<![CDATA[The A Cappella Blog]]> http://acappellablog.com/ The A Cappella Blog en Copyright 2017 2017-10-20T22:51:50-04:00 <![CDATA[When the Staging Emulates the Music Video]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/when-the-staging-emulates-the-music-video http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/when-the-staging-emulates-the-music-video

Reason #135: When the Staging Emulates the Music Video

One of the biggest difference between a cappella now and a cappella fifteen to twenty years ago is that visual presentation is now fundamentally accepted as a part of a cappella performance. Sure, a handful of groups have the stage presence to get away with standing in arch, and others have the magnetism to simply walk the stage and garner all the fanfare that the average Joe would need acrobatics to attain. For the rest of us, there’s choreography.

One of the great pleasures of watching a live a cappella performance is seeing what kinds of choreography a group might come up with, and the effect is especially captivating when groups emulate the actual performer’s mannerisms—better yet, the music video. No, such interpretations aren’t for everyone, for every group, or for every setting. But every now and again you can catch a truly inspired reproduction of the “Single Ladies” dance or the sweet moves of the “Thriller” zombies, and it makes for a truly epic performance.

I love it!

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2017-10-19T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Same Drugs]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/same-drugs http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/same-drugs

This week we present Florida State University Reverb performing Chance the Rapper’s “Same Drugs.”

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2017-10-17T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[5 Takeaways from Varsity Vocals’ First Open Finals]]>http://acappellablog.com/the-5s/5-takeaways-from-varsity-vocals-first-open-finals http://acappellablog.com/the-5s/5-takeaways-from-varsity-vocals-first-open-finals

Last month saw the finals of the very first Open—a tournament put on by Varsity Vocals that was not restricted to any specific scholastic level, but rather, as the name implies, open to groups anywhere, of any composition, singing any style. The results were an interesting brand of competition to say the least, culminating a widely touted show at Carnegie Hall.

While I pride myself on having made it to every ICCA Finals show since 2007, and most ICHSA shows in that period as well, I wasn’t able to make it to New York for this one. Nonetheless, I followed coverage via other great outlets like AcaVille Radio and FloVoice, and while I still have some catching up to do in learning more about some of the featured groups and giving them a listen, I nonetheless walked away with some distinct impressions from the event and about what it says regarding the future of a cappella.

1. All-Female A Cappella Is Thriving

While Women of the World may have been relatively new faces to Varsity Vocals fans, they’re a group that has operated at different sizes and in different permutations since 2008, and that had previously won the National Harmony Sweepstakes in 2014. In 2017, they etched their names in history as the first Open Champions.

That an all-female group would win the Open—a rare accomplishment in the collegiate and high school ranks—makes a bold statement about the quality of the group. It’s worth noting they weren’t the only all-female group to make it to Finals, either, joined by elite western group JANE, featuring alumni from college women’s powerhouses Divisi and Noteworthy.

2. New England Is Hot

OK, so Women of the World are, by their own definition, representatives of different regions of the world. Just the same, they won their way into the Open Finals via the New England Region. They weren’t the only group based in that area to appear at Finals either, as the top runners up in the competition were the Boston-based Northeastern University Nor’easters. Think about that. The top two finishers in a tournament designed to represent the whole a cappella world, both call Boston their home base.

Consider that Pitch Slapped wasn’t even in the competition, besides the bevy of other MIT, Northeaster, Berklee, Harvard-Radcliffe, Boston University, Boston College a cappella groups, and scads of other scholastic and post-collegiate groups that call that area home. For years, the west king when it came to competitive a cappella, but New England has come back with a vengeance.

3. Scholastic Groups Can Be Great in the Fall

For college and high school groups, the most high-profile competitions traditionally go down each year in the spring. That makes sense given that the spring competitions give groups months of time to gel—making up for key members who graduated and adjusting to new recruits. In the fall, a group might sill be shaking loose summer cobwebs, and may not yet know who it is or be truly prepared to put its best foot forward.

Or so we thought.

The reigning ICCA Champions, The Nor’easters and the reigning ICHSA Champions, Vocal Rush did themselves proud at the Open Finals, despite less than ideal timing on the academic calendar. Heck, The Nor’easters finished second, which is just plain insane at this level of competition for a scholastic group in the fall. And while we can only assume Vocal Rush would have been even better evolved and more equipped to thrive come fall, their skilled performance nonetheless demonstrated that artistry and hard work can prevail and lead to great a cappella even at the start of the school year.

4. The Varsity Vocals Crew Can Kill It Year-Round

I’ve always looked to the Varsity Vocals production team with a bit of awe for their ability to oversee tournaments throughout the spring, in a task that more often than not involved extensive travel weekend after weekend after weekend (not to mention the tremendous volume of organizational work that goes on long before a show happens.

The Open tournament on the whole confirmed that this team can go year-round, and further substantiates rumors that they just might be cyborgs sent to annihilate the world of instrumental music by exposing how awesome a cappella can be.

5. Collaboration Tops Competition

The Open was, of course, a competition, but underscored like all of Varsity Vocals’ offerings the value of collaboration, exposure, and learning. Over the course of this tournament, hundreds of a cappella singers got to sing on the same stage as people they likely as not would never have otherwise met, were it not for this series of events. The Finals in particular drew in singers from around the country and abroad to assemble a unique collection of talent.

In his infinite wisdom, Deke Sharon has spoken in the past about competition drawing audiences, and how shows like The Sing Off need to competition to sell themselves, but are much more about bringing artists together and getting more ears and eyes on them and on the a cappella genre itself. That’s exactly the vision that the Open realized in my estimation, assembling a phenomenal collection of talent to help influence one another and make the a cappella world at large that much better for the experience.

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2017-10-12T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Wait for the Moment]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/wait-for-the-moment http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/wait-for-the-moment

This week we present Northwestern University Purple Haze performing Vulfpeck’s “Wait for the Moment.”

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2017-10-10T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Remembering How You Know a Song]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/remembering-how-you-know-a-song http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/remembering-how-you-know-a-song

Reason #134: Remembering How You Know a Song

One of the most powerful effects of music is its capacity to trigger memories. Because most a cappella groups focus their repertoires on cover songs, and tend to cover music from a range of time periods and genres, a performance has plenty of potential to expose a diverse range of audience members to music that will resonate with them, summoning an equally diverse range of memories.

As an audience member, one of the sweetest moments comes when you not only recognize a song, but can place the moment in time from which you remember that song. The experience offers fans, as much as the singers on stage, a rich opportunity to participate in the performance and mentally mold it as they see fit.

I love it!

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2017-10-05T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[River Ghost]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/river-ghost http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/river-ghost

This week we present University of Texas at Austin Fuse A Cappella performing their mashup of Bishop Briggs’ “River” and Ella Henderson’s “Ghost.”

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2017-10-03T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Seeing a Group Transform On Stage and Off]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/seeing-a-group-transform-on-stage-and-off http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/seeing-a-group-transform-on-stage-and-off

Reason #133: Seeing a Group Transform On Stage and Off

When I was an undergrad, I spent a couple years working tech crew, which included setting up and taking down various apparatuses and equipment for all of the major concerts that passed through my college. While it was far from my favorite show, one of the scenes I best remember from this experience was KC and the Sunshine Band concert. The band performed with far greater energy than what might expect from people their age. I was backstage by the time they performed their encore and in perfect position to see front man Harry Wayne Casey climb off stage and recede from the public eye. I watched as a man who had just entertained an audience of thousands seemingly shrank before my eyes, from master showman to sweat-soaked, exhausted, middle-aged man, struggling to catch his breath.

 

Watching professional, collegiate, and high school a cappella groups strut their stuff on stage, it’s easy to forget that these masterful musicians and charismatic performers, are, in all reality, just regular human beings when they step off stage. The a cappella form is nothing if not underappreciated—a genre full of talented people, most of who cannot make a living based on their performance art, but pursue it just the same for the love of the art and opportunity to share their music with an audience. Thus, the practitioners of a cappella may be larger than life in the spotlight but are, by and large, everyday people when they get backstage. Seeing this transformation, and the truly humble, awesome people that make this music happen is, itself, pretty awe inspiring.

 

I love it!

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2017-09-28T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Blood Bank/The Wolves]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/blood-bank-the-wolves http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/blood-bank-the-wolves

This week we present The University of Southern California SoCal VoCals performing Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank”/“The Wolves.”

