HomeConcert Review: ICCA Northeast Semifinals - March 21st, 2009

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“An Outside Insider’s Review”

Same town, new faces. That was my initial impression of the ICCA Semifinals at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium last Saturday. You see, I actually performed at this semifinal two years ago when I was a freshman in Brandeis VoiceMale. Now, 200+ shows later, I am an upperclassman in VoiceMale who likes to think of himself as a rather seasoned veteran of the collegiate a cappella scene; I’ve sang in high schools and colleges from coast to coast, opened for Rockapella, soloed on the radio and on award-winning albums, and have performed for thousands of diverse, yet equally exuberant, a cappella fans. But I had never actually scrutinized a high-stakes a cappella competition from the other side of the fourth wall before, especially this ever-so-familiar fourth wall.

VoiceMale kicked some severe butt at its 2007 ICCA Northeast Quarterfinal, placing a solid second, thus propelling the group into the infamous semifinal at MIT, in which only the first place group advances to the glamorous finals at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Like any other group, we wanted to win really badly. Thus, with nerves running high and sweat pouring down our faces, me and seven other determined men performed a very solid set of Where’s the Love (Hanson), Can’t Stop Lovin You (Phil Collins), and Here it Goes Again (OK Go). We had three fantastic soloists, great blend, enough choreo, recognizable songs, spiffy suits, and great stage presence. Again, like any other determined group, we had rehearsed those three damned songs several thousands times over, so there was no way we were going to stumble. But no other group had such a small size, yet packed such a large punch as we did. 8 guys, 8 parts, no nonsense. We thought we had the formula to success.

The judges seemed to think otherwise, awarding us with a disappointing 4th place. Instead, they decided that dressing up in a banana suit and dancing wildly to Michael Jackson’s Thriller was what truly defined praiseworthy a cappella. I strongly begged to differ then, and now, 700+ days removed from that obnoxious performance, I still do, but to a lesser extent. I learned a tough lesson that day, but it didn’t really sink in fully until I came back to this infamous arena last Saturday.

Watching these seven groups put their so much heart and energy into their strictly-less-than-12-minute performances last night provided me with some interesting revelations about the differences of what we appreciate as an audience offstage vs. performing onstage. The first thing that we notice as an audience, or even as humans in general, is outward appearance. Every group seemed to nail this aspect of the performance, with the Harvard Lowkeys and the MIT Chorallaries going with the traditional matching red and black, while other groups were less severe (Berkeley’s Pitch Slapped all wore business casual beige) and others more severe (Duke’s Men of Yale all in matching coattails, white bowties, and white cummerbunds). But there is more to appearance that just looking good. Movement is as essential to wowing a naïve audience as it is to five veteran judges who have seen it all before.

Most groups, including my own, fall into the trap of mistaking choreography at a live performance to mean bouncing up and down and side to side in interesting clumps. Granted, it is a fair excuse to argue that singing “Bops” and “Hoo dit doos” on every offbeat in contrasting dynamics for four minutes makes it rather difficult to focus on dancing. To that, however, I respond with this obvious message: practice more. Unless you are McGill University’s Effusion, and your blend so absolutely unbelievable that you don’t need to dance around to superficially surprise an audience. Indeed, their sound was so magnificent that I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing for awhile; I have not heard a group blend that effortlessly since I saw the House Jacks last spring. They definitely deserved to place as high as they did (2nd place), but a lack of movement was likely what cost them a spot at the ICCA Finals, as was the case for the many other groups that moved just as little as Effusion, but did not sound half as good.

The Duke’s Men of Yale were rightfully crowned the 2009 ICCA Northeast Semifinal Champions, because they struck a nearly perfect balance between cocky performance and astounding musicality. There’s nothing like 20 guys dancing expertly in coattails, especially when they all have at least a two-octave range and can riff like there’s no tomorrow. One woman complained to me after the show that it was unfair for an all-male group to be competing against six other mixed groups, because the former was able to bring more flair and a different sound than the latter due to their similar gender. I wouldn’t call this unfair, however, but instead a proven formula for success. I joined an all-male a cappella group for a reason, namely that it is extremely hard for guys and girls to blend together, especially shrieking sopranos and bellowing basses.

These guys, however, were more than just talented and lucky; they knew they were good, and they knew what they were doing up there. Their movements were precise and coordinated, helping to enhance the music rather than just respond vaguely to it because the judges would likely approve. They smiled like the Chorallaries, blended like Effusion, nailed difficult arrangements like the Lowkeys, had fantastic soloists like NonSequitur, were as precise as Pitch Slapped, and had the professionalism of the Vocal Suspects; they had it all, and then some. That some was the choreography. There’s something about dancing happily and efficiently, not necessarily meticulously, to a song that purely engages an audience.

