HomeBlogsdavecharliebrown's blogThe Sing-Off: Lessons for ICCA and ICHSA Competitors

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You're an aca head, so of course you watched The Sing-Off.  You laughed, you cried, you judged the judges. But were you taking notes for your own group??

If you were, then kudos/props/congrats/waytogo.  But if you weren't, fear not!  Below are a few lessons that your ICCA or ICHSA group can take away from the show and put into practice in your own competition prep:

Enjoy the experience.  Seriously.  People say that a lot, and it's cheeseball USA, but it's true.  Your group has been working very hard to prepare for the upcoming rounds of competition, and it only gets more intense from here.  But don't forget you're in school!  You're amateurs!  You do this because you love it!  Feel free to take it seriously, and work hard, but don't let your intensity serve as an excuse for mistreating one another.  The whole experience will be over in no time, and all you'll be left with are relationships and memories, so be sure to enjoy it along the way.

Imagine how much pressure the competitors on The Sing-Off felt in the weeks before the competition.  Cameras in their hometowns and on their campuses.  Interviews.  The whole a cappella world looking in on them, judging them before they even set foot on stage.  These groups were about to perform for millions of people.  Talk about pressure!  But every one of them has said that being on national television was such a tremendous experience, and as they look back, they're just thrilled for the relationships they built and the fun they had along the way.  Don't lose that.

Song choice is huge.  Cheesy stuff aside, let's talk about the competition.  One of the most important things you can do to prepare is pick the right song.  Think carefully, and choose songs that show off your group's strengths.

Got a killer rock tenor?  Pick a rock song.
Don't have a single fantastic soloist?  Choose group anthem pieces.
Terrible at dancing?  Pick simple, effective motions to keep your set visually interesting.
Got zany personalities?  Choose at least one song that shows off your hilarity.

Whatever you choose, just make sure you enjoy what you're doing, and that you do it well.  And although you should be showing off, this is not the time to stretch to your absolute limit.  Leave the vocal stretching and straining for warm-ups and vocal health classes.  As judges, we want every note out of your mouth to seem passionate but effortless.

Voices of Lee is a great example of this.  They focused on one or two strong soloists, and their great bass.  Their arrangements played to their strengths by showcasing their best people and let the group sing a powerful backup, which is what they do well.  It landed them in the final 3.  Follow that example.

Soloists will make or break you.  There are very few absolutes when it comes to competition advice, or musical advice in general, but this one is pretty universal.  Assuming you want to win the competition (which is only one goal among many, actually), your soloist HAS. TO. BE. GOOD.  Or maybe more accurately, your soloist's abilities have to fit the needs of the song.

Why?  Because we as an audience (and therefore we as judges, since we're in the audience too) will derive like 75% of the song's energy, message, and emotional content from the soloist.  Most of the time we're looking at him or her, (heaven willing) his or her microphone will be the loudest, and that's where the lyrics are.  So don't pick a song just because you like it.  Make sure it's one you--and especially your soloist--can sell very well, every time.  The groups on The Sing-Off rarely moved beyond one or two soloists.  Nothing wrong with that!  But don't think it's all about the soloist, because...

The group is important too.  Although you need great soloists to win the competition, if your group slacks in the background, you won't even place at quarterfinals.  Why?  Because it's a competition for your whole group, and you're all up there.  WE SEE YOU up there.  There's no "back row" in a small a cappella group.  There are no risers here.  We're watching and hearing the whole lot of you, and if we perceive any inconsistency in energy across the group, not only will it deflate the song, but you'll actually lose points for "Visual Cohesivenss."  Yep, that's a category.

Have you ever seen a killer musical on Broadway or on another big stage?  Of course the leads were great, but probably it's the ensemble that really sold it.  When the weakest person on the back of the stage really gets into it, it shows the audience that there's no weak spot.  It gives the audience license to relax and enjoy the show.

Nearly every member of every group on The Sing-Off realized this was the chance of a lifetime.  They never knew when they'd be on camera, so they had to really give it 100% all the time.  One group that struggled a bit with having a solid back was Solo.  They got booted off in the first episode.  Hmm.

Use your 12 minutes to your advantage.  Reasonable minds will disagree on this.  It's true you can get up and do 3 songs beginning to end and sit down, and do well in the competition.  But my personal observation is that the groups that win tend to switch things up.  Throw in a short, dazzling opener.  Or put in a longer, highly creative medley.  Or do something that's unusual.  Fill in the time with greatness, from beginning to end.

Tweak your arrangements.  Once you've racked your brain devising the perfect set list, play with your songs a bit.  Sure, you can just get up and perform Jay Sean's "Down" or Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours."  But if you add your group's personal flair, a la Nota, it will really shine.

Oh, and did you notice that every group on The Sing-Off had only about 90 seconds to sing their "song"?  True, in some cases, it felt a little short.  But not that much!  As a general rule, a cappella songs, especially live, don't need to be as long as your favorite version on the radio.  Cut out a verse, forget the third repeat of the chorus at the end.  We get it.

