<![CDATA[The A Cappella Blog]]> http://acappellablog.com/ The A Cappella Blog en Copyright 2016 2016-10-23T07:53:39-04:00 <![CDATA[When Over the Top Costuming Works]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/when-over-the-top-costuming-works http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/when-over-the-top-costuming-works

Reason #117: When Over the Top Costuming Works

There are times when I watch an a cappella performance and question what the group was thinking in regard to attire. There’s costuming that’s painfully gimmicky. Colors that clash. Blazers so loud that they distract from everything else happening on stage and make it impossible to take the group seriously.

And then there are those groups that make over the top wardrobe choices work for them.

Take The Amherst Zumbyes.

The group has made a name for itself through high energy, confidence, and comedy. And their (not so) secret weapon?

The banana.

Traditionally, one man in the group dons a banana costume. Ask the group about it, and the answer comes back: “What banana?”

It’s a costume choice that’s profoundly memorable. Unique. Fun. And it gets people talking. In short, it does everything that I can only assume the group wants for it to, without the group ever having to say a word about it.

I love it!

<![CDATA[Don't/No Diggity]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dont-no-diggity http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dont-no-diggity

This week, we present University of Bath Aquappella performing a mashup of Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t” and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”

<![CDATA[Aca-Wedding Proposals]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/aca-wedding-proposals http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/aca-wedding-proposals

Reason #116: Aca-Wedding Proposals

We live in a public age. We live a goodly portion of our lives on social networks. We update our relationship statuses on Facebook when we fall in love. We post photos with our loved ones for every relationship anniversary and milestone.

And then there are proposals.

As it’s grown easier to capture video—from hand-held cameras to smart phones, more and more often, proposals have become objects of public consumption. This is a forum in which a cappella has helped blaze a trail for the world, with a cappella groups providing the back drop for some of the sweetest, most romantic, most surprising, and—now and again—most perfect proposals the world has ever seen.

I love it!

<![CDATA[Dog Days Are Over]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dog-days-are-over http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dog-days-are-over

This week, we present UT Austin One Note Stand performing Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.”

<![CDATA[The Sound of a Pitch Pipe]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/the-sound-of-a-pitch-pipe http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/the-sound-of-a-pitch-pipe

Reason #115: The Sound of a Pitch Pipe

For virtually every form of entertainment, there’s a cue that signals the beginning. It may the rev of an engine before a car race, the ring of a bell before a boxing match, the cry of “action!” before a scene is filmed.

While it’s functional—a tuning necessity for most groups—the blow of a pitch pipe is a symbolic kick off to a serious a cappella performances. In addition to giving the group a note, that sound is a trigger—a familiar signal, almost Pavlovian for how it builds anticipation in an audience just as it settles fans into an absolute silence to hear what the performers will sing next.

I love it!

<![CDATA[I Will Wait]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/i-will-wait http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/i-will-wait

This week, we present The Vassar Devils performing their original song, “I Will Wait.”

<![CDATA[Hearing a Song Evolve]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/hearing-a-song-evolve http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/hearing-a-song-evolve

Reason #114: Hearing a Song Evolve

There are those a cappella groups that depend more on song selection than musical prowess to impress a crowd. The groups that haphazardly cover the latest top 40 hit or that rely on comedic choreography to get the audience laughing so they won’t notice a vapid arrangement.

And then there are groups own the music. The groups that don’t just cover songs but improve upon them, adding depth and reinterpretation. Turning the volume up when the original song is softest, going small when the original pops. Adding layers of harmony and a complexity of sound that delivers a fresh listening experience for the audience.

The truest artists in a cappella challenge expectations and offer their audiences the sensation the music is evolving as they are listening to it. That, my friends, is a pretty transcendent experience. 

I love it!

<![CDATA[Come and Go With Me]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/come-and-go-with-me http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/come-and-go-with-me

This week, we present The Northern Illinois University Huskie Hunks performing The Dell Vikings’ “Come and Go With Me.”

<![CDATA[Seeing a Second Group Sing the Same Song—And Do It Better]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/seeing-a-second-group-sing-the-same-song-and-do-it-better http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/seeing-a-second-group-sing-the-same-song-and-do-it-better

Reason #113: Seeing a Second Group Sing the Same Song—And Do It Better

Most of us who have attended an a cappella competition have seen it happen. A group sings a song. Sings it ably. Makes an impression.

Some time passes.

Another group starts its set, and with those opening chords, some eyes roll, heads turn, smiles cross lips. There may be laughter. There may be groans. The occasional collective “ooh” that materializes when a crowd recognizes a throwdown.

In short, the group is singing the same song as a group that came before it.

Whether it’s “Hide and Seek,” “Viva La Vida,” “Too Close,” or “Some Nights,” certain years see certain songs emerge as the darlings of the a cappella world. It can be an awkward development or an annoyance.

But sometimes, the second group does something to make the audience take notice. Cleaner vocals. A creative arrangement. Staging that makes everyone in the auditorium take notice.

A second, better performance of the same song highlights some of what’s most appealing about a cappella. In an art form dominated by cover songs, great groups make the music their own, improve upon it and give us all something special to remember.

I love it! 

<![CDATA[Beyonce medley]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/beyonce-medley http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/beyonce-medley

This week, we present The NYU Mixtapes’ Beyonce medley.

<![CDATA[Ireland’s A Cappella Competition]]>http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/irelands-a-cappella-competition http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/irelands-a-cappella-competition

This post was written by Leanne Fitzgerald, Mezzo Soprano with Ardú Vocal Ensemble, hosts of Ireland’s A Cappella Competition 2016.

A cappella music is one of the fastest growing forms of music performance in the world and this August the first A Cappella Competition was held in Dublin, Ireland.

Ireland’s A Cappella Competition is the brainchild of Ardú Vocal Ensemble, a mixed a cappella group of six singers from across Ireland and the UK. Since 2014, Ardú have pioneered the genre of a cappella music in Ireland with performances across the island and even represented Ireland abroad at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, London International A Cappella Choir Competition and the London A Cappella Festival 2016.

