances one cohesive set as opposed to sounding like 3 or 4 different songs all separated and this group’s use of transitions definitely made that happen for them. In this song, the timing and blend worked well and the group sounded like they were really paying attention to each other and worked well together. The solo was lovely and the arrangement sounded very nice but was occasionally overwhelmed by a really loud, heavy percussion that the piece could have done without. This song also seemed to carry on a little bit too long and because the song is so repetitive and mellow, having it go on for so long made it hard for them to keep interest level up in the audience. The bass really carried the transition into the next song, “Shake it Out” by Florence and The Machine, a great closing number. There was really entertaining audience pleasing choreography but occasionally strange choices for syllables that distracted from the arrangement instead of letting it shine. Despite this, I think that this was their strongest number of their set and a great choice to close on.

The third group competing was The Downbeats from Northeastern University, the first group of four from the school which was quite the a cappella powerhouse this year. The Downbeats were not originally scheduled to perform at this semifinal given their third place ranking at the quarterfinal, but were invited to semifinals due to a group having to drop. They entered the stage in classy red and black attire and opened their set with “Hey Ya” by Outkast with an angelic tenor soloist. They had great, energetic choreography which was funny and entertaining for the audience. The arrangement started slowly and then picked up in tempo and sounded and felt more like the original song. The male trio they featured during the bridge and end of the song was a good idea in theory, but unfortunately did not appeal to the audience due to noticeable pitch issues. These issues were also present in the soprano and the bass section but overall, “Hey Ya” was a strong opening number for this group. The next song was “Lights” by Ellie Goulding. When I first saw this group at quarterfinals, I thought that it might not have been the best choice for them and I still stand by that opinion. The solo was much better this time around and sounded less pitchy and thin but the overall sound was not very full and did not live up to the potential of the group. In their arrangements they had some nice use of non-chord tones and tension that brought a lot of interest and complexity to them. The last song that they did was “Skyfall” by Adele. The strong tenor section really stood out in this piece and the soloist had a really rich, rawness to her tone. They had some questionable choices in choreography that the audience laughed at, but to me made them seem like they weren’t taking themselves very seriously such as pantomiming one of the members being shot by another, James Bond style. All in all, this group put on a much stronger performance than I went in expecting and if the judges or audience went in thinking that they would be the underdogs, they were proven wrong.

The next group was The Hexachords from Umass Amherst. They were a very small group, only six people, four men and two women. They were dressed in maroon, black, white and jeans looking put together and casual. They started off very strong with “Let’s Get it Started” by The Black Eyed Peas which featured cute choreography and very tight harmonies. This group definitely displayed a lot of good musicality and worked very well together. With only one person per part, pitch issues seemed imminent but this group kept very well in tune with each other showing how well they worked together. They also demonstrated a much fuller sound than would be expected from such a small group. The next song they did was a jazzy version of “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. This ended up being very entertaining without being overly campy as this song can easily be. The arrangement was very innovative and the playful interactions between the group members brought a lot to the song. They transitioned beautifully then into “Who You Are” by Jessie J. My major concern during this song was blend issues mostly in the soprano. At some points she was on the verge of sounding screechy and because they are so small this took away, at times, from the entire tone quality of the group. The bass and vocal percussion interactions were a very strong part of this group and I couldn’t help but think of Pentatonix, the winners of the last season of The Sing Off, while listening to how well these two worked together, built off of each other and rounded out this group’s sound. The last song in this group’s set was an interesting mash-up of “Trouble” by Taylor Swift and “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi. Now, this was not a combination I expected to work and there were times when I was questioning it, but, somehow, it did come together well and ended up being a great example of this group’s musical innovation. This group was extremely entertaining and very high-energy, definitely a crowd favorite and an up and comer in the a cappella world.

