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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