On Wednesday, 24 August, seven Irish ensembles competed for the winning title of Ireland’s A Cappella Competition which included a customized trophy along with a free recording session at Windmill Lane Recording Studios, recorded and produced by Dublin Studio Hub.

Opening the competition with an uplifting performance were Beating Time, a ladies barbershop chorus based in County Wicklow who specialize in close harmony four­-part a cappella singing.

Following them were The Ramparts Chamber Choir, a new, young men’s barbershop group, directed by Ruaidhrí Ó Dálaigh, who won the hearts of the audience (and the audience prize) with their rendition of John Michael Montgomery’s “Sold.”

The youngest contestants on the night by a long ­shot were The Decibelles. This promising four­piece female ensemble from Dublin gave a very charming and emotive performance of the Mumford and Sons tune “Timshel.”

The Kelly Family Vocal Ensemble is made up of Frank, Rebecca, Orlaith, Emily and John Kelly, to create a unique blend of voices because of their family relationship which has been honed since the young people were children. They entertained the audience on the night with one of the best known songs in the a cappella repertoire, “The Java Jive.”

Female a cappella group Síonra sang their own very fluid arrangement of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and stunned the judges with a particularly beautiful performance of “August” by Michael McGlynn.

The Apple Blossoms are a bright and bubbly girl trio and finished the competition to rapturous applause. They performed an impressive medley, arranged by the ensemble themselves to include snippets from Fleur East’s “Sax” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” to ultimately win the competition, in addition to earning joint Best Performance honors with The Ramparts Chamber Choir.

Other highlights from the night were a guest performance by adjudicators The Key Notes and an impromptu a cappella workshop by Ardú which culminated in a mass performance of Lorde’s “Royals” with all competing ensembles and the entire audience!

Ireland has a multitude of talented singers along with brilliant composers and arrangers. The audience for modern a cappella is primed, ready and waiting and events like Ireland’s A Cappella Competition could be the beginnings of a national platform for modern a cappella singing in the future.

<![CDATA[The One Guy Who Wants It Badder Than Anyone Else]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/the-one-guy-who-wants-it-badder-than-anyone-else http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/the-one-guy-who-wants-it-badder-than-anyone-else

Reason #112: The One Guy Who Wants It Badder Than Anyone Else

People in a cappella groups are, by their very nature, performers. Singers to be sure. Sometimes dancers. Sometimes thespians.

And then there are those people who take things one step further. When the whole group jumps in the air en route to the dub step break down, he’s the guy who jumps a little higher than everyone else. When the choreo gets most frenzied she’s the one who walks the line between show choir ready and so frenzied you think she might explode. When the group sings its most heart-wrenching ballad, he’s the guy you think could actually die of heartache before your very eyes.

Talent, precision, and planning are vital parts of an a cappella group’s success. But there’s also something to be said for sheer desire. Today, we salute the folks who want it--the competition victory, the special award, or simply to put on a really good show—a little more than the rest of us.

I love it!

<![CDATA[Brother]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/brother http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/brother

This week, we present Portland State University’s The Green Note performing Matt Corby’s “Brother.”

<![CDATA[Hearing a Song You Thought No One Else Knew]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/hearing-a-song-you-thought-no-one-else-knew http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/hearing-a-song-you-thought-no-one-else-knew

Reason #111: Hearing a Song You Thought No One Else Knew

We all have our songs. Deep cuts from a favorite artist that only the truest fans have heard. One off tracks by obscure bands you only know because you heard them one night on the college radio station or took the time to look it up after you heard play over a montage on your favorite TV show. Such songs are special, in no small part, because you feel a sense of ownership for them, a sense of pride because you recognize that songs greatness while others don’t recognize it all.

Yes, having your song is great. But it’s even cooler when you discover other people who share your passion.

Case in point, I recall listening to the ICHSA Finals a few years back and hearing Pioneer High School Soulfege sing its take on “Iowa” by Dar Williams. A relatively niche song by a relatively niche artist. One my favorite songs from college. I rarely find another soul who knows it, but there was a group of high school kids singing it live in New York. I heard them sing and I realized I wasn’t alone.

One of the greatest powers of a cappella is for artists to take music they love and make it their own. When you hear someone else share the obscure corner of your palate, it’s a beautiful thing.

I love it!

<![CDATA[Stop This Train]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/stop-this-train http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/stop-this-train

This week, we present Emerson College Acappellics Anonymous performing John Mayer’s “Stop This Train.”

<![CDATA[Earthquake]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/earthquake http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/earthquake

Per tradition, in this final post of our 2015-2016 season, we are pleased to present the reigning ICCA Champions, The Techtonics performing Labrinth's "Earthquake." 

And, as a bonus, we also present to you The Techtonics' full championship winning ICCA set.

Thanks for joining us this season! The ACB will return to regular posting in the fall.

<![CDATA[Let My Love Open The Door]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/let-my-love-open-the-door http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/let-my-love-open-the-door

This week, we present University of Utah Infrared performing Peter Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door.”

<![CDATA[On The Rocks That Girl/Pusher Love Girl]]>http://acappellablog.com/cd-reviews/on-the-rocks-that-girl-pusher-love-girl http://acappellablog.com/cd-reviews/on-the-rocks-that-girl-pusher-love-girl

The a cappella world has its share of groups that have enjoyed long-term success—thriving in the recording studio and in competition, crossing over to garner mainstream attention beyond the confines of the a cappella world.

When we think of groups like that—groups with a wide range of successes, groups that sound great, and groups that have been hitting landmark after landmark over a period of years, there are few that hold a candle to On the Rocks.

The group was founded at the University of Oregon in 1999 by Leonardo de Silva and Peter Hollens (yes, that Peter Hollens who has gone on to mad success as a solo YouTube sensation). In 2002 and 2003, the group would place at ICCA Finals, and 2004, 2006, and 2009 would see them land tracks on the Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation.

