This article isn't about being the most technically proficient a cappella group. You already know how to do that. This article is about winning. Embrace these ten truths, and don't let them become your ten a cappella competition mistakes!
1. Your Performance Begins the Instant You Step Out on Stage.
The Rules of nearly all a cappella competitions state that the timing begins when you blow the first pitch, begin choreography or start talking. That’s timing. But when does the judging really begin?
2. You are Not Invisible Before and After the Song.
Your group may divide the show into songs, but we are watching your whole show. The breath you take to begin the ballad. The way you walk towards the mic. The way you gracefully bow after the song has ended and the last reverberation of the final chord fades. Whether you laugh at the joke intro to the next song or whether you are fixing your hair instead and looking concerned that you can’t find your next pitch. We’re always watching. And judges are always scoring.
3. Emote with the Lead, Not With Nonsense Syllables.
Some leads are singing fluff and then the emotion is best described as “Yeah! We’re all having a good time!” That’s fine! You can put that on your face and in your body and all is well. Some leads are singing absolute poetry. What the lead sings, the group must respect. Back-ups that are doing their own thing, particularly when their own thing is distracting or boring are hurting the overall performance. This isn’t to say that the back-ups couldn’t express something different from the lead; they can. But what they express matters and they can’t be in their own world of focusing on “doo doo dah shwah” or the internal monologue of “Hey, do I look fat in these white disco shorts?”
4. “Simple and Perfect” Crushes “Complicated and Almost”.
This is true for all elements of music, but rears its ugly head in Vocal Percussion with great regularity. A deliberate, precise pattern with enough time for your VP to nail each sound and place each sound right in the pocket is infinitely more effective than a sloppy high speed assault. If the sung parts are too hard to sing dead on then they’re not the right choice for competition. We’d rather hear simple perfection. Unlike ice skating’s demands of particular jumps, a cappella competitions usually score you on the goals you set for yourself. Achieve perfection in simpler music and walk away with the trophy. That’s one of the reasons barbershop groups often win or place highly at contemporary competitions: they sing the hell out of the material they’ve chosen, even if the material they’ve chosen is dated or seemingly simple.
5. Never Sing Before You Sing.
Singing the starting chord, or humming before actually starting the song is universally viewed as a weakness in the ability of singers to hear their starting pitches. Additionally, it’s not a particularly compelling performance choice. And even if you’re lucky enough to have judges that don’t detract points for lack of professionalism or performance, you are still wasting time on something that can never earn you any points.
6. One Talks. One Blows.
Ron Jeremy jokes aside, laws, sausages and getting the group to sing in the right key and at the right tempo are all mysterious things the people don’t want to see the innards of. We just want them to come out right. Let magicians or politicians teach you the art of distraction then translate that to a cappella. One talks: “Thank you. We are the Flying Noodlebonks. We’d like to show you our spin on some classic 90s alternative music next. Of course I’m referring to the 1890s classic, ‘I Miss Dear Old Lincoln’! Kick it Noodlebonks!” While One is talking, Two blows the starting pitch and counts off so that the count off begins before “Kick it Noodlebonks!” and the group starts singing immediately following the talking. Even if you can’t get it together to time all this right, at the very least don’t have the person intro-ing a song also be the person who blows the pitch and counts off.
7. Man Cannot Live on Mezzo Forte Alone.
Yes, I know that the original song you’re now covering had no dynamics and they rocked. Too bad. You need dynamics and if you don’t have them, judges will take off points. Songs without dynamics are boring. I’ve never in my life heard a song with too much dynamic range or too much phrasing.
Many groups think of dynamics as strictly a musical, rather than a performance issue. Consider though, the connection between energy and dynamics. While perfect intonation may take years to achieve, both energy and dynamics can reach exceptional levels of expressiveness after a single focused rehearsal. Even grade school children know how to modulate their voices from incredibly soft to incredibly loud. Dynamics translate to energy and energy translates to excitement in the song and attention in the listener. We hear the change in volume, the phrasing, and the most powerful element of music leaps from the page: motion! So stop deliberately standing still, musically.
8. Tessitura Beats Range.
There may be nothing worse than hearing a tenor pressing grapes for a strained high note, a soprano warding dogs off with her high screech or a bass burping out gravel for the low note. Competitions are not the time for taking long shots. Choose songs that feature your strengths and hide your weaknesses. Change keys from the original. Make part of the solo into a sectional part. Do whatever you need to do to show us nothing but your good side. Judges never take points off for the high C you didn’t try to hit, only for the one you bungled. Keep each voice in its best tessitura.
9. Talking Doesn’t Win Singing Competitions.
Got a funny bit you like to do in between songs? That’s nice. We do like to see your personality and get to know you, but get to it and get singing. Funny one liners can get the job done just as well as skits and in a fraction of the time, leaving you time to gather points by actually singing.
10. Originality Counts and then Counts Again.
Nearly every competition awards original arrangements and original songs. Why take yourself out of the running for these awards? Also, consider why these awards exist at all: judges and organizers are looking to see the art form move forward and evolve. You can’t do that with well-known arrangements of well-known covers. And the originality awards aside, as between two groups of approximately equal performance, the judges will break the tie in favor of the more original.
Think you’ve heard “Insomniac” or “Africa” a few times? Wanna guess how often we judges have heard it? Do you want to take the chance that your arrangement and your performance of this classic are better than any of the thousands we’ve already heard? Gamblin’ man, are ya? It’s a long shot. By contrast, if we’ve never heard the arrangement or the song, then we have fewer preconceived notions of how you are supposed to sing it. You become free to express your creativity instead of your mimicry.
One of the reasons we are judges is the fact that we’ve heard so much a cappella. So would you rather be a breath of fresh air, turning heads and raising eyebrows or just another in a long line of sleepy Lion Sleepers and worn out Runaround Sues? Go ahead and do those songs in your live shows if you like. They’re tried and true crowd-pleasers and if you are a young singer, then chances are you’re not bored out of your brains from water-torture-like repetition. Just remember that competitions are a different beast, altogether, though so know enough a cappella history to take a pass on the passé.
The fundamentals are the necessary building blocks on which your performance stands. If you can’t tune, blend and balance, you won’t win. But that’s not the whole game. Heed this article’s advice and you’ll have easily sidestepped some serious a cappella land mines. When it’s neck and neck, you’ll pull ahead. When you put commitment in your face and body, that can’t help but become a part of your singing. And sometimes, really great stage presence and performance is so powerful, that judges think the musicality is at a higher level than it really is. It’s a multi-pronged attack. It worked in the American Revolutionary War and it works in a cappella! See you at the next competition, you champion, you!