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2017-09-26T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[When a Group Squeezes an Extra Song Into Its Competition Set]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/when-a-group-squeezes-an-extra-song-into-its-competition-set http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/when-a-group-squeezes-an-extra-song-into-its-competition-set

Reason #132: When a Group Squeezes an Extra Song Into Its Competition Set

Conventional wisdom dictates that a ten-to-twelve-minute competition set will consist of three songs (and, further, that that set will consist of two up-tempo songs to bookend a ballad). The format has certainly garnered its share of success, tailored to fit three-to-four minute long songs, and organized to capture the audience’s attention, show emotional depth, and explode into an epic finish.

While format works for many groups, others have found the greatest success by bucking tradition in favor mixing up the order of songs or defying the three-song model altogether, instead squeezing in a fourth number that has all the potential in the world to add depth and diversity to a set and to win audiences over for the sheer surprise that they thought the performance was over after the third number.

I love it!

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2017-09-21T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[You Know You Like It]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/you-know-you-like-it http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/you-know-you-like-it

This week we present Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped performing AlunaGeorge’s “You Know You Like It.”

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2017-09-19T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[The First Time You Hear a Song After You’ve Heard It A Cappella]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/the-first-time-you-hear-a-song-after-youve-heard-it-a-cappella http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/the-first-time-you-hear-a-song-after-youve-heard-it-a-cappella

Reason #131: The First Time You Hear a Song After You’ve Heard It A Cappella

It’s no secret that one of the coolest parts of attending an a cappella show—particularly at the collegiate level, is walking away having been exposed to new music you may not have come across in your everyday life. The intersection of college students and people who love music is prime territory to be exposed to something off beat, on the cusp of becoming cool, or otherwise off the mainstream radar, but nonetheless awesome.

We’ve all heard songs translated from conventional instrumentation into a cappella—sometimes it’s great, sometimes it doesn’t work out so well. It’s pretty fantastic to hear a song performed (artfully) a cappella first, though, and then go back to discover the source material, reverse-engineering the process of the arrangement and elements performance to see how they link back to the original song, not to mention walking away with a new artist or album to explore.

I love it!

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2017-09-14T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[EDM Mashup]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/edm-mashup http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/edm-mashup

This week we present Brigham Young University Vocal Point performing their EDM Mashup.

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2017-09-12T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Watching the Crowd Grow at a Public Show]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/watching-the-crowd-grow-at-a-public-show http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/watching-the-crowd-grow-at-a-public-show

Reason #130: Watching the Crowd Grow at a Public Show

One of the a cappella’s most unique and most appealing qualities is how few requirements it has. A cappella groups need a place to exist—and, well, that’s about it. While not all venues are built equally in terms of aesthetic or acoustic quality, because a cappella is all about the music people make with their bodies, it allows for spontaneous performance, and performance in unlikely places ranging from a public park to a subway platform.

Better yet, once a group gets going, it can be pretty amazing to see a crowd take notice. Starting with a few friends of the group, soon, curious onlookers will wander over. Then more people who want to see what all of these other people are crowding around, and whom get sucked in by a captivating performance. In a matter of minutes, a cappella has the power to draw together a truly impressive audience.

I love it!

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2017-09-07T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[The Influence of A Cappella]]>http://acappellablog.com/guest-columns/the-influence-of-a-cappella http://acappellablog.com/guest-columns/the-influence-of-a-cappella

Guest author Deborah Tayloe is a professional writer and blogger for Musical Instruments Expert. While she’s an avid a cappella fan, she can’t sing a note and will stick with playing her violin for now.

From on screen media franchises Glee and Pitch Perfect, to sensations like Pentatonix and Home Free, the influence of a cappella on American pop culture is evident everywhere you look. In the era of social media, stardom is only a few clicks away. This gives the truly talented a chance to share their vocal gifts with the world at large.

A cappella fans just can’t seem to get enough! Rightly so. We are thrilled by the angelic harmonies, the fun beat box and amazing vocal percussion. Our iPods are full of covers of hits arranged by our favorite a cappella stars.

A cappella was once pigeonholed to a college campus activity. However, over time, a cappella music's appeal and accessibility have grown. That passion for vocal perfection has created an influence that has sent shock waves into popular culture.  

Consider the following influences. First, a cappella music brings great, old songs back to life for a new generation of listeners to enjoy. Second, a cappella artists can skillfully arrange songs to cross genres and give a fresh, new viewpoint that for new listeners to appreciate.

INFLUENCE 1: OLD SONGS BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE FOR A NEW GENERATION:

More current a cappella groups have begun resurrecting good, old, enjoyable songs from the past. In fact, they have brought old songs back to life for a new generation to enjoy.

Not quite sure what that means?

“Can’t Help Falling In Love” was an Elvis Presley ballad that topped the charts in 1961 and 1962. Our grandparents and parents fell in love to this song. It had a meaningful sentiment and any older person can tell you where they were the first time that they heard this some.

Pentatonix covered this song and published it on YouTube in April 2017...it now has over 9.8 million views in just about 4 months. A whole new generation of music lovers is falling in love to this song due to the newly released version.

INFLUENCE 2: CROSSING GENRES

A cappella music has a way of crossing genres that no other music, in my opinion, does. A country song is arranged to an upbeat, or a rock anthem is slowed down to a ballad. It makes a genre that’s not widely appreciated be understood better by new fans.

In many cases, a person who doesn’t care for a particular genre, such as classic rock, will appreciate a piece of music arranged in an updated  format.

A great example of the most popular song of country superstar Garth Brooks, “Friends In Low Places,” covered in 2016 by Home Free.

Home Free took a classic country drinking song, changed the tempo and pace, and arranged into a reggae-inspired pop sound. With 1.9 million views on YouTube, younger people are hearing the 1990 country hit, many for the first time.

So whether you are an avid a cappella fan or an aspiring artist you can rest assured that a cappella is relevant. It is influencing popular culture with fresh new voice and different points of view. It’s also accessible to all through the power of the internet and social media, giving you space to express your passion through your musical talents.

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2017-08-11T05:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Writing's on the Wall]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/writings-on-the-wall http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/writings-on-the-wall

In this, the final Tuesday Tubin’ for our 2016-2017 publication season, we present the 2017 ICCA Champions, the Northeastern University Nor’easters performing Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.”

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2017-05-30T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Top 10 A Cappella Records From The 20th Century]]>http://acappellablog.com/guest-columns/top-10-a-cappella-records-from-the-20th-century http://acappellablog.com/guest-columns/top-10-a-cappella-records-from-the-20th-century

Guest contributor Jessica Kane is a writer for SoundStage Direct, the number one online source for the best vinyl records and turntables.

It can often be difficult to pin down the greatest a cappella records, but there will always be a few groups and albums that stood taller and pushed this style of music forward. Here are the top 10 a cappella records from the 20th century. 

10. “The Whiffenpoof Song,” by The Whiffenpoofs Technically this Yale favorite may not be considered an album, but the popular song from the very first decade of the 20th century is often regarded as the very beginning of collegiate a cappella, which set the stage for the coming a cappella explosion. 

9. The Manhattan Transfer, by the Manhattan Transfer Their debut and self-titled album in 1975 included evergreen hits like "Java Jive," "Tuxedo Junction," and the biggest hit from the album, "Operator." 

8. Cooleyhighharmony, by Boyz II Men This 1991 album comes from the tail end of the century, but it included some of the greatest a cappella contributions to the world of pop music, most notably with "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." A later remake of the album also included one of the greatest hits, "End of the Road," which was originally recorded for the movie Boomerang

7. We Came to Play, by The Persuasions The Persuasions first made a name for themselves with their original album put together by Frank Zappa, but they first hit big with this album, which included, among others, the hit song "Chain Gang." 

6. Mecca for Moderns, by The Manhattan Transfer The Manhattan Transfer seemed to have a few hits on every album they put out. In Mecca for Moderns, they became the first group to win Grammy awards in both pop and jazz, with hits like "The Boy from New York City" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." 

5. Simple Pleasures, by Bobby McFerrin Bobby McFerrin distinguished himself as the first, or at least most prominent, one-man a cappella group. On this album, he gained worldwide fame for the hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which was also featured in the film Cocktail

4. Good Vibrations, by The King's Singers Named for the title track, a cover of the popular Beach Boys song, this album also featured the somber "M.L.K.," a song originally written for the late Martin Luther King, Jr., but often sung to commemorate the passing of a loved one. 

3. Seamless, by The Nylons This album featured what may be the most recognizable a cappella song of all time, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The album also features a cover of Lennon and McCartney's composition, "This Boy." 

