Song Selection

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is on song selection.

Forge an identity.

The songs a group sings go a long way toward defining a group’s identity for the night of a competition. While there’s certainly an argument that some identities are a better fit for competition than others, I maintain that some identity is better than no identity. Groups benefit from selecting a style of performance and, inevitably some songs will fit more comfortably in their wheelhouse than others—or they’ll reinvent songs in clever ways to make them fit.

Consider the example of The NYU N’Harmonics in 2014. Their set, featured songs by Laura Mvula (an up and coming British soul singer), The Dirty Projectors (an NYC indie rock band, and a Yes song that was a forgotten single from the early 1970s. No group sounded like The N’Harmonics, weaving a sense of counter culture and chic for a totally distinctive identity via song selection.

Be distinctive.

No two groups sing the same songs at competition.

Let me rephrase that: no two groups should bring the same songs to competition, outside the rare and impossible to foresee coincidence.

There are top 40 songs out there that everyone who goes to an a cappella competition expects to hear covered. And then there are songs no one expects to hear.

A golden oldie reinvented. A deep cut from a major artist. A song off an indie label. For every group out there, there are thousands of songs they could potentially perform, and unless you’re a group of the caliber of Pitch Slapped or The SoCal VoCals, you’re taking a real gamble if you just assume that you’re going to sing a mainstream hit better than any other group that happens to bring it to the same competition. Making unique decisions when it comes to song selection makes your group more memorable and avoids the possibility of unfavorable comparisons

Show your range, but think about flow.

While a cohesive identity and style are worthy goals for any competing group, it’s also worth thinking about how the group will show its range—that the group isn’t just fun, just emo, or any other one-note dimension of music, but rather can excel in different genres and by different means. A group that goes high octane all the way may be a crowd favorite, but just as easily leave the judges wondering if they didn’t have the chops to pull off a ballad.

While a group considers range, it must also evaluate how it will switch between different gears in a way that eases the audience in, or uses abrupt shifts for a purposeful dramatic effect. See the previous edition of The Competitor’s Edge on transitions for more on that topic.

How have you seen song selection make or break a competition set? Let us know in the comments section.