In 2010, the game would change. First, On The Rocks uploaded a video of them “Rick-rolling” a New York City Subway that grew wildly popular. From there, they released a music video to their new recording of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Well arranged, well sung, well produced, and wildly entertaining from a visual perspective, the video was a smash success, instrumental in the a cappella boom that continues to this day, not to mention wildly influential in so many other all-male groups covering Lady Gaga  and other female pop artists in the years to follow. The video also paved the way for On The Rocks to find their way onto The Sing-Off, reaching a truly national audience via multiple appearances on NBC.

But what has the group been up to since?

Though On The Rocks hasn’t been operating at quite as high a profile, they’ve exploded back onto the scene today with the release of a brand new single, a mashup of Justin Timberlake’s “That Girl” and “Pusher Love Girl.”

The tracks opens with a pristine take on “That Girl”—largely stripped down, driven by a powerful rhythm section led by vocal percussionist Donovan Cassell, featuring a super clean lead and backing vocals soaring over it. Two minutes in, the group seamlessly crosses over to “Pusher Love Girl,” pushing the tempo ever-so-slightly, employing a fuller sound and letting a falsetto lead really shine over the course of the song, leading up to a beautiful fallout moment for the leads to operate unaccompanied on the final lyrics. The solo work by Nick Grant and Ethan Alvarez across the track really shines.

It would be easy for a track like this too run too long, or to feel like it represented two disparate pieces wedged together, but between a slick arrangement, execution by the group, and production (recorded by Russell Kamp and Peter Hollens, mixed by Ed Boyer, and mastered by Bill Hare), this mashup is a huge success in terms of feeling cohesive, and consistently communicating the overarching sense of easy, sexy swagger, intrinsic to Timberlake’s original songs.

The single is available now on iTunes, Loudr, and directly from the On The Rocks website.

<![CDATA[Minority Affinity Groups]]>http://acappellablog.com/campus-connections/minority-affinity-groups http://acappellablog.com/campus-connections/minority-affinity-groups

College campuses offer a full slate of resources that might further an a cappella group’s artistic accomplishments and exposure. Who should your group reach out to? How? What do you have to gain? Campus Connections is here to answer those questions.

This column is targeted specifically toward collegiate a cappella groups, though some of the principles and ideas we discuss may transcend that sphere and be useful to high school and non-scholastic groups as well.

In this edition of Campus Connections, our focus is on: minority affinity groups.

During my junior year of college, I roomed with buddy Will. In a strange twist of fortune, despite being an ostensibly white man with western European roots, he was enamored with Asian culture—an active member of the Chinese student union and a practitioner of martial arts who decorated his side of the room with a Bruce Lee poster and assorted East Asian paraphernalia. Meanwhile, despite my half-Chinese heritage and blatantly Chinese last name, the most overtly Asian thing that I did was to eat my Chinese takeout with chopsticks rather than a plastic fork. Without fail, when I had a visitor to the room who didn’t know Will, he or she would assume that his side of the room was mine and vice-versa.

My roommate was one in a small percentage of students who saw across cultural and racial lines to embrace cultures that he just happened to be interested in, regardless of his own background. I say all of this to get at the point that, regardless of your a cappella group’s racial or ethnic composition, there can be a lot to be gained from reaching out to minority affinity groups on campus.

Minority affinity groups are typically in place to provide support and opportunities to socialize and network for students who might otherwise feel underrepresented or marginalized on campus. Students who do not belong to the minorities represented may be predisposed to steer clear of groups like this because they don’t feel that they will fit into them, or are concerned about the potential to offend someone else.

Just the same, students who engage with these groups—provided they do so with respect, humility, and a willingness to listen—are often surprised at how much perspective they can gain from the experience and the understanding that they walk away with, not just regarding the experience of fellow students who belong to that minority, but also themselves.

I say all of this not so much as a public service for people to see what they can learn from minor affinity groups and their events, but also to set up the value for a cappella groups networking with minority affinity groups. It’s easy to say that your a cappella group is open-minded and inclusive; it’s much more challenging and enriching to actively seek out opportunities to perform at events that minority affinity groups might put on, as well as to actively raise awareness of your group and recruit for future members from these organizations. Not every organization will end up being a perfect match for your group, but you may be pleasantly surprised with how wide an untapped audience and potential new member base exists out of people who may not have felt comfortable coming to you, because they don’t already see their brand of diversity represented within your ranks.

Think broadly about whom you might connect with on campus, and don’t be afraid to build a relationship with minority affinity groups.

<![CDATA[Dreamember]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dreamember http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/dreamember

This week, we present Missouri State University Hibernotes performing Twin Atlantic's “Dreamember.”

<![CDATA[Sweating]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/sweating http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/sweating

Reason #110: Sweating

Years back, I had ongoing, tongue-in-cheek debate with a friend about whether a cappella could be considered a sport. Certainly, the form has plenty of common ground with the sports world, what with breath control, the increasingly physical world of choreography, teamwork, and the emphasis many groups place on competition.

And then there’s sweat.

Sweating may not seem like an integral part of a cappella and, indeed, when groups sings just one or two non-choreographed songs, in a cool environment, perspiration may never come into play. But when the stakes are high, the movement is frenzied, and the sheer effort is there, I wholeheartedly believe that a cappella performers should sweat. It’s a reflection of hard work. It’s a demonstration of how much a group cares. And while it may not appeal to conventional visual or olfactory aesthetics, it’s a natural byproduct of so many great performances.

Groups that let loose and give their all to a performance sweat.

I love it !

<![CDATA[The Release]]>http://acappellablog.com/recording-recommendations/the-release http://acappellablog.com/recording-recommendations/the-release

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 the release.

Recordings take time—for most groups a matter of months, if not years. Groups should be proud of their final products and do everything they reasonably can to publicize their work, whether it’s playing to the local community or trying to build an audience on a more national (or even international) stage. Thus, when a group thinks about putting out an album, it should put some real thought into what it will do upon release to steer as many ears as possible to their recording.