Indeed, an audience comes to watch a show to be entertained, so there is no point in standing still on stage, seeing as the audience is already doing that in their chairs! I know that your group is going to sound amazing, seeing as you made it this far in the competition, so go one step further and make me laugh, make me impressed, light up my ears AND my eyes. Save the ridiculous precision for rehearsals and the studio and just let looses. The Duke’s Men of Yale really amazed with their blend and their look on stage, but more importantly, I can say with confidence that they were the only group that did not look nervous or overly worried about getting every note and every crescendo right.

Nonetheless, as much as the timekeepers don’t start the clock until you sing your first note at these competitions, everyone is judging you the instant we see you set foot on stage. Therefore, taking 1 minute to make sure the microphone is not too high but not too low and that you’ve blown the pitch 40 times to make sure everyone has heard it and taking that last sip of water because you’ll simply die if you don’t take it rubs off on our judgmental society of entertainment viewers. The Duke’s Men made it seem like they could sing these songs in their sleep, but more importantly, that they were having just as much fun on stage as we were watching them have fun. There’s nothing like connecting with a performer on stage, and I’m sure that will get you higher rankings than the inverted major 9th chord you nailed in pianissimo for a split second.

This is not to say that the other groups were not deserving competition for the Duke’s Men, for every group that performed last Saturday was rightfully deserving to take the stage. Male soloists in Pitch Slapped and Non-Sequitur were belting high notes I thought were completely unattainable, and female backup dancers in the Chorollaries and Effusion strutted their stuff with even tighter harmonies. Everyone was fun to watch, and I never zoned out once. But the difference with the Duke’s Men was that I wanted them to keep singing after they had finished their 3rd song. Conversely, I was ready to hear what the next group had to offer after every previous group had performed. I guess it was a good thing that the Duke’s Men went last.

After the show, whilst walking back to my car through Boston’s arctic chill, I was reflecting on how the diversity of the performances I saw last Saturday could provide me with some pointers for VoiceMale in the future. We are definitely going to dance more, which I’m sure will not compromise our high musical standards. We are going to engage the audience more; we are watching them just as much as they are watching us. But most importantly, we are going to have some more fun. There’s really nothing like a cappella, getting to sing amazing songs with amazingly talented people in front of eager and devoted fans who love you because you love to sing, no instruments and no strings attached.

Indeed, the reason I love a cappella so much is the same reason I love babies and animals: all three are incapable of lying. With that message in mind, I challenge not only VoiceMale, but every group out there to grace the stage, the studio, the rehearsal classroom, and even in the car on the way to gigs to bring the same upbeat and carefree attitude that the Duke’s Men exhibited last Saturday. Let loose and have fun, it’s only a cappella .

1st Place – The Duke’s Men of Yale (441 Points)
2nd Place – McGill University’s Effusion (373 Points)
3rd Place – Berkeley College of Music’s Pitch Slapped
Best Arrangement – Rainbow Connection (MIT Chorallaries)
Best Soloist – Sam Tsui (Duke’s Men of Yale)
Best Vocal Percussion – Noam Hassenfeld (Harvard Lowkeys)
Best Choreography – Umbrella (Duke’s Men of Yale)

~ Doug Friedman
Events Manager
Brandeis VoiceMale
www.brandeisvoicemale.com

P.S. No more emcees at these events please! They are simply painful to watch, especially when they have no sense of humor. Let the groups speak for themselves, they need no introduction. That’s what programs are for.

About the author:
Doug Friedman (Douglas Friedman) has been singing in school and traveling choirs since the wee age of 8. He has had the great fortune of singing with Brandeis VoiceMale for the past three years and is enjoying their continued success in the a cappella community. Doug was recently introduced to the world of audio engineering at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, OH and is now fascinated with working on both sides of the glass in the studio, both behind the mic and behind the board. Also, he is currently in the process of writing Super Mario Brothers, The Musical for his senior thesis at Brandeis University. More detailed information about Doug's multifaceted singing/songwriting/engineering/producing background, as well as his resume, can be found at www.difmusic.com

Comments

Rich observations, Doug.  I

Rich observations, Doug.  I learned a lot from this.

No MCs?  Hmmmm.... I hadn't ever thought of that, but I just might agree....

I’d just like to say that we

I’d just like to say that we are very grateful to host the semi-finals each year, and I’m glad that we were able to compete this year as well. I truly believe that all of the groups put on an amazing show, and Casual Harmony was excited to be up there with the best of the best.

We pride ourselves in being a different group, a group that can go out there every time and give the audience something they don’t expect. We were initially disappointed to have not advanced to NYC, but who wouldn’t want to perform on that stage at Lincoln Center?

Performing in front of that crowd of 700 people at Nicholas Music Center was like tasting heroine for the first time. Once you reach a high like that, the highest of highs, you never want to taste anything less.

Congratulations to Ithacapella. Make the best of your opportunity on that stage at Lincoln Center. Overdose on it, as it’s a feeling you might not ever get to have again.

 

 

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