Auditions: A New Year, a New Lineup

It’s that time of year again!  That’s right, it’s the start of a brand new school year (at least, it is for me).  At the University of Missouri, class started this past week, and we welcomed over 8,000 new students to our fine campus.  For most schools across the country, this is either the case, or classes are starting very shortly.  That means that all collegiate a cappella groups are now faced with an almost daunting task:  Taking this class of thousands, finding the handful of new a cappella initiates that are some of the best musical talent around, and getting them to join our ranks.  Of course, there’s two big parts of this process, and I’m going to talk about both of them.

 

First, we need to get them to come out and audition.  This has been my project this summer.  I have spent a good amount of time trying to get the most visual outreach with minimal cost.  Of course, there’s bound to be some cost somewhere.  However, some costs are far more effective than others.  Consider this:  It costs us $50 bucks to put an ad in the weekly info emails that are sent to all students and faculty with a school email.  Next, it costs $75 to get an ad in the school newspaper.  Third, it costs us anywhere from $75-100 to get flyers in the mailboxes in the residence halls (otherwise known as dorms).  There’s also the options of advertising with flyers on virtually every public bulletin board on campus, advertisements on dining hall centerpieces, and the like.  Don’t forget internet advertising through websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Myspace (yeah, right), or even group websites (we don’t have one, but it still is an option).  Finally, we have something at our school called the activities fair, which is essentially a fair of a whole bunch of student organizations on campus.  

Which ones do you think I should pick?

It’s going to naturally vary for every group, because not all of these options are possible, and it depends largely on the student body and how the campus processes information.  It also depends on how much money your group can afford to spend.  From what I’ve learned about our student body through 3 years of going through the audition process, my goal was to be largely visual and minimally expensive.  Therefore, if you guessed that I did everything except the email, the newspaper, and the mailboxes, you guessed correctly. Overall, I’ve spent approximately $30-40 on auditions.  I anticipate spending maybe another $20 on audition forms, ratings sheet (what some of us use to judge auditionees – I use just a spiral notebook, but that’s a personal preference), and anything else necessary for the day of auditions.  From what I’ve heard from people in the community (for example, “Hey, I saw your flyer for group auditions”, people email me to ask questions, facebook event RSVP’s), we could be looking at about 50-75 people auditioning.  Considering that we are not (currently) the best collegiate a cappella group in the world (I’m a bit of an optimist) and progress being made to get our name out to the campus is kinda slow, this would be a record for us.  Until now, the most I have ever seen is about 25 people.  Doubling our numbers, based simply on changing how we advertise ourselves, would be a great thing to note.

Of course, I haven’t even talked about the activities fair.  This might be the best thing to happen to us to get people to audition.  Here’s why: You need to grab a person’s attention in about 3 seconds.  People want to look at a flyer and see the point of it almost instantly.  Our flyers have in big letters “Do you like to sing?”.  That’s the first thing that catches people’s attention.  If they do, they’ll read on.  Otherwise, they’ll move on.  If they read on, they want to easily see what’s going on.  They want to know the event date, time, who it’s for, and how it affects them really quickly.  All that information is given in bigger font.  The information about who to email with questions (me) is given in almost fine print.  We then found a way to make it better.  I went around campus a few days ago with a bunch of flyers, a stapler, some tape, and a friend.  Of course, this friend wasn’t just any friend.  This friend happened to be the president of the women’s a cappella group on campus (shout out to the Naturelles), who also happened to have a bunch of flyers for her group.  We put all of our flyers right next to each other, if possible.  Therefore, we made the flyers for the men’s and women’s groups essentially co-ed.  People see the men’s group, and look over to see the women’s group flyer, and vice versa.  We’re doing this same idea for the activities fair.  By sharing a table, we make it easier to reach a larger group of people, and have more people to run the table during a busy school day.  Of course, since we’re both singing groups, we’re going to be singing during the event.  We have two songs that we did together last year, but we can also ad lib songs that are fairly easy to fake (I Want You Back, Little Bitty Pretty One, Happy, or anything else if people are creative).  When people see us performing and having fun, they want to see what’s going on.  It’s not just about reaching them, it’s about how much they retain.  Every group is different, but for us, this is the best way for retention.

Of course, throughout this entire ordeal, where is the co-ed group, you ask?  Well, that’s a good question.  Naturally, I want the best for my group, but I also want the best for all groups.  Therefore, I gave the co-ed group virtually all of the same information I dealt with.  However, what they have done has been largely independent of what we have been doing.  I want to see them succeed, but it is a bit of a war between the groups.  Men’s and Women’s groups can work together because of no talent pool overlap.  The co-ed groups have talent pool overlap with both.  It’s a bit of a struggle for power to get the best musicians for each group, and I hope that they come audition for us.  This power struggle, however, should be dominated by respect.  If I see one group trying to sabotage another group’s chances, I will have words with them.  Should new musicians go to “the dark side”, I’m happy they found a spot in the a cappella community here.  On the other hand, don’t expect me to help the co-ed group by helping them flyer.