Like so many facets of marketing nowadays, effective advertising starts with social media. Groups should be prepared to unleash a flurry of activity via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and not be afraid to tag everyone from the original artists who first performed the songs the group has recorded; people who helped make the album—donors, producers, friends, family; and media outlets. Taking a step back, groups may also consider harnessing the social media power of crowd sourcing funding for their recording. Sites like Kickstarter are great for developing funds for a recording project, but also have the benefit of giving people a stake in your album well before it’s released, and a platform to keep an audience updated on your progress.

On top of bolstering awareness, groups should think about communicating why people should care. For this pursuit, offering up a sample of your work can do the trick, and recording a music video of one or more of your songs to release on YouTube leading up to the release is a great way of both getting attention and showcasing what your group is capable of.

To take your marketing from the Internet to the street, your group may also consider the merits of a release concert—drawing people together to celebrate what your group has accomplished, show off your skills live, and, of course, sell albums.  While digital distribution may have arrived as the dominant means of buying and selling music, never underestimate the immediacy of getting an audience to hand over cash for the instant gratification of a hard copy CD—and particularly the fact that hard copy media may still appeal to an older demographic of family and faculty who may attend a show.

Once your CD is out, it’s important to follow up. You can both earn recognition and get the word out to even more potential listeners by soliciting reviews from RARB or The A Cappella Blog; you can nominate your work to all manner of awards and compilations. On top of all of that, don’t forget to continue selling your work into the future. Did you land a track on Voices Only? Don’t just Tweet about that news—remind your followers how they can buy the full album. Is Black Friday coming up? If you have direct control over your sales, consider offering a sale at a time when people are already in a consumer mindset.

When it comes to recording, groups should focus on putting out the best product possible. In the aftermath, groups are best-served to get their work into the earbuds of as many listeners as possible. It all starts with the release.

<![CDATA[Sunday Morning/I'm Not The Only One/Stay With Me]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/sunday-morning-im-not-the-only-one-stay-with-me http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/sunday-morning-im-not-the-only-one-stay-with-me

This week, we present Durham University Northern Lights performing a mashup of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” and Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” and “Stay With Me.”

<![CDATA[ICCA Finals 2016]]>http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/icca-finals-2016 http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/icca-finals-2016

On Saturday, April 30, The Beacon Theatre in New York City played host to the 2016 ICCA Finals. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.

The Competitors:
The ICCA United Kingdom Champions, The Imperial College London Techtonics
The ICCA Midwest Champions, Washington University of St. Louis Mosaic Whispers
The ICCA Wild Card Champions, Florida State University All-Night Yahtzee
The ICCA Northwest Champions, University of Oregon Divisi
The ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions, University of Maryland Faux Paz
The ICCA Southwest Champions, Chapman University SoundCheck
The ICCA South Champions, University of Central Florida Voicebox
The ICCA Northeast Champions, The Boston University BosTones
The ICCA Great Lakes Champions, The Oakland University Gold Vibrations
The ICCA Central Champions, The Carnegie Mellon University Originals

Guest Groups: 
Centerville High School Forte
Port Washington High School Limited Edition
Cypress Lake High School The A Cappella Group

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Bill Hare
Ed Boyer
Edward Chung
India Carney
Julia Hoffman

Varsity Vocals Executive Producer Amanda Newman opened the night and introduced emcees Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching whose infectious energy, sense of humor, and musical chops went a long way toward adding connective tissue to the evening’s performances and keeping a lengthy night of a cappella fun and engaging.

The Techtonics opened the show. They started with just four members at the front of the stage, before the rest of the guys marched on from opposite sides behind them for a power choral lead into Queen’s “Bicycle Race.” You can’t knock the mechanics here—impeccable—and I certainly admired the creative ambition as the guys not only performed this song straight through but willfully took detours based on the lyrics, perhaps most prominently breaking to riff on the Star Wars theme upon the Star Wars lyric. The performance was chock full of very crisp and elaborate choreography and it all culminated in the guys assuming carefully planned roles, hunched, leaning and stretching to form the shape of a bicycle for the soloist to sit astride and peddle on on the finish. I can certainly understand the drive to assemble a song like this—throwing everything you’ve got at the crowd from the word go, and the guys certainly pulled it off nicely, but for my tastes the tangents felt as though they were going a bit far, and arrived more of a “kitchen sink,” do anything you can think of performance than a cohesive one, and I thought they may have been better served to have gone a bit simpler, despite a wildly entertaining opening number.

The Techtonics continued with Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down.” Really nice stripped down, elegant sound behind a masterful solo on this one, and I was pretty awed when they doubled upon the solo—two guys who gelled immediately and emoted fantastically on their parts. This was such a lovely contrast to the opener, and I’ll concede that the superficially simple aspects of it may have come across all the more subtle and reserved in juxtaposition to “Bicycle Race.” Beautiful transition as the group fell out and the leads sang unaccompanied to cap one of the most emotionally gripping and all-around impressive performances of the night.

To close out the set, The Techtonics delivered a high octane, and largely straight forward take on “I Saw Her Standing There” by The Beatles. There is a particular charm to hearing British men cover The Beatles, and the showmanship was off the charts for this number. Just when I feared that the performance might be a little too true to its source material to justify itself at a competition on this level in 2016, the guys worked their way into a slowed down groove on the song—capitalizing on the sexual energy inherent in it and reinterpreting it in a more modern style that was really excellent to finish up the set quite nicely, and immediately establish a high bar for the night’s competition.

Next up, we heard from Mosaic Whispers. The co-ed crew led off with Santana’s Smooth,” featuring a vocal percussion lead in. The group worked in some compelling variation on the tempo throughout the song. They made an interesting little tangent riffing off of the “on the radio” lyric, inserting the sound of static en route to a weather report, forecasting that it would be hot. This was a nice touch for such a sensual first song, which led into a sample of Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita.” While the choreography was a little excessive on this one for my tastes, the overall mood that the group created was on point, projecting an aura of confidence and a slick identity to make their debut on the Finals stage.