2. Street Corner Symphony, by The Persuasions The Persuasions had many great albums and hits, but Street Corner Symphony set them apart, with the popular "Buffalo Soldier" and "People Get Ready" remakes, as well as several other a cappella covers brilliantly arranged by the group. 

1. Vocalese, by The Manhattan Transfer This 1985 record produced one of the most incredible a cappella arrangements ever, called "Another Night in Tunisia." The song was an all a cappella version of "Night in Tunisia" by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie "Bird" Parker, and it featured singing legends Bobby McFerrin and Jon Hendricks. Also on the album was a cover of the famous "I Remember Clifford," changed slightly to "Oh Yes, I Remember Clifford." The original song was written about the brilliant jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in a tragic car crash at the age of 25. The album received 12 Grammy nominations, second only to Michael Jackson's Thriller album for nominations of an individual album.

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2017-05-29T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Hearing a Song That Just Came Out on the Radio]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/hearing-a-song-that-just-came-out-on-the-radio http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/hearing-a-song-that-just-came-out-on-the-radio

Reason #129: Hearing a Song That Just Came Out on the Radio

I consider myself pretty open minded about music from different time periods. On a given day, I’m more or less equally prone to be listening to something contemporary, something from a few years, something from my childhood, or something from before I was born. As such, I also appreciate hearing a diverse range of time periods covered in an a cappella show.

All that said, there’s something unmistakably electric about hearing an a cappella group sing a genuinely new song—one that has just hit the radio, just blown up on YouTube, or otherwise quite recently arrived in the public consciousness. Sometimes, it’s a product  of good fortune—a group arranged and learned a deep cut which just happened to be the next single off a major artist’s label. Other times, it’s a group working hard and working quickly to learn a song and execute it ahead of the pack, when the audience is both most interested in and most surprised to hear it. For all of the group’s spectacular accomplishments, this may be one of Pentatonix’s most significant signature moves.

I love it!

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2017-05-25T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[People]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/people http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/people

In this, the penultimate Tuesday Tubin’ for our 2016-2017 publication season, we present the 2017 ICHSA Champions Oakland School for the Arts Vocal Rush performing Laura Mvula’s “People.”

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2017-05-23T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[A Sold-Out Crowd]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/a-sold-out-crowd http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/a-sold-out-crowd

Reason #128: A Sold-Out Crowd

We’ve all heard the expression, “bigger is better.” The words certainly hold true in the case of the audience at an a cappella show. A bigger crowd means more people to laugh at a joke, more people to swoon for a particularly captivating solo, more people to clap along on a barn burning number and more people to stand up and cheer at the conclusion of an epic performance.

While the performers on stage may occupy the spotlight, the live crowd is very much a part of defining most exhibitions. The energy of the people around you shapes your perception of events and a sold out a crowd—by definition, a crowd of people filling a space, who have paid money to hear a group sing—bodes very, very well for an off-the-charts live show.

I love it!

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2017-05-18T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[River]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/river http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/river

This week we present The Ohio State of Mind performing Bishop Briggs’s “River.”

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2017-05-16T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[The Campus Bookstore]]>http://acappellablog.com/campus-connections/the-campus-bookstore http://acappellablog.com/campus-connections/the-campus-bookstore

In this edition of Campus Connections, our focus is on: the campus bookstore.

Students have a love-hate relationship with their campus bookstores. The love comes from easy access to not only books, but school t-shirts and sweatshirts and baseball caps and coffee mugs. The hate comes from over-priced textbooks and school memorabilia that, more often than not, you know you could find cheaper elsewhere, and yet it’s so convenient to not have go off campus or wait for shipping that you give in anyway.

While you’re welcome to maintain whatever feelings you may already have about your campus bookstore, it’s foolish to overlook opportunities to collaborate with them. The campus may well be eager to sell your group’s new CD by its cash register, or possibly even group swag like t-shirts of your own or promotional stickers. Sure, the store will probably take a cut of your profits, but you’ll be exposing yourself to potential buyers that don’t only include fans who come to your show, but also students, faculty, staff, and administration who may stop by the bookstore for anything from a windbreaker to show their school pride, to Christmas gifts, to a candy bar from the front counter. In any of these cases, you’re accessing people who were planning to spend money anyway, and, in most of those scenarios, have at least some level of school pride and thus may relish in supporting the school’s arts program.

Depending on your bookstore, fostering a relationship with the management may even afford you the opportunity to use the store for a performance space during a busy time like the start of the term or during a buyback period; the bookstore may also be uniquely equipped to facilitate sales for you during a new album release event in their space.

Not every campus bookstore will have the infrastructure of willingness to cooperate that I’m alluding to, but you may be surprised by how many would. Reach out, and this can become one of your most valuable connections on campus.

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2017-05-12T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones on "Gemini Feed"]]>http://acappellablog.com/interviews/the-harvard-radcliffe-veritones-on-gemini-feed http://acappellablog.com/interviews/the-harvard-radcliffe-veritones-on-gemini-feed

Last month, The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones released college a cappella's first virtual reality video. Skip Rosamilia was kind of enough to discuss the project with The A Cappella Blog.


The A Cappella Blog: What can you tell us about how the concept for this music video in virtual reality came about?  Where did the idea come from?  Why was Banks’ “Gemini Feed” the song choice?

The Veritones: We really value pushing the boundaries of not only our music and sound, but also how we can express our music through different media. CS50 approached us this spring about using their 360 VR cameras to create something together in virtual reality.  When we excitedly agreed to take on the project, we knew we ran the risk of it amounting to a bunch of us just singing in a circle around a camera in 360.  So our group sat down together and discussed “why VR?”  Ultimately, we decided we wanted to take this opportunity to create something completely new and groundbreaking that would really push both traditional a cappella music videos as well as make a unique, new contribution to the relatively new VR space.

The concept of the video emerged from these brainstorming discussions around what it was that we wanted to say and do with this medium, and how we would achieve that.  We decided on addressing the idea of agency in media, about who ultimately has power in the realm of performance – both literal performance, and metaphorically in the performance of everyday life that we and those we interact with might put on.  What expectations, censors, privileged institutions or individuals, and unequal landscapes force us into particular ways of acting? Multiple sides of each individual are showcased throughout the piece and are given varying amounts of power.  The viewer is no exception, being placed in different roles throughout (i.e. viewer, participant, performer).  In creating the storyboard of the video, we consolidated our ultimate goals and concrete objectives, and worked backwards to figure out exactly what we would need to achieve them both technically and creatively.

We chose Banks’ “Gemini Feed” both because of its musical properties that lent well to the narrative we wanted to create and also due to the strong emotional connection the group has to Banks’ music.  This song in particular perfectly helped shape the three central themes to our storyboard: Defiance, Duality, and Distortion. We believe these three themes best encapsulate the we effect we set out to achieve with this medium - to have the viewer begin under the assumption that they are watching a typical pop music video, but, by altering this reality and transforming the virtual space, have the viewer ultimately question what their role might have been in this story.

The A Cappella Blog: What can you tell us about the creative process behind bringing this project to fruition?  In particular, how did you come to collaborations with the CS50 program, and with The Vocal Company on different components of this project, and how did those collaborations go?  How was this project different from other Veritones endeavors?

The Veritones: The best part of this project is that it pushed everyone involved to the limits of their experience and abilities.  Additionally, it proved to be a beast to manage, as it had a ton of moving parts that we had to make sure we kept constantly aligned and to task.  The project was driven forward primarily by Skip Rosamilia from the Veritones and Lauren Scully from CS50.  The various groups involved were the Veritones, both recording the track as well as blocking the narrative; CS50, who spearheaded production and filming; a Veritones alumnus William Horton, who arranged Gemini Feed; an incredible undergraduate choreographer Josh Lee, who created and coached us on our dance routine; and The Vocal Company, who edited, mixed, and mastered our track.  Skip and Lauren met a ton in order to make sure all the various parties kept to the timeline and that all the separate parts informed one another cohesively.  Outside of the logistics, it was just really amazing to see so many different people organically coming together to create art.  Everything from costuming to technical production aspects to envisioning the storyboard to spitballing publicity materials – all the people involved were just so excited about giving Gemini Feed wings and it yielded a unique, wonderful experience.   

