The Three Second Debacle: A Look Into ICCA Rules

ICCA timing

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.

ICCA 2015 Early Reflections and Power Rankings

Yesterday morning, Varsity Vocals announced which groups will be competing in this year’s International Champtionship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Competition.  Of course, like any over-the-top a cappella nerd would, I took the liberty of looking over all 293 groups competing from the US, and made a Power Ranking, presenting the top 40 competitors I believe have the best chance of winning the entire competition.  Of course, it’s still extremely early.  The competitors at each venue haven’t been announced yet.  We also have to consider that a couple groups may drop out of competition, and other things could happen.

Here’s the entire list of competitors:

http://varsityvocals.com/2015-icca-lineup-announced/

However, all of that aside, here is what I am looking at:

1) Past ICCA experience.  This kinda goes without saying .  There is no reason to believe that a group will win ICCA on their first attempt.  That pretty much just doesn’t happen.  Therefore, groups that have competed before have more weight than those that don’t.  Furthermore, those that have been successful at ICCA have a good deal more weight than those that have not.

2) Presence in the recorded community.  Recording a terrible arrangement in a recording studio doesn’t just magically make it better.  Therefore, groups that have managed to have strong recordings produced are going to be considered more than those without them.

3) Trends.  This is the hard one.  I’m looking at who has done well recently, as opposed to five years ago, as well as who has been on the up and up in recent memory.  Conversely, who is looking at being significantly weaker than they have in previous years.  Of course, I’m bound to miss something, but up and coming groups usually get noticed pretty easily.

4)The teensiest of favoritism.  It’s just me writing this blog.  Therefore, When I look at two names head to head, I may just find one to be a bit better than the other for no good reason other than I like one group over the other.  Therefore, I apologize to any group in advance who feels I gave them a terrible ranking for only this reason.

With all that said, here are my rankings:

1) USC SoCal VoCals – The SoCals are the only group to have won ICCA three times. Furthermore, they won all three times in the past seven seasons. They didn’t compete during the other four. While every year brings in new challenges to each group, and they haven’t competed in three years, I still like them as favorites out of the gate.

2) U Mass – Amherst Hexachords – In terms of collegiate a cappella, nobody is better at the small group style than the Hexachords. They have placed second at finals the past two years, both times losing to the group that would eventually be crowned champion. I don’t think there’s a single group in the Northeast that can give the Hexachords a run for their money at this point, and I believe that they have a very strong chance at keeping the champion in the Northeast.

3) Michigan G-Men – The G – Men have been known for being the powerhouse of the Great Lakes region since it began in the 2013 season. However, I think we have finally hit the point where the Great Lakes Region is an actual competitor, rather than just created so there could be more competitors. Therefore, thanks to an incredible vocal percussion corps and throat bass leading the charge, expect great things from the boys in blue jerseys

4) NYU N’Harmonics – I myself has always been rather fond of the N’Harmonics. I honestly believe that they were robbed of placing at finals this past year. However, that doesn’t mean that they are going to get robbed this year. On the contrary, I believe they have just as good a chance as ever. The only thing to consider is their new region. Last year, they were in the Mid-Atlantic. This year, they are in the Northeast. The regions all have a little bit of a different style, but that means that the N’Harmonics could be the new kids on the block and could be in for a great season

5) Maryland Faux Paz – Faux Paz just released a new album, Chaos, that is pretty much playing on loop in my a cappella Spotify playlist currently. I’ve been a big fan of their shows the past two years, which have both taken fourth at absolutely STACKED south semifinals. Therefore, now that they have been moved the far more geographically appropriate Mid-Atlantic region, I’m expecting great things from them this year.

6) FSU Acabelles – Fresh off of a SoJam win and a new album, the Acabelles don’t look like they plan on stopping any time soon. Argued as the best all-female collegiate group, the Acabelles have figured out how to make an incredibly in-depth arrangements without the use of actual bass notes. Look out for them this year.

7) Belmont Beltones – The Beltones have won the Wildcard round the past two years in a row. They must be doing something right at Belmont University. Perhaps this is the year they finally make it to finals by winning a semifinal.

8) Washington University in St. Louis Stereotypes – The Stereotypes lost to the Bare Naked Statues last year at semifinals by a point. One. Point. Now, if history has taught us anything, it’s that they will make finals the next year, as they did between the 2010 and 2011 years. Expect some great things from the men in multi-colored ties.

9) UCLA Scattertones – The Scattertones have taken 2nd place at finals the past 3 years in a row. However, they managed to lose some very strong voices at the end of last school year. Their work is cut out for them, but there’s nothing that says they can’t do it.

10) FSU All-Night Yahtzee – I really likes ANY’s show last season. While it didn’t win, I thought it showed that the group had a lot to offer. I’m expecting big things from them this year. Even though the South region is absolutely stacked, they will make a good showing.

