Music has the power to activate social change. It’s an art form that can tackle issues head on by communicating them directly to the listener’s ears. Music can also evoke deeper thought by more subtly challenging us to view the world from a different perspective, or consider a narrative outside our personal experience.
The 2017 International Championship of High School A Cappella Finals were unmistakably a product of challenging times in the United States of America. While not every set or song got political, a lot of them did, and the competition carried with it an undercurrent of civil unrest. It’s no secret that we live in a country that is politically torn in the wake of one of the most divisive presidential elections in US history. I’m not here to provide political commentary—there’s no shortage of other blogs that will, and I trust that readers come to The A Cappella Blog to read about music, and maybe even as an escape from the harsher realities of our time. I will, nonetheless, say that one of the most striking, and dare I say inspiring elements of last Friday’s championship show was the degree of social consciousness that rocked The Town Hall in New York City for an unforgettable show. Make no mistake, the teenagers of this country are, as it’s come into vogue to say, “woke.” This show demonstrated the highest level of artistry as tool for communication, discourse, and working toward change.
Before I get into individual groups, here’s a summary of this year's ICHSA Finals:
Venue: The Town Hall, New York, New York
Guest Group: Vocalight
Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching
- Abbey Janes
- Bill Hare
- Ed Boyer
- India Carney
- Roopak Ahuja
- The ICHSA South Champions, The A Cappella Group from Cypress Lake Center for the Arts
- The ICHSA Southwest Champions, Walk the Line from Rockwall High School
- The ICHSA Midwest Champions, Enharmonic Fusion from DeKalb High School
- The ICHSA Northeast Champions, The Thursdays from Chelmsford High School
- The ICHSA Northwest Champions, Synergy from the Oregon Children’s Choir
- The ICHSA Wild Card Champions, Vocal Point from Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School
- The ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Champions, Stay Tuned from Cherry Hill High School East
- The ICHSA Great Lakes Champions, Ars Nova from The Miami Valley School
- The ICHSA West Champions, Vocal Rush from Oakland School for the Arts
The first competing group was The A Cappella Group, often abbreviated to TAG. One of the joys of hearing this group at Finals is that, for all the proliferation and evolution of scholastic a cappella groups, they’re a franchise I remember hearing at some of my very first encounters with ICHSA Finals shows a decade ago and its testament to this school community that they’ve continued to create not only great a cappella over the years, but a cappella that has evolved with the times to remain competitive in the contemporary landscape. True to the group’s tradition, it was a large co-ed crew that filled the stage, and one of their strengths remained an ability to engage so many bodies in performance, creating visual spectacles the likes of which few other groups can for sheer coordination of so many individuals toward a common purpose.
I liked TAG’s choice to open with Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” It’s a fun, familiar song with a lot of energy to it that let the group showcase its movement and its capacity to produce a complex sound. The choreography was particularly well chosen in that it was simple enough for no one to look awkward on it, while nonetheless looking impressive for the volume of young men and women doing it in concert. Very nice spotlight moment for the basses late in the song. “The Words” by Christina Perri was particularly strong for its dynamics, ranging from quiet and vulnerable to big and passionate. The visuals worked on this one, too, including starting with all of the group members’ backs to the crowd and only the soloist facing forward to create a sense of isolation. Similarly, the song finished with the closing soloist walking off stage alone, only to come back on as the group’s closing song keyed in, Jess Glynne’s “No Rights No Wrongs.” Very nice charisma from her and the song offered an excellent platform for the group’s beatboxer to show what he had late in the song. While I thought the choreography got a little unwieldy for this song, it was a fair enough choice in the name of leaving it all on the stage, and I liked the choice to get the crowd involved with a clap along on the finish.
