Thursday, September 29, 2016

To Compete or Not Compete

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Delaware, I took a number of courses dedicated to “choral methods,” or the preparation of becoming a choral director in school. During one particular class, we had a stirring debate over whether or not a school choir should enter a graded festival or competition.

No clear winner emerged.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to entering your groups in a competitive festival, such as a CASA competition, the AEA national competition, or the most common, the ICCA (International Clam-bake and Cartwheel Association).

If you’re on the fence about whether or not to sign up for these competitions, then read on. I’ll do all the hard debating for you!

Yes, you idiot! Competitions are great!

1) Competitions are sure-fire ways to get on-the-ground feedback about how far your group has come and how far it needs to go.

2) Winning a competition makes you feel better than eating a double-fudge brownie topped with ice cream and money.

3) When gigs are hard to find and hard to book, competitions can help fill the schedule and give you something to practice for. After all, a competition is a guaranteed gig with a deadline and (almost always) a packed-house audience.

4) For a new a cappella group, competitions can unite your members under a common goal: “Be the absolute best you can be.”

5) A dedicated rehearsal schedule for an a cappella group wishing to compete separates the adults from the children. After a few intense rehearsals, you will know who is 100% committed and who is ready to quit. Remember, “there’s no crying in a cappella…unless you’re performing ‘Cry’ by Faith Hill in which case there absolutely is crying in the form of a lyrical shoutout.”

6) Working under competition guidelines can highlight your group’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ll bet you ten dollars (legally non-binding) that by the end of the competition, your group will know who the best soloists are, who can dance and who can’t, and how effective your arrangements are for a competitive setting.

7) Most a cappella competitions have individual awards in addition to group awards. Even if your group doesn't take home the gold, someone in your group might get a really good consolation prize.

8) Competitions give your group a chance to watch and evaluate other a cappella groups, and possibly be inspired to use new techniques.

9) Winning a competition can rocket your group’s momentum. As the old sports-ball saying goes, “No one remembers who came in second.”

Except me. I do. ‘Cause I’m a freak. And I also don’t watch sports.

As demeaning as that saying is, there is a nugget of truth to it. A competition-winning a cappella group can use their newfound fame to kick open doors that would have once been closed. And with the ever-growing number of a cappella groups around the world, winning a competition is the “get-rich-quick” version of standing out in a crowd.

Now the big question…

Is there an educational purpose to competitions?

I think the answer is: “Well, if your group learns something new, then YES!”

You must understand that competitions are not built around educational foundations. Competitions, especially those “sing-for-us-and-then-go-enjoy-yourself-in-your-selected-theme-park-while-your-chaperones-constantly-worry-about-whether-you-will-get-kidnapped” festivals are built around big hefty piles of cash. That’s not a critique, it’s just the way businesses work. Competitions cost money and if people don’t buy tickets, there is no money.

I know firsthand, having judged a few ICCA rounds, that the company who runs the competition, Varsity Vocals, cares deeply about giving everyone a “meaningful” experience. The on-staff producers advise judges to write comments that provide thoughtful feedback that groups can use to improve upon. (Disclosure: This may not be true in every region. I just know that it was always true for me, and I’d like to believe it’s a company policy).

Of course, there is that possibility you won't get an educational experience…

No you idiot! Competitions are the worst!

There are some serious downsides to competitions and let’s all address the one big argyle elephant in the room…

Losing sucks.

Losing sucks worse than eating a no-fudge brownie topped with cream cheese and garbage.

Let me tell you astory:

I’ve competed in the Harmony Sweepstakes six times in the last three years. I’ve competed in the New York region four times, and the Boston region twice. How many times do you think I’ve won? 


That’s right. Zero times.

UNTIL…wait for it…

Last year, my vocal jazz group, Quintet took second place in the New York region, and I personally won the “best arrangement” award in the Boston region. Those awards did nothing to cheer me up. I was unable to shake the other, humiliating losses. I couldn't be happy or satisfied. (Like Hamilton, I am never satisfied…or able to rap)

Now before I make my point, let’s rewind the clock a moment.

When we applied for our first ever Harmony Sweeps competition in 2013, my other CAL group, Satellite Lane, was not aiming for first place. We were aiming for the “Audience Favorite” award, which is voted on by the members of the audience and not the judges.

That night, we won that award and I won the night’s “best arrangement” award. That night was a triumph. I was happier than a kid at an all-you-can-eat-candy-buffet (I’m making a lot of food references…I think I’m hungry).

So what changed? Why was I happy then and not now? Well, in between those two victories, I suffered four terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad losses. Those hits kept coming and each one hurt just a little more than the one before. By the time I had finally won anything else, during my SIXTH time competing in Harmony Sweepstakes, the burn of the losses overpowered the euphoria of the triumphs. I had become numb to the win, because, in my mind, we still didn’t win “first place.”