The last group before intermission was Pitch, Please! the brand new all-female group from Northeastern. These ladies walked out looking fierce in all black and towering gold glitter heels. The opened up their set with “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars. The opening was very strong and right off the bat I could tell that this group had a lot of power and a ton of potential. They had great choreography and staging, really using the whole space to their advantage. They used “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn as a transition into “I Know You Won’t” by Carrie Underwood. The solo for this song was gorgeous and emotive, giving me chills the whole time. The whole group acted with their entire bodies clearly striving to convey the story that was entwined in their set and that really captured and reeled in the audience. The bass and vocal percussion stood out particularly, completely rounding out the sound without overwhelming the rest of the group. All-female groups are often seen as underdogs because of not having as big of a range as a co-ed group or even an all male group but this group proved those stereotypes wrong. My only issue during this song was honestly the shoes. They were unbelievably fierce and made an awesome visual statement but in this venue they were unfortunately a little bit loud and the sounds from walking and dancing were picked up on the microphones and distracted slightly during the softer parts of this song. The next song that this group did was “My Kind of Love” by Emeli Sande. This song really showed off the raw power that this group has. The entire group was positively brimming with emotion and heart. The audience definitely took notice. They had a huge sound that occasionally sounded on the verge of shouting in the lower voices but managed to stay musical. There were some pitch issues at times seemingly from pushing too hard for volume but this group worked well with each other and always managed to get right back on. The last song of their set was “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. The choreography for this song was fantastic. Normally I’m not a huge fan of flashy choreography. I usually feel that is comes across as cheesy or makes the performance less about the music but these ladies made it work! The dancing fit in perfectly and only added to an amazing closing number. I loved the clear connection and story between all the songs and how cohesive it made their set. These ladies put on a great performance and are definitely going to be a group to watch in the coming years!

The first group on after a quick intermission was The Girls Next Door from The College of Saint Rose. They came on clad in black t-shirts, jeans, matching pink sneakers and looking very cute. They started off their set singing “Fire” by Ingrid Michaelson. The soloist had a nice tone and good volume but unfortunately she was not supported as much by her group. The group as a whole did not start out with as big of a sound as I expected from such a large number. They did have a lot of good energy and dynamics but they had begun to struggle with pitch by the end of the first song. They also used some very staged choreography that didn’t seem to fit the songs and tended to be distracting. The next song in their set was “Keep on Bringing me Down” by Forever The Sickest Kids. I couldn’t help but thinking that this was a poor song choice for a cappella. The song just didn’t seem to translate and ended up sounding thin despite another very strong solo performance. The vocal percussion in the second song was also noticeably quite well done and fit the song well. The last song that this group performed was “I Won’t Let Go” by Rascall Flatts. This group definitely saved the best for last. This arrangement was simple and clean and accentuated all of the positive aspects of this group such as their energy and passion. They ended this song with huge sound that I did not think that they were capable of earlier in their set. The end of the song used some gospel influence that seemed to work very well for this group and they really ended on a bang.

The Allegrettos from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts were up next. They seemed to be one of the more popular groups with an enormous cheering section erupting in the front of the audience as they walked on dressed in blues and purples. They started off their set with “Happy Ending” by Mika with a gospel twist. The song started off with a male soloist who had great stage presence, a beautiful voice and seemed very comfortable on stage, engaging the audience the whole time. The second soloist was a female with an equally gorgeous voice who continued to reel in the crowd. They used simple, gospel derived choreography and arrangements that really worked for such a large group. Unfortunately it seemed a lot of times at the soloists were shining a lot brighter than the group as a whole. There were slight, but persisting pitch issues through out the set and at times it almost seemed like there were too many of them to the point where it became almost cacophonous. The next song in the set was “Run” by Gnarls Barkley. The soloist used a lot of audience interaction and this made the song very entertaining for everyone. They had some really well done choreography during this song. The issue that I noticed which was one that I noticed with groups across the board throughout the night was that they sometimes sounded like they were shouting to try and get their volume to carry in the space. Now, I’m not sure if this is a space issue or not because it was something that I noticed in almost all of the groups during the night but this yelling sound created blend issues for this group, particularly in the soprano voices. Despite these problems, I was impressed by this group’s smooth key change and subsequent transition into their third and last song of the set was “Breath of Life” by Florence and the Machine. I really enjoyed how this group put their own spin their songs and arrangements. They took popular songs with gospel influences and made them sound really different and interesting. This song was the group’s shining moment in their set. Although at some points I felt that it lacked the fullness it should have coming out of such a large group, the soloist performed it beautifully with great emotion and power. Despite issues throughout, this group undoubtedly put on an entertaining performance with excellent soloists that was definitely a crowd pleaser.

