HomeVoices In Your Head: The Bosses of BOSS

Amy Malkoff's picture

April 13, 2012 marked a few important occasions: the first night of the very first BOSS (Boston Sings) festival, the first CARA red carpet and awards, and a brand new format for collegiate competitions. This night had competing groups squaring off in categorized rounds, with a group being eliminated after each round. At the end of the evening, one group was left standing (out of an incredibly strong lineup of 6 groups from across the country), U of Chicago's Voices In Your Head, who brought down the house with their collective set and their standout and powerful rendition of "Titanium". We talked to group members Brianne Holland and Chris Rishel about their experience and strategy:

How did you feel about your win?

We’re really excited about it! We put a lot of thought into our performances and love what we do, so it’s incredibly gratifying to see that other people in the community enjoy our music. It’s great to have family or our classmates say nice things, but there’s something special about that same response coming from other a cappella people. That’s probably the best part about the win, actually.

What did you do to prepare?

Luckily, almost all of our songs were part of an ICCA set at some point, so we had already really worked on musical nuance. The only exception was "Hallelujah, Pt. 2". While we understood going in to the competition that it would get mixed reactions, we thought this would be a great chance to perform the song live, since we never had the opportunity before (it was written and arranged specifically for our last album, I Used to Live Alone). We also reworked some choreography for "Break Your Heart". And we decided to omit the storyline that was normally present in our ICCA set, since this competition had a very different format from ICCAs. It was less about creating a thematic, cohesive set, more about making an impression in a short period of time.

How did you pick your songs?

Well... so we’re not really great at being funny onstage (BUT WE’RE HILARIOUS OFFSTAGE). So instead of going the funny route for Let Me Entertain You, we decided to go the ‘wow’ route with "Titanium". "We Found Love" was our obvious ballad choice, since it’s so drastically different from the original song. And then there was the last round. After reviewing our repertoire, it turned out that our only pre-1990s choices were "Hallelujah" and "Afternoon Delight". We didn’t have enough time to learn a new song, and again with the our-humor-doesn’t-translate-on-stage thing... so we decided to roll with "Hallelujah", fully aware of just how many aca covers of "Hallelujah" an a cappella audience has heard. Which is why we decided to add "Hallelujah Pt II" to that, to put a more distinctive spin on the set. And we rounded everything out with "Break Your Heart", which shows off our signature style.

Your version of "Titanium" had a big impact that night, and at the ICCA finals. How was that song conceived, arrangement and movement-wise?

When we decided to do the song, one of our biggest concerns was how we would effectively capture the pulsing techno beats after each chorus. Chris had come up with the idea to sing a sustained “ah” and wave our microphones side-to-side, and had tried it on his own with a single mic to make sure it worked in principle. However, we weren’t sure how well it would work with every venue and sound system (or for that matter, how many mics we’d have available at a given performance). Therefore, we ended up having everyone on a mic hold an “ah” and wave, and everyone else sing staccato “ah”s on the off-beats. Alex and Ryan capitalized on this idea with their choreo ideas, and thus The Mic Waving Thing was born! We mostly just practiced it with water bottles in our hands, and hoped for the best that it would work sonically. When it was clear that it was effective, it was both incredibly exciting and a relief.

What do you think gave you the edge?

Honestly, we were blown away by all the talent that performed that evening. From Ithacappella’s "Some Nights" to the Nor’easters’ "EVERYTHING", we were so thrilled to be among such great performances. Every group clearly worked hard and had their own “edge” - it all just comes down to points on the judges’ pages. Collectively, we all put on a great show together.

Where do you go from here?

Well after BOSS we were mostly focused on ICCA Finals (which was an incredible experience in itself). Next up, we’re filming a music video for "Titanium", recording, planning our spring concert, and looking forward to AcappellaFest in October, a new CASA festival that we’re co-hosting at the University of Chicago.

Any plans for recording?

Always! We’ll be releasing our single for "Titanium" very soon, and the "We Found Love" single is on its way soon after that. Looking further ahead, we’re planning on releasing a double-EP in 2013 (the first disc will consist of our best covers over a couple of years, while the second will be all original music).

On I Used to Live Alone we tried our hand with original songs for the first time. In doing so, we realized a great benefit of writing original music is that, unlike covers, there are no expectations as to what a song has to sound like. Because of that, we are free to use atypical progressions and create sounds and textures that go beyond trying to imitate existing instruments or using the voice in a traditional way (vowel pads, words, plain syllables, etc.). With our next album, we want to have more room to explore this further through a variety of genres, song structures, and more (we have to keep a few surprises for now...). A double-EP allows us to do this, while still releasing some covers, and giving each sufficient separation from the other.

What were your favorite parts of BOSS?

Oh there were so many things... our masterclasses with Ben Stevens / Nicole Milano and Cadence were definitely highlights. Meeting and hanging out with everyone backstage and at the afterparties... seeing our members win CARAs... being part of the collaborative recording - it was all amazing.

Who did you do your masterclass with and how was it?

We were lucky enough to have two masterclasses: One with Ben Stevens and Nicole Milano and another with Cadence. Both were incredibly helpful in different ways. The Stevens/Milano class was awesome because, as an alum, Ben speaks our nerdy language. And Nicole can turn that into straightforward applications. The two of them were able to work with us on bringing out the intentionality behind our songs more clearly. With our ICCA set, for example, they helped us negotiate the line between “musical theater” and “movie drama.” With "Break Your Heart", they had us sing the song while acting out a club scene in order to really flesh out the types of interactions we were going for.

Cadence’s class was amazing in an entirely different way. We sat down and discussed all the musical intricacies of our songs, talked about how to really emote and connect with the audience. Coming from people who do that professionally on such a high level, the advice was top-notch. Stage presence is something our group has always struggled with, and Cadence really has it down to a science.

What would you say to other groups considering coming to BOSS next year?

DO IT DO IT DO IT. It’s an incredible opportunity to get in touch with the a cappella community.

VIYH's winning set:


OPB: David Guetta ft. Sia
Solo: Brianne Holland
Arrangement: Chris Rishel
Vocal Percussion: Kevin Qian
Choreography: Alex Gilewicz & Ryan Bober


"We Found Love"
OPB: Rihanna ft. Calvin Harris
Solo: n/a
Arrangement: Chris Rishel
Vocal Percussion: Kevin Qian
Choreography: Alex Gilewicz & Ryan Bober


OPB: Leonard Cohen
Solo: Russell Becker
Arrangement: Chris Rishel
Vocal Percussion: n/a
Choreography: Lily Baker & Alex Gilewicz

"Hallelujah, Pt. 2"

OPB: Voices in Your Head
Solo: n/a
Music & Arrangement: Chris Rishel
Vocal Percussion: n/a
Choreography: Alex Gilewicz

"Break Your Heart"
OPB: Taio Cruz
Solos: Chris Rishel & Naomi Gorfinkle