What To Do and What to Avoid in the ICCAs

The 5s

In this edition, we’re gearing up for the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, which kicks off this Saturday in St. Louis. We present to you Five Points to Avoid in the ICCAs and Five Keys to Success in the ICCAs.

Five Points to Avoid in the ICCAs

1. Don’t imitate. YouTube is the devil. Now that virtually every winning ICCA set from the past year is online, it’s tempting to look up every past success story, mold your set after it, and expect the same results. The thing is, champions aren’t made based on any individual song selection, choreography choice, or arrangement—they are built upon the gestalt of these factors, and tailoring them to the precise talents of the group at hand. Groups that try to emulate what others have done before saddle themselves with the disadvantages of drawing immediate comparisons, and limiting themselves to, at best, a Xerox of the original. Regardless of the quality of your photocopier, that copy will never shine quite as bright.

2. Don’t get into a shoot out. Every year seems to have certain “it” songs or artists to cover. I don’t know that I escaped a single ICCA quarterfinal without hearing at least two Lady Gaga songs (more often than not performed by all-male groups). Do you know how many of these all-male acts made it to the ICCA Finals? That’s right, none. In the past, we’ve heard a similar redundancy of songs by the likes of Coldplay and Imogen Heap. My prediction for this year is a preponderance of Adele covers, particularly in the case of “Someone Like You.” These song selections not only risk boring the audience (including the judges) on account of over-exposure, but also, put any group that picks these songs in the vulnerable position of likely having to compete head-to-head with one or more other groups that night. Sure, a group can look good if it wins such a shoot out, but it’s an unnecessary gamble.

3. Don’t be afraid. Easier said than done, I know, but there are few experiences less comfortable as an audience member than watching someone on stage who is clearly uncomfortable being there. Regardless of your musical precision, if even a part of your groups looks scared to be on stage, it breaks the fictive dream of your set for the audience, and very plainly calls attention to the fact that you are performing. After that point, it’s all but impossible for the audience to become re-embroiled in what you’re doing—you lose the emotional core of your set, and with it, most of your empathy points.

4. Don’t forget your audience. The ICCAs are, by their nature, for college students, but that doesn’t mean you have to be sophomoric. The adjudicators are not college students—in many cases they’re professional musicians, teachers, or scholars. And so, while it might be very funny to pull on your groin or use profane language at your everyday college gig, remember that in competition, you’re playing to a different crowd and bring your family friendly A-game. This lesson is doubly important when it comes to inside jokes—you can’t count on the judges to get your every pop culture reference, or even more so school-specific humor. Appeal to the broadest audience possible.

5. Don’t travel separately. Most competing groups need to travel to their competitions. This includes navigating unfamiliar roads and campuses, seeing new places, getting lost once or twice, etc. This experience can be stressful and expensive. It can also mark an unparalleled opportunity to bond. Carpool. Travel together. Have sleepovers in hotel rooms. Use competition as a chance for the group to grow closer and make sure no one’s left behind—it will serve you all well when you set foot on the competition stage, and even if you don’t succeed in performance, it will set your group up for longer term success in the months ahead.

Five Keys to Success in the ICCAs

1. Set coherency. Too often, groups think of their 12 minute sets as the opportunity to sing two-to-four of their best songs. This mindset complete discounts the value of delivering a coherent narrative, or, in simpler terms telling story. A story has peaks and valleys. It has characters. It has transitions. Consider the set put on by 2011 ICCA finalists The Vanderbilt Melodores . Each song led to the next in terms of stage positioning, sound and theatrics, with the guys ripping loose on “How Low,” then seeing the African America soloist to follow thrown to the ground en route to beginning a soulful interpretation of “Strange Fruit.” Here you have two completely disparate songs, made coherent by the way in which the performers—nay, the actors on stage communicated the transition. Furthermore, the guys incorporated the unique falsetto stylings of one of their performers, drizzling hints of his vocals in the first two songs before he exploded on the solo to close out the set. In these ways, the guys did far more than packing as many songs as they could into 12 minutes; they carefully constructed a 12 minute musical message that made sense on every level.

2. Innovate. Innovation is easier to talk about than it is to accomplish, but truly great a cappella groups manage to do it with each passing year. Whether it was Rocktavo’s decision to reinterpret classical music to its purposes in 2007, all-male Fermata Nowhere’s willingness to embrace pop sounds as varied as Kanye West and Beyance in 2009, or The SoCal VoCals busting loose and dancing on the close of “Living for the City” in 2010, great groups think of songs no one else is doing, and reimagine them in ways no one else has conceived of—and it pays dividends.

3. Go all out. Very few groups make the ICCA Finals stage—much less win the whole thing—without a willingness to sing their hearts out. In many ways, this point is the complement to my earlier one about not being afraid—as much as it’s uncomfortable to watch someone who’s not uncomfortable, it’s hard not to get caught up in the power of a performer who truly believes in him or herself—much less a full group of musicians who believe. One of the worst feelings to leave a competition with is the sense that you could have done more. Leave it all on the stage.

4. Be true to yourself. Most groups perform best when they embrace their distinctive identities. Consider the set NC State Acappology performed at SoJam this past fall, including Katy Perry’s “ET,” “Ghosts N Stuff,” and “Paris (Ooh La La).” The set spanned genres, but developed continuity through a distinctive electronic sound. A more classical or softer sound probably wouldn’t have worked for this group, just as this sound wouldn’t work for most other ensembles. But the group was bold enough to pick its own flavor, and stood out for that fact. From your sound to your attire to the way in which you enter and exit the stage, think about how it reflects your group’s identity.

5. Learn. Even if you make all the right decisions and deliver the performance of a lifetime, there’s no guarantee you’ll win so much as an ICCA quarterfinal. Competition is stiff, judging is arbitrary, and you never know what will happen the night of a big show. One of the most important parts of competing is to keep the competition itself in perspective. Learn from your own performance. Learn from the other performers. Network. Ask the judges questions. The ICCAs are unparalleled for the opportunities they afford for college a cappella groups to learn more about their craft so don’t get so caught up in winning and losing that you lose sight of the chance to make your group better, period.