The next group up was The Brown Derbies, the only all-male group of the night. This group gets my best-dressed award for the night. They were undeniably dapper in khakis, white shirts, ties and their signature derby hats. They literally ran on stage with incredibly high energy and even before they began singing had the audience pumped up. The first song in their set was “Where Have You Been” by Rihanna. This group definitely used their all-male charm to their advantage. They had really excellent, amusing choreography that did not get in the way of their clearly complex arrangements. The one issue I noticed during this first set was that the timing on the vocal percussion seemed slightly off from the rest of the group which lead to some confusion. This group used some really cool vocal effects to transition into S.O.S. another amusing and upbeat song which worked really well for this high-energy group. They had some very tight, well-done harmonies throughout this song all well keeping up with some very complex choreography. They slowed it down in the next song with “Hopeless Wanderer” by Mumford and Sons. There was some really nice percussion and bass work in this song. They used the soloists. Unfortunately, the main soloist’s voice, while beautiful, had a very dark tone and I believe that this brought the group slightly flat. This song was definitely straying away from the group’s comfort zone and for that I give them credit. However, they did not seem as excited about this song as they did the others and the audience seemed less engaged as a result. The last song of their set was “Give Me Love” by Ed Sheeran. This song is very beautiful but definitely a difficult choice to cover. The arrangement was good but at times sounded thin and slightly strained especially in the highest tenor voices. As a whole though, the background was beautiful and the soloist was very good. He has a lovely falsetto that stayed on pitch very well and carried throughout the whole auditorium, not always an easy task. Personally, I think that this group would have gained a lot by shortening “Give Me Love” and adding one more of the high energy songs that are so in their wheelhouse to close with. Regardless, the group put on a good performance and took a lot of risks that were great to see.

The next group was Distilled Harmony, also from Northeastern University. They came out looking very classy in black and gold and a lot of sparkles and started on stage in a cool pose, definitely adding a lot of visual interest right from the start. They started off their set with “You and I” by Lady Gaga done as a duet with a male and a female soloist. This group had great blend from the start but once the soloists came in it sounded like the tempo was being pushed slightly, partially just because of the energy and passion coming from the soloists. They worked very well together and used the stage very well. The whole group had an ease about them that was very refreshing. They transitioned really nicely into “Turn To Stone” by Ingrid Michaelson. The solo was pretty and the arrangement was well done, letting the soloist shine while using some nice, unique chords and great blend. The next song that they did was “Feeling Good” by Michael Buble. The group’s sound was really nice and they seemed very comfortable in this song and the solo sounded effortless and confident. Not very long into this song, it transitioned suddenly into “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake. Although they had the same soloist singing both songs, this sudden transition definitely took the audience by surprise and it took a little bit of time for the group to adjust as well, despite the soloist doing an amazing job on the many intricate runs of the song making them sound smooth and flawless all well engaging the audience with great stage presence. The last song in this group’s set was a mash-up of “Warzone” by The Wanted and “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele. The vocal percussion and bass stood out particularly in this song and added a whole other level of intricacy to the sound. The arrangement was well executed and ended up being a very powerful and explosive song to end a strong set on. One of the qualms I had with this group however was how they almost seemed to have a front man. The last 3 songs all featured solos from the same person and although he had a wonderful voice, it could have added some interest to the set to have mixed it up a little more than they did.