We first established our relationship with CS50 two years ago when we worked with their production team to make two other music videos.  Through that, we fostered a very collaborative partnership and were excited to take on this new endeavor together.  The members of the CS50 production team (made up of both students and professionals) have extensive production experience, as well as specific technical knowledge of VR equipment and capabilities.  David Malan (head of CS50) and the CS50 production team are extremely committed to applying CS and their own production expertise to creative endeavors in unique ways, which is what motivated them to approach us with this opportunity.  Since VR best practices and technology are still being developed and perfected, we worked very closely together throughout the creative envisioning process to constantly ensure that our vision was both possible and pushing what we could achieve through the VR medium.

On the musical side of things, we chose the Vocal Company for editing and mixing because we knew they’d give life to the track in a unique way.  Their extremely talented sound experts are at the front line of pushing the boundaries of recorded a cappella.  We knew this project would not necessarily be an easy endeavor, especially when envisioning how to mix for a 360 soundscape.  This project demanded extensive collaboration, as the video and sound were both being edited and formed simultaneously.  Partnering with them was incredibly rewarding and allowed for the visual and sound to inform one another throughout the process.  We’re extremely excited about the cohesive product that resulted.

This project was certainly unique for the Veritones.  We’ve been trying to focus more on creative endeavors outside of just live performance, and hope that we’ll be able to take on more opportunities like this in the future.  

The A Cappella Blog: Where can interested parties find this video?  What should listeners/viewers expect when they encounter it/  What might surprise them?

The Veritones: The video can be viewed on YouTube at the above link both with or without a VR headset on either a mobile phone or desktop computer. However, the experience is definitely optimized for a VR headset, as that way you can feel completely immersed in the space. Instead of simply watching a performance, viewers can expect to feel like they are playing an active role in the story that we tell in our performance, particularly through interactions with the soloist.  There is a lot of viewer engagement, changes of scenery and perspective, and playing with hard cuts that all contribute to various elements of surprise.  Viewers shouldn’t expect to catch everything there is to see in just one go, so we definitely encourage rewatching it.  For example, there are several moments where two scenes or images are presented simultaneously in front of and behind the viewer, making it impossible to catch both of these at once.  To us, this is what makes this project so special: it’s a very different experience each time you watch it since every view is unique.  That being said, it still has a very clear directionality to the story that won’t leave viewers completely in the dark if they only watch it once.

One important note is that we filmed the music video with the intention of engaging with VR as it could be, not necessarily as it is utilized by the public now.  That means that creatively we leaned toward using the medium in a way that would encourage people to put on a headset, rather than filming a video we assumed most people would still use desktops or headset-less mobile devices to watch.  

The A Cappella Blog: How does this marriage of a cappella with other art forms and technology fit The Veritones' group identity, or what the group seeks to accomplish? Do you think the group will pursue similar projects in the future? How has this project influenced the group?

The Veritones: As a group, we are devoted to pushing the boundaries of what our music can do.  We try to push ourselves in our arrangements and in the production of our recorded material by employing innovative ways to use our voices to produce art.  Virtual Reality pushes the boundaries of visual technology and a multi-sensory experience, so this marriage seemed very natural for our group to adopt and work with.  That’s not to say this project was not without its fair share of obstacles.  Given that this project was the first of its kind, it posed many unforeseen challenges, and there were many moments where it wasn’t always clear what the product would look like or if it would be a success at all, and it demanded a lot from every individual involved.  However, when each member took of the headset after watching the final product, it was so gratifying to see pure amazement in everyone’s eyes and the shock at the incredible product we made together.  This project really reinforced our values of taking on creative challenges and having each other’s backs to achieve our goals.  The Veritones aren’t just a group of students who sing together, but a group that of people who love each other and work hard together to create art, challenge ourselves to push our limits every step of the way.  

 

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2017-05-11T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Freedom]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/freedom http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/freedom

This week we present Miami Valley School Ars Nova performing Beyonce’s “Freedom.”

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2017-05-09T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[To Yearbook or Not To Yearbook]]>http://acappellablog.com/recording-recommendations/to-yearbook-or-not-to-yearbook http://acappellablog.com/recording-recommendations/to-yearbook-or-not-to-yearbook

A cappella recording has become a big business within a budding industry. Indeed, given the improvements in recording and distribution technology, and the increase in professional services available to groups interested in recording, it seems like groups at all levels, from  small high schools to major universities to post-collegiate social groups to full-fledged pros are releasing new  recordings each year.

In Recording Recommendations, we offer our two cents on best practices in recorded a cappella.

In this edition, our focus is on yearbooking.

For those unfamiliar with the yearbook concept, it’s an informal term for recording an album on which every group member gets a solo or otherwise featured song, thus the overarching recording feels like a catalog of everyone who was in the group that year. There was a time at which this concept dominated the sphere of scholastic recordings, and thus the yearbook moniker was a natural fit.

Is there a place for yearbooking in the current a cappella recording market? The short answer is that, yes, there is, under two circumstances. The first is that your group is generating an album for which the primary function will be a souvenir for the group members themselves, fans, friends, and families. These are the kinds of albums typically recorded and mixed on campus, within the group or its social network, for which there are no (or at least limited) designs on submitting the album for national awards or selling it beyond the local community. The other circumstance is that your group actually does feature a roster of all outstanding soloists, each of whom genuinely bring something interesting, different, and irresistible to the table, and thus are worth featuring in their own songs.

For increasing number of groups that are recording with an eye toward building a global reputation, I can’t advocate for the yearbook concept. To use a far-from-perfect metaphor, let’s compare a cappella recording to picking a team during high school phys ed class. At least at my school, the prevailing logic was that everyone picked the best athletes first, the un-athletic kids last, with some potential adjustments for non-athletics-related popularity woven in there. Typically, the result was that each team included strongest objective roster that it could (which more or less balanced the teams because the captains had divided the talents equally via alternating picks). The less popular strategy was for a captain to simply pick his friends,  regardless of ability levels, in the interest of having fun, with less regard to winning.

In the gym class example, one choice is about winning, the other is about enjoyment. In the low stakes of a gym class, in which wins and losses are typically realized and forgotten within an hour period, I actually wonder why more kids didn’t simply pick their friends. But recorded a cappella is different. Each recording is a representation of your group. Most a cappella groups favor talent over playing favorites when it comes to the audition process because they’re more interested in assembling a talented performing group than a social club (albeit the fact that the two are far from mutually exclusive). I would argue that the same should be the case for recordings.

It might hurt the feelings of a graduating senior not to have a solo on her last album with the group. It may frustrate a rising star not to have his signature song make the cut for the album. Just the same, the average listener (let alone critic or competition judge) only have so long of an attention span, and generally favor shorter albums over hour-plus works. Furthermore, when a group submits an album for the world to hear and critique, they have to accept that the whole album will be judged, not just the best tracks. It’s a lot harder for a few standout tracks to really shine, much less garner your group a national reputation, when they’re surrounded by middling material.

Yearbook albums are fine if they’re for the group and its supporters. Heck, if your group has the resources, I see no reason not to record additional, unreleased tracks that are just for the group’s inner circle to enjoy and remember the year. But for albums meant to be sold beyond the confines and campus, and meant to send a message to the world, groups need to be more selective.

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2017-05-05T04:30:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Simulating Sounds]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/simulating-sounds http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/simulating-sounds

Reason #127: Simulating Sounds

In a genre defined by the human voice and body, one of the most fascinating elements of a cappella to watch evolve over time is the way in which performers simulate sounds. Whether it’s Deke Sharon’s vocal trumpet, Jamal Reed’s electric guitar, or more dramatic, less literal interpretations of the sound of wind blowing, or a motorcycle revving up, the innovators of the a cappella form have dared to try new things and broaden the world’s conception of what sounds people are capable of making without any external instruments at hand.

I love it!

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2017-05-04T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Don't Wait]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dont-wait http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dont-wait

This week, we present Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Take It SLO performing Mapei’s “Don’t Wait.”

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2017-05-02T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[ICCA Finals 2017]]>http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/icca-finals-2017 http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/icca-finals-2017

In a creative writing workshop a few years ago, my friend Dennis cited that “a house is just a bunch of rooms.” It was a statement that sounded simultaneously profound and profoundly obvious in a way that makes you want to laugh, cry, scratch your head, and roll your eyes all at once. I bring this up because when we consider a competition set for an a cappella group, the temptation may well be to say that a set is just a bunch of songs. It’s not altogether untrue, but 2017, perhaps more than any year before it, showed that just any old assemblage of songs—even really good songs—will not bring home the Gooding Cup. No, 2017 was the year of the set as an indivisible whole with bits of songs wedged and adhered together to create something unique, new, and wholly belonging to the college a cappella group at hand.