Don't be too subtle.  When it comes to arrangement tweaks and song choices and set programming, remember that your audience is kinda stupid.  Quickly interpolating one short line from another song does not a fancy arrangement make.  Stringing together 4 songs loosely based around one general theme is only half noticeable to 1/3 of the audience.  If there's something you really want us to know about your group or your abilities or your set, make it clear.  Along those lines...

Be memorable.  Assuming your pitch and rhythm and transitions and dynamics and all that stuff are all there, you're going to get most of the objective points.  The difference between 1st place and 3rd place is completely in the subjective points given by the judges at the end of the show.  So if you want to win, your job is to make your set so full of memorable moments that when the judges walk into the judging room, they'll see your group's name on the sheet and have no doubt they should circle first place.  What you don't want is: "Which group is that again?"  "I think they had suspenders."  "No wait, that was the other group."  Instead, you want: "Oh my gosh! The group that did the classic rock medley!"  But with that said...

Arrangements are only kind of important.  Don't think that your genius, fancy layering and totally original syllables are going to really impress every judge.  Whether you sing jen or jin is really of little consequence to us.  We also don't really know if your arrangement was hard to learn, or if it looks amazing on the page.  If you have to hand us the sheet music for us to understand what you did, it's not effective.

Now that's not to suggest that the judges are stupid.  There's just too much happening at the same time, plus we're thinking and writing very quickly.  We are musicians, and pretty good ones at that.  So we will notice clever things you do, and we will be impressed by dazzling chords.  But don't think you're going to win this thing with your arrangements.  Nobody on The Sing-Off won with amazing arrangements.  In fact, some have said that the complexity of "Viva La Vida" may have been the downfall of Noteworthy, and I'd argue it was certainly the downfall of the VoCals.  Difficulty is important, but it's not nearly as important as execution.

Now with all these pointers in mind, you might be getting worried.  Well...

Don't be nervous.  True it's a new audience, and a new venue, and it "really counts" this time.  But nerves will hurt your pitch, your energy, and your precision, all of which are necessary if you're going to win.  But it is a big deal, so you probably will be nervous, so...

Pretend you're not nervous.  If you force your group to practice in front of tons of new audiences in lots of new circumstances, you'll get good at focusing on the show and not on your nerves.  Even if you are nervous, do some self-affirmations to try to calm down and at least put on a happy face.  Sometimes we really can't tell the difference.

I'm not saying be fake or disingenuous.  But as a performer, you're really an actor up there.  Get in the mood.  And if you're not in the mood, or if you're nervous or distracted, force yourself to get in the mood!  Or at least look like you're in the mood!

Music is the most important thing.  Once you get up there, remember it's a singing competition.  If you have flaws in pitch or rhythm, it's hard for us to give you the trophy.  Sing well.  Sing well.  Sing well.  The groups that succeeded in The Sing-Off all sang very well (after the first episode).  Nota sang well from the very first performance, and they went all the way.

Music isn't the only thing.  Singing is crucial to this show, but it's not everything.  Don't forget, we're all sitting there in the audience.  WE'RE WATCHING YOU.  It's not a CD.  If you look boring visually, or your motions are stupid, we can't give you the points we want to give you for the visual aspect of your show.  The Bubs were a prime example of putting on a great show, and they made it to the final two.  Frankly, just about every group on The Sing-Off gave a great visual performance.  And guess what?  You enjoyed it more because of it.  Same goes for the ICCA and ICHSA audiences and judges.

Expect weird things.  The sound on The Sing-Off was odd at times.  The set was new.  The competing groups even had to do a song they weren't prepared for.  The monitors were reportedly not up to snuff, at least at first.  Well, same goes for Varsity Vocals shows: you never know what you're going to get!  Maybe there will be an extra mic for your duet person, but probably not.  Maybe you'll go last, maybe you'll go first.  Maybe the stage will be smaller than you wanted.  Maybe the stage will be huge!  Maybe there will be monitors, maybe not.  You have to be prepared for anything.

Do your best to find out as much information in advance as possible, then assume there's a decent chance that information will be incomplete or incorrect.  You never know until you get to the venue what the real setup is.  And at that point, you have to use your extra alone time as a group to make last-minute adjustments.

Is this a pain?  Yes.  But it comes with the territory!  The most professional performers aren't the ones with demanding riders (though some of them do have demanding riders!), but rather those who can perform anywhere at any time under any conditions.  Roll with the punches!  The groups that win the ICCA and ICHSA every year are incredibly flexible.  If you want to win, you should be flexible too.

Be likeable and award-worthy.  Didn't it seem like all the groups on The Sing-Off were nice?  I've spoken personally with several of the competitors from multiple groups, and every one of them has had nothing but great things to say about every other group.  By all reports, Nota is a total class act.  Doesn't that make you want to really support them even more?  And the Bubs were so nice when they lost, speaking very highly of Nota and congratulating them in public and in private when Nota won.  CLASS ACT!

