Consider this photo. This is your generic ICCA competition scene. A group (In this case, the Missouri State Beartones from the 2013 competition year) is competing. However, there should be something else catching your eye in this photo. There’s a massive green rectangle being held up in the left side of the screen (I think it’s actually yellow on the other side, but that’s beside the point). What’s really important is what is printed on the other side of that rectangle. It’s a number. More specifically, the number 3 is printed on that rectangle and nothing else.
This rectangle is really quite important in an ICCA competition. It’s a timekeeper’s sheet. It’s designated in the rules on the Varsity Vocals website that every set is supposed to be less than 12 minutes. Actually, forget “supposed” to. It’s REQUIRED that every set is less than 12 minutes. Furthermore, this time includes the audience applause. The timer never stops. The timekeeper starts the timer as close to the first musical thought, be it the blowing of the pitch pipe or a choreographed entrance, or something else (Such as the Michigan G-Men starting their show with the beatboxer throat singing off-stage in 2013). The timekeeper also holds up sheets that say when 3 minutes and 1 minute are remaining. The penalty for not following this rule is one place. Regardless of score, the group is docked one entire place. Therefore, a lot of groups make sure to cut timing corners in any way possible, either by shortening arrangements or telling the audience to not clap between songs.
This past weekend, one group went over the time limit. There show was timed to be twelve minutes and three seconds. They weren’t penalized.
Now, there’s more to this debate than just three seconds. There’s a reason I like to call it the “Three-Second Debacle”.
Something new was announced this year. It was announced at the end of last ICCA competition that Core Media, inc. was going to be working with Varsity Vocals to create a docu-drama TV series entitled “Sing It On”. At the time, very little was known. It wasn’t until very recently that more information was released. The filming process is that the production company will follow groups throughout their entire ICCA journey, be it winning finals or not even placing at quarterfinals. The groups have been yet to be formally announced by Core Media, but a few groups have stated their involvement to the public. Therefore, while a some groups are known, it is unknown whether or not any more groups are being followed but opted to remain quiet.
Of course, with the first quarterfinals being this past weekend, it makes sense that at least one of the groups being followed would be competing, such that the production company is following a new group each week at different quarterfinals.
I wasn’t able to go to this quarterfinal, mostly because I can’t just take time to travel more than about 2-3 hours away to go to a quarterfinal. However, I know at least one person who was at this quarterfinal. As the news was relayed to me, it looked like the production company was very much helping to step in to help this particular group on this day. I’m fairly certain that Varsity Vocals had a very lengthy conversation with Core Media to make sure that any and all bias is avoided. While it’s possible that just a little bit came through accidentally, I’ll eternally remain skeptical over THAT much bias. Some of the information I was told was that the group got a warm-up room in a vastly different (and tremendously beneficial) location and actually had security guards, the production company spoke to the audience to somewhat hype up the crowd, and that the group’s show was too long.
Now, I’ll take a stab at disproving a few two of three rumors. First, the thought of the group having a guarded room seems kind preposterous. Given these types of competitions, most people are usually incredibly supportive of each other. Personally, I would hate if I had a warm-up room that’s far away from everyone else. However, the thought of the production company having a room like this that they can leave their incredibly expensive filming equipment is quite logical. A security guard standing outside to make sure that somebody doesn’t walk off with equipment isn’t all that preposterous. In fact, it’s almost more preposterous to NOT have a security guard outside this room. Next, if the company wants the group to come visit the production room for an interview, it shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. However, from the wrong vantage point, it looks like the group gets a minor advantage. I’d be far more inclined to believe this.
As for the hype-man, I think he’s more of a benefit for everyone when he gets everyone to cheer. I’m working on a whole theory involving the concept of the a cappella home-field advantage (because it surprisingly does slightly exist in collegiate a cappella), but having an audience that cheers for everyone is pretty cool. Of course, I watched multiple videos from this particular quarterfinal (hooray for YouTube). In a few of these, the crowd goes nuts over the group on stage. From what I could see, it looked like the crowd was almost unnaturally receptive to the stage. Therefore, you could hear which groups had great moments from the crowd. It wasn’t all one group. Maybe the hype-man came on the stage at the wrong time and it appeared to show the production company playing favorites, but the crowd didn’t show this nearly as much as I was led to believe.
However, let’s return to the Three-Second Debacle.
As I was told, the show was almost fifteen seconds too long. Immediately, I jumped at that thought. ICCA really only has about four rules regarding the performance to promote fairness and a family show (12 minute set, no instruments, no profanity, and everybody gets the same amount of time to get acclimated to the sound system by emailed information and a timed sound check). Aside from these rules, pretty much anything goes. Usually, there isn’t a problem. As far as I was aware as of about three days ago, I had heard of one of these rules being broken once (Apparently, Mizzou Forte one year performed the song “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds, which features a certain four-letter word that begins with the letter “F”). Therefore, when I hear that one group broke one of these rules, it’s a pretty big deal.