Here’s my point. Yes, you could infer from this post that I’m a dedicated pessimist and that you understand why I’m an “emotional eater” but that’s not what I’m trying to say. I’m speaking to the people out there who have become obsessed with winning, obsessed with earning the only achievement that could possibly make them happy. Don’t let the dozens of losses taint the eventual win, even if the win is not what you had hoped for.

Losing over and over can really take a toll on your self-esteem and the group’s self-esteem. You need to monitor your group’s emotional state carefully. If competing is no longer fun, you should no longer do it. Otherwise, you may lose more than a competition; you may lose your a cappella group.

But enough depressing stories. Let’s break down the negatives of competition:

1) The judges of competitions can sometimes be, intentionally or unintentionally, really mean (More on this later). I’m sure they aren’t trying to put you down, but there’s always that one comment that haunts your very dreams for the next ten years. Maybe you’re not the accomplished beatboxer you thought you were. Maybe your arrangements are not at complex as you thought.

Take the comments with a grain of salt and remember that one person does not speak for everyone else.

Also, the judges don’t have time to write inspiring comments that give you fully formed ideas for your next rehearsal. They have a limited amount of time to get everything in, AND score your set, AND sign every piece of paper shoved in front of their noses. This is not to say we should take pity on the judges. This is just a reason why competition comments are often blunt, a little vague, and occasionally contradictory to one another. (Again...more on this later)

2) Competitions, especially the desire to win, can sometimes bring out the worst in people who are hungry for the win. Those self-prescribed desires can make someone look at another group as if these perfectly normal singers are the devil incarnate.

We must stay strong and united as a community if a cappella is to thrive and evolve. Plus, let’s all remember who the real enemy is: Bagpipe players.

3) Competitions are subjective, and therefore, who wins and who doesn’t is entirely up to a small panel of individuals. To think that your recent competition performance is the be-all-end-all representation of your group’s skill is incorrect.

Maybe the microphones were in a bad spot. Maybe your bass got sick. Maybe the room wasn’t what you thought it was going to be. Maybe you got a sudden case of stage fright.

All I’m saying is, don’t interpret competition performances as a serious representation of what your group can do. A cappella is not foremost a competitive sport, like sports-ball.

4) Too many wins can make a group cocky and stagnant as well.

Let’s say you are a group who continually wins (good for you…please hug me so you can rub your magical winning-juice all over my body). If you win too often, you start to believe that no one can beat you and everything you are doing is absolutely perfect. so there’s no reason to change. This is as dangerous as losing too often. A cappella groups need to think about new techniques to remain relevant in such a fast-moving musical marketplace. True, you may be on top for a long time, but when you start to go down, you’ll go down hard.

5) Judges suck.

I’m sorry. I know this will anger those of you who judge competitions, but we all suck.

We are snarky, judgmental, harsh, confusing, arrogant, miserable creatures who control the fate and emotional state of up to ten groups of singers, which is decided in the span of 10-12 minute sets, all within one night of competitive mayhem.

In short, we are A-holes. We don’t take into account the other 364 days in an a cappella group’s lifespan, and we can only draw on the experience we ourselves possess.

Now before you troll my comments section with pitchforks and inappropriate GIFs, let me just say this: If we weren’t all of those things, we wouldn’t be qualified to be judges.

If you’re reading this blog post and you are a judge, all I ask is that you keep in mind that competitions are more than just one-night spectacles of a cappella domination. Competitions are, purposely or not, educational experiences for those involved because every group is coming from a place where education is the priority.

And if you’re reading this blog post and you are a director of an ensemble, try to restrain your venomous thoughts about judges until you put the entire night into perspective. And maybe count to 100 before yelling.

Marc Silverberg

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Review of Next Level

We're back... (A dinosaur's tale)

This past summer, I attended (for the first time) a Next Level session, hosted by The Vocal Company. For those of you unfamiliar with Next Level, let me describe it briefly:

Next Level is a week-long workshop, held at the home of the Vocal Company in Rochester, NY. Each Next Level session invites several participants (spots are limited) to observe and participate in specific, a cappella-related activities with a special guest, usually someone who has achieved a large measure of success in the a cappella world. Examples include a week-long arranging session with Robert Dietz (from The Sing-Off), a week-long teaching/coaching session with J. D. Frizzell (director of One Voice) and Dr. Erin Hackel (director of MIX and LARK), or in my case, a week-long recording and mixing workshop with Ed Boyer (recording engineer for Pentatonix and Glee’s “The Warblers.”)

The week, which begins Monday morning and usually ends Friday afternoon, is expertly organized and planned by The Vocal Company’s director of education, Shannon McNulty, who manages to cram an entire a cappella curriculum into a specific time frame, ensuring that participants are given plenty of one-on-one time with instructors and ample time to work as a group on assigned projects.

