HomeBlogsdavecharliebrown's blogHow the West [H]as Won

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Fact: The ICCA West region, on average, represents 15-20% of the competitors in the entire ICCA.
Fact: The ICCA West region has won 54% of the ICCA Finals titles (including the last 4 consecutive years).
Query: How is this possible?
Answer: Keep reading...

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest bestseller Outliers.  Although the title makes it sound like a science fiction book, it's actually quite the opposite.  In Outliers, Gladwell uses real-world examples to answer a difficult question: why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many others never reach their potential?  (I'll get back to the ICCA in a second.)

Challenging the American belief of the "self-made man," Gladwell makes the democratic assertion that superstars don't arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: "they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot."

Gladwell proves his point through a myriad of real-world examples.  It turns out Bill Gates, the Beatles, and Mozart all had something in common: along with talent and ambition, each enjoyed an unusual opportunity to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers. Yes, they were geniuses, and they worked hard, but they had unique advantages that gave them at least 10,000 hours to practice their skill and develop their genius.

Through a detailed investigation of the unique culture and skills of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Gladwell persuasively explains their rise in 20th-century New York, first in the garment trade and then in the legal profession (holler).  Through case studies ranging from the robber barons of the Gilded Age to Canadian junior hockey champions to software entrepreneurs, he tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account for success—and how historical legacies can hold others back despite ample individual gifts.

Why do Asians do well at math?  Gladwell answers that part of their success lies in the persistence and painstaking labor required to cultivate rice as it has been done in East Asia for thousands of years.  And part of it is a language issue -- it's literally faster to say numbers in Chinese and most other Asian languages than it is in English.  So the concept of "math is hard" is less prevalent there as it is in English-speaking countries.

The ultimate point of the book (and the point I'm taking a long time to get to here): no one ever makes it alone.  Not rock stars, not billionaires, not geniuses, not even Kanye West.  Culture and circumstances play a massive role in our success.

So what does that have to do with the ICCA?  Everything.

If you are a competing a cappella group in the ICCA West, you have no chance if you don't put on a SHOW.  Judgments aside as to whether that's a desirable way to run a competition, it's just a fact.  Groups that win in the ICCA West are polished smoooooth, they have a very cohesive look, they perform a ridiculous variety of song types in 12 minutes, they use the 12 minutes to do more than 3 basic songs, they skew much more toward upbeat material, and they deliberately entertain the audience.  You just can't win the ICCA West these days unless you provoke the audience, inspire them, AND have them clap along to your set.  That's just the way it is.

So if you want to succeed in the West, you need those qualities.  Groups going into competition put aside their biases (no: "this competition should recognize us just because we're popular and awesome"), and they put on their game faces (yes: "if we wanna win this thing, we have to nail every one of these objective categories, and also win over the judges with the subjective points by doing something unusual and memorable").

Again, ignore your judgments whether that's a good thing we want to, as a community, cultivate in our college and high school groups.  Recognize the fact that that's just how it is right now.  You have to be amazing AND you have to be highly entertaining and memorable.  Any group in the West that tries to ignore this is left behind in the dust at the Quarterfinals.  So if you want to continue competing in the West, you have to embrace the mentality of the competition.

This is the world of competition I was "raised" in as a college singer.  Imagine my surprise when I traveled to the South and began judging and producing there.  No one had ANY staging (nevermind choreography), most of the songs were mid-tempo or forgettable, and simple errors abounded.  I don't mean any offense toward the South groups (you know I love you), but that's just how it was.  Things have changed a lot in that region in recent years, but the West continues dominating because it has had a culture of competing for much longer.

So what does Outliers have to do with the ICCA West?  Simple.  In the West, it's cool to compete, and it's cool to embrace the competition, and it's cool to win.  Had I been "raised" in another area, I may have a different mentality.  But that's how it was, and so that's how we had to be.

The ICCA West is like a snake eating its own tail (thanks to CASA Board member Ariel Glassman for introducing me to that tasty metaphor).  Once a culture begins a certain way, it tends to continue that way.  Why does the West win?  BECAUSE IT DOES.  It's a self-fulfilling mentality.

Like a rough stone that takes a long beating to become smooth, groups in the ICCA West are pitted against some of the best, so they rise to the occasion.  Other regions just don't have that environment.  If you don't have to KILL your group members to do well in your region, you won't.  If you don't have to worry day and night about what set to pick, you won't.  But in the ICCA West, you do have to do those things just to have a *chance*.

I know personally every member of the groups that won the ICCA in 2006 and 2007.  They're fine singers.  Some of them are even amazing singers.  But most of them are regular -- they don't have any special training or experience beyond what everyone else has.  True they rehearse 6-10 hours a week, and true they come from a school where singing is part of the culture.  But.  I know them and I know that they won only because they really wanted it, and they knew what they needed to do.  They knew the competition, they knew who they were up against, and they knew if they didn't *bring it*, they were doomed.

Time will shift things, and YouTube will play an enormous role, as will CASA festivals, but ultimately the West will continue to dominate until other regions develop a similar culture of competing.  Once you have 2 or 3 champions come from one region, who continue to compete in subsequent years, the other groups in that region will be forced to be amazing.  Once that begins to spread, the variety of winning regions will increase and the diversity (in the literal sense) of the winning groups will increase.

But until that happens, I predict the West will keep winning.  And I think Malcolm Gladwell would agree.


Hear, hear, Dave. I really

Hear, hear, Dave. I really like (and mostly agree with) this perspective, though it doesn't account for exceptions- groups from other regions who DO adopt the Western mentality, for instance.

I've been wondering what that book was about and thinking about picking it up. Now that I know it's about a cappella, I'm sold. ;)

Christopher M. Diaz | ICCA & CARA Judge | FSU ANY '08 | Mouth Off! co-founder/host

Note to Christopher:

 Christopher, you should know by now that EVERYTHING is about a cappella.

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