Now, I wouldn’t be a savvy a cappella nerd if I didn’t at least check to make sure about this (However, the guy who brought his own stopwatch to competition may have me beat). Therefore, through the magic of YouTube, I was able to find this group’s closing number. Remember those signs I talked about at the opening of this post? I made sure to watch them diligently. If my calculation of time is correct (which is kinda hard since I don’t know exactly when the timekeeper is raising the signs, if they started the stopwatch at the right time, etc.), the timed length of the show is approximately twelve minutes and three seconds. Yes, three seconds. Now, if the rules set in place for Varsity Vocals hold true, the penalty for that is being docked an entire place. Regardless of points and how major the violation, the group would be reduced one rank.
First off, I was actually kinda surprised when I first heard the show ran long. My first thought was literally “Oh, cool. I’ve never actually seen that rule come up before”. And then, it hit me. I had seen the results of this competition two days previously. It can be definitively stated that the group was not penalized.
Let that sink in for a moment.
As I knew it, a group that was being filmed by a nationally televised production company managed to skirt around being penalized for breaking approximately one quarter of all the competition rules set in place by Varsity Vocals, and I had visual proof.
Of course, naturally, I get all excited about this because I’m extremely nerdy in this regard. I immediately took to Facebook, simply thinking that “There’s a conspiracy at ICCA to help television ratings!”. Nothing major, I wasn’t going to make any major rash accusations, but merely stated that there are rumors about the production company influencing the outcomes of the shows. I was planning on waiting a little while and watching more outcomes to see if this was just a one-time ordeal. There are multiple groups being followed, and one of the other groups being followed is notorious for getting dangerously close to that twelve minute limit. Therefore, waiting might not have been a terrible idea.
Of course, I think I managed to start light a spark that might become a major wildfire before this season is through. From one Facebook post, I was shortly discussing this with the coordinator for my competition region, asking her thoughts on what happened. As usual, I’m not going to make any actual accusations, merely stating rumors that I have heard. Of course, when it gets to something that proof actually exists for, I start to wonder. I was given a simple “We’ve never docked groups for going a few seconds over for audience applause” and directed to email Amanda Newman, the executive director of Varsity Vocals.
I figured the odds of getting a response from Ms. Newman were fairly small. In the off chance that I did manage to get a response, it was going to be one of those blanket statements that gave virtually no insight towards anything, simply a “We are doing everything in our power to maintain the fairness of the competitions”. However, I figured that I might as well try. Therefore, I sent her a rather lengthy email that discussed what had been rumored to me, what I could prove, and asked her two questions. The first question was “How do you draw that line between human error in timing a set and a group trying to gain an advantage?”. The second was asking proof that the ICCA tournament would remain unbiased throughout the filming of “Sing It On”.
The response I got was phenomenal.
I received a small novel of a reply. In it, Ms. Newman first gave me a preview of a statement that was soon to be posted on the Varsity Vocals site (http://varsityvocals.com/word-icca-tv-docu-series/). This statement dealt with this exact inquiry I made. The main part was to announce the presence of “Sing It On”. It had been somewhat known in the a cappella world if you spend enough time reading about what’s going on. However, with this message, it is now a very public ordeal. While it hasn’t been announced by the production company which groups are being followed, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if one of the groups at your quarterfinal or semifinal is one of them.
However, there’s a second half to that the message. The second half was directly addressing these three seconds. Essentially, it boils down to this: There is approximately a five-second grace period to protect groups in the event that something happens. Whether it’s a song goes a hair slower than anticipated, or the crowd cheers too long, or a pitch pipe malfunctions (yes, that happens more often than you’d think), the grace makes sure that the group is not intending to commit a time violation. Of course, this isn’t just taken lightly. It is reviewed by the sound technician, the region coordinator, and possibly traveling up the ladder of power to make sure that it was human error.
On top of all of this information made public, there were an extra three paragraphs that were addressed directly to me. These were meant for putting my fears at ease. Of course, she informed me that she wasn’t allowed to tell me know all that she knows about network’s involvement within the ICCA competition. While she wasn’t able to tell me the network’s plans towards continuity, she did confirm for me that regardless of the outcome of the competition, the network will have no influence on the results at any competition and plans have been made for virtually every single possibility imaginable. She then gave me an invitation to ask any more questions I may have regarding this. Naturally, I have about seven thousand. However, I limited it to one last question. I asked her if I could blog about this. Therefore, to top off the awesome experience of dealing with the executive director of Varsity Vocals, SHE GAVE ME A FREAKIN’ QUOTE TO USE!! Here’s what she said:
“In the future, and especially if more of our events are available for more wide public consumption (such as being televised), if the time limit continues to attract as much vigilance as it has in this case, we may opt to enforce the time limit more rigidly. Historically, we have sought only to enforce the spirit of the rule, which is that a group should only have 12 minutes to perform material for the judges’ consideration, and a group that performs for, say, 13 minutes then has an unfair advantage. But strictly enforcing a significant penalty for something that is so subject to human error beyond the group’s control — such as starting and stopping time, or applause between songs — seemed sort of ridiculous when it was truly only a matter of a handful of seconds.”