 

Now that I’ve (hopefully) exhausted all my thoughts on getting people to audition.  Now comes the hard part: figuring out who to take, and who to encourage to audition next year (side note: always encourage people to audition the next year.  They might get better, or find out that they are better on a different voice part.  You never know, and it never hurts your group to hear them again in a year).   Time is also of the essence.  Nobody wants to wait for four hours to audition.  Also, your group will get tired of listening to people after a few hours.  You want your audition process to have two major aspects: individual and group.  Therefore, let’s take a look at both of them.

INDIVIDUAL
The individual part has usually been pretty standard.  Give the auditionees a survey sheet to fill out when they first arrive at auditions. It’s going to have all the basic information:  Name, major, hometown, musical experience, etc.  This just gives the group a sense of what to expect from the person.  If someone writes on the sheet that they can beatbox, the group might want to hear it.  If they don’t write that down anywhere, nobody knows to ask for it.  Also, it gives the group an idea to see if they will have any major scheduling problems down the road.  These are all little things that I’ve learned to look for over the years.  Aside from the survey sheet, the auditionee will be asked to perform a solo of their choosing.  This “of their choosing” clause is a great gift.  It lets them show themselves off best.  When I auditioned, I performed the song “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles.  It showed off my falsetto range, which I felt to be a very important aspect to sell.  Of course, I learned later that night that I was asked back because of my beatboxing abilities, but I’ve been a tenor I with the group for 3 1/2 years now, so I must have done something right.  Personal anecdote aside, this works for other members as well.  Over the years, I’ve heard Jazz, Pop, Country, Classical, and Indian Classical (He nailed those quarter-tones, and it was glorious).  These people found the song that best fits their personal and musical style, and apply it.  Usually, the ability (or possible lack-thereof) shows through this performance in the same way.  Aside from seeing their ability, you also begin to see the personality of the person.  If you think I’m lying, think about the song you would audition with right now.  If you don’t spend time thinking about it, you pick something that reflects your personality while still best showing off your voice.  The song I have is “Titanium”, due to the lyrics always reminding that I’m gonna be myself, however different, and flourish. What does your song say about you?  Think about it when you hold the audition or if you audition.  It might help give just the smallest push to succeed.

GROUP
We’ve successfully nailed about a minute of this audition.  Here’s where it gets tricky.  You want to make sure this person fits in with the group as well.  I’ve debated this myself for a while.  Naturally, you want the best solo singers you can find.  However, if their voice doesn’t blend well, it’s bound to be a problem very quickly.  Therefore, you need to see their background abilities, as well as their foreground abilities.  We need to spend approximately 2-3 minutes to figure out how they fit in a group.  This raises the question: “what is important in a group setting?”.  We could teach them a simple chord progression, have them sing the chords, and that could be it.  They would have four whole notes to prove their ability to blend.  That’s really all they need.  However, is that enough for what you need?  We’ve heard their ability to blend for about 5-10 seconds on very stagnant chords.  Is that enough to test them in a group setting?  Some say yes, but I say that we can make the audition last about 2 minutes longer and gain much more information.  First, figure out where their range lies.  Generally, their solo will give a good idea of their voice.  However, to reduce some of the blurriness of voice parts, a simple call and response works wonderfully (furthermore, this will test to see if the person has good pitch memory.).  Once you know the range, have them try singing along with the group on one of your old arrangements.  Pick a section that is mostly chordal, but might require a bit of sight reading.  Give them a couple tries, just to give them the best shot on the music.  The section only needs to be about 8 measures, but the extra time will tell you far more than you would get from four chords.  The cool thing about this is that it doesn’t matter how good (or terrible) their sight reading is.  If the blend is good, you won’t notice wrong notes very much unless you are listening for them.

The debate behind the group section is which part of the audition to do this.  Most groups do two rounds: auditions and callbacks.  Auditions lets you quickly weed out those you know are not cut out for the group.  Callbacks lets you spend a lot more time on each individual, seeing how they work in a group dynamic.  Some groups feel that all they need to hear in the auditions is the solo, but I feel that a solo is only half the story.  The group could find themselves at callbacks with 5 people who can’t blend in the background, but needing to take at least 3 of them to fill their numbers.  Meanwhile, the vocalists who might not have been as stellar at the solo has tremendous blending ability, but didn’t make callbacks.  However, should there be a hundred people wanting to audition for the group and only 4 hours to get everybody in, the audition process must be shortened.  Therefore, it’s a bit of a trade-off, but I personally feel that the more information you have about somebody auditioning, the better informed you will be when it becomes time to make cuts.  

A quick disclaimer:  These are my views on how I believe auditions should go.  Should your group have a method that works better for you, by all means use it.  Don’t change your entire style of auditions based on what you’re reading on my blog.  However, feel free to steal as many ideas as you want to help your group best succeed.

 

In closing, I want to wish both auditioners and auditionees the best of luck in the upcoming weeks.  Remember that auditions are stressful on everyone, but also very exciting.  If I can leave any advice to both, it’s this: say/learn as much as you can without saying anything.  Let your solo reflect yourself.  Listen to the lyrics being sung, not just the lyrics.  Show that you can hold your own both as a soloist and behind the soloist.  Allow each person the best chance to show every facet of their ability.  Our judgments are only limited by the amount of knowledge we possess.