Before I get into individual groups, here’s a summary of this year’s ICCA Finals:

Venue: The Beacon Theatre, New York, New York

Guest Groups: ICHSA Champions and Top Runners Up Vocal Rush, Enharmonic Fusion, and Vocal Point

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Judges:

  • Abbey Janes
  • Alex Green
  • Bill Hare
  • Ed Boyer
  • Julia Hoffman

Competing Groups:

  • The ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions, The Towson Trills from Towson University
  • The ICCA Wild Card Champions, Amazin’ Blue from the University of Michigan
  • The ICCA United Kingdom Champions, Aquapella from the University of Bath
  • The ICCA Northeast Champions, The Nor’easters from Northeastern University
  • The ICCA Central Champions, The Water Boys from the University of Waterloo
  • The ICCA Southwest Champions, The ScatterTones from UCLA
  • The ICCA Northwest Champions, Furmata A Cappella from the University of Washington
  • The ICCA Great Lakes Champions, Voices in Your Head from the University of Chicago
  • The ICCA Midwest Champions, The Ohio State of Mind from Ohio State University
  • The ICCA South Champions, The Beltones from Belmont University

I’d like to lead off the review of the show with some high praise for Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching in their hosting duties. They’re charismatic showpersons, yes, but the degree to which the two of them are experienced and entrenched in the a cappella world helps them deliver an engaging performance all their own on stage that’s both entertaining and tailor fit to an a cappella audience. It’s such a delight that Varsity Vocals has had the two of them hosting Finals shows in recent years, and it’s an arrangement I hope will continue for some time.

The first competing group was The Towson Trills. I had a chance to interview Aaron Bayne from their group a week before competition, and it was remarkable to learn how quickly this crew ascended from coming together just a year and a half ago, to competing in ICCA for the first time, to storming their way all the way to Finals. All of this as a seven-member group, all of this with a group made up almost entirely of college sophomores. Groups like Pentatonix, Aurora, and Vocalight have underscored that smaller can be better in the contemporary a cappella landscape, and it’s really interesting to see a college group working from that paradigm and thriving. On a less important note, I liked their choice of black, sparkling attire and accessories, which helped immediately establish their identity as professional performers.

The group opened with “Death of a Bachelor,” originally by Panic! At the Disco. I was immediately struck by the group’s stage presence and strong vocal percussion for this one. They did a nice job of both keeping the choreography under control and letting it build as the performance went on, including a nice bit in which one member did a full-body bob as the group grooved, and the bobbing spread member-by-member until the group was fully in sync. Killer swirling bass sound as the first song wrapped up. Next up, “Unsteady,” originally by X Ambassadors, mixed with hints of “Apologize” by Timbaland and OneRepublic. Very nice complexity of sound, particularly for a group this size, and the group did a really nice job of keeping the hints of “Apologize” present but understated to build to a truly electric moment when the two songs mashed together. The Towson Trills finished with Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got).” The group deployed an excellent vocal trumpet to lead off and accent this jazzy take on the song. Good charisma from the soloist, and the group wove in a fun rap interlude. My only knock on this closer was the visual presentation. It’s a fine line, but when a small group is performing, I tend to feel as though choreography—and more particularly the artifice of it—can stick out more and feel contrived. I felt the group would have been better off sticking to a more straightforward presentation, holding their own as individual singers who looked like they were having more fun as they had earlier in the set. That’s a lot of verbiage for a relatively minor quibble, though. All in all, I felt the Towson Trills demonstrated the ways in which a more traditional ICCA set structure can still succeed and offer a fun, engaging experience for the audience. By the luck of the draw, they were on first, but I suspect the set may have come across even better closer to the middle of the show, in contrast to sets that were arguably less accessible for a general audience. Just the same the group did itself proud in its ICCA Finals debut, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of them at this level of competition.

Amazin’ Blue was next up and offered up. At the top of the review, I noted the degree to which the 2017 Finals re-conceptualized the competition set, compelling the listener to think less about individual pieces and more about the sum of those parts. In my book, Amazin’ Blue kicked off that trend in earnest. With a set that artfully sampled from itself and felt tonally consistent in ways that were simultaneously brilliant and profoundly dark. I know that there’s been some push back in the a cappella community against a cappella that’s, frankly, less fun, but when groups are assembling sets this artful I have a hard time finding reason to complain.

Amazin’ Blue led off their set by not taking time to set up on stage, but rather already singing from on their way in, accented by a haunting, repeated whisper of, “I can feel them coming.” Their performance of The Weekend’s “In the Night” carried a palpable sense of danger both in its vocals and the visuals, particularly at the point in which they rotated in and out of two lines to generate a unique, unpredictable visual. The group moved seamlessly to Transviolet’s “Girls Your Age.” The song itself carried forward a themes of youth and of foreboding, particularly on their delivery of lyrics like “Girls your age never mean what they say.” Tremendous precision of sound all around on this song, and I particularly loved the edgy visual of the group closing in on the soloist, and later surrounding her in what could easily pass for a traditional a cappella arc but took on the sensation of overwhelming forces standing over and surrounding her until she collapsed to her knees. Powerful stuff. The early whispers of the set came back around as the group settled into “No One’s Here to Sleep,” originally by Naughty Boy. I can’t overstate how good Amazin’ Blue’s control of their visuals was—nothing gratuitous or overly literal, but so captivating in their ever-shifting staging. Bits of “Girls Your Age” came back in before the group moved to a soft, choral take on the opening to “Carry Me Home,” originally by The Sweeplings with a choral opening. The group offered a masterclass on the effect of doubling up on key parts of a song to really drive them home, before a lovely fall out moment that gave way to one more transition to Bishop Briggs’s “River.” I loved the way the intensity built on this one, both in terms of the vocals opening up and the group spreading the set and weaving in bits of stomp percussion to bring all that danger to fruition on a monster finish to this excellent set.

2016 saw the rise of the very first truly international ICCA Champions, when The Techtonics from Imperial College London took home the Gooding Cup. So, it was with great anticipation that we awaited the successors to the ICCA UK throne, Aquapella. Elite groups from the UK tend to have a different sound from their American counterparts, often leaning into old-fashioned humor in a way that top-tier groups from the US have steered further and further away from over the last decade. Moreover, their sound veers more toward an emphasis on traditional harmonies over bass and vocal percussion that increasingly get privileged in US-based groups. Aquapella embodied a lot of these aca-cultural differences, and I have to say that their style served them well in this show, as it helped them stand out from the pack. There’s also something to be said for accessibility as the group book-ended its set with mainstream music that was easily recognizable to a general audience, rather than deep cuts. All that, plus they offered one truly star-making solo. We’ll get to that, though.

Aquapella opened on an instrumental groove that gave way to what I can best describe as a sexy medley. The first song they settled into was Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback” which offered some welcome comic relief as the soloist strode from the back of the stage and let his British accent fly free across the theater. Fun bit as one group member gyrated his hips and the movement spread across the group. “Sexyback” gave way to snippets from “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “Let’s Get It On,” and “Sexual.” No denying that the medley was well-sung and very funny at points, but it also felt a bit oddly dated to me. I think this comes down, in part, to the aforementioned cultural differences, but as entertaining as it was, I didn’t think the medley had quite the hook necessary to sell Aquapella as top contenders at the Finals level. I liked the shift from there to The 1975’s “Fallingforyou,” which carried along a compelling sense of sensuality but was a slowed down, more serious piece of music that really let the group’s harmonies and sterling intonation take precedence. Excellent emotional vulnerability on both soloists on this one. Aquapella closed with “Purple Rain.” While I’m all for innovation in an a cappella set, this was the point at which I felt Aquapella’s more traditional sensibilities served them really well, and shot them back up to star status on this show. The solo on this one was just sensational, building nicely unaccompanied and then against the backdrop of a sparse arrangement, before positively exploding on the climax of the song. If you have a soloist with the capabilities of this young woman, it’s all but criminal not to showcase them, and this was truly a star-making performance to end the Aquapella set on a high note.

