Home3 ICCA/ISHSA Reviews: Judge, Director, Audience

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In addition to our previous review, we offer 3 perspectives on the ICCA/ISCHA finals, from that of an audience member (Elie Landau); a judge (Amanda Roeder); a group director (Matt Woodward):

ICCA: Elie Landau, audience perspective

If you’ve see the Twitter and/or Facebook flurry since Saturday’s ICCA finals, you may already know of my intense frustration with Voices In Your Head’s failure not just to win, but to merit any award of any kind whatsoever.  Their set was easily one of the most thrilling and inventive collegiate sets I've ever been lucky enough to experience in person.  Even if their singing was deemed by the judges to be inferior to the top three – an opinion I do not share – give them something that recognizes their innovation, creativity and willingness to push the envelope without sacrificing the musicmaking itself.  Give them the arrangement award for “Titanium” (or at least give the arrangement award to someone!), which I suspect would have surprised noone.  Or heck, invent a special award. What they put forth on the stage of Town Hall was truly fresh, new and remarkable, and at the risk of being too theatrical (more on that below) by quoting Arthur Miller, “attention must be paid.”

Why was ViYH overlooked? Only the judges – most of whom I know and greatly respect both personally and professionally – can say for certain. But from a brief look at scoresheets, it seems there was a measure of judicial disdain for what was perceived as a “musical theatre” approach.  Not a negative appraisal of their skills as musical theatre performers, but for the notion of ViYH utilizing a musical theatre aesthetic at all in creating their set. 

To be clear, the SoCal VoCals’ win was very much deserved and not at all a surprise. I had them second in my personal voting, but it was a very close second.  They were polished, professional, and almost always in tune, with a big full sound and very dynamic soloists.  Overall, I can see how they likely had the most consistently high ranks across all of the scoring categories.

While I can't say I remember all that much about the Scattertones' set, I had them as one of two possible third-place finishers, so again, I guess I can't be terribly shocked that I was off by one place and they took second.

This leaves the talented gents of All The King's Men who fittingly come from King's College, as their set played quite a bit on the same “fish out of water” novelty that The Kings' Singers utilize in their more pop-oriented performances.  The “gee, isn't it adorable that these classingly trained, formal-sounding gentleman are choosing to 'cut loose' and have a bit of cheeky fun” approach.

But in my opinion singing reasonably in-tune and employing what was essentially a one-joke conceit shouldn't have been enough for ATKM to place in a major a cappella competition.  (And, though it's no fault of theirs, I daresay had they been subjected to two regional rounds of comparable competition like the US-based groups, we very well may not have seen them in the finals at all.)

Unlike RARB (for which I've reviewed these last 12+ years), which is charged with assessing only the recorded sound and not what the group looks or sounds like in a live performance, an a cappella competition is precisely the opposite.  At least to my mind, it's not <u>only</u> about how the group sounded but how they performed.

Had I closed my eyes and listened to ATKM's set, I would have missed very little while enjoying a skilled vocal performance.  Had I done the same with ViYH, I would have had roughly the same quality of aural experience while missing an added layer of excitement, nuance and dramatic energy.  Irrespective of the quality of the singing, that speaks volumes about the quality of the performance.

And that is the essence of my frustration with the judging – specifically as an a cappella fan, and not just because I make my career in the theatre.  Inherently, in any live performance, there is a theatrical component.  That is in fact one of the root definitions of the word “theatre” – to view in a specific place: not merely to hear but to view. By that measure, surely every group at ICCA offered up “musical theatre” to some degree or another.  Apparently, ViYH's error was that their set felt too much like traditional musical theatre.  To that I say: judge the artwork and not the art form – for the art, whatever it was, was certainly a cappella and was also absolutely magical. 

ICHSA: Amanda Roeder, ICHSA judge

Last Friday I had the great pleasure of judging at the final round of the International Championship of High School A Cappella. The show, produced by Varsity Vocals at the Hunter College Kaye Playhouse, featured ten of the nation’s best high school a cappella groups. As a high school teacher I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to witness firsthand the great work that is happening at schools around the country. These young singers are simply inspiring.

One of the things that I look for as a judge is consistent delivery of an emotional message from all members of a group. It is so common for young singers to rock their faces off on a solo but fall into an emotional coma when relegated to jen ja doh’s. I was delighted to find that this was very rarely an issue from the ten groups that competed on Friday night. From the goofy antics of Enharmonic Fusion’s “Hollywood” to the raw emotion of Take 7’s “Rolling in the Deep,” these kids were fully engaged in their performances.