11) U Chicago Voices In Your Head – The Voices In Your Head have only been on the map since the 2012 season, when they pretty much came out of nowhere and were argued the champion at finals, thanks to Chris Rischel, who is emerging as an absolutely tremendous arranger. However, now that Rischel is only writing, Voices has found their stage legs without him, and could emerge as a tremendous group.

12) Northeaster Nor’easters – The 2013 champions are back to defend their title. I wasn’t expecting them this year due to them dropping out of competition last year, but it looks like they’re back. Without Shams Ahmed, who now works for the Vocal Company, expect them to be a bit rocky without him directing, but you cannot deny the strength of this Boston-based ensemble.

13) MSU State of Fifths – I was surprised when I was creating this list at just how high they wound up getting placed. After taking second at their semifinal last year to the group that was argued to win (The G-Men), and ahead of the group that took second in the Wildcard round (The Intentional Accidentals), it only makes sense to assume that something is going well for the co-ed group at Michigan State.

14) Ithaca College Ithacappella – I’m possibly a bit far too excited about this group competing again. I haven’t known Ithacappella to compete in at least 5 years or so, after being a group that went to finals on multiple occasions. However, during their ICCA hiatus, they did manage to make multiple BOCA albums. Now that they’re back, I’m expecting good things.

15) Emory Dooley Noted – The last time Dooley Noted, they placed third at a totally stacked south semifinal (What else is new?). That was two years ago. Now that they’re back, we can expect another great showing.

16) UCF Voicebox – Voicebox is another one of those new smaller groups that has been recently created thanks to groups like Pentatonix, Home Free, and The Funx for inspiration. While I wasn’t able to see them perform at SoJam this past year, what I saw on YouTube was mightly impressive, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make a good showing.

17) Saint Louis University Bare Naked Statues – While the Statues have a lot going for them (went to finals last year, didn’t lose any major group members between seasons), I just don’t think them as good of the powerhouse that they might seem. Don’t get me wrong, they have found a show style that works for them. I just think that their failure to innovate may be their downfall.

18) Oregon On The Rocks – Speaking of groups that haven’t competed in years, On The Rocks is back in the mix. While I don’t believe this is the same group that got their fame from the video of Bad Romance that eventually got them on the Sing-Off (caliber wise, not personnel, obviously), I still believe that these guys are going to be a strong contender from the west.

19) Rutgers Casual Harmony – Casual Harmony always just seems to be full of surprises when it comes to ICCA. I didn’t think about them much at the start of the season, but they managed to give a tremendous performance that eventually landed them a third place finish against the N’Harmonics (who I thought should have at least placed at finals) and the Yellow Jackets (who was on the Sing Off only about two years previously). Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t overlook them.

20) U Penn Off the Beat – If you’ve ever listened to a BOCA album, there’s about a 75% chance that Off the Beat was on that album. These guys are monsters when it comes to a cappella recording. Given their history, it’s safe to say that they’re going to come to competition and provide some stiff competition.

21) San Antonio College Fermata Nowhere – Fermata Nowhere seems to always be a force in the West. While they haven’t made finals since 2009 (When they managed to win), they will provide a great deal of pressure to any and every group that they manage to compete with.

22) NCSU Grains of Time – While they didn’t place at semifinals last year, they managed to produce a show with one of the best step routines I’ve ever seen in ICCA. If they manage to maintain that level of choreo and work on honing their vocal abilities, they could be a force to be reckoned with.

23) U Delaware Vocal Point – Vocal Point used to be driven by Jon Smith, who arranged a very large chunk of their musical repertoire, as well as directed them. Now that Jon has since graduated, Vocal Point is going to be in a bit of a transition year. However, don’t think for a second that this means they won’t be able to still give a good showing.

24) Michigan Dicks and Janes – The amount of talent at the University of Michigan (or really, the entire Michigan public university system) is quite incredible. The Dicks and Janes is one of these groups, and expecting great things from them isn’t asking the world of anyone. They’re going to bring it anyways.

25) Illinois Xtension Chords- These Midwest mainstays released a new album, Wired Up, at the end of last year, and it’s a very solid showing. Despite the fact that they didn’t place at an absolutely stacked quarterfinal, we can expect them to bounce back in a big way.

26) BYU Beyond Measure – I feel like I may have not given this BYU co-ed group enough credit. Hailing from a school that has a strong enough a cappella community to release a “Best of BYU A cappella” album (which I actually believe was recorded on campus), Beyond Measure is entering its second year at competition. Given that they placed second at their semifinal, I think the only thing standing between them finals is the fact that they have to dethrone some tremendous groups from the same region.