Our second competing group was Walk the Line. If I’m not mistaken, this was the first time I’d encountered this particular group. In addition to, of course, featuring a group of very talented singers, I was most struck by their song selection, set structure, and sincerity. Anyone who has followed Varsity Vocals competitions for a period of years will be all too familiar with the traditional structure of happy song-sad song-happy song. I’m not here to bash groups that follow that template. There are often good reasons to do so, but there’s also something to be said for playing with it or, as Walk the Line did, outright inverting it. While a slow song can run the risk of boring an audience, Walk the Line did a stellar job of bookending its set with songs that not only featured slow tempos, but that allowed the group to emote, sing with real emotion, and hook the audience with feelings rather than firepower.
Walk The Line opened with Beyonce’s “Halo.” After an excelent, full-sounding opening, one of the best creative choices here was transitioning between a female and a male soloist to help keep the song fresh as carried on before building to a lovely moment when they doubled up on the chorus. Very clean, refined sound from the group. My only minor criticism here was that, while I loved one very talented group member transitioning from a solo to beatboxing, I found his transition, handing off one microphone to take up another a little visually awkward. With so many bodies on stage, I’d have loved to have that handoff obfuscated for a more fluid presentation. Clearly, a higher level detail for a group performing at this level. Walk the Line continued with Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” which was, above all else, a showcase for a soloist who really kicked in to gear and when she belted and defied most laws of human capability when she actually did hit the song’s signature high notes. Nice buzzing sound on the finish to that one before the group transitioned to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In this day and age when so many a cappella groups seem committed to picking the most obscure deep cuts they can find, there’s something to be said for going with a standard. I liked that the group made this one their own, fading in and out to let a fine soloist operate unaccompanied at times, and coming in to join her and amplify key lyrics. Tremendous swell of sound on the finish for an irresistible end to this excellent closer.
At the top of this review, I’d referenced that a number of groups got political at this year’s ICHSA Finals, and Enharmonic Fusion was the first crew to do so. I was particularly enamored with this choice because this is a group I’ve seen at ICHSA Finals multiple times and it’s especially gratifying to see a group grow and break new ground. I don’t want to take anything away from past incarnations of Enharmonic Fusion, which were all worthy Finals competitors. For me, though, 2017 was the year when the group ascended from one of the best high school a cappella groups in the country to one of the best-focused, most unforgettable, and downright great high school groups I’ve ever experienced live.
Enharmonic Fusion began with a fierce take on “Freedom,” originally by Beyonce. The group’s palpable energy and attitude immediately set the tone for the set. Moreover, a rotating cast of powerhouse soloists immediately showed the group’s depth of not only talent but strong personalities. I loved the way group carried itself on stage, too, completely committed to the moment, never looking self-conscious or “breaking character” with a rogue smile or betraying any nerves. Next up, I was such a fan of the group’s choice to sing “Seriously,” a song written by Sara Bareilles, most notably performed by Leslie Odom Jr. for NPR’s This American Life, and intended to speculate on what was going through Barack Obama’s mind during last fall’s election season. This is the point at which it became clear to me the group was sending the audience a message with its music, carrying forward a theme of civil unrest. A lesser set may have sacrificed musical integrity in favor of over-the-top theatrics to get its message across, and part of what I loved here was that someone oblivious to the meaning behind these song choices would still be fully engaged (and hopefully learn something if they looked up the songs later). Really stunning visuals on this one, too, with the soloist starting out encompassed in a circle of group members, working the stage brilliantly as the song went on, and then finding himself surrounded again on the finish. (Note: there’s a video floating around of the group serenading Bareilles herself with this song on Broadway—I couldn’t figure out a way to embed it, but it’s worth hunting down). In the most unlikely move of all, Enharmonic Fusion closed with its strongest song of all, a fiery take on Andra Day’s “The Light That Never Fails.” While this song had the least overt political overtones, it worked because it followed the other two songs, and communicated a message of hope and overcoming darker times. The group really clicked on all cylinders for this one, sounding great, looking great, and most notably of all providing platform for soloist Grace Klonoski to positively tear roof off the Town Hall with an emotionally vibrant, intense, professional-grade solo. (It’s worth noting that she accomplished much the same a year earlier with a star-making solo on Sia’s “Alive.”) It was a stellar finish to an exceptional set.