The final competing group of the night was The Nor’easters also hailing from Northeastern University. Fresh off a win at SoJam X in October, it seemed as though this group was not only the most anticipated group of the night but also widely regarded as the favorite to win. They came on stage wearing all black and looking very powerful even from their beginning pose. They started off their set with “Drumming Song” by Florence and the Machine. Right from the start, the vocal percussion and the bass worked together phenomenally, demanding the audience’s attention. The soloist was raw and expressive and was clearly putting everything she had into the solo. The arrangement was also amazing, playing to all the strengths of this group. The next song in this set was “Wrong Side of a Love Song” by Melanie Fiona. The solo in this song was absolutely incredible. She sang with such clear passion and feeling and had an unbelievable range and power. Despite this group’s enormous sound, the solo was not overwhelmed, which was quite the arranging feat. This group has a unique ability to convey drama without coming across as melodramatic. They used complex but not distracting or over the top choreography and never looked rigid. They also used beautiful transitions such as seamlessly worked in a sampling of “When David Heard” by Eric Whitacre as a beautiful and moving transition into “Diamonds” by Rihanna. There was a very cool use of vocal effects in this song, one person doing an impressive string effect that added a lot to the sound and overall tone of the song. This was, in my opinion, the most innovative of the songs in their set. The original song was completely transformed and made into more of a ballad with an incredibly emotive male solo. There was also an homage to “Born to Die” by Lana Del Rey briefly in the middle of the song, adding a lot of interest and surprise to the song. The group did not let the slower tempo of their middle two songs take away from any of their energy, in fact, they used this to their advantage, really letting the rawness and emotion of the songs shine and showing off their ability to make dramatic dynamic changes. This group definitely kept the audience on their toes the whole night, always doing the unexpected and with incredible results. The last song in their set was “Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia. Only the Nor’easters could make a top forty song sound so edgy with another original and transformative arrangement. The song started out with a female alto soloist who introduced the song beautifully and the arrangement really started to gain traction when the male tenor soloist came in, eventually culminating in a powerful trio with the addition of a soprano. On the first chorus, the song had an almost choral feeling that worked really well with a group as large as The Nor’easters. The arrangement then went into a sampling of all the other songs from the set, all of which had been used throughout the duration of the performance to produce a great cohesiveness. The only thing I noticed in this song was that at times the balance seemed to lean to heavily on the sopranos, with them sometimes almost overtaking the arrangement and throwing off the blend. This group started and ended with enormous sound and amazing musicality and was a wonderful end to the competition.

The judges deliberated, the host group, MIT Resonance finally got a change to perform, their set including “The A Team” by Ed Sheeran and “Trouble” by Taylor Swift. As they sang I made my picks for the night, unsure of what the judges were going to decide. In my mind, there was a clear top five and I knew which group I thought was number one but the competition was so tough, I was stumped on the order for the rest. Ultimately I thought that The Nor’easters had the strongest set and that they would be the clear winner. The rest of my top 5 included Pitch, Please!, The Hexachords, The Brown Derbies and Distilled Harmony. All of these groups had great performances and strengths. It ended up being a toss up for second place for me between Pitch, Please! and The Hexachords and it seemed that the judges felt the same. The Nor’easters took home the win and are headed to finals in April with The Hexachords as the first runner up and Pitch, Please! as second runner up, both of the runner up groups now eligible to compete in the wild card round to win a spot at finals. The Nor’easters finished off the evening with an encore performance of “As Long As You Love Me” by Justin Beiber.

My predictions:
Overall Placement:
1. The Nor’easters
2. Pitch, Please!
3. The Hexachords

Outstanding Soloists:
• The Nor’easters for “Wrong Side of A Love Song”
• Distilled Harmony for “Feeling Good” and “Mirrors”

Outstanding Choreography: Pitch, Please! for their entire set

Official Results:
Overall Placement:
1. The Nor’easters
2. The Hexachords
3. Pitch, Please!

Outstanding Soloist: Jasmine Garcia of The Allegrettos for “Breath of Life”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Rachel Carron of Pitch, Please! for the entire set

Outstanding Arrangement: Shams Ahmed of The Nor’easters for “Wrong Side of a Love Song”

Outstanding Choreography: Ty Meyers of The Nor’easters for the entire set