-Amanda Newman, Varsity Vocals Executive Director.
First off, if you understand how much of a nerd I am towards a cappella, then you will probably realize that I almost fainted at receiving this. Second, there’s a cherry on top of this whole discussion. This conversation all occurred in less than two hours. I was in and out of classes while this conversation was going on. I spent more time waiting to start typing my response than I did waiting to receive one. How cool is that? If this is the kind of response I get from one of the most powerful people in the collegiate a cappella world, I will never object to remaining a part of it, even long after I am no longer in college (P.S. I’m graduating in May, so if anybody in Varsity Vocals happens to read this and knows of a position opening up at the end of the season, I am willing to travel!).
After all of this journey down the rabbit hole, I have to start wondering what will happen because of my actions. First off, let’s re-evaluate the rule. While part of me still believes that the rule should be an incredibly hard cut-off line, I’m afraid of what will happen if we make it a hard 12-minute line. First off, we would need a guarantee that the timekeeper has an exact time. Therefore, this would alter how competition sets are presented. Groups already work hard to shorten the time between the start of the clock and the start of the set. Asking us to next alter sets such that the timekeeper can see exactly when our first and last notes are given is almost painful. Furthermore, by adding more rules to maintain fairness, the competition begins to lose some of the freedom that the groups are given by competitions having minimal rules.
However, I still don’t believe that having a grace period is right. I will respect that it becomes the decision of the timekeeper and the region coordinator, and that if they find that it was not the intent of the group to play jump rope with the line. However, in the event that this does become a more common occurrence, I expect Varsity Vocals to revisit this rule (Which Ms. Newman stated, and I will hold her to that one). I had never seen this violation happen before, but I’m sure if I looked hard enough, I could find a few sets that do it. I have a feeling that it’s probably around 1-2 sets per year. However, if anybody can actually give the exact number or the set that actually got penalized, I will probably give you a chocolate chip cookie. Unfortunately, this event has caused timing to become a dual edged sword. It has now become public (Well, public to anybody who follows Varsity Vocals religiously enough to read their posts) that the time constraint is just a bit more fluid. I wouldn’t be surprised if the shows become a little longer in the next few seasons. This would lead to another huge argument that will discuss intent and will be another fascinating case study (because somebody will have a show that finally breaks the rule), and I will probably write about it. Stay tuned.
Next, let’s consider what this means for the TV series. The group from this past weekend was the guinea pig for the competition filming. Therefore, I have a feeling that things are possibly going to change a decent amount such that this doesn’t happen twice. I will put my faith in Varsity Vocals working to maintain the fairness in the event, and wouldn’t be surprised to see the process the followed groups go through to change and prove that the network’s actions are completely independent of the competition.
Finally, let’s consider what happens to the group. I’m not much of a betting man (aside from the occasional fantasy football team), but I would be willing to put money on the group doing something to make sure that their time get shortened. My guess is they will tell the audience to hold applause. They also might change their ballad by cutting a verse (or change song entirely), but that’s less likely. If nothing else, they now have a story to keep them a bit more interesting throughout the series. I wish them the best of luck. I will admit that I’ve watched that same YouTube video multiple times, and at least half of those views are simply just because I did appreciate the performance. However, know that in the event that I find my group competing against theirs, I don’t plan on backing down.
So, now for the big important thing: What have we learned from this?
It comes down to a phrase that we are all told by many performers over the years: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.
Yes, you can now sleep a little easier about a set that is timed to be 11:58 with what you believe to be enough clapping. However, I REALLY don’t advise trying this one. Of course, you have to realize the probability of this event. Statistically, the time constraint is most likely going to happen to a group that doesn’t place and nobody really notices. The odds of a group having a winning set that lasts a hair too long is much slimmer. The odds of a group being followed by a production company at the same time they decide to do some rather lengthy songs while performing in front of an audience that really likes applause is almost astronomically slim. However, ICCA is like a sports league. Anything can happen. This group managed to hit the perfect storm of improbabilities.
It’s ICCA season again. Every year, new stories happen. There will be underdogs, chokes, new set styles, and probably a surprise or two that nobody sees coming. It’s exciting to think what could happen. A huge thanks to those individuals who discussed this with me. I’m sure I’m not the only person who had these questions, but I think we can now rest a little easier knowing that the conspiracy theory can be put to bed.