Just so you get a better understanding of what to expect, should you ever decide to attend a Next-Level event, let me give you a few highlights:


Monday began with a “so…what do you want to learn” power session. I appreciated this because it gave everyone a chance to voice their concerns and open up about what experience they already have. The instructors took note of this, and it was clear during the week that they were addressing each participant’s level of expertise differently.

For example, many of the participants had no experience with either Pro Tools or Melodyne, so these students were led through the process of using each program slowly, while some participants already understood both and were able to get an advanced understanding of both programs.

The Vocal Company gave every participant a chance to record another singer and a chance to edit a track in Melodyne; an experience one would never get at an a cappella festival.



While this might seem like a chaotic nightmare of disorganized planning, the real-world scenario of falling behind a deadline is part of almost every recording process. When the deadlines start piling up, engineers invent shortcuts and pieces of the recording are left out purposely. For anyone who wants to record a cappella music or open up their own recording studio, this is the day when you take notes and watch the magic happen within the blink of an eye.

Oh. And we played laser tag. It was very intense.


So Wednesday morning offered up my first critique of the process. Ed Boyer was trapped in Hurricane "I-Don’t-Care-About-Your-Schedule” and unable to arrive on time, so the morning was divided up into learning segments. Some participants learned about songwriting, some got more experience with editing, and some, like me, were able to have prepared mixes critiqued by David Longo, head of the Vocal Company.

Now I LOVED this because it gave me a chance to present a mix I had already done and watch a master like David tear it apart with sharp pointy teeth. I feel like I learned more in this short session than most of the previous two days, and my critique simply is that this section needs to be much longer. I know it was a spur-of-the-moment choice, but out of those moments comes something really valuable.

Ed arrived sometime mid-morning and began working on the mix we had spent Monday and Tuesday preparing. Watching Ed mix was like watching Mozart compose or watching Van Gogh paint/rip off his ear. Ed Boyer moves so fast and flawlessly that it almost seems like what he’s doing isn’t even human.

We were warned beforehand to ask lots of questions because Ed moves so quickly that he rarely stops to explain what he’s done. Of course, I was the jerk who asked the most questions, and Ed always gave me an answer. Whether or not I understood the answer was a different story, but that was my problem, not his fault.

If it wasn’t clear already, this is one of the best parts of Next Level: the close proximity and one-on-one time you get with each artist. True, a cappella festivals give you that same proximity, but the schedule is so compacted that it is often difficult to corner someone and get all the answers you are looking for. Plus, with hundreds of people, artists tend to hang out with the friends they already have, whom they haven’t seen in months.

Here at Next Level, the group is small and everyone is in the same house for five days, so there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.


Ahh. Now here is my biggest critique of the week, and it comes with some explanation, so bear with me.

On Monday, Shannon mentioned in passing “On Thursday, you will arrange, track, and edit an entire recording in one day, so Ed can mix on Friday.”

At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that, and then Thursday came around…

No. She wasn’t kidding.

Thursday was a 24-hour, you’ll sleep-when-you’re-dead, track-a-thon. Four participants arranged the song by 1 p.m., we tracked until 10 p.m. and we edited all night.

Now, I’m 33 and my all-nighter days are FAR behind me (see: Marc’s grad school experience). To effectively describe the mood I was in that night would be…Imagine if a mouse was eaten by a leopard, and then that leopard was crushed under the foot of an elephant. I was the mouse.

Why was in such a bad mood? Well, I explained this to the instructors on Friday: I'm old and tired. With the rigorous schedule and lack of adequate sleep I had already experienced, I wasn't in the mood to go all-in. 

To be fair, the other participants, all far younger, were bundles of energy, bouncing around until 5 a.m. ready for the next task, while I was cursing every minute I still existed. And to be fair, this was common practice for Next Level recording weeks, and I just wasn’t in the loop.

I tell you about this not to keep you away from Next Level, but to give you the early warning I never had. It’s a great exercise, as most a cappella albums are put together in a very short amount of time (some even over one or two days). It just wasn’t for me.

Unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I went to bed around 4 a.m. which no one seemed to have a problem with.


Friday was the shortest day, as we only had activities booked in the morning. We watched Ed mix our Thursday track, once again pestering him with questions until he could stand it no more.

As a final celebratory “get-the-hell-out-of-my-house,” the Vocal Company has a chalk-throwing party in their backyard. So…bring clothes you don’t care about.

Final Verdict:

The Vocal Company’s Next-Level events are the next evolution in a cappella experiences.  To really get a sense of where a cappella is moving and to get a complete knowledge over one area of expertise, you MUST attend this event at least once in your life. I know I’ll definitely be back.

Marc Silverberg

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