27) Wisconsin-Madison Fundamentally Sound – Fundamentally sound has been performing quite well in the Midwest the past few years. They placed 3rd at their semifinal in 2103, and won their quarterfinal last year with a show that I thought was rather brilliantly written (essentially the show bled so well, you could have sworn it was one song, because no idea ever went away). Expect another great showing from them again.

28) Ohio State Buck That! – I have always felt that Buck That! Is a bit of an underrated group in the collegiate a cappella world. They always have great sound and choreography, and it always just seems to get little recognition. Perhaps this is the year they finally get noticed as the contenders I have seen them be.

29) Penn State Pennharmonics – The last time the Pennharmonics competed (2012), they went all the way to finals. The show that year had some tremendous arrangements that managed to find a balance between dark and edgy and powerful, and it was grossly overlooked. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another high caliber show from this co-ed group.

30) Florida No Southern Accent – I thought No Southern Accent got a little bit robbed last year. Unfortunately, they’re still getting robbed a bit here. I just think other groups are going to do a bit better than them. However, that’s not to say that they won’t still have a great chance to prove me wrong.

31) CMU Originals – Again another group I just feel is a bit underrated, the Carnegie Melon boys always seem to give great performances that aren’t even mentioned at the semifinal level. Perhaps this is the year they get the recognition they are entitled to.

32) Missouri State Beartones – The Beartones have known as Midwest mainstays, perhaps even a bit more so, but I expect them to be a bit of a growing year. In the previous year, they had one member who managed to put the group on his back, arranging the show, directing it, and even soloing on one song. Now that he has graduated (I think), they’re going to have to work to get back to the place they once were.

33) UNC Loreleis – Argued as one of the best all-female group in the country, the Loreleis have managed to create a small niche for themselves in the collegiate a cappella world. While it may have been a few years since the last time they took the stage for competition, I would expect them to still show why they have the prestige they do.

34) Emory Aural Pleasure – This is a bit of a stab in the dark. I’ve never known Aural Pleasure as an ICCA competitor. However, they released an album around 2010 that managed to make both Voices Only and Sing albums that year. While I haven’t seen them perform at ICCA, it’s safe to assume that they’re going to still give a great performance.

35) Nebraska Bathtub Dogs – The Bathtub Dogs first became a notable name after their choreography driven show that just barely missed finals on two separate occasions. However, in the years before that, they were known as Midwest mainstays that always seemed to place at quarterfinals. While they may have found themselves back where they started after this past year, I think they have found their performance style, and they could make another run.

36) Illinois No Comment – No Comment competed for years before they had their big break that led them to finals (barely squeaking past the Bathtub Dogs) in 2013. They had a bit of a lull this past year, placing third in a tremendously competitive quarterfinal, and I’d like to think that last year was a growing year for them, and they could come back this year better than ever.

37) Richmond Octãves – The Octãves (Pronounced ock-Tayves) are just a guilty pleasure of mine. They haven’t made BOCA since 2007, although they did make Voices Only in 2013 and 2014, and they haven’t competed in recent memory. However, I still think them as a group capable of tremendous performances, and we could expect to see a good performance out of them.

38) UNCG Sapphires – The third all-women’s group in this list (and the second from North Carolina), the Sapphires are an interesting case study for me. They manage to give some great performances both at ICCA and SoJam competitions, as well as making multiple compilation albums over the past few years.

39) UVA Hullabahoos – For anyone who has read the book Pitch Perfect (yes, it was a book first), you know that the Hullabahoos have a bit of a reputation. However, that reputation makes itself known in the group’s performances. They are known for their energy, and it even becomes apparent in their recordings. While I don’t know how they’ll be able to do choreography in their traditional uniforms, we can still expect them to make something happen.

40) University of Missouri Add9 – Yes, I’m slightly biased by adding my own group to the list. However, there honestly is some merit in picking us. The winner from the Midwest for the past few years has been a group that manages to come out of seemingly nowhere and make a great showing. We managed to finish fourth at a quarterfinal, but it was tremendously better than we had ever done. Therefore, given the other groups in the Midwest that has the same general placing in the previous year, we are the ones most likely to succeed.
Honorable Mentions – Elizabethtown College Melica, Emmanuel College Acapocalypse, Missouri State University A Cub Bela, MSU Capital Green, NCSU Acappology, Northwestern Undertones, Oregon State Outspoken, Penn State The Coda Conduct, UGA Noteworthy, Washington University in Saint Louis After Dark

Best of Luck to everyone competing.  I will try and post more as more information is presented, such as who is competing where, who wins at the quarterfinals, and even who releases a new album over the next few weeks.  If anybody wants to give their own input, or knows any such album information that I do not, as always, feel free to let me know.

It’s gonna be a great year.

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.

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