Now being nice isn't going to win you awards.  But if you come across as arrogant or rude, it's not that easy for us to want to give you awards!  And more importantly, when it's all over, what kinds of relationships will you have if you're jerks to everyone at the event?  Be nice, reach out, make friends.  Stay humble.

The judges usually sometimes most of the time almost always usually know what they're talking about.  The Varsity Vocals producers work very hard to line up a panel of judges that understand not just contemporary a cappella, but singing, performance skills, competitions, and everything related to what you are experiencing as a competitor.  Judges do come with biases, preferences, and so forth, but none so terrible that it would affect any outcome.

There has been a LOT said about some of the very strange comments that came out of the Sing-Off judging panel.  And probably rightfully so.  In my opinion, focusing on how an all-female group can "overcome" their lack of bass is not a very useful critique, for example.  Other judges (okay fine, I'll say it: Nicole) offered less musically nuanced techniques, instead focusing on the energy in the room and an overall lovability factor.

Despite all the commentary and criticism about the judges along the way (including from yours truly), most people seem to think the results turned out well.  The Top 3 were all pretty darned talented, and Nota was a great group to win the competition.

So when you sit down to read the judges' comments, remember that they're not idiots, and they're legitimately trying their best to score the show accurately, as they see it from their chairs.  They're trying to offer you useful feedback.  Don't just throw it away; really read through it and consider it.

On the other hand, each judge is just another (very knowledgeable) audience member.  A different set of judges may have scored the show slightly differently.  You never know.

Which is why, in the end, you can't score your value as a group based on your score in the show.  This is only a moment in time.  Although it's true that...

Prizes can be awesome.  If you win one or two or five, soak it up.  Issue a press release.  Put it on your website and in your press kit.  Don't be ashamed of the victory.  Enjoy it!  But on the other hand...

Your group will take away a lot more than prizes.  Memories, friendships, future couches to sleep on when you tour, new fans, cash from sold CDs and merchandise, you name it.  And perhaps more than anything, you should realize that the competition has made you rise to a level of quality you may not have otherwise ever had a reason to strive for.  You're better than you would've been, and you've learned a lot along the way.  So soak it up and be proud.

My (they still let me say "my") Noteworthy ladies got booted off on the second episode.  Were they upset? Sure, of course.  But they walked away with their heads held high, proud of their performance, happy for what they learned, and with the memory of having been on national network television, something most a cappella groups will never have a chance to do.  That made me more proud than anything they did or didn't do on the show.

Keep that positive attitude for yourself and your group.  Work your butts off to make your set as amazing as possible, be flexible, don't be nervous, soak up the feedback, and have a blast.  Once it's all over, learn what you can from it, and remember you've got more performances left in the school year and a long performing career ahead of you!


Dave Brown has been an active Varsity Vocals judge, producer, and emcee for several years at all levels of the competition and throughout four U.S. regions.  He was the co-founder and director of Noteworthy, the all-female group that won the ICCA in 2007 and appeared on The Sing-Off in December 2009.  He is a former CASA president, Board of Directors member, and CASAcademy director.  Today he co-hosts and co-produces Mouth Off, a weekly podcast show dedicated to contemporary a cappella music, and is a frequent clinician and private performance coach.


microphone madness

And for God's sake, use extra mikes judiciously-- and then use them properly.  Watching the SoCal's VP guy holding the mic at a 90º angle was painful, because I knew it made him inaudible and frustrated me because I knew how good it could have sounded.  And consider whether your VP (or soloist, or duetist, or whatever) needs the extra mic or if he/she is loud enough already; if he/she gets a mic, make sure he/she uses it correctly.  Judges don't care about whether there's supposed to be a drum track (or whatever) in your song-- they only care if there is, and if there isn't and the song falls apart because of it, that's not something the judges will give pity points for.

Amen Warren.   It's extremely

Amen Warren.   It's extremely frustrating for everyone, judges and listeners alike when a group doesn't have the slightest clue how to use mics correctly, whether for bass, perc or solo/duet.... Make sure you do EVERYTHING possible to practice ahead of time on your own dime, and not just during sound check @ ICCA's....  Make sure you know how to use your mic, know what sounds best with YOUR snare and kick / voice etc.

"No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius."

This was an issue from the

This was an issue from the very first ICCA (then NCCA) show I judged in Feb. '02 (quarterfinal at Penn State).  I had never seen so many mikes set up for a collegiate a-cappella show, and you could tell the groups hadn't either, because they were placing them all over the place in ways that made no sense.  And then the three of the six groups had blocking that I've come to refer to as the "VP quarantine", where the VPist grabs a mic-- often one imappropriate for handheld use-- and completely isolates him/herself from the rest of the group way to the side of the stage, like we're supposed to be impressed by it.  Why, God, why?!  Fortunately that went out of style after a few years, but I still see it occasionally and I die a little inside.

ha ha

"VP Quartantine" - that's awesome!

Amy Malkoff http://www.amymalkoff.com/harmony CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - http://www.casa.org Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.

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