 

The University of Waterloo Intentional Accidentals

I was asked earlier today to give my thoughts on the Intentional Accidentals from the University of Waterloo.  Naturally, this is a new experience for me, mostly because nobody has ever asked me before.  Also, I prefer to make this blog very up-beat.  Naturally, the presence of a winner in a competition means that there was also a loser.  Generally, there’s a reason for the winner.  There are cases where the loser was better, and these cases are very great debates (If you need a reference, look at the ICCA finals competition sets from most finals competitions, and a good number of semifinals).  However, in this case, I feel like the result was partially justified (I say partially, because none of the groups I expected to place in the wildcard round did, but I can only compare the submission tapes available on YouTube).  This leaves me with a bit of a problem. I don’t want to insult the group, but it is worth my time to discuss both the flaws and the flourishes of the group.  That being said, I will attempt to try and sandwich the bad stuff between as much good stuff as I can.

 

Ready?  Here we go!

 

As always, let’s look at the generics of the group.  The Intentional Accidentals are a co-ed group from the University of Waterloo in Canada.  They took second in their quarterfinal, and then placed third in their semifinal, both of which in the Great Lakes region.  This led them to be eligible to enter the wildcard round, where they placed second, narrowly missing finals.

I’m a bit hesitant about groups from the Great Lakes region, and this is mostly due to how new the region is.  When the Great Lakes region was first introduced, nobody really expected anything great from them in the first year, mostly because a mass influx of groups new to competing were entering this region, as well as the fact that nobody from the Great Lakes region had made a name for themselves at finals in years.  I estimated that the region would need another 2-3 years before it was really a contention worthy region (meaning that once the Michigan G-Men aren’t running away with the competition, the region might make a name for itself).  However, with the events that took place in the final weeks of competition, I began to take a second look at the region.  This is because 2 important things happened:

1) The Michigan G-Men were nominated as the best group at finals by the A Cappella Blog.
2) The Intentional Accidentals placed second in the Wildcard round.

Therefore, what does this mean?  It means that perhaps my estimate was a bit wrong, and the Great Lakes has already become a very strong contender.  It could also mean that it was a lull year for competition, which does happen. I don’t want to say that this year was by any means a fluke, but as a big fan of numbers, I would like to see more evidence backing the result than simply one year.  However, because it could also be considered a fluke that it was a bad year for competition might also mean that it could have just been a good year for the Great Lakes.  Therefore, it is definitely worth checking out the Groups from the Great Lakes region this year (Although, let’s be honest, I’ve seen about 40 of the 60 semifinals competition sets.  If it made YouTube, there’s a very good chance I saw it.).

 

Now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for, let’s discuss the Intentional Accidentals, more specifically the video at the top.  

The first thing that hit me off the bat was the numbers of the group.  The numbers of a co-ed group are a direct image as to how a group is going to perform.  Some groups try for a balance of numbers.  Others try to account for the bass and vocal percussionist usually being both male, and have two more men than women.  Vocal Rush, a 12-person group on the most recent season of The Sing-Off, had only 2 men, which allowed for a bass section, and tighter harmonies.  Smaller groups are more based on individual intricacies, and large groups are more about creating a wall of sound.  The Intentional Accidentals are a 13-person group, with 5 of them being women.  Naturally, this group size seems odd to me.  It can always be assumed that 3 people will be amplified:  The bass, the vocal percussionist, and the soloist.  That leaves us 10 people singing backgrounds.  First,10 is both a great and a weird number.  Consistently singing 4-part harmonies don’t work with 10 vocalists and an amplified bass.  However, this works surprisingly well for harmonies that are 6 parts and up.  Unfortunately, if the soloist is female, there becomes a very strong chance of too many lower harmonies, and too few upper harmonies.   The arranger(s) walk(s) a bit of a tightrope to make sure the harmonies are both possible as well as pleasing to the ear.  

The next thing to consider is the microphones.  Like I said earlier, there are 3 people that are always amplified.  However, anyone else that needs to be amplified is completely at the discretion of the group.  At finals, each member of the group is given a microphone.  However, at a lower level competition venue, there might be only 3 wireless microphone and the rest wired.  For this reason, the vast majority of competition sets include as few microphones as possible, either by figuring out how to pass microphones or have multiple vocalists sing into the same microphone.  Therefore, as a rule of thumb, a set should be able to be performed with no less than 4-5 microphones, because sometimes microphone passing isn’t possible, as well to account for duets, counter melodies, and other necessities. There are exceptions to this rule, such as the University of Chicago Voices In Your Head performing “Titanium” or the USC SoCal VoCals performing “Crazy Ever After”.  However, it takes a large amount of work to keep the balance and blend correct through such heavy microphone use, as well as a very skilled sound technician who can keep the levels solid throughout the entire performance.  Therefore, when I see the Intentional Accidentals having no less than 6 microphones, I get a little bit wary.  