The fourth competing group was The Nor’easters. There are but a handful of collegiate a cappella groups that walk into a competition with everyone assuming they’re going to be great and—quite arguably, even at the Finals level—the group to beat. The Nor’easters are not only one of those groups, but occupy that even rarer space of groups we know will be great and yet have no friggin’ idea what to expect them. I mean that in the kindest way; the group has developed an identity as one that experiments, pushes limits, creates dramatic effect. To return to my opening metaphor of a room being a bunch of houses, The Nor’easters are the a cappella architect that will say, Oh, you wanted a house? My bad, I designed this gothic castle with a fire pole running down the middle and a stone dragon façade. Also, it’s a boat. In reply, you might say, What? And that’s exactly right. The Nor’easters arrange, sing, and occupy the stage in ways that no other a cappella group has done, because no other a cappella group has thought to perform in such a fashion. You might argue that this is a group of innovators that will influence the future of a cappella future, but I’m genuinely uncertain their template is one anyone else could follow. (And lest anyone have doubts, I mean all of this in the best ways possible.)

The Nor’easters led off with Jason Derulo’s “Cheyenne.” Killer vocal percussion here on a somber, complex start, and the solo work was outstanding. The group went for some true explosions of sound. For a lesser group, you might think that the group was giving too much, too soon, but I kind of love the Nor’easter aesthetic of leaving everything they have on the stage, fully understanding that they’ve got just twelve minutes to prove themselves as the best collegiate a cappella group in the world. They transitioned to Bon Iver’s “715-CRƩƩKS,” starting with an unaccompanied solo. The group joined little by little in a choral presentation, which climaxed in some pretty spectacular swells of sound. The dynamics were insane on this one, and I particularly loved the choice to go un-mic’ed for a bit. Not to say that that’s unprecedented, but it is thinking outside the box. A cappella groups only have so many tools at their disposal. We’ve heard groups test the limits of their physicality, the stage, and microphone technique, but it's less common to see groups go in the opposite direction and strip away traditional pieces; it worked here to spectacular dramatic effect. Soaring high harmonies on the finish, before the group moved to its closer, “Writing’s on the Wall,” originally by Sam Smith. Downright insane solo work on this one from a guy who was solid throughout and demonstrated remarkable range when he went high. This was such a challenging set, and I loved the choice to spotlight a star soloist (not to mention an extremely unique star soloist) on the finish to really hone the audience’s attention on that single point. I really liked that one background vocalist on a “bing” syllable—it’s the kind of syllable choice that can get really grating with too many voices on it, but just one lent an edge and undertone of discomfort to the piece. A lot of groups settle for splitting up parts more simply—for example, everyone on each vocal part doing the same thing—whereas an arrangement like this, in some ways, pulled from the techniques of much smaller groups to achieve a remarkable complexity of sound. Killer finish to an exceptional set.

The Water Boys were up next. While it’s not exactly desirable to have to follow The Nor’easters, I actually think that the juxtaposition played in this particular group’s favor. On a night with more than its share of edgy performances, The Water Boys leaned into smooth identity that distinguished their set from others, and put an emphasis on clean, clear vocals, matched by put-together look, sporting matching blazers and collared shirts on stage. As the lone all-male group at Finals this year, the temptation easily could have been to come in hot and heavy or to go for laughs, but in this more mature set, the guys demonstrated exactly why they’d made it to Finals, mixing contemporary music and song stylings with some far more traditional material and harmonies for a set that was easy on the ears and masterfully performed.

The Water Boys kicked off their set with a classic, The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Such a crisp sound here, with pristine intonation and control of mechanics. An opener like this doesn’t knock down a door, but rather cracks it open and wafts the smell of your mother’s apple pie to invite you inside. Just a beautiful opening. I really liked the choice to jump generations from there, moving on to a mashup of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and “Maps,” originally by Maroon 5. The Clarkson part was fun, and a part of why it worked so well was that the guys didn’t play up the irony of an all-male group covering her for laughs, but rather thrived on keeping things musical and playing them straight. The result hit the precise sweet spot between something familiar and something that feels fresh for being performed in a way the audience isn’t accustomed to. This song was particularly strong when the soloists converged on the finish. Next up was OK Go’s “Needing/Getting.” This was another great showcase for the sheer musicality and harmonies this group was capable of, with the vocal percussionist as an unsung hero doing a terrific job in the background without ever threatening to overtake the piece. The most impressive piece of all may be how divergent The Water Boys’ interpretation was from the far grittier original, to reinvent the song in their style. The guys closed with One Direction’s “Midnight Memories.” Not so dissimilar from “Since U Been Gone,” it was fun to hear the guys cut loose a bit here, still offering pristine vocals but doing so in a looser, sillier context of a One Direction song. Very smooth solo work, and I loved the choice to bring back a sample of “Blackbird” to help tie together the set and give the audience a sense of the journey the group had taken them on.

I’d introduced The Nor’easters in the context of being a consistently great ICCA franchise; no question, The ScatterTones belong in precisely the same category after a series of tremendous showings at ICCA Finals in recent years. The ScatterTones approach aca-excellence from a very different angle, though, in some ways more traditional for their song choices and set structure, and yet nonetheless pushing the limits of sheer virtuosic musicianship. Check out an ICCA score card and you’ll see items like balance and blend, rhythmic accuracy, and intonation take precedence, alongside effectiveness of presentation and stage presence. The ScatterTones are the kind of group all but built to max out scores while still offering one of the most downright entertaining sets of the year. Their 2017 offering was a prime example of the things this group does so well, honed to one of the group’s best sets yet.

The ScatterTones opened with Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” Taking on The King of Pop in an a cappella set isn’t a great idea for most groups, because most groups can’t handle lead vocals at the level of The ScatterTones. Fortunately The ScatterTones are who they are, and put a positively killer solo front and center to open the set. The group also let this song build nicely with soft backing vocals early on, which gave way to a low, ominous hum on the chorus before launching into movement and more pronounced instrumentation as the song went on. I liked the stomp percussion that spread throughout the group—one of the definitive strengths of this group is building to big moments, rather than firing everything they’ve got all at once. Next up was “Magic,” originally by Coldplay. I loved the interaction—both aurally and visually—between the two leads on this one, and really appreciated the degree to which the sound opened up as this song moved along, before they pulled way back for a soft, broken finish. Just a lovely take on this song. The ScatterTones went back old school on their finish with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” The group did an excellent job of working in rotating soloists on this one, which is such a difficult thing to do, both in terms of having talented enough soloists to justify the choice, and in maintaining the backing sound with parts moving in and out of it. Fun dance breakdown, en route to some really fun, high energy choreo to take this song home. While I thought they could have afforded to open up the sound a bit more to really drive home the party vibe on this song, that’s a relatively minor quibble for a very strong  finish to a stellar set.

Next up, Voices in Your Head took the stage. Much of what I wrote about The Nor’easters applies in similar ways to this group. This was the group’s third trip to Finals after a show-stopping performance that I’ll still call criminally under-recognized from 2012, and a second-place finish in 2015 that came as close as anyone ever has to beating The SoCal Vocals on the Finals stage (seriously, just six points away from a championship). And here the group was again, but with so few individual members from the past. In talking to group members and alumni after the show, I heard that 2017 was supposed to be a rebuilding year, with huge turnover in the group and little reason from optimism about the group’s chances in competition. Voices has always been the kind of group that reinvents the game, challenging the boundaries of what an ICCA set is, or rather can be, and that sensibility was very much in play this year for a set that was unique and uniquely inspired. Bear with me on another strained metaphor, but in evaluating the 2017 Voices in Your Head set in the context of an ICCA show, they’re the kids who showed up for the school bottle rocket competition with a reconstructed UFO they bartered from some extraterrestrials. Look at them fly. They didn’t match the parameters of any assignment any teacher ever gave them, but God almighty, look at them soar.

Voices in Your Head marched onto stage with a purpose, already making sound, and immediately walking in a spiraling formation to settle on a circle on stage before their whispers turned to a hum, to a swell of sound as they turned outward to face the crowd for Diplo’s “Revolution.” To pause for a moment, this was such an electric start to a set. While a set officially starts with the first sound a group makes, serious competitors understand that the audience really begins to judge them the moment anyone sets foot on stage. Great groups take the stage with conviction, but this was a next level version of making the entrance a vital part of the group’s art. Sensational harmonies here and the group demonstrated amazing control of their sound in varying dynamics. On another particularly cool note, they wove in pieces of songs ahead on the finish, a killer move to help bind the separate pieces of the set together. Next up was “How Deep Is Your Love,” originally by Calvin Harris and Disciples. They handled much of this song chorally and there was just so much going on at any given moment as the parts broke out, spiking in volume, killing it on VP, offering an ominous hum of bass and overlaying pieces with a positively gossamer high harmony. It’s rare for a group to challenge for best arrangement and best staging of the night with the same song, but that’s where this one landed for me. The group transitioned seamlessly to Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy,” nicely handled by two soloists. Really fun handling of the bridge with the female lead steering and the male soloist and the group alternately echoing or doubling up with her. This song gave way to Towkio’s “Heaven Only Knows.” It was the kind of shift, and the kind of choice that can only happen when a group fully knows its music inside out, makes discerning choices, and settles on something that only they could have brought together. I’d like to tip my hat, in particular, to the group’s music director Will Cabaniss who was reportedly responsible for arranging this set, because in addition to being so good, and so startlingly different throughout, this ending felt downright holy as the group lined the front of the stage for one final crescendo before finishing, soft, precise, and clean. I loved it.