The Thursdays were next group. I was a big fan of their black and red attire—mostly traditional aca-wears, with the accent of a couple group members wearing checkered flannel that added a humbler, rougher edge. Not to belabor the point, but everyone wearing the flannel would run the risk of making them look like lumberjacks or a checkerboard-themed ensemble, but just a couple offered an image that I remembered, and remembered positively—no small feat for a night with nine competing groups. When The Thursdays began to perform, it was immediately clear that the Enharmonic Fusion wasn’t the only group trying to deliver a message with its music. The Thursdays set was no less politically charged. Say what you will about the current age and the current state of American culture, I was thrilled to recognize not one anomaly, but a trend of these high school students crafting thoughtful sets, so conscious of the world around them.
The Thursdays kicked off with a spoken word quote Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” which segued into Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It’s strange to say that a song released over fifty years ago feels uniquely fit to the present time but Dylan was a visionary, his songs largely timeless, and his sense of unrest keenly apropos to our present moment. The group made a lovely choice to rotate soloists on this one, communicating a sense of common experience and common feeling as we all wander a strange landscape. The group moved seamlessly to Ariana Grande’s “Leave Me Lonely,” which featured a particularly sleek solo and very good vocal percussion. From there, the group moved back to Dylan in a move that I felt artfully showed connections between seemingly disparate times, besides lending the set a nice sense of cohesion. The Thursdays wrapped up with “If You’re Out There,” originally by ICCA alum John Legend, and a song inspired by Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Lovely, unaccompanied start on this one, and I loved some of the big visual moments here, like a soloist marching down a row of groupmates. In addition to being a great anthemic closer in and of itself, this song felt especially keenly chosen to for simultaneously remembering an earlier moment in American history—perhaps one of the first this largely post-9/11 generation of high school students would have really been aware of—while also suggesting a message of hope looking forward, whatever that hope might look like to any given individual. This was a very strong, smart set.
Synergy was the final group to go on before intermission. They were the lone all-female group at the show, and perhaps it’s fitting they share a lineage with Divisi—the ICCA barn-burners who inspired Pitch Perfect’s Barden Bellas by breaking the mold for female scholastic a cappella over a decade ago. The group was founded by Divisi co-founder Evynne Hollens, and is currently directed by more recent Divisi alum Megan Lenhardt. Yes, the young women of Synergy have great role models, but that doesn’t take a thing away from their talent, nor their boldness. To oversimplify, over the years I’ve observed a large proportion of all-female groups lean into traditional femininity by embracing a softer sound that their male competition can’t match, or go all out to improve they can “play with the boys” by taking on a harder edge. I loved that this set from Synergy combined elements of strength and vulnerability with a uniquely feminine sensibility—not least of all speaking out on an important social issue—to arrive at a set that was distinctively their own and that so clearly set them apart from any other group that performed at ICHSA Finals this year.
Synergy opened with “The Greatest,” originally by Sia. Killer vocal percussion on this one, and the rap interlude was plainly on point. Above all else, the group demonstrated awesome raw attitude on this song to hook the audience and all but scream Synergy’s relevance. It’s surely no coincidence, too, that this is a song Sia released in support of the LGBT community after the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting. The group’s intensity carried through on Bishop Briggs’s “River,” which opened up beautifully as it moved along, and featured a really shrewdly placed sample of Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River.” Synergy closed with Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens To You,” a song written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. While I could see an argument to have really toned down this song to vary the emotional tenor of the set, there was also something pretty special about the group’s unrelenting intensity—perhaps it bespoke the lyrics from “The Greatest” about having stamina. Nice doubling up on the solo to add power on the bridge, before the group arrived at a powerful moment with a group member explicitly citing a statistic that one in four women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. This was that special kind of set that truly challenges an audience, hitting them with powerful music and then ensuring they don’t miss the message by focusing every listener’s attention and imploring them to face an uncomfortable truth. A powerful conclusion to a startling set.