Once we leave the first 15 seconds, we can really start noticing what the group actually does.  I’m not a fan of the song selection for the opening number when I hear it on the radio, but I do like the arrangement performed.  In fact, I really liked all the arrangements in general.  The use of dissonance was very apparent, but very cool.  There were a couple points where the harmonies were slightly out of tune, which will stick out like a sore thumb in these scenarios, but overall the arrangements worked very well for me.  I’m a huge fan of cascading arpeggios.  They’re hard to do well, but sound absolutely brilliant if done right.  a very nice job.  Also, I was surprised by the use of the microphones away from the soloist.  It’s a very scary thing to do, especially when the sound guy isn’t familiar with the style.  Effectively, it’s going to have somebody stand out, but it might be far louder than you want to hear.  Instead of just being accentuated during the song, it’s going to sound like a soprano just became a soloist.  It doesn’t show up in the video, but I have a feel that it would have happened at a quarterfinal, and the exact opposite would happen at finals, where everyone would have been given a microphone, and thus the sound guy would have to have very detailed notes to know EXACTLY when to increase the different voices.  

The next interesting thing to always note is the soloists.  Especially the solos of these songs.  Having a soloist that sounds like Adele is tricky, but they definitely pulled that off, as that particular soloist won the “Outstanding Soloist” superlative twice this season.  However, finding a soloist who can pull off Sam Smith’s very high voice, as well as Bon Jovi’s loud rocker voice at a fairly high register are few and far between.  Having an arrangement that works to a soloist’s strengths to work around Sam Smith is possible, and well executed.  However, Bon Jovi’s voice is slightly iconic, and I felt the soloist could quite reach the level that was needed.  He came close, but his voice didn’t have enough of an edge to it.  I don’t know the groups or any of their ranges, but perhaps it might have worked better if a female sang the solo (or the Sam Smith solo, for that matter).  Her voice would have been more comfortable in the range, and would have allowed for a better grunge sound.  Another option would have been to lower the key of the song, just to make it a little bit easier on the soloist.  Take this all with a grain of salt, as this is just my thoughts on the matter.  Are the soloists bad?  Not by a long shot.  These are simply the thoughts of  an a cappella nerd, not an expert.  

Third, we look at choreography.  I look at choreography in two regards.  I first look at the group, and then I look at the soloist.  The group choreography was great.  It wasn’t too much motion, but at the same time, there was enough.  There were no awkward members, or if there were, they were hidden well.  However, the soloists never moved.  For the first three songs, the soloist might move about 5-10 feet in either direction, but they were mostly just parked at the front of the group.  I’m not a big fan of this.  Effectively, the choreography becomes forgotten, because the soloist takes front and center.  The further the soloist is from the group, the more this becomes apparent.  Thus, I didn’t remember the choreography from the middle tunes as much as the opener or the closer, where the soloist was involved with the group.  However, the soloist’s presence in the closer is glorious.  Perhaps he was more of the whole package than anybody else.  Where his voice was slightly behind, his stage presence made up for it.  

Lastly, to discuss the worst part about this entire show:  The stage presence of the whole group.  This comes simply from the nature of coming from way out of town, as well as filming for the wildcard round.  In the quarterfinal, the Intentional Accidentals took second to Ten40, a group that was competing at their own school.  Naturally, the crowd was way into their show, despite the fact that it wasn’t the best show of the night.  When the crowd is way into the show, it’s easier for a group to give off almost unnatural amounts of energy, as the crowd is giving it back to them (I experienced this one time when my group performed in a sorority house, and every part of the arrangement locked together perfectly just because the audience gave back the energy ten-fold). Now, consider that the Intentional Accidentals are traveling to each competition.  People don’t cheer for them as much, just on the nature of their not cheering on their friends or their school.  Thus, groups tend to fall just a little bit flat.  Now, look at the wildcard round, where there is no audience.  The best wildcard submissions I have seen have been ones where the group actually films themselves in front of an audience (See the Vanderbilt Melodores, 2011).  The energy given off is just better.  Performing to a wall can sound good, but problems can occur if the energy lapses for a few seconds.  Therefore, if somebody loses focus (which is much easier when not in front of an audience), it creates problems for the performance, such as slightly missed harmonies, or the group just start to looks dead.  I think that happened to the group a little bit here.  Not much, but just enough to be the difference between first and second.  The energy is great for most of the show.  However, it’s those 30 seconds of no focus that speak more than the 11 minutes where the focus was perfect.  

 

Finally, my thoughts on the Intentional Accidentals.  Do not get me wrong, they are a great group. I agree that they deserved to go to semifinals and place at semifinals.  In fact, I feel they should have won their quarterfinal.  However, I don’t disagree with where the judges placed them at semifinals or the wildcard round.  There are just little things to work on.  It’s not just the soloists, the interesting microphone usage, or the little points of no energy.  It’s all those things, and things the judges saw that I’ve missed.  Perhaps there were mistakes at semifinals that aren’t present in the recording.  However, I guarantee you that if the Intentional Accidentals were to perform a show of this caliber next year, with all the little things fixed, they will find themselves on that stage in New York City.

 

Best of luck to them, because I’m expecting big things from them in the future.  