WitchPitch? grabbed the audience’s attention with a humorous introduction based on themes from the Wizard of Oz, and Highlands Voices performed a dazzling homage to Gloria Estefan with choreography that would surely dazzle even the Latina legend herself. Mezzo Devotion closed their set with an electric finale that literally burst off of the stage, eliciting screams of excitement from the audience.

No less exciting were the subtle dynamics and sensitive phrasing shown by the surprisingly mature singers. Limited Edition wowed us with their tight harmonies and sincere delivery of the Sara Bareilles tune “Kaleidoscope Heart.” Likewise, OneVoice delivered an emotional and nuanced rendition of “Freebird.”

The champion group Vocal Rush stood apart from their competitors, delivering an unforgettable performance that I am still thinking about days later. What distinguished them from the rest was their surprisingly understated delivery. Their choreography was minimal, but they sang with swagger and poise.

Again and again I was impressed by the focus and professionalism of these groups. When a cell phone rang (endlessly) as the first pitch was blown, the students of Forte did not bat an eye. When a PFC member’s hair got stuck to her face, she never once touched it. It was clear that these students had carefully thought through the smallest details of their performance, resulting in polished performances from the moment they set foot on the stage.

Repeatedly we judges exclaimed in surprise: “these are high school kids?!?” Those seated around us expressed relief that they were not in the position to select a winner, for the quality of competing groups was consistently high. There is no doubt that the caliber of high school a cappella has skyrocketed in recent years, and the 2012 ICHSA finalists proved that these teens are ready to rock their respective college campuses. Friday night’s show was awesome. Not high school awesome. Just awesome. If the college groups are paying attention, they are no doubt chomping at the bit to attract the experienced new crop of high school graduates heading their way.

ICHSA: Matt Woodward, Director of PFC

When PFC won the ICHSA Finals last year, our lives changed. The year of hard work and dedication had paid off with a Championship. An awareness of a cappella as a legitimate choral art form began to spread in our home town of San Antonio. We loved the attention, and we set our sights on a second win. With the spirit of musical growth inspiring us, we left the safe confines of our Top 40 Hits and decided on a set of indie songs. We delved into themes of trust, loss, and forgiveness. My students embraced these songs, the messages they portrayed, and felt a true kinship with each other as we walked into the competition. In the aftermath of losing the ICHSA Finals this year, my perspective of the contest changed. My heart ached as my star soprano cried on my shoulder and asked, “What did we do wrong? What didn’t they like?” My mind danced from my opinion as an audience member and a cappella fan to my opinion as a director of a group that didn’t even get in the top 3 despite a heartfelt and powerful performance.

As a general admission a cappella fan, Vocal Rush was impressive, but not my favorite. In the spirit of full disclosure, neither was PFC. Limited Edition from Port Washington HS had the most incredible set that I saw that night. They had great tuning, fun choreo, and an excitement for the music that was palpable through the auditorium. When they were announced as third behind Forte and Vocal Rush, I thought I had missed something. What did the judges see that I didn’t? When that thought took off, it spawned thoughts like “Was PFC too depressing?” and “Did people actually enjoy our set?” The thought finally ended with “What does it take to win?”
“BOOM” said my mind. I don’t know how to win. We worked all year long on a set that would give the audience an emotional journey that would take them to happy highs and depressive lows, and we lost. After a few hours of unsubstantiated complaining about various problems, the facts dwindled to this: PFC wasn’t entertaining enough to be enjoyed. Our judge’s sheets had high scores in every category. The comments for PFC were wonderful. Peter Hollens loved our soloists, and Randi Stanley loved my arrangements. Despite that, only one judge gave us the highly sought subjective rank points. No one said why they didn’t love us. My problem as a director is that this gives me very little to work on for next year. If we were great, and you liked us, but not enough to rank us, what do we fix? How are we, the directors and teachers, supposed to prepare our students for a contest in which the subjective points are the most important factor to winning and yet are impossible to guarantee?
The single unifying factor that I could find in the subjective rankings was audience enjoyment of the last song. The group that made the most members of the audience hop to their feet won. For both SoCal and Vocal Rush this year and PFC last year, that meant a closing song with phenomenal soloists. Other factors, including number of people in your group, coed or single sex, and even song choice seemed to be of distant importance. Superficial wow factor trumped emotion and story line. In the ICCA Finals, Voices in Your Head opened with the most brilliant arrangement of the night, had their most impressive song in the middle, and closed with a deeply emotional performance of Little Lion Man. This is the set most people I know are talking about, and yet they received no accolades from the judges.
At the end of it all, I’m left with more questions than answers. Is cleanliness actually more entertaining than raw emotion? If you don’t have the best soloist, how do you overcome that? Most importantly, how are we, the a cappella community at large, expected to grow the art form if we keep awarding the most commercially acceptable performances time and time again?

[photo of PFC courtesy of Ross Leung]