The group continued with “Elastic Heart” by Sia. This was a technically clean performance and I appreciated some of the creative choices here, leaving the excellent soloist room to operate unaccompanied at key moments before the group sound worked its way back in, and nailing the heart-beat percussion the song calls here. My main knock here has less to do with anything the group did wrong on stage than song selection—this is a song that has become very played in competitive a cappella and I wasn’t sure the group did quite enough to differentiate its presentation here to justify the played song choice.

Mosaic Whispers continued with Sohn’s “Tremors.” The staccato backing sound here was really on point, though I’d argue that the vocals were a little too loud on this one, verging on shout-y. To be fair, at Finals, I’d much rather a group go for the jugular than play it conservatively, so I appreciated the energy and confidence of this performance, but I probably would have advocated for them to have scaled back a bit on this one.

The set concluded with Marc Ronsons’s “Uptown Funk.” While some of my criticism about song choice certainly bleeds over to this, probably the most covered song in all of collegiate a cappella these past two years. That said, there’s a reason this song has grown so popular, and part of it is it being such an infectious, showy number, and the group did take full advantage of those factors with a star female soloist and very fun take on the choreography. The group worked in a fun variation on the lyrics, turning “Jackson, Mississippi” to “St. Louis, Missouri”—a nice way of representing their identity, in particular on a national stage. The song bled into Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” for a fun ending that nicely created a party atmosphere to close the group’s performance.

All-Night Yahtzee was up next. I was excited to hear what this group would bring to the stage after several years out of the Finals picture, and after going under the Sing It On microscope for the 2014-2015 school year, and particularly establishing their philosophy on that show of wanting to bring high energy, in-your-face music the whole set long—a novel approach that I was interested to hear  play out on stage, and to see how the concept might have evolved since last year. They opened with Shawn Mendes’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Terrific energy, particularly from the soloists, and a killer electric sound in the backing vocals here with choreo to match. As a statement opener to immediately draw attention to this group, I don’t expect that ANY could have done much better than this.

The set carried on with “Say (All I Need)” by OneRepublic. The sound was clean again, and I found myself particularly wowed by the <i>haunting</i> echo and electric guitar solo effects that the group worked in, really bringing this ballad to life and making it their own. The group transitioned into JoJo’s “Say Love.” It was the intensity that really sold this one, elevating it from forgettable ballad to a truly intense performance that kept up the momentum leading into ANY’s closer.

Last up, “Levels” by Nick Jonas. Nice showmanship all around here, and the vocal percussion in particular was <i>on fire</i> for this song. This performance gave way to “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. While I could see this coming across as a non-sequitur in terms of song style and era, I actually really appreciate the extreme that ANY pushed its set to at this moment. “Bootylicious”—particularly when performed in the year 2016—is wildly over the top. Sexualized. Full of bravado. In short, it’s the musical equivalent of ANY’s identity as a group, in the best possible way, and a totally fitting topper to this explosive set.

Divisi was next on stage. The group that Pitch Perfect’s Barden Bellas were essentially patterned off of. The franchise that, by many accounts, got robbed of a championship in 2005, and was making just its second appearance on the Finals stage since that time. True to form, the group was the only all-female ensemble to compete at Finals this year. They opened up with Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” I love their interpretation of this song, taking a loud, fast song and reimagining it as a slowed down, sensual jam with jazzy overtones. While the tempo picked up in the late stages, it remained a classy, slick performance that established a unique identity of this year’s incarnation of this group.

The group followed up with “Manhattan” by Sara Bareilles. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this group perform at every stage of this tournament from quarterfinals to semifinals to ICCA Finals, and watching the group arrange bodies in the shape of the Manhattan skyline and key in on this song very much felt like an ascension—the moment this song was destined for as the group reached its pinnacle. Once again, the emotion was rich and the mechanics were sterling. My lone knock on this performance was that the tripling up to compound the solo—which, if memory serves was new to this round of competition—while well executed, pared away some of the sense of emotional intimacy of this song that is, itself, about being alone. It’s a relatively minor quibble, but was the piece of this particular performance that didn’t quite measure up to my previous encounters with this set.

Divisi wrapped up with Jetta’s “Start A Riot.” This is the song, more than any other in Divisi’s set, that I had the feeling I’d seen grow and develop in a positive direction across each layer of the tournament. The first time, the closer felt a little small on a set that had been pretty subdued up to that point, the second time it rightly came across as their biggest number, and in New York I felt it arrived as precisely the barnburner it needed to be tie up this set on a conclusive note and demonstrate the full range of what this year’s Divisi is capable. It was powerful closer that, for me, vaulted this group toward the top of the night’s competitors up to that point.

Faux Paz was up next. This was a group that I had the opportunity to see develop over the course of my six-plus years in Maryland, progressing from the type of group that threatened to place at quarterfinals, to semifinal mainstays, to knocking on the door of ICCA Finals. 2016 marked their second consecutive trip all the way to Finals and I was eager to hear what they’d have in store this year. I’d previously described their vibe as “horror a cappella,” for their dark, almost sinister aural aesthetic, paired a stage presentation that leans toward powerful, sudden movement to match it (or the occasional zombie lurch). I felt this description very much held up for Faux Paz this year, starting with a largely creepy take on Panic! At the Disco’s “Emperor’s New Clothes.” This song thrived on charismatic solo work and a haunting undercurrent of the “finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers” lyrics in the background. This was an arresting, off beat start to the set.

Next up, “Where R U Now” by Skrillex and Diplo. It’s difficult to call the transition between these songs truly seamless, but I appreciated the gesture toward that with the VP carrying on between songs, over the applause to carry the group straight into this next song. The rhythm section really started to shine here, with an ominous hum killer drums. The overarching sound was so distinctive at this point in the set, really setting Faux Paz apart from any of the groups we had heard up to this point—not just great but representing a unique, dark aesthetic.