After the break, Vocal Point got things started for the second half. As much I felt that the first half of the show was rich in intensity and raw emotion, there was also a degree to which it felt refreshing to hear a group sing more traditionally beautiful music by this point in the night. Vocal Point fit the bill in that regard, and I particularly appreciated the folksy, almost country identity they espoused their song choices and execution. All of these pieces worked, of course, based on the strength of the group as musicians, featuring tight harmonies and sparkling intonation.
Vocal Point opened with Us the Duo’s “No Matter Where You Are.” I really enjoyed the unique, lovely start to this one with an unaccompanied duo of leads singing together, and harmonizing beautifully. The VP was very good when it keyed in here, and the group implemented some very precise shifts in their dynamics for a stunning opener. They continued the set with “Stone Cold,” originally by Demi Lovato. More good solo work here, and more compelling harmonies. I especially liked the way the group used the space on stage for this one to engage the full audience, and the group combined sound with visuals perfectly on an explosion of sound as the soloist came forward. Vocal Point closed with Carrie Underwood’s “Renegade Runaway,” which helped reinforce the down-home sound the group honed in its first song, while infusing a bit more edge. The VP pulsed on this one and the staging was really tremendous in keeping so many moving parts going at any given time, while it all looked organic to the performance, none of it forced. Nice, full sound on the finish. Again, on a night full of super intense performances, I liked that Vocal Point had its own distinct identity and held true to it, offering the audience a softer sound and an emotionally earnest set.
Stay Tuned was up next. I had the pleasure of catching this group years back at Mid-Atlantic Semifinals and was really pleased to see them make it to the Finals stage. They’re a top-tier a cappella franchise that’s had the misfortune of competing in the same region as The Highlands Voices who had a pretty solid streak going of making it to Finals every year, and whom I’m sure ICHSA hasn’t heard the last from. 2017 was Stay Tuned’s year. I remember the group for its dark sound and theatrics, and was pleased to see that they’d carried much of that sensibility forward in tweaking well-known songs to fit together and deliver an intense, fluid set.
Stay Tuned opened with Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” I really appreciated the group’s patience on slowing this one down, creating even more of a sense of foreboding than the original song and demonstrating excellent intensity. Yes, upbeat numbers can invite an audience into a set, but a song with this intensity all but demands everyone lean in a little closer to watch and to listen. Stay Tuned transitioned between soloists nicely which lent a nice sense of cohesion to the group as one unified identity. My only real knock on this first song was that the drum solo for it is so iconic that it’s the moment everyone’s waiting on. While the drummer for Stay Tuned was clearly talented, he didn’t quite blow the roof of Town Hall the way I would have hoped that moment would to really send this song into the stratosphere. Nonetheless, it was a solid opener. From there, we bot a mashup of “Unthinkable,” originally by Alicia Keys, and Ariana Grande’s “Greedy.” The visual presentation was particularly good on this one—very dynamic, and I particularly loved the moment when group members merged and then walked in three straight lines, all in different directions for a really unique, powerful visual that complemented the sound. The group moved next with Jessie Ware’s “Say You Love Me.” I liked the choice for the group to hit on a more sensitive, vulnerable note to demonstrate their range, and found their dynamics particularly well handled here to really deliver moments with an emotional wallop. There was an especially good moment late in the song with a brief sample of “Falling Slowly,” before the soloist positively owned the finish with an emotionally gripping performance that really connected with the crowd. Finally, wrapped up with Beyonce’s “Freedom.” This song offered another strong visual performance and the three-part solo helped mix up the sound nicely over the course of this closer. In such a long show, it’s vital for a group—especially one that goes on late, but not quite at the end of the competition—to keep that energy up to, and Stay Tuned was nicely up to the task to deliver a raucous, memorable closer.
Ars Nova was the penultimate competing group. I hadn’t previously encountered this group heading into Finals, and it’s such a joy to come across yet another scholastic powerhouse, boasting not only a unique, powerful sound, but like a number of other groups, approaching the show on a mission. Groups can sing pretty much any songs they want going into competition, but having a purpose and a message can make a group stand out, and can make a performance feel like more than just music for music’s sake. Ars Nova communicated a powerful message of empowerment, in particular with a feminist bent.
