“What is it Statler?”
“What do you call an a cappella group that sings together?
“I don’t know. What do you call an a cappella group that sings together?
“A minor second.”
“Ohhhh ho ho ho ho ho ho”
Much like the grumpy Muppets that sit on the balcony and only have negative things to say to the performing acts, a cappella audiences secretly judge and critique your every action, especially when you are in a competition set. Okay, not really. But let’s face it, some people think that way. I refer back to a blog post I recently wrote about how a cappella groups should never be called “bad” and how coming to a quick judgment only hurts you and baby kittens. See link below:
But in all honesty, I have attended a large number of a cappella competitions, ranging from ICCA’s, to ICHSA’s, to festival specific competitions. And in my quest to establish a core curriculum on a cappella music, I have noticed similarities between groups who get critiqued and groups who fail to learn from their mistakes. Speaking as a humble audience member, I would like to list the most common things I have heard/witnessed from attending these many concerts.
The question that enters my mind first when a group walks on the stage is whether they are in it to win it. Some groups (probably most) claim that they would really like to win, but are deep down unsure of what that really means. Before you compete, make sure you understand the common threads that connect all groups who have yet to win that shiny plastic trophy.
1) Why are you competing?
Are your group members experts at performing and you think you have what it takes? Maybe your group has never competed before and are just in it for the thrill. Maybe your group has every intention of winning some competition down the line, but this particular one is just a practice round? My suggestion- make sure everyone in the group has the same goal and works towards it. Sitting in the audience show after show makes it easy to tell who wants it and who doesn’t.
2) If you want to win, then you have to play harder.
This is a competition. COMP. ET. IT. ION. If you want to win, assume that some group wants it more. Forget about your philosophy of which sounds better- acoustic a cappella or mass produced sound. Forget about the current drama plaguing your first tenor and second soprano. Band together and get the job done.
3) Microphone Etiquette- Never taught, but very important.
There are two schools of thought. Much like the gangs in West Side Story, both sides think the other is wrong and will dance battle each other if necessary. One side believes in the simple phrase “Mouth to the metal.“ This involves putting the microphone right up to your mouth, because it is the sound engineers job to control your volume, not yours. The other side believes in distance-keeping the microphone 2-3 inches away from the face, or adjusting the placement of the microphone depending on how loud you are singing. Whichever side you are on, EVERYONE in your group needs to pick one and go with it. This is one of the primary reasons why the Vocal Percussionist (who usually has the mouth to the metal) is always louder than the soloist (who usually has kept some distance from the microphone).
4) Judges scoring systems are not what you think they are…
From some highly trusted sources who judge ICCA’s and ICHSA’s for a living, I found out that the scoring systems for judging competitions are set up so that the group who gets the best overall score wins. This might sound to you like “Oh well clearly the best group will get the most points” but in fact, it isn’t. If one judge does not like a group and ranks them lower, it doesn’t matter if every other judge and the audience think they are the bomb. That group will probably not win- the second most favored group will be bumped up in points and take the top prize. This is why you sit in the audience and think “How in the hell did they win when (insert favorite group here) was so much better?” Well, it’s not about being the best, it’s about scoring the most overall points.
5) Choreography= sweating and panting
Ever wonder why your soloist is running out of breath right after your big choreography dance number? It’s because dancing is physical activity and makes your body need more oxygen. Plan ahead. If the soloist is going to run out of breath, give them easier choreography, or don’t let them dance.
6) Perform before you perform.
If you really want to win, you need to perfect your set to the best of your ability. I suggest an open dress rehearsal, or pre-competition concert with an audience. The audience will always catch something you missed and give you invaluable tips on how to be better. Don’t assume they don’t know anything- you can’t see what you look like on stage. Or better yet, get another a cappella group to critique you.
7) Devise a competition ready set
Devise a 3-4 song set that obeys the rules. Even if the greatest number your group sings is the one you really want to show off, it may involve choreography that makes you all run out of breath, it may not sound good with the competition’s microphone settings, or it may not translate well to this particular set of judges. If you want to win, you have to prepare to win- and that means devising a separate, competition ready set. Don’t think this is unfair- barbershop groups do it ALL THE TIME. In fact, they are encouraged to do it. Barbershop groups cannot sing any song they want at competition. They are heavily restricted to certain repertoire and arrangements. Have your a cappella group follow the restrictions of barbershop and watch your competition set change dramatically.
8) SOUND CHECK- Stop ignoring me. I love you…why don’t you love me back?
The single most heard comment of every night- “There was trouble with your mics and we couldn’t hear you.” Guess what…that’s your fault, not the stage or the host school. You need a plan for your sound checks. You need to know exactly what sections of what songs to run, you need someone who will sit in the audience and tell the sound engineer what to do (preferably someone who’s NOT in the group) and you need to make good use of your time, cause you usually only get 10-15 minutes. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT AND MOST OVERLOOKED PART OF COMPETITIONS. Unless your group is planning to go 100% acoustic and stand in front of the stage away from all microphones, you need your sound check. Oh and speaking of acoustic sounds…
9) Know how to project if you are not using microphones.