Faux Paz moved on to “Mad World” by Tears for Fears. They started this one with the group in a circle and humming, their soloist at the center. The circle dispersed, the group spanned the stage, and the perc keyed in again in an excellent moment of great visuals really complementing a great sonic moment. I had mixed feelings on this song choice. On one hand, it doesn’t feel like as a fresh of a selection as you’d expect from a group that had, up to this point, really sounded on the cutting edge, making bold choices like few other groups. On the other hand, the fundamentally creepy sound of this song fit the group’s identity perfectly. Very good solo, very good sound all around again.

The set came to a close Florence and the Machine’s “The Dog Days Are Over.” I liked the slowed down tempo the group espoused for the first verse of this song—a bridge between Faux Paz’s sound throughout the set (and particularly “Mad World”), and initially eschewing the optimism the original represents. To use a somewhat belabored metaphor, the opening verse of this one was like a car struggling to make headway through highway traffic. The chorus was when the soloist, passed cleared past the point of the accident that had slowed down the movement of cars and hit the open road, flooring the accelerator and go-go-going. I’m not so much describing the tempo as the point at which this soloist was able to open up and really show off her pipes—a perfect combination of power, volume, and control for quite arguably the very best solo in a night full of great ones. It felt as though the unbridled optimism of this song finally forced its way through, to lend the overarching Faux Paz set a sense of trajectory and forward motion, culminating in this epic feel-good performance. ICCA Finals always feature truly tremendous sets, but out of them, there tend to be one or two that transcend to a whole other level, and deliver the kind of iconic performances that year will be remembered for. For me, Faux Paz, and particularly their closer, represented that first transcendent moment of the 2016 Finals.

SoundCheck was up next, a co-ed group dressed in red and black. I may be showing my age, but from the opening instrumentation, I could have sworn the group was singing Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” but, no—once again—I’d placed myself in the wrong era, and instead we were getting Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries.” The group constructed some interesting formations, including lining the back of the stage before stepping forward into a triangle with the soloist at the point closest to the audience. The group wove in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” which, on one hand I liked for its tonal similarities as songs ostensibly about proving oneself in the face of rivals—a fitting enough theme for the competition setting—but that I wasn’t sure were connected enough to quite jive for me. Nice rap on the Kendrick Lamar part here to help drive the intensity a little further on a good, high energy opener.

Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” was up next. Well executed soft, high harmony on the start here. Good, clean solo work for this song, including a very nice falsetto. Structurally, this was a nice contrast to the group’s opener for showing a really different side of the group and casting a spotlight on their musical chops over pyrotechnics, though this song felt a little long to me, and I thought they probably could have afforded to clip a verse to keep things moving.

Last up, Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man.” Nice attitude and power from the final soloist here, which I’d argue was exactly what this set needed to make a statement and a lasting impression in wrapping up. While this was a perfectly sound number, and the right song selection, I never felt as though it quite hit that next gear to elevate it to barnburner status. Mind you, SoundCheck is clearly very, very good, but at this level of competition, I’d love to have heard them take a bigger chance here for a bit more distinctive closing number to round out their strong set.

Voicebox was the first group out after intermission. I’ve said it before, and alluded to it multiple times within this very review, but one of the key elements I look for in a Finals set is not just very good sound but choices distinctive to that group’s identity, strengths, and the story they’re choosing to tell us. As such, I really liked the choice to lead off with “Come Little Children” from Hocus Pocus--a song pick unlike anything else we’d hurt in the competition thus far, and that quickly established a sense of magic and drawing the listeners into the story of this set. The group transitioned into a bit of “Lightning” by Little Mix, featuring a nice moment of three soloists converging on the “electricity” lyric, at which point the group whirred to create a nice sense of kinetic energy. Cool chanting sound on the finish of this strange and appealing opener.

The group continued with Panic! At the Disco’s “This Is Gospel” Nice soft opening on this one, which turned out to foreshadow the performance to follow, including the brilliant choice to <i>not</i> explode on the “if you love me let me go” lyric, but rather render a soft, broken interpretation of it, which is arguably truer to the spirit of the lyrics, and nicely drew in the audience only to offer an artful surprise, in addition to building tension so that when the group <i>did</i> explode on that lyric late in the song, it felt like a payoff to the song leading up to that point. Nice execution on the slowed down heartbeat percussion at the end of the song.

To close out the set, Voicebox continued the Panic! At the Disco theme with “Victorious.” While it’s a little on the nose, I can appreciate this song selection as, if nothing else, a psych up song for a group en route to Finals. Very good solo work here, and in particular a terrific moment as the group turned to the crowd for a big sound before falling out to let the soloist operate unaccompanied. This was a strong creative finish for a solid set.

The BosTones were up next—a co-ed group out of the powerhouse Northeast region that I don’t believe I’d encountered in person before. They opened with Beyonce’s “Déjà Vu.” After a choral opening, the soloist took a confident stroll from the side of the stage to front and center and proceeded to deliver a very good power solo with a nicely dynamic visual presentation behind her that focused on movement across the stage over static choreo, which was great for keeping the audience visually engaged with the performance.

Next up, "I Miss You" by Adele. Excellent power solo work on this one and the group did a nice job of executing within a tight cluster in the early going before sprawling into an arc on the first chorus and later forming a circle around her, shrewdly having the people in front of her kneel down so as to not block the audience’s sightlines—the kind of detail that might seem obvious, but that plenty of groups overlook in plotting their staging. Nice fall out moment on the finish for the soloist to get the last word alone.

The group continued with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” by Lauryn Hill. Again, the group formed a circle, and everyone kneeled around the lead, before standing, only for her to walk out from the middle to the front of the stage. Nice echoing effect from the background as this one built into an emotionally intense, gripping performance.