Next up, we heard from Furmata A Cappella, making their debut at ICCA Finals. I really liked that this group delivered a sense of urban chic out of Seattle, with their sound and their sense of style all lining up to present something cool and deeply compelling. If the group had nerves going into this performance, you’d never know it as they came across completely collected. I love that they’ll have the foundation of this experience to hopefully find their way back to Finals again the years ahead, all the shrewder for the experience.

Furmata kicked off with heartbeat percussion on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” Cool, deep hum of the bass beneath this, and nice control of the stage from the whole group. I really dug the cymbal percussion that led off a jazzier section of the song, and a nicely staged bit with all of the group members snapping their fingers. The vocal percussionist swirled the group seamlessly into Charlie Puth’s “Dangerously.” Tremendous intensity on the solo here and the group created tension nicely with their purposeful reconfigurations on stage movements, and particularly a moment when the two leads all but squared off from opposite ends of the stage with separate clusters of group members behind each of them. Excellent explosion of sound from the leads on the finish. A foreboding hum gave way to the group’s last transition, over to “Freedom,” originally by Beyonce. Great fire from the soloist as she emerged from the back of the stage and the group fell into formation behind her. In the second verse they formed two lines between which the two soloists operated. The visuals and shifts in the leads did a ton of work to keep this performance dynamic and engaging, and a beatbox showdown from two group members over the bridge was a lot of fun. This felt like a kitchen sink closer in terms of throwing everything the group had into the mix—I mean that in a great way, because it’s exactly the kind of performance that gets a group to Finals and doesn’t leave a thing behind for them to regret or think twice about having left out.

The penultimate competing group was The Ohio State of Mind. This was another group making its debut at Finals, and there’s always a certain joy to that. Mind you, I enjoy catching more familiar groups and hearing how they’ve evolved over time, but each group only gets one first appearance on the biggest stage in collegiate a cappella and it’s great to see it in action. Make no mistake about it, though, because this wasn’t one of those “we’re just glad to be here” performances—this group attacked the stage with some killer solo work and a particularly grabbing bass to make the most of their big opportunity.

The Ohio State of Mind started their set with Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side.” Nice full sound here, and I enjoyed the bold shifts in dynamics to really make the song pop at all the right moments, including sweet swell from the lead trio late in the song. The bass got the last word on this one for a nice shift as he just started to show us all what he was capable of. The bass would be such a key factor, lurking beneath the surface for much of the set, and shining in key moments. The group carried on with “Kiss the Sky,” originally by Jason Derulo, which featured tremendous precision of sound from the group, not to mention a compelling visual presentation. Tremendous emotion on their next song, JoJo’s “Say Love.” The set really reached a climax on Bishop Briggs’s “River.” The group rotated through different leads early on before arriving at a positively monster solo, which really opened up on the chorus. Nice use of interesting staging on this one, including some cool stop-motion work. The Ohio State of Mind wrapped up by challenging the front of the stage full force for an epic finish. A part of what worked so well for this set was that each of the leads seemed perfectly fit to the song of choice. While it may seem obvious, featuring key talents, and showcasing them on songs that make the most of their personality and talents is so vital in engaging the audience, not to mention maxing out the Solo Interpretation row on the scoring sheet.

Last out of the gate, but certainly not least, we heard from The Beltones. This was the third time the group has made it to Finals in just five years. Two of the group’s defining characteristics, traditionally, have been their commitment to razor sharp intonation and a distinctive country-fried approach to their set. It was interesting the see the group evolve and go toward a more conventional mainstream sound this year, if anything leaning into their showmanship more. Fittingly, their outfits were accented with shiny gold accessories to communicate a sense of excitement and electricity before they ever sang a note. The group served up one of the more diverse sets of the night, and I appreciated the degree to which they altered their sound and performance style to match different legs of the set for a tremendous all around performance that furthers their legacy as stars of the ICCA South and one of the preeminent collegiate a cappella groups of this era.

The Beltones kicked things off with “24K Magic,” originally by Bruno Mars. Simply fantastic charisma on the solo for this one and fun theatrics all around. In the late going, the group wove in some fun robotic sounds and a really neat effect in which they hit the rewind button and performed in reverse. Choices like that run the risk of coming across as gimmicky, but when a group has the unique set of chops to really pull it off, it can also present, a unique, memorable spectacle, and that’s exactly what we got in this case. The group progressed seamlessly to Beyonce’s “Freedom.” Great visual with the group members assembling into two lines and then peeling off to provide room for the soloist to move down the middle. Great command of the stage from the lead, and great energy from the group on the whole, in particular when they the sound grew biggest. From there, another seamless transition brought along Kirk Whalum’s “Inside.” I appreciated the subtle choice to reorder this song slightly to help the flow from one song to another—it’s the kind of adjustment most of the audience won’t even recognize happening, and that gives the group a lot of power to negotiate sound and lyrical content to create a fluid experience. The Beltones closed with “Something Beautiful,” originally by Tori Kelly. In and of itself, this was a nicely diversified piece of music with a fun, more jazzy section. Another strong visual choice in the group forming a triangle, and I’d loved the big sound that the group went for on the finish. While it seems to be going out of style, I actually felt like the group could have afforded to go for a clap-along with the crowd on the finish to really engage the audience, max out the sound, and, more functionally, to build even more physical excitement from the theater at the end of the long show. That’s a pretty minor point, though, for a group that performed beautifully with a big finish to wrap up the competition.

While the judges deliberated, the top three finishers from the previous night’s ICHSA Finals entertained the crowd with highlights from their competition sets. This remains one of my favorite traditions of ICCA Finals. It’s a practical choice for entertainment during the deliberation period. This guest appearance exposes the audience—some of which, for reasons beyond me, still skips ICHSA Finals—a taste of what high school groups are up to, besides inviting these high school stars to a preview of what’s ahead of them in college. On top of all of that, appearing at ICCA Finals has become sort of an unofficial, immediate prize for top finishers from the ICHSA to have the right to perform on another big New York stage, in front of another big audience.

While the high school groups performed, I made my picks for the night. As tends to be the case, it was tough the call. I found The Towson Trills to be engaging and inspirational in the sense of thriving with such a new and small-sized group.  Aquapella was fun and brought the house down with “Purple Rain” (especially that solo!). The Water Boys offered up such a polished, professional performance. Furmata A Cappella delivered a cappella chic to an unparalleled level. The Ohio State of Mind did a phenomenal job of highlighting soloists against the backdrop of a killer bass. The Beltones mixed their signature keen musicianship with elevated entertainment value this year.

Amazin’ Blue offered up sensational continuity and storytelling over the course of their set, and in my book, they just missed out on placing at this show. I had The ScatterTones just edging them out for third place. Mind you, it’s nuts to say that a set of this caliber is only the third best at anything, because they were so technically on point and masterfully designed a set built to show off their considerable talents.

2017, however, was the year of the cohesive, bizarre, original set at ICCA Finals. That’s not to say that weirdness on its own wins—far from it—but 2017 was the year when the best of the best transcended the genre of a cappella music to create twelve-minute compositions that were simultaneously tailor fit to thrive in ICCA competition, and yet also completely outside the box relative to a traditional set. Voices in Your Head was in many ways the more experimental of the two, with less clear lines between songs, more circling around, and more (well-designed) chaos in both sound and visual performance. The Nor’easters tackled the stage with such a mixture of organic emotion and intensity. It was the kind of set that they almost could have sung wordlessly, and just emoted music for how raw the energy they were tapping into was. In the end, I felt either of these groups could have very justifiably taken home the Gooding Cup. For sentimentality’s sake, it would have been something to have seen Voices in Your Head win their first ICCA crown in franchise history, not to mention the first ICCA Championship for the fledgling Great Lakes region. On the flip side, there’s a degree to which it felt right for The Nor’easters to enter rarefied air as just the fourth group in ICCA history to win more than one championship (the others are the UC Berkeley Men’s Octect, The SoCal Vocals, and Pitch Slapped, for reference). In the end, I had The Nor’easters taking it by a hair, but wouldn’t have had any problem seeing it go either way.

