5 Takeaways from Varsity Vocals’ First Open Finals

The 5s

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.

Wait for the Moment

Tuesday Tubin'

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

Remembering How You Know a Song

200 Reasons To Love A Cappella

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!

River Ghost

Tuesday Tubin'

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

Seeing a Group Transform On Stage and Off

200 Reasons To Love A Cappella

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!

Blood Bank/The Wolves

Tuesday Tubin'

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

Next Page
5 Takeaways from Varsity Vocals’ First Open Finals
Wait for the Moment
Remembering How You Know a Song
River Ghost
Seeing a Group Transform On Stage and Off
Blood Bank/The Wolves
When a Group Squeezes an Extra Song Into Its Competition Set
You Know You Like It
The First Time You Hear a Song After You’ve Heard It A Cappella
EDM Mashup
Watching the Crowd Grow at a Public Show
The Influence of A Cappella
Writing's on the Wall
Top 10 A Cappella Records From The 20th Century
Hearing a Song That Just Came Out on the Radio
A Sold-Out Crowd
The Campus Bookstore
The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones on "Gemini Feed"
To Yearbook or Not To Yearbook
Simulating Sounds
Don't Wait
ICCA Finals 2017
ICHSA Finals 2017
Sahaana Sridhar, representing All-American Awaaz
RANGE Volume 1
The Towson Trills