The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs: Titanium

In the 2013 ICCA competition, there was an influx of somewhat new groups all coming out of seemingly nowhere to argue themselves as the best. These groups included the Belmont University Beltones, the University of Illinois’ No Comment, Florida State University’s Reverb, and The University of Massachusetts Hexachords, to name a few. However, there’s one other name that was a very powerful competitor, and that’s the University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs. I had the pleasure of seeing them at the quarterfinal level. Their first two song selections of the set were good. However, it was upon seeing their closer, the video at the top of the page, that I realized I was watching a group that could possibly go to finals that year. Sadly, this is not really a happy story for the Bathtub Dogs, as they eventually took second place at semifinals, and then second in the wildcard round. Whether or not I agree with those rulings is still a running debate in my head, but I can say this with certainty: the Bathtub Dogs performed a version of Titanium that is possibly one of the best a cappella performances I have ever seen. Here’s why:

1) The arrangement.

Josh Huls, a now Dogs Alum, wrote the entire show. However, it seems very apparent to me that he put far more thought into this song than the other two. This song deviates greatly from the original. However, it had to deviate. This is because during the previous competition year, the University of Chicago Voices in Your Head performed an absolutely incredible show (expect it to show up in this blog at some point) that featured Titanium as one of its selections. That show went on to take fourth at finals, although it was argued that it should have won. It would be a very bad decision for anybody to try and perform that song as The Voices in Your Head did, which is an almost exact transcription. Anybody that attempted to perform a transcription of Titanium was bound to be compared to Voices every single time, and wasn’t ever expected to be favored. Therefore, the only option was to change the arrangement enough that it wasn’t considered as copying. Two groups succeeded in doing this. One is James Madison University’s Exit 245, who created a power ballad out of the song. The other is the Bathtub Dogs. This version is more rock than techno, but features a dubstep-like drop near the end. Josh Huls did an exceptional job of keeping the original song elements, but changing them enough to become a completely different song. The song builds in the same ways, but the arrangement uses dissonance to its advantage alongside the original bass line, thus creating a different feel that is more almost creepy and ethereal than as a club beat.

2) The Choreography

While the arrangement was one of the things I first noticed about this performance, the choreography stood out to me far more than the music. Choreography at ICCA competitions always seems to become a little bit repetitive. This is just because there’s very few moves that can be performed while singing. All members should face forward at all times unless they have a good reason, and all movement should be simple enough that the members can focus on the music as well as the motions. Therefore, a large amount of motions used in standard performances are leans, arm motions, and position changes. By these most basic definitions, that almost exactly what the Bathtub Dogs did. However, in watching this show, I realized that I recognized these motions from something else: Show Choir. The motions were more full-body encompassing than I’m used to seeing in a cappella, but very common in show choir. However, show choir has something that a cappella doesn’t have: background music. The Bathtub Dogs managed to do show choir-style choreography while performing a cappella music. It’s not easy to do, and very few groups can say they have successfully pulled this off for more than about 30 seconds (a.k.a. a stomp section) of a performance, much less an entire show. However, there’s always a fear that too much movement will distract from the music. That’s not the case here. The choreography was designed to sync up perfectly alongside the music. My favorite moment is right around the 1:10 mark in the song. Remember how I said that the performers should always be facing the audience unless they have a good reason? The choreographer found a good reason. They used choreography to effectively mute the group in a way that is very hard to do with voices. I figured the choreographer worked a lot with the arranger to create feels like this. At least, I figured this right up until I found out the arranger and the choreographer are the same person. This brings us to reason 3:

3) Josh Huls

This man deserves his own reason as to why this performance is glorious. This show is essentially his brain child. I looked back at some of the previous ICCA competitions of the Bathtub Dogs. He arranged multiple songs over the years. However, I have a feeling that he decided that if this was going to be his last year in the Bathtub Dogs (which it was), he was going out with a bang. This entire show was written and choreographed by him. By designing the entire show, he was able to design it perfectly for the Bathtub Dogs. I have a feeling that he hand-picked the soloists, since they were all the seniors (I may or may not have stalked the Bathtub Dogs on Facebook a little bit after they won quarterfinals and then for the rest of the semester). However, aside from the soloists, the choreography was designed to fit perfectly to the music, which is very hard to do unless the choreographer has a good deal of time to work on the dance moves with the arrangers’s rendition of the songs in his head. When the arranger and the choreographer are the same person, Josh Huls had a vast amount of time to perfect every part of that show. Josh continues to write music for the Bathtub Dogs, but they did not do nearly as well at ICCA without him there to explain his show to them along the way or choreograph it to perfection. However, the show was still a competitor at semifinals. Even though he is no longer a Bathtub Dog, Josh Huls is an incredible musical mind, and I look forward to hearing more of his arrangements.

I’m expecting great things from the Bathtub Dogs in the upcoming months. They are going to the recording studio in the near future, and rumor has it that this song will be on the upcoming album. I can’t wait to hear it and all the other tracks. Best of luck to them in their endeavors, and I hope to get the chance to compete against them soon.

The SoCal VoCals: Crazy Ever After

In 2008, The University of Southern California SoCal VoCals debuted a new song in their repertoire. It’s a song by the Rescues entitled “Crazy Ever After”. It’s essentially a song about a break-up and how you enter that point of pleading in your mind. Now, the Rescues first performed it as a more up-tempo piece. Then, an acoustic ballad made its way into reality. Naturally, the SoCals took the arrangement they had, modified it (at least, I’m assuming they just modified it, since they already had something) and re-debuted the song. The result was a ballad that took them all the way to the top, winning ICCA in 2010. The video performance of this ballad is at the top.