Another widely heard comment “You guys are not loud enough because your mouths are not open.” We all love percussive sounds that use lots of consonants, but consonants are NEVER louder than bright resonant vowels. If you know in advance that you are going to opt out of handheld mics, your arrangements need to include lots of oh’s and ahh’s and you need to learn how to project your voice.
10) Expect another group to sing your song.
Oh you know this one…you’re standing backstage, psyched to go on and…what’s that?? Mother $%^#$@!!!!!! The group before you did your song. Your heart sinks and you know all hope is lost.
Well….no. Think before you freak out. The chances of another group doing your song- 50%. The chances of another group doing your arrangement of that same song- 0%. It’s not about the song choice, it’s about the way the arrangement sounds. If your group thinks that singing a recognizable song is enough to get the judges and audience on your side, it’s not. The audience does not care about your repertoire choice. They care what your arrangement sounds like. Don’t set yourself up for that crushing feeling of someone taking your “super secret song choice weapon” and it won’t happen to you.
11) Play to your group strengths- Maroon 5 is not always the best choice
There are a lot of older groups who wish to “connect” to their young audience by singing the hip new radio hit. Unless the arrangement is the most incredible thing ever, don’t do it. If your group is a bunch of dorks, sing dorky songs. If your group has Indian/asian influences, sing Indian/asian songs. If your group has been singing for 20+ years, don’t sing Lady Gaga. The groups who know their identities and play to their strengths have always taken at least third place or better.
12) Evaluate other groups on youtube
Learn from other’s mistakes. Sit down and take the time to watch other groups together and evaluate. What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? More groups have improved by spending 30 minutes on youtube (which is something everyone does anyway…) than groups who think they know everything.
13) Pleasing the judges vs. pleasing the audience- Not necessarily different
Groups have come on stage and tried specifically to win “the audience favorite.” They sing mainstream songs, they have really funny choreography, and they have exuberant energy- but they sacrifice the musical elements to do it. They usually don’t care, because the mentality is “the judges will probably hate us, but the audience will love us.” From the number of shows I’ve seen, 80% of the groups who win audience favorite also place top 3 or win first place. Audiences do not like to be talked down to- audiences appreciate musicality just as much as the judges. This is not American Idol- the audience does not pick the winner. The judges do.
14) Other groups should not be feared, but inspiring.
Don’t worry about what other groups are doing. They are not you. They have different experiences, and both of you can get standing ovations. Groups try so hard to be better than others that they end up losing sight of their own goal. Think of the competition as an exhibition- you can all win in the audience’s eyes. The only reason to pay attention to another group is to learn from them. If they do something awesome, hopefully that inspires you to do something awesome. If your fragile psyche can’t listen to other groups without getting enraged (don’t worry, I’m the same way…) put the headphones in your ears and drown out all sound until it’s time to go on.
15) Audiences LOVE belt-y solos
If you have a belter in your group, put him/her front and center. Devise a song that’s perfect in his/her range, and let them do their thing. Trust me, the audience will love you for it.
16) Don’t assume you are going first or last
If any one of your numbers only works if you are a specific number in the overall night’s roster, don’t do it. You have better odds of winning the lottery than getting the number you want in the roster. Oh, and if you are last, assume your audience is fast asleep and/or really hoping the show is over soon and plan for that eventuality.
17) Audiences ruin moments.
That great high note you want everyone to hear. That really serious moment in one song. That hilarious joke. You think these will be heard and appreciated the way you want them to be. Forget it. It’s a proven fact that audiences clap at the wrong times. Audiences yell and scream and drown out your soloist. Audiences clap along with your song and rush the tempo. The steps you take to prevent forest fires are the same with audience faux pas.
18) Dynamics and articulations matter.
Judges love dynamics and articulations. That’s what makes the music, not black dots on the page. More groups have gotten slammed for their absence of dynamic contrasts and emotional singing than I can count. Rhythm and melody are not enough. Your group needs to be musicians, not robots.
19) Check egos and gimmicks at the door.
Believing you’re the best group there is nice for self-confidence, but bad when you lose. The faces some people make when they realize they are not the audience favorite or not the first place winner is heartbreaking, but it can be avoided if you don’t set yourself up for a huge failure. Check your ego at the door and learn from the experience. You did the best you could. That should be enough.
Oh and please stop using gimmicks. They get laughs like 50% of the time and they don’t help convince the judges you are serious about winning.
20) Judges sheets are WAY more important than judges open comments.
True, not every a cappella competition has judges who openly critique groups on stage. In fact, that’s actually the minority. But if you happen to be in one, keep this in mind: No judge wants to be looked at as a “Simon Cowell.” Judges are not going to be openly harsh- which is nice but also unhelpful. A good judge should not only critique and compliment, but also provide helpful hints to improve. And these are always written on the sheets.