In an all too rare occurrence, the judges’ placements lined up with my own—The ScatterTones took home third, Voices in Your Head finished second, and The Nor’easters won it all. They capped the night with a cover of Justin Beiber’s “Sorry.” I found it sort of delightfully ironic for a group this heavy to close out one of the biggest shows in their history with the uncharacteristic levity of a Beiber song.

So comes a close to another great ICCA season. It’s been a pretty crazy year in my own life. Between Finals weekends, I finished grad school, traveled across the country, and got married. Over the course of this time, I was saddened that this was the first season in eleven years when I only got to two Varsity Vocals events, but I’m glad that those ones were the ICHSA and ICCA Finals. I hope to cover more shows in future seasons, and always welcome guest writers to help us collect coverage in other regions. Rest assured, while our coverage of live events and the rest of the a cappella world may not be as consistent as it once was, we’re far from closing up shop, and I personally have every intention of continuing to cover major shows like this to the extent that I am able. In the meantime, I’d like to thank our readers, ranging from those who read every column, to those who only check in for reviews of big shows, to those who only read when they suspected we might write about them directly. You’re all the reason why we carry forward with this project, and we’re honored to be in service to the a cappella community.

On a final note, The A Cappella Blog has 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:

Overall Placement:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. Voices in Your Head
  3. The ScatterTones

 Outstanding Soloist:

  1. TIE: Aquapella for "Purple Rain" and The Nor'easters for "Writing's on the Wall"
  2. The Ohio State of Mind for "River"

Outstanding Arrangement:

  1. The Nor'easters for the full set
  2. Voices in Your Head for the full set
  3. Amazin' Blue

Outstanding Visual Presentation:

  1. Voices in Your Head
  2. The Ohio State of Mind
  3. The Beltones

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. The Ohio State of Mind
  3. Furmata A Cappella

The Official ICCA Results:

Overall Placement:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. Voices in Your Head
  3. The ScatterTones

Outstanding Soloist: The Nor'easters for "Writing's on the Wall"

Outstanding Arrangement: Voices in Your Head for "How Deep Is Your Love"

Outstanding Choreography: Aquapella for the full set

Outstanding Bass: The Ohio State of Mind for the full set

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2017-04-29T07:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[ICHSA Finals 2017]]>http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/ichsa-finals-2017 http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/ichsa-finals-2017

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

Judges:

  • Abbey Janes
  • Bill Hare
  • Ed Boyer
  • India Carney
  • Roopak Ahuja

Competing Groups:

  • 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:

Overall Placement:

  1. Vocal Rush
  2. Enharmonic Fusion
  3. Ars Nova

Outstanding Soloist:

  1. Enharmonic Fusion for “The Light That Never Fails”
  2. Vocal Rush for “Have Mercy”
  3. The Thursdays for “Leave Me Lonely”

Outstanding Arrangement:

  1. Vocal Rush for the full set
  2. Synergy for the full set
  3. Vocal Point for the full set

Outstanding Visual Presentation:

  1. Enharmonic Fusion for the full set
  2. Stay Tuned for the full set
  3. Synergy for the full set

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:

  1. Vocal Point for the full set
  2. Synergy for the full set
  3. Vocal Rush for the full set

The Official ICHSA Results:

Overall Placement:

  1. Vocal Rush
  2. Enharmonic Fusion
  3. 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

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2017-04-26T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Unsteady]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/unsteady http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/unsteady

This week we present Georgia Tech Nothin’ But Treble performing X Ambassadors’ “Unsteady.”

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2017-04-25T04:00:00-04:00
<![CDATA[Sahaana Sridhar, representing All-American Awaaz]]>http://acappellablog.com/interviews/sahaana-sridhar-representing-all-american-awaaz http://acappellablog.com/interviews/sahaana-sridhar-representing-all-american-awaaz

While a number of a cappella fans will flock to New York for the ICHSA and ICCA Finals this weekend, Saturday night is also the time for All-American Awaaz, a national Desi a cappella competition, organized by The Association of South Asian A Cappella to feature the winners of five regional competitions and two wild card champions. You can learn more about the event here.

Key organizer Sahaana Sridhar was kind enough to participate in an interview with The A Cappella Blog.

The A Cappella Blog: For a cappella fans who might be less familiar with Desi a cappella, can you give us a sense of what it is? How is it similar to other styles of contemporary a cappella, and what makes it distinctive? What should those who attend All-American Awaaz expect? 

Sahaana Sridhar: "Someone Like You?" "Sun Raha Hai?" Or both? These are the kinds of choices that young artists in the ever-growing field of South Asian-inspired A cappella face. How do you faithfully portray the character of a culture's music, mix it with another, and yet retain their respective integrities? And above all this, how do you also establish and highlight your group's individual identity? In this genre, just like the varied musical styles from which they draw inspiration, groups have innovated a diverse array of ways to tell their own stories.The music engendered by this genre is not only a combination of its parent forms but has evolved into a culture of its own. A lot of the trends that are seen in contemporary a cappella today are also mirrored in the Desi a cappella arrangements. It's about how best a group can present their South Asian influences in a way that is appreciated by a diverse audience!

The A Cappella Blog: What went into organizing All-American Awaaz? How did the competition come together? What challenges did you face, and what have been some of the rewards of facilitating this event?

Sahaana Sridhar: It all started with a group of alumni from the circuit who wanted to continue being involved in the circuit! All of us are ardent a cappella fans and we drew our inspiration from the ICCA competitions. There are already 5 established South Asian competitions around the country. We presented them with the idea of joining forces and they were all on board. It has taken us 22 board members a year and a half to put this event together and we are very excited to see the amount of support this effort has garnered. In terms of challenges, the main one has been getting enough traction with sponsors since this is our first year. After a few big names like Sennheiser and B4U (a Bollywood music TV channel) got on board, this really came through. Also, New York is obviously an amazing city but trying to plan an event on this scale with a tight budget has made us quite...creative. Overall, this experience has been really rewarding, particularly in those moments where we do feel like we have brought together the Desi a cappella circuit by people getting excited about our event or seeing groups push themselves harder all season to make it to our competition. We are very excited for the growth of our organization and competition as well as the circuit at large! 

The A Cappella Blog: It seems Desi a cappella has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years. What do you think lies ahead for the sub-genre in terms of future events or trends you are seeing in groups?

Sahaana Sridhar: It's really heartening to see the amount of growth this genre has had in the last decade, especially exponentially over the past couple years. Similar to the way the contemporary a cappella has evolved, we've seen similar changes take place within our genre, from song selection, experienced vocal percussionists, heighten intricacies in backgrounds and just overall vocal ability. The future of this genre lies in global recognition, understanding and appreciation. We want to expand our effort not only internationally, but expand the opportunities for learning from other teams, musicians and industry specialists outside of the typical school year format. You'll see workshops, events, seminars, meet-ups and as well as competition support popping up over the next couple years as we continue to expand. 

The A Cappella Blog: How did your experience with Dhamakapella inform your work in launching The Association of South Asian A Cappella and All-American Awaaz?

Sahaana Sridhar: Over my 4 years in Dhamakapella, I had the opportunity to travel and compete at many different competitions - both those for only South Asian groups and otherwise. It was always our goal to be able to perform on a national stage such as the ICCAs, but due to the marked difference between the SA a cappella genre and the trends in contemporary a cappella, we always felt that we would have to significantly modify our arrangements to compete at that level. My goal in creating the Association of South Asian A Cappella was to give the Desi a cappella teams a space where they can share, observe, and participate in the multitude of ways people are experimenting with South Asian music. By creating a national stage for these groups to aspire to, my hope is that they work towards propelling the genre forward. 

The A Cappella Blog:Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers of The A Cappella Blog?

Sahaana Sridhar: Thanks so much for checking out our story and we really hope some of you will be able to make it to the event! We are so thrilled to bring together the best talents in collegiate Desi a cappella and facilitate the pushing of boundaries for the genre as a whole. We have been blown away by how teams choose to interpret both Western music and traditional Indian classical pieces in their arrangements. Harmonies and flashes of Indian scale-based ragas intertwine to show us that, at the end of the day, music is music and it has such power to traverse cultural boundaries and resonate with something universal within us all. 

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2017-04-21T04:00:00-04:00