HomeSome Competition Tips: One Judge's Opinion

Amy Malkoff's picture

As an ICCA and Harmony Sweepstakes judge for several years now, and here at the end of competition season, I thought I’d put down some of my own suggestions for improving group performance in competition (and in general, I hope). Please do keep in mind that my own personal list of Important Things might wholly or partially directly contradict someone else’s, so in the end, you can only do what you think will result in the best performance. Also know that the judges only actually confer about the optional awards. All the actual placements are done strictly by the numbers; we don’t see each others’ scores/choices. If you haven’t seen the ICCA judging rubric and would like to, it’s available here - I’m not sure if such a thing exists online for Sweeps.

  1. Please acknowledge the audience during your set, somewhere. You don’t have to do it after the first song, or before you start singing, or between every song, but somewhere, please acknowledge that there’s a paying, eager and supportive audience sitting in front of you. It changes the atmosphere of your performance and breaks the 4th wall ( It also gives you as a group a breather and a moment to calm yourself. (This acknowledgement) doesn’t have to be any specific thing. You could say something funny, or factually introduce a song (or all of them), or just ask the audience how they’re doing or thank them for being there. The mark of any good performance is the “dialogue” between performer and audience, and these competitions should be no exception. When you say hi to all those people in front of you, you make them your friends. They want to support you. And make sure your words are well-rehearsed. Yes, you do have time to do it, and yes, it’s that important.
  2. Over-choreography is as bad, or worse, than no choreography at all. Judges aren’t looking for any certain amount of movement (I’ve seen this suggested various places, and it’s simply untrue), and it really isn’t required. You aren’t a show choir, and even though more and more groups are incorporating continual movement into their sets, it’s still not necessary. It can enhance and be really effective, IF YOU HAVE A SKILLED CHOREOGRAPHER. Not every group has one. If you don’t, acknowledge that, and find someone who is. There’s definitely such a thing as too much movement. We don’t want to see every lyric pantomimed, and/or to see musicality sacrificed for dancing. Sometimes, the simplest movements, or none, can be the most effective. Choreography is like hot sauce – too much and you might get burned. Just use it to add some spice, and stay away from the jazz hands.
  3. Same with VP. You do not need VP on every song if it’s not called for, and isn’t solid.
  4. Please no khaki pants and blue blazers. Some traditions were meant to be broken.
  5. Leads and VP: be aware of the mic. Find out ahead of time what the microphone situation will be, and practice that way, using a prop as a mic if need be. If you’re not used to using a mic, what tends to happen in the stress of competition is that you stop being aware that it’s in your hand, and it drifts away from your mouth, and then…well, we can’t hear you. I’ve seen people default to mic clichés that they’ve clearly seen people using on TV or in concert, and unless you know what you’re doing, it’s not going to help you. Get someone to show you mic technique beforehand, if you can, and have everyone who will be using a hand-held one in the set practice what they’ve learned. There’s much more to mic technique than just holding it in the general direction of your mouth, but the simplest and easiest thing to remember is just to keep it straight-on in front of your mouth, and keep it close. Be aware that it’s there at all times.
  6. Speaking of mics, vocal percussionists: that beatboxing-with-the-mic-held-to-the-side thing takes a fair amount of practice, and when used without said prior practice, it most often just results in us just not being able to hear you. To be safe and be audible, keep it in front of you.
  7. Judges do not have biases for guys’ groups, so your chances are just as good if you are a mixed or all-female group. Finding what you do best and doing those things are what impresses the judges.
  8. Consider starting with your strongest song, instead of closing with it. There isn’t a formula here. Your last song doesn’t have to be an upbeat showstopper, and neither does your first. But I can tell you that several times I’ve heard the judges say (and I’ve thought myself), “They really should have started with that song”. The conclusion I draw from this is that front-loading your set with your strongest material leaves the best overall impression. That may seem counterintuitive and other judges may disagree (and I encourage them to comment here), but that’s what I’ve noticed.
  9. Diversity is good, but if your 3 strongest songs by far are all gorgeous slow ballads, make that your set. If they’re all funny songs, that’s fine too. Know your strengths.
  10. We’re out HERE. If you have to use the horseshoe/clump formation, you must cheat out. You must perform TO the audience, whether explicitly or implicitly. I see a lot of groups who are clearly performing for each other and not directing their energies into the crowd. Some of this is fear/comfort, some is habit, some is a (bad) style choice. We want to see you having fun, but we want to be a part of it, too. Look (audience members) in the eye, include them in the performance somehow. It will pay off.
  11. Although it should go without saying, NO DIRECTING/CONDUCTING. Unless you’re a classical group who needs a conductor, lose it. All that flappin' never looks good, and once you take the leap and eliminate it, you’ll realize that you really don’t need it.
  12. For the love of everything sing-y, have FUN. The work part is everything you’ve done up until now, and now we need to see you having a good time. Yes, you want to win, but if you’re not there to have fun, you’re there for the wrong reasons, and the audience (and judges) pick up that stress. Bring us into your sense of fun and you’ll have us!

    And then, after all that…take a bow. You’ve earned it.



Ditto to everything.  Bazam.

--Dave Brown

now: Mouth Off host | ICCA & CARA Judge

then: CASA president, CASAcademy director, CASA Bd of Directors | BYU Vocal Point | Noteworthy co-foun

 I agree with everything

 I agree with everything except the acknowledge the audience thing - definitely a personal preference, and I would say in any - literally ANY - other performance venue, yes, absolutely, acknowledge the audience.  But when I'm judging a competition and the seventh group in a row stops and asks the audience if they are enjoying the show... seriously, just sing already.  

Yes, groups need to acknowledge the audience, but in a competition set, following Amy's excellent advice in #'s 10 and 12 is enough.  It's obviously a personal preference, but I feel like in a competition it's understood that there are enough groups there, the point is to perform the set, I feel like talking to the audience is an unnecessary distraction.  Add to the fact that most groups aren't terribly skilled at addressing the audience (a skill that ought to be practiced, practiced, practiced)... IMHO, not needed.

Every other word, however, I'm 100% in agreement!

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