The first song from Ars Nova’s set was “That’s My Girl,” originally by Fifth Harmony. Really cool effect with the group sound fading in and out on the words, “that’s my girl,” before the group settled into a bit jazzier vibe, anchored by some very strong VP work. The mounting tempo and dynamics read like building confidence, and really fit the vibe of this song. The group did an excellent job on its high harmonies on a fake-out finish before the song truly wrapped up. From there, the group moved to Gallant’s “Weight in Gold.” I loved the attention-grabbing contrast of this number, starting with soft hums, leading to an unaccompanied solo. This piece—another about mounting confidence and self-worth—was a terrific showcase for a star soloist. Very nice, unconventional instrumentation in the background, too. Ars Nova finished with “Freedom.” I personally like “Freedom” a good bit, and I think, in a vacuum, it’s a terrific song to wrap up this set, tying together a feminist theme with an anthemic closer. I felt very poorly for Ars Nova, however, that they were third group to perform it that night, not to mention the added disadvantages the group directly before them wrapped up with this same song, and Ars Nova had one of the least desirable positions in the show in terms of crowd fatigue—exacerbating the repetition of the song to make it feel like we’d heard it four or five times already. All of these effects really undercut the fact that this cover of the song more than held its own with a brilliant, ripping solo and wonderful control of dynamics to keep the song artful and fully engaging. I particularly appreciated, too, that the group left the stage not smiling and waving, but rather staying in character, fiery, if not downright angry to really drive home the impact of the song and the overarching set.
It’s an unenviable position to close a nine-group competition, performing in front of a restless crowd. If there’s any scholastic group in the world capable of taking on that position, it’s Vocal Rush. In fact, I’d argue that, for the many in attendance who were hardcore a cappella fans and had been to Finals before, the anticipation of seeing the preeminent super group of high school a cappella transcended and overcame any risk of fatigue or the audience’s attention wandering. In a field so deep, with so much talent, there’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion about who will win a competition, but there’s no mistaking Vocal Rush was the group to beat going in, and there’s no question that they lived up to their billing. This was a night full of socially conscious a cappella, and that’s a tack that Vocal Rush hasn’t shied away from in the past, including the most recent of their previous three championship runs, for which the iconic finish to their set saw them silently display the message, “Black Lives Matter.” Vocal Rush was far from the only group with a powerful message in 2017, and yet they still remained unique and special in how and what they delivered.
Vocal Rush opened in a tight, elongated arc, singing a soft high harmony, accented with bird-chirping sound effects, before the first soloist stepped forward for a haunting, almost ethereal take on Bjork’s “All is Full of Love.” The song choice was so shrewd—striking that sweet spot as one that’s not entirely unfamiliar to a mainstream audience, but also not over-exposed; not truly old school but also out for over fifteen years. Moreover, it’s a thematically compelling song citing opportunities to find love around us, and the group did a masterful job of translating the off-kilter style of Bjork music while making the sound their own. Killer VP, and very nice solo and backing vocals over the course of this one, and I really dug the spoken word insertion toward the end, offering a quote about love setting us free, from Maya Angelou. The group hummed into Laura Mvula’s “People” for their second song. The precision of sound on this one was unreal, as Vocal Rush continues to sound less like a scholastic a cappella group, more like a professional band that happens to be composed of high schoolers. I loved their staging choices—not so much choreographing as manipulating space and creating organic visuals to accent their sound. Another spoken word insertion, this time from Clarissa Pinkola Estes, lent a sense of continuity to the set, carrying a similar message regarding the necessity to both “be fierce and to show mercy” and what a great gift it is “calm the tumult.” These spoken word pieces likely wouldn’t work for every group, but the control and power of Vocal Rush allowed them to weave in these pieces so they sounded effortless and added a wonderful dramatic effect, not to mention compelling the audience to listen and to think more carefully. The set closed on Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy”—a song of personal reflection, sorrow, and trying to make sense of big, troubled word around us. It was an emotionally gripping performance that featured a sensational solo. The movement for this song was a simple groove that never risked distracting from or over-complicating the music, but rather letting it be for a strong, unique closer.
