My name is Jason Taylor, and I am currently the Director of Choral Studies at Newberg High School in Newberg, Oregon. I direct one of the groups that attended ICHSA finals this year, Mezzo Devotion. Before that I am also the co-founder of two other a cappella groups, Outspoken from Oregon State University and Soul'd Out from Wilsonville High School.
Before I begin, I want to express that my experience with the ICCA and/or ICHSA competitions goes all the way back to 2005, and on the whole I have enjoyed my experience participating, watching, and learning from these events. Over the years I have seen the level of competition grow in expertise along with the intensity of the groups participating. I am proud to have been involved for so long.
That being said, just like with any progressive system there are always those who wish to improve or make more accessible certain aspects of the competition. I have had some very interesting conversations with fellow competitors. What is interesting is that while the competition is improving and making enhancements, the overall competition format has essentially remained unchanged. Through these past and current conversations about the ICCA/ICHSA competitions, I have compiled a list of potential suggestions for improving or leveling the playing field for all groups. Most likely this will cause controversy, but if it starts an open conversation, it will have been worth it.
I will dive right in with the most talked about topic, subjective scoring (dun dun dun). Also known as the "I like you best" points, this section seems to be the biggest determiner of winners. In the past I was always told that, "no group who the judges didn't think won - won." What that means is that it is assumed that if you are marked 1st place in subjective scoring that you have the top graded scores, or are at the very least tied. I feel the subjective scoring section is necessary for tie breaking and whatnot, but here is a situation that happened to my group this year at semi-finals. We were marked 2nd place in every subjective scoring section by all three judges, which means no judge thought we outright won, but with those points all combined we ended up winning. Which also meant there was no clear winner the judges agreed on. While my group gladly accepted the placing, it didn't make us feel like we truly were the best (turns out we were right since the 2nd place group went to finals via wild card and ended up winning). The main complaint I hear is that the weight of subjective points is just too extensive with it potentially accounting for nearly 20% of a groups total score. My suggestion to minimize the impact of subjective scoring swaying is by reducing the number of points associated with subjective scoring. For example, 1st place: 4pts, 2nd place: 3pts, 3rd Place: 2pts, 4th Place: 1pt. This would still allow for subjective points to be tie breakers and let judges show their affinity to their favorite groups, but also put more pressure on consistent grading in categories. Phew that was a lot, I hope it all made sense.
Next category is, individual micing. This only has become a contentious issue lately in my opinion. With the average collegiate group being around 10-15 and the average high school being 15-20 the use of individual mics is a hit and miss topic. Individual mics at this stage in the evolution of the competition are essential. Yet, what voice parts to mic are essential? The soloist, bass voice, and vocal percussion seem to be the three that most groups can agree upon. Harmony parts or duet solos would also fall under individual micing. Yet, what if there is a group of 8.... why not mic all of the group? For sound quality I would say that individually micing the group gives the fullest sound... assuming you have the all around skill to pull it off. Therein lies the problem. Equity. Eight singers mic'd will have a more powerful sound than a 20-person group ambient mic'd. Where do we draw the line? When I read reviews about competitions and comments about the balance and fullness of sound from individually mic'd groups it makes me raise an eyebrow. Of course they are going to sound more balanced and blended.. the mics do it FOR them. Want dynamics? Pull the mic in and out to crescendo or decrescendo. My suggestion is that the standard for micing be the same for every group regardless of size. It is unfair to smaller groups you say? How so? I have seen very successful six person groups that didn't individually mic everyone. Did they win? No.... but how many of the "big" groups actually win as well? I would argue the mid-size groups do the best. My suggestion is to incorporate a rule of using ambient mics only with a standard of 5 individual mics only to be used for the following: Solo, harmony, duet solo, bass, and vocal percussion. This would also allow venues all over the nation to standardize the mic set up for quarterfinal and semifinal events in line with the finals.
Lastly, choreography scoring. The overall consensus I have gotten over the years is that there needs to be some sort of agreement on the level of choreography to expect from an ICCA or ICHSA competition. With it being 50 points of the scoring guide it makes sense to have standards that are not just left up to judges to interpret individually. Yes individual assessment and interpretation will happen by judges in terms of appropriate movement or blocking, but I am speaking more about the expectation of movement. For example, an upbeat song should warrant and be allowed to have more movement than a love ballad where minimum movement or even no movement might be appropriate. What is frustrating to groups who take hours to work on choreography is to barely beat or even lose to groups that just stand and sing in an arch or staggered line. The point I am trying to make is that if group A has excellent choreography (seamless transitions, crisp unison movements, technically precise depth and body control, unique/diverse movements for different songs, 3+ formations, etc.) and gets 45/50 on choreography grading and then group B who may be vocally better but only stands in an arch and sings gets 40/50 because they move just a little bit (1-2 different formations, non-seamless transitions, non-unified movements, etc) does not seem fair. I was once told by Amanda Newman that, “this competition is about the total package and involves more than singing.” If that is the case, then it shouldn't just be enough to have "swagger" or "energy" on stage, but also some sort of practiced movement to provide that "show" or entertainment piece. The suggestion here is to divide the choreography grading based on a standard 3-song set. A possible layout would be 15 points total per song for choreography with an additional 5 points given in a category for overall transitions.
These seem to be the biggest issues that have continuously come up over the years in competition. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if nothing else it’s worth discussing to improve the experience of participating on the ICCAs/ICHSAs.
Director, Mezzo Devotion