There’s just so many things that I love about this video. The first time I saw this video, I was speechless. When I have what most would consider an obsession, there is still just so many groups that all keep posting new videos of concerts and ICCA sets that it feels like I’m always watching something new. However, there are always a few videos I keep coming back to. This is one of them. I don’t want to say it’s perfect, but it’s essentially the next best thing. Here’s why:

1) The arrangement. Obviously, you can’t have a great performance with a sub-par arrangement. However, you have to think about why the arrangement is so good. I like to think that this arrangement is perfect because of how the arrangement reflects the story. In the final moments of a relationship, there’s a bit of a scatterbrain effect. There’s feelings of despair, regret, and weakness. You want to let go, but you just can’t. You replay the moments in your head over and over. The lyrics were excellently written to portray this. The only other thought: “Stay”. Therefore, when this arrangement slowly swells in the verses to a chorus staying “Stay”, you become drawn to this word.

After two verses, a new phrase takes shape: “I don’t know how to be alone”. It begins to feel like a scene from a movie. There was a big fight. It’s two verses of a fight. Finally, someone breaks. Among all the tears, it begins to all finally come undone. One person has just left, a person who becomes a part of you like you are to them. You sit there, thinking how to simply exist without them. There’s a lull in your thoughts. Finally, one word remains: “Stay”. A phrase screaming in the back of your mind, and making it to the foreground. However, despite the screaming, they’re gone, and both people are left as a pile of rubble. This arrangement captures an entire breakup in under 4 minutes. Props to the Rescues for the original. Major props to the arrangers (There’s 2 for this one) for pulling it off a cappella.

2) The soloists. Remember how I said that you get a bit of a scatterbrain effect? The SoCals decided to use the scatterbraining to their advantage (as well as an almost unnaturally large talent pool) and decided to have about 8 soloists (I think it’s 8. I lost count somewhere in the middle. If any SoCals read this and actually know the number, please share). They managed to use the number of soloists to their advantage. Both sides of the break-up are seen. Some lyrics are shared by multiple people, some are sung by soloists. The story just keeps getting better. There’s always a major concern about performing a song with multiple soloists in any song, much less at ICCA. The soloists have to lock in with each other almost instantly. They do it flawlessly, which is borderline unnatural. It has become a bit of a trademark for them. They since did something similar to this in 2012, with the same result (although, it wasn’t as decisive, but that’s a story for another time).

3) The choreography. Well, it’s more blocking than choreography. I say this because there’s very few legitimate motions that aren’t a changing in position. However, I love the motion. To me, it feels like the pacing of a room during a fight. A fight never occurs in one spot. It takes place in multiple. Somebody meanders away, and the other moves quickly over to them. There are stops, there are turns, there are all sorts of position changes. The motion also makes for something else to happen: the microphones are traded off without distracting the audience. Then, finally, a stopping point. There is the true lull. The motion has stopped. And finally, there’s a major reach outward, and all that’s left is one word: “Stay”. Somehow, the SoCals managed to get 18 people to present a breakup both musically and visually.

The SoCal VoCals are one of the best collegiate a cappella groups in the country. They are one of now three groups (With Berklee College of Music’s Pitch Slapped just joining the ranks) to win ICCA multiple times, and the only group to have won it three times. However, with a performance like this, it’s hard to imagine them NOT winning. I look forward to seeing what the SoCals do in the future. All I ask is that this time, I can get a good count of the number of soloists.

Graduation: What it Means for A Cappella Leadership

Around this time, the school year is ending.  Therefore, this means that students are graduating, transferring, or simply going to new places for maybe a day, maybe a few months, maybe the rest of their life.  With these students leaving the group, it leads to an important question:

What is next for the collegiate a cappella groups?  

The biggest thing that comes to my mind is leadership.  Naturally, the older members are often the leaders.  Is this a defined trend?  Not particularly.  However, the older members tend to have more experience in the a cappella community, and thus are more likely to thrive as director or president of the group.

Of course, each officer should be voted in every year.  Every.  Single.  Officer.  It seems a bit unorthodox, yes, but it makes sense.  Groups aren’t the same from year to year.  Some years, groups are trying to create an album, some compete, some just perform locally as a rebuilding year, and some are very social groups that travel often and work with a large number of different groups or gigs.  The best social chair for a growing year doesn’t need to know the entire community as well as the group in a social year.  A director for an album year is working on teaching the group a very defined list of songs, but on a competition year are working on a smaller list of specialized music, and the rest of the material for the year is more for fun and showing off.  I was fortunate enough to be voted in as president of my group for the next year.  I was voted in over an incumbent (Well, technically an incumbent, but due to changes in leadership roles, the role of president is a new title and the social chair title is now gone), due to my knowledge of the entire a cappella community being more important the following year rather than getting private events for us to perform at.  It was a very interesting debate between running members, and eventually I was selected.  Was he a better officer than I will be?  It’s hard to say, but for what the next year has to offer, the group believed I was the better choice.  We also voted in a new director for the next year, since our old director is leaving the group.  It will be an interesting year for my group, and I’m expecting big things to come from the boys of Mizzou.