The BosTones wrapped up on “If I Go” by Ella Eyre. The soloist started out unaccompanied here before the VP keyed in, and the group launched into motion as the background vocals entered. Really excellent vocal percussion work on this one to drive the beat and I appreciated the use of sways and reaching motions from the group, in a tight bundle at center stage, to consistently accent what was going on musically. Nice big sound on the finish as the group lined the front of the stage, then fell out for the soloist to get the final word and strong finisher to a strong set.

The Gold Vibrations were the penultimate group. Another co-ed group, wearing black and gold. They opened with “Expensive” by Tori Kelly. Nice, bold opening here with a female lead who really commanded the stage early on. I liked the ways in which the group tended to foreground the women in the group early on with the guys clearly in a backing role—totally appropriate for the song choice, all the way up to a well-executed rap interlude.

The group used its positioning at the end of “Expensive” to transition directly into Tove Lo’s “Talking Body.” I really liked the slowed down, stripped down, creative take on this song, particularly in contrast to the preceding number, and allowed for some really nice harmonic moments as a female lead joined the original male soloist, and particularly on the choruses.

Once again, The Gold Vibrations took advantage of the staging from their preceding song to set up the next number, this time “Cracked” by Pentatonix. In an art form still dominated by covers, there’s something particularly refreshing about hearing an ICCA Finalist group cover another a cappella group’s original, and perform it at this exceptional level. Killer bass sound and tremendous VP work here. Dark, slick transition into “Chains” by Nick Jonas. This one really hit on the next level as “Cracked” and “Chains” mashed together. There was a fierce repetition of the “fire” lyric with opposing groups of guys on either side of the stage and women from the group clustered in the middle. The solos opened wide toward the end to create an excellent dramatic presentation to close this set.

Finally, we arrived at the last competing group for the evening, The Originals. I’d encountered this group quite a few years back (a photo of them from around 2008 actually featured prominently in some early ACB promotional materials) and I was excited to see what the group was up to since that time. I remembered them as wearing white shirts and jeans—a group that reveled in being dorky. It was immediately apparent that this version of the group had evolved, clad in black blazers over black button ups and jeans and immediately establishing a slick, almost robotic sound on “Levels” by Nick Jonas. When you’re singing a Nick Jonas song, it’s easy to take it to a cheesy place, and I appreciated the choice to keep this one serious—first emphasizing the electronic qualities of the sound through both instrumentation and movements, then playing it straight as a cool, sexy song, with a strong lead on it.

They continued with a slowed down, haunting interlude of “Ring Around The Rosey” before returning to that electronic, almost industrial sound that had marked the intro to “Levels,” and then keying into a slowed down, creepy take on “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears for Fears, that  I read as wildly divergent from the feel-good 1980s jam, but rather a song that felt reimagined as a meditation on a dark, dystopian exploration of world domination by a malevolent force, featuring some wonderfully eerie body manipulation on the part of the soloist, leaning backward, standing at the center of sagging group members’ bodies, and finally winding up seated on a throne made of other group members’ bodies. Songs this aggressively reinvented are a huge gamble, and I felt that this one paid off in truly magnificent fashion for The Originals—possibly the single most memorable song of the evening.

The Originals closed with “Stone Cold” by Demi Lovato. If we’re going to follow a narrative arc of this set, I’d interpret the first song as occurring in the world we know—perhaps hedging toward a dystopia or apocalypse, but still ostensibly familiar; the second song showed the new regime in power; and after this vibe of humanity’s collapse, here we arrived at a profoundly personal, emotionally rich, soulful closing number, that represented the everyman still making do within this changed world. The performance spotlighted a truly spectacular and sensitive solo. While there were still hints of the more industrial sound and more robotic movement in the background, this all served to underscore the lead’s vulnerability on this touching, off-beat closer. Truly remarkable stuff, and an unforgettable performance.

During this time, I made my picks for the night, and boy, was it challenging! There was the irresistible heat of Mosaic Whispers, the infectious energy of SoundCheck, the attitude and thoughtful transitions of The Gold Vibrations, and the distinctive personality of Voicebox to take into consideration—each of these groups were engaging, entertaining, easily worthy of a spot at Finals, and easily worth considering for placement.

When pressed to make my pick for third place, I narrowed things down to a choice few. The BosTones’ polish and imagination made them an attractive pick for sure. The boundless energy and unyielding vision of creating a party on stage made All-Night Yahtzee serious contenders. The Techtonics were world-class entertainers, and their take on “Lay Me Down,” in particular, was simply stunning. Divisi awed me with their patience, raw emotion, and the sense of emotional build in their set that arrived at an explosive finish. In the end, I had Divisi just edging out The Techtonics for third.

When it came to picking a winner, I had two groups in close contention. Faux Paz demonstrated a truly unique sound this year, rooted in a sensational bass sound and vocal percussionist, besides featuring a truly star-making solo on “Dog Days Are Over,” made all the better with the slowed down, reimagined backing sound. And then there were The Originals, who wove an unparalleled narrative arc, threatened to set the theatre on fire with their brilliant interpretation of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” and then went <i>so</i> raw and intense on their unconventional closer, “Stone Cold.” These were the two sets that I felt like we’d all still be talking about for years to come, and so the two sets I felt had to be ranked number one and number two for the night. In the end, I went with The Originals—a group that’s mechanics were tight, that looked sensational, and that assembled not only the most memorable narrative of the 2016 ICCA tournament, but one of the top few, truly elite narratives I’ve ever experienced across twelve minutes of a cappella.

In the end, the judges had Faux Paz at number three, The Originals at number two, and The Techtonics winning the night. While I didn’t agree, I can certainly respect that the judges’ technical knowledge and ear each tend to supersede my own. I was heartened to see the final scores roll out after the show and observe that The Techtonics had only won by a margin of twelve points, not to mention that Faux Paz was only twenty points further behind. For fuller context there, The Techtonics had one their semifinal by forty-five points; The Originals won theirs by seventy, and Faux Paz bested the top runners up in the Mid-Atlantic by thirty-nine. Long story short, like last year, Finals was quite close.