While the judges left to deliberate Vocalight entertained the crowd. It’s hard to think of a group that would be better suited for this role, given the quintet consists of alumni and current members of Forte—ICHSA mainstays who won the championship last year. They gave a skilled, professional performance that was both impressive and refreshingly lighter and more mainstream than a lot of the competition had been. Their performance included covers of Allen Stone’s “Freedom,” “My Church,” “Rise Up,” “Shape of You,” “Unsteady,” “Rise,” and “Let Me Love You.” With just five members, the group came across as all stars, all mature performers with great stage presence. The solo work was fantastic and Justin Crichfield’s vocal percussion in particular stood out. Given how young these singers are, it will be interesting to see how they grow and what they might accomplish in the years ahead.
As Vocalight performed, I made my picks for the night. Placement was particularly difficult. Out of nine groups, I felt there were seven who would have seemed like totally fair picks for third place, ranging from TAG’s infectious energy to Walk The Line’s charisma and bold set choices to Stay Tuned’s ominous sound coupled with emotional vulnerability. I felt Synergy was worthy of recognition for sheer sustained intensity, not to mention their important message; I was really impressed with the journey that The Thursdays took us on and the way they blended music from different generations to deliver a set tailor fit to today. In the end, I had Ars Nova, for their unique sound and fierce finish, just edging out Vocal Point for their clean harmonies and musical precision for the third place spot.
Enharmonic Fusion earned a clear second place finish in my book, based on sensational soloists and the power of their own message. And then there was Vocal Rush. In a show like this, it’s a shame we can only declare one champion, but competition being what it is, there’s no denying Vocal Rush the crown. Faculty director Lisa Forkish is one of the great a cappella minds of our time and has clearly been instrumental in building a perennial scholastic a cappella powerhouse. Take nothing away from the students, though, who clearly worked their butts off to plan, practice, and finally execute this masterpiece of a professional-grade set.
Before the results came out, the ICHSA groups followed suit with ICCA in all the groups coming together to perform a song under the guidance of aca-virtuoso Ben Bram—“Sing A Song”—featuring soloists from each of the Finalist groups.
I had minor quibbles, but no major disagreements on superlatives for the night or the final placements. Vocal Rush rightly walked out with the high school Gooding Cup and finished a stellar night with of a cappella with their encore, a cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”
Thank you for reading and be sure to check back in a few days for our review of the 2017 ICCA Finals. On an additional note, The A Cappella Blog is excited to announce a new campaign. We’ve partnered with Teespring to create a high-quality, limited edition A Cappella Blog t-shirt that we’re making available for sale to our site’s supporters. All proceeds from this campaign will go toward the costs of running The A Cappella Blog, including web hosting and subsidizing the cost for travel and tickets to cover live events. The t-shirts will only be produced if we meet a minimum order count, so we really appreciate your support in buying a shirt and helping us spread the word about this project over the next three weeks.
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night:
- Vocal Rush
- Enharmonic Fusion
- Ars Nova
- Enharmonic Fusion for “The Light That Never Fails”
- Vocal Rush for “Have Mercy”
- The Thursdays for “Leave Me Lonely”
- Vocal Rush for the full set
- Synergy for the full set
- Vocal Point for the full set
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
- Enharmonic Fusion for the full set
- Stay Tuned for the full set
- Synergy for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
- Vocal Point for the full set
- Synergy for the full set
- Vocal Rush for the full set
The Official ICHSA Results:
- Vocal Rush
- Enharmonic Fusion
- Vocal Point
Outstanding Soloist: Enharmonic Fusion for “The Light That Never Fails”
Outstanding Arrangement: Synergy for “'Til It Happens To You”
Outstanding Choreography: Enharmonic Fusion for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Vocal Point for the entire set