 

Having multiple officers is important.  However, it depends on each group.  Our group has four officers:  President, Director, Assistant Director, and Treasurer.  However, each group is different.  Here’s my thoughts:

1) The President and the Director should be two different people.  The main reason is a balance of power and separation of work.  The president of the group is in charge of dealing with all business affairs of the group, which includes but is not limited to gigs, relationships with the university, relations with the other groups at the university or at other universities, and dealing with the generic day-to-day affairs of the group.  The director, on the other hand, is in charge of all of the music that goes through the group.  Acquiring it, teaching it, figuring out what to fix next, etc.  These jobs are a lot for two people.  Giving it all to one person creates a bit of a nightmare for one person.

2)A Director should have a second in command.
This is for multiple reasons.  The first is if the director cannot attend rehearsal for any reason.  There should be a member designated to take over all directing roles in the event that the director is absent.  However, that’s not much for one person.  An assistant director should be helping some in rehearsals, but the help should be defined.  Otherwise, it’s just a distraction.  If a second person is talking while the director is saying something, it could wind up with two ideas for the same section, which is just a disaster waiting to happen.  Therefore, the Assistant Director should partially knuckle under during the rehearsal, but be sure to apply insight when asked.  My group has the Assistant Director as the Aesthetics Director.  This means that they are in charge of the choreography, the uniforms, and the overall presentation of the group.  They are also in charge of rehearsals in the off chance that the director is absent.  This gives them importance without making it based solely upon another’s faults.

3) A Treasurer is a must.  
While the Treasurer is the smallest of the roles, it is very important to have a second person with access to the bank account.  My group gave access to the bank account to both the President and the Treasurer, that way, there can be no evidence of foul play.

All other officers are kinda just based upon the desires of the group.  We added an honorary officer position of music chair, which is because we have a very skilled arranger among our ranks, and therefore we gave him a position that offers him free reign on which arranging endeavors he takes on or doesn’t.  However, some groups have a social chair for purely social events, philanthropy chairs, recording chairs, outreach members, or anything else that the group deems necessary.  Are they always important?  No, but if a group feels that they are, there is nothing that should stop them from creating the position.

 

Every year, members graduate from a cappella groups.  This means that every year, new leadership becomes present.  It is the responsibility of the group to take the new leadership and let it thrive.  Will it be a bit tough at first taking directions from a person with the role you believe you should have?  Of course.  However, with new leaders comes new ideas, and with new ideas comes group improvement.

Soloists: How to Absolutely Own the Stage

Throughout modern a cappella, there is always the presence of a soloist. Although original a cappella featured mostly harmonized lyrics, the modern movement generally has one soloists singing genuine lyrics, and the rest of the members singing some form of organized gibberish as the background. These solos have become a bit of a selling point for members and establishing a group identity. The Vanderbilt University Melodores had a guy who was a legitimate countertenor (although I think he might have considered himself just a natural soprano, given that range), and they used it to their advantage in their song selection. On the other hand, women’s groups tend to play to the strengths of the backing parts (like “basses” and vocal percussion), and just get a few strong soloists to round out the song selections.

However, picking the songs is only half the battle. Consider the following: your group gets a new piece of music. You work on it, you have the best soloist perform the song. However, when the soloist starts performing the song, the audience is just dead. They can’t empathize with a soloist who just stands there. Sure, the voice is golden, but if the soloist has no energy, how do you expect the audience to give it back?

Consider the video. This video is the closing song performed by the University of Massachusetts Dynamics at ICCA in 2011. The song is “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”, originally performed by the Darkness. Now, for those who don’t know the song originally, just know that it is an absolute marathon for the soloist. The solo is in the stratosphere and isn’t coming down any time soon. Therefore, this song is somewhat iconic for getting some crowd appeal. However, you can only get so much with just the solo. Therefore, consider this soloist.

This guy looks about blow a hole in the roof. His energy is just off the charts. I feel like even if he didn’t have the background members helping him out with some dance moves, he would have still had a field day performing. Notice how he took off his jacket and threw it away from the group, ran around the audience, and even stood on top of the podium. He wasn’t going to stop until the roof collapsed or the song ended. Thankfully, it was the latter.

However, why does this work? Why do we love the high energy soloists? The answer is very simple. The audience is naturally a bit ADD. We all want to see interesting things happen. Whether it’s an off the wall song selection or a mind bending arrangement, the audience wants to be entertained. Therefore, having a soloist that is extremely engaging keeps the audience entertained. I can tell you from experience, this works literally every single time. I’ve performed the Britney Spears hit “Toxic” in a sorority house on two separate occasions. The first time, the soloist sang standing in mostly one place and just powered through it. We got loud cheers. The next time, the soloist walked around the crowd, flirting with the girls at the house. The cheers were deafening.  I’m pretty sure the second soloists also could have gotten a few phone numbers if we didn’t have a schedule to keep that night.

However, don’t just consider it for the cheers. Consider it for the group. When the soloist starts going crazy, nobody wants to make the soloist look ridiculous, so they all the members subconsciously start matching his energy. When the group starts matching energy, it tends to start magnifying. When it starts magnifying, the crowd gets into it. When the crowd gets into it, the group gets more into it. The cycle continues this way. Does it have to be as extreme as what this guy did? Absolutely not. However, a bad soloist can hurt a performance. A good soloist, on the other hand, will always make the song better. Therefore, urge soloists to move. Make them dance, make them run around, just don’t let them sit in one spot for more than about 30 seconds unless you have a good reason (like the song selection is a ballad). Guaranteed if the soloist owns the stage he’s on, the group will make a great song selection even better.