And while I hadn’t crowned The Techtonics the winners myself, I won’t deny that they’re a worthy addition to the list of world champions, and it was a particularly satisfying end to this competition season to see how genuinely excited these guys were to win the UK’s first ICCA Championship, and to see the guys engage in a wonderfully raucous encore performance of Labrinth’s “Earthquake.”

That's a wrap for our coverage of the 2016 ICHSA and ICCA seasons. We'd like to offer our congratulations and thanks to all of the competing groups, and to all of the Varsity Vocals production staff, including Amanda Newman, David Rabizadeh, Andrea Poole, Sara Yood, and so many others. Kudos, too, to Liquid 5th for the expert sound work at this year's Finals shows.

Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night:

Overall Placement:
1. The Originals
2. Faux Paz
3. Divisi

Outstanding Soloist:
1. Faux Paz for “Dog Days Are Over” and The Originals for “Stone Cold”
3. Divisi for “Start A Riot” 

Outstanding Arrangement:
1. The Techtonics for “Lay Me Down”
2. Voicebox for “This Is Gospel”
3. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”

Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. The Techtonics
2. The Originals
3. Divisi

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Faux Paz for the full set
2. The Originals for the full set
3. All-Night Yahtzee for the full set

The Official ICCA Results

Overall Placement:
1. The Techtonics
2. The Originals
3. Faux Paz

Outstanding Soloist: Faux Paz for “Dog Days Are Over” and The Originals for “Stone Cold”

Outstanding Arrangement: Voicebox for the full set

Outstanding Choreography: The Originals for the full set

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The Originals for the full set

<![CDATA[Event Review: ICHSA Finals 2016]]>http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/event-review-ichsa-finals-2016 http://acappellablog.com/event-reviews/event-review-ichsa-finals-2016

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

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

Guest Group: VXN

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Bill Hare
Ed Boyer
India Carney
Julia Hoffman
Sean Patrick Riley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

​Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night

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

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

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

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

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

The Official ICHSA Results

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

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

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Forte for the full set

Outstanding Choreography: Forte for the full set

Outstanding Arrangement: Crimson for “Confident”

<![CDATA[Sugar, We're Going Down]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/sugar-were-going-down http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/sugar-were-going-down

This week, we present the SUNY Potsdam Pitches performing Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Going Down.”

<![CDATA[Fake Outs]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/fake-outs http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/fake-outs

Reason #109: Fake Outs

Plenty of folks who are uninitiated in contemporary a cappella dismiss the form because of preconceptions based in a cappella choirs and the barbershop tradition.

I have a particular soft spot for groups riff off this expectation, slowing the down the tempo or lending a classical flavor to the opening chords of a song before exploding into a rendition far more faithful to the original pop song. Such interpretations offer audiences an entertaining surprise, in addition to demonstrating a group’s range and depth of talent via their ability to achieve both the classical sound and a more contemporary flavor. The approach takes even the most run-of-the-mill song selection and makes it fundamentally more interesting for both the audience and the singers performing it.

I love it!

<![CDATA[Student Media]]>http://acappellablog.com/campus-connections/student-media http://acappellablog.com/campus-connections/student-media

In this edition of Campus Connections, our focus is on: student media.

Building relationships with the media is one of the most important connections for any a cappella group seeking an audience and seeking exposure. At the collegiate level, whether it's your school newspaper, TV station, radio station, magazine, or other outlet, campus media tends to have a foothold at colleges--an established name and audience. When you build a relationship with the media, you're setting yourself up for exposure and publicity within your local community on a scale that it's much more difficult to build on your own.

One of the biggest benefits of working with a newspaper is that it affords you space in writing—people are forgetful and having something concrete to look at and transcribe your group’s name, and performance or audition times and locations to make sure they’re getting the details right and can remember them. Moreover, when you get coverage of one of your events in print or on a website, you have a testimonial to refer to later to document your group’s accomplishments and refer other people to someone’s thoughts on your group, beyond the group’s own PR work.

Working with the campus TV station can also help spread the word about your work and document performances. Moreover, TV stations can afford you opportunities to have people with good equipment and a specific set of skills record and polish a performance, which can be great for archival purposes and even for getting performance out on YouTube if you don’t have anyone skilled in production within the ranks of your group.

And then there’s radio. When push comes to shove, a cappella is an aural form, and taking a step away from the visual elements that live performance and videos call attention to, performing on campus radio can be an excellent way of getting your music, in its most distilled form, out to an audience. Moreover, throughout my own undergraduate experience, two graduate degrees, and working on a college campus, I’ve consistently been surprised with just how often people actually do listen to the campus radio station—thus, you might be reaching a larger audience through this medium than you would originally expect.

You may also want to consider massaging relationships with campus media. While I’m not suggesting you should try to bribe anyone, offering free tickets to shows, free CDs, even free t-shirts can be an effective way of wooing attention, and getting campus media to notice and remember your group’s efforts.

There are those a cappella groups that prioritize their art over their exposure, and that is a perfectly natural place to fall, particularly at the scholastic level. That said, for groups that are seeking to build their audiences and recognition on a grass roots, local level, there’s little better way of getting started than to make the most of campus media.

<![CDATA[Story of my Life]]>http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/story-of-my-life http://acappellablog.com/tuesday-tubin/story-of-my-life

This week, we present The Washington University Sensasians performing One Direction’s “Story of My Life.”

<![CDATA[Large Men Who Can Work The Stage]]>http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/large-men-who-can-work-the-stage http://acappellablog.com/200-reasons-to-love-a-cappella/large-men-who-can-work-the-stage

Reason #108: Large Men Who Can Work the Stage

In contemporary American society, the culture tends to look down on overweight people. They’re seen as lazy or having weak will power, without regard for genetic, cultural, or socioeconomic factors that might be at play.

Despite the stigmas, there are those large people who defy subjugation and own every bit of who they are when they <i>perform</i> on stage. Few people can quite commandeer the attention or capture the imagination of an audience like a man who is truly large and charge when the lights shine brightest—utterly unselfconscious, there to entertain.

I love it!