ICCA Finals: How To Win ICCA

With ICCA Finals tomorrow,I’ve spent the last 8 posts writing profiles of each of the 8 competitors.  Feel free to read what I wrote on them.  They are:

 

The South Region – University of Delaware Vocal Point
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/icca-finalist-the-university-of-delaware-vocal-point/

 

The Great Lakes Region – The University of Michigan G-Men
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/icca-finalist-the-university-of-michigan-g-men/

 

The Northeast Region – Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/icca-finalist-berklee-college-of-music-pitch-slapped/

 

The Mid-Atlantic Region – The New York University N’Harmonics
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/icca-finalist-the-new-york-university-nharmonics/

 

The Midwest Region – The Saint Louis University Bare Naked Statues
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/icca-finalist-the-saint-louis-university-bare-naked-statues/

 

The West Region – The UCLA Scattertones
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/icca-finalist-the-ucla-scattertones/

 

The International Wildcard – King’s College All the King’s Men
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/icca-finalist-international-wildcard-kings-colleges-all-the-kings-men/

 

The Wildcard round – The Belmont Beltones
http://acaholicsanonymous.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/icca-finalist-the-belmont-university-beltones/

 

My original thought was to give one last tie in to who I thought would win the competition.  Do I have ideas?  Absolutely.  However, I came to a realization, and that’s I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHY I LIKE THE GROUPS I DO.  Every group has made it as far as they have because of their abilities.  They all have their strengths and their shortcomings.  Therefore, I’m suddenly ranking abilities rather than groups.  If I rank The Bare Naked Statues over Vocal Point, all I have stated is that I think that choreography does more than arrangements.  If I rank the Beltones over Pitch Slapped, It means I prefer diversity over complexity.  If I rank All the King’s Men over the G-Men, it means I prefer old-school over cutting edge.  If I rank the N’Harmonics over the Scattertones, I’m comparing two very different styles of history.  There’s nothing that is set in stone.  We won’t know the winner until tomorrow night, and I will be holding my breath until I do.

However, in creating profiles for each of these groups, I really did discover something, and that’s how to actually win ICCA.  It wasn’t until this blog got an influx of views or the times a post has gotten retweeted that I started realizing something:  I’m winning ICCA just by writing about it.  Do we all want to win the competition?  Absolutely.  However, there are 300 groups competing for one title.  That means that there will be 299 losers.  However, I honestly do believe that there can be 300 winners in ICCA.  It comes down to one word: Growth.

My quest to winning ICCA began with my first competition three years ago.  We lost, and I just wanted to go home.  I went to the party after the competition, and I talked to only the people I knew.  I lost that year.  The next year, we lost again, but I won the perc-off (which felt like a win to me).  I went to the party after the competition, and all of the sudden, I was talking to complete strangers about a cappella.  I didn’t stay long at that party.  While I thought I won, I lost again.  It wasn’t until this year that I won ICCA.  Here’s the kicker: WE DIDN’T EVEN PLACE AT QUARTERFINALS.  I went to that after party feeling a bit cheated by the judges, and was ready to leave when I bumped into a guy in another group named Jason.  He and I started talking about a cappella for an hour and a half straight.  The conversation ranged from group stories to competition sets, to debating songs that should be on BOCA albums.  I met a few other people that night, but I found Jason on Facebook the next day.  For the first time, I made a new friend at ICCA. 

Fast forward one week.  The women’s and co-ed groups at my school were competing a couple hours away.  I went to go cheer them on.  I brought a notebook to take notes on these shows and study them, because I had never gone to a competition to watch.  It was a weird phenomenon.  Was I close on my findings, yes, but I was just there to watch.  I got invited to go to the party, and I made a few new friends there.  I met Tabitha, Kenny, and Leah.  I made connections in the a cappella world.  I made friends.  I won ICCA without even competing.  

This leads me back to creating the profiles.  I created them, and posted links on twitter.  Some of the groups retweeted me, some favorited the post, and some of the members actually thanked me for what I wrote.  They don’t know me, and I don’t know them, but I’m slowly but surely making friends and connections in the a cappella world.  

This leads me to my thought on how to win ICCA:  Do something to better yourself every year.  For some people, that means winning.  For me, it means making a friend in another group.  It means coming home with a story.  It means coming home feeling proud of what we accomplished, even if there’s nothing to show for it.  I feel like this year is the first year I’ve done it.  Next year, I plan on winning ICCA again, even if it only means one new friend.  College is one of the few times I can do something like this, and I’m squandering it away if I don’t at least try.  Therefore, the only losers in ICCA are the people who compete, lose, and go home with nothing to show for it.  If you can’t walk away from each of your competitions with a smile on your face, you did something wrong.  

 

Best of luck to the 8 groups tomorrow night.  I’m sure each of you will make your schools proud.  However, remember that the winner isn’t only the person who takes first place.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.