The Hard Work And Close Bonds Of Competitive College A Cappella



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Voices In Your Head, from the University of Chicago, performs their competition set. In the front, you can see Kari Wei — she's the one with the pitch pipe around her neck. (Joe Martinez Photography)
Voices In Your Head, from the University of Chicago, performs their competition set. In the front, you can see Kari Wei — she's the one with the pitch pipe around her neck. (Joe Martinez Photography)

It's been many years since I did my three semesters of college a cappella, but it remains a genre of performance for which I have enormous affection. In 2012, the arrival of Pitch Perfect meant that suddenly, I knew a lot more people who even knew what a college a cappella was. Throw in The Sing-Off on NBC, throw in Pentatonix, throw in the upcoming reality show on the Pop Network (which is called Sing It On, if you want to know what tone they're taking), and you've got a lot more attention on this extracurricular than there's been in the past.

Not all a cappella involves competition by any means (mine didn't), but last weekend, I was in New York for the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. I got to see some of the best groups in the country perform, plus a couple of very talented high school groups to make those in the audience feel particularly intimidated.

Four of the eight competing groups spent time chatting with me (including the Northeastern University Nor'easters, who don't appear in the story but who are the one of these teams followed on Sing It On, so you'll have plenty of chances to get to know them), and I met some of the fans who come from far away to see the show. (I talked to two families who literally came to the ICCAs after just Googling a cappella competitions because they liked some combination of The Sing-Off, Pitch Perfect and Glee.)

In the story, you'll get to hear them sing, you'll hear some great reflections on the friends you make when you work really hard on a common goal, and you may be surprised how much work goes into creating an arrangement for a group to sing in the first place.

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The SoCal VoCals were the winners of the 2015 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

The SoCal VoCals were the winners of the 2015 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

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BJ Leiderman does our theme music, and a cappella is enjoying a cultural moment. The 2012 movie "Pitch Perfect" paid tribute to that singing style. The film became so popular it spawned a sequel opening next month and a new documentary series about a cappella on the Pop Network. For college singers, the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella is a really big deal. This year, 300 groups from the U.S. and Europe auditioned for the competition. We went set NPR's Linda Holmes to the finals last weekend to find out why it means so much.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Voices In Your Head is an a cappella group from the University of Chicago. In a dressing room in the Beacon Theatre in New York, they're getting ready to talk about competing in the finals, when Kari Wei's electronic pitch pipe goes off.


KARI WEI: Oh, I'm so sorry.


HOLMES: Wei wears her pitch pipe on a ribbon around her neck. It even has a nickname - the pitch peanut. It's with her at all times.

WEI: I just figured it's safer to have it. You never know what might come up.

HOLMES: Wei doesn't carry her pitch peanut everywhere because a cappella is popular. She carries it because a cappella is consuming. Here's the bottom line from Brandon Schatt, a member of the Faux Paz - with a Z - from the University of Maryland.

BRANDON SCHATT: We put in a stupid amount of time.


HOLMES: That stupid amount of time, for the Faux Paz, can be 30 hours a week during competition season. That's all to get the 12 minutes of music they sing in the finals just right. Here they are doing the Naughty Boy song "La La La." Like all of the music in this story, this is the actual sound of their competition set.

FAUX PAZ: (Singing) La, la, la. La, la, la...

HOLMES: Sayeef Alam is in Faux Paz too, and at first, he says he's not sure why he works so hard. But the group helps nudge him to an answer.


SAYEEF ALAM: Because I love Faux Paz and we have this goal that not only am I trying to reach, but everyone that I love and care about at University of Maryland is trying to reach that same goal. So not only do I owe it to myself, but I owe it to everyone around me that I love.

ARYSSA BURRS: Sorry - I'm a little emotional about that.


HOLMES: Aryssa Burrs - she's the one getting emotional - says making this connection is part of how they pick people from the start.

BURRS: We all have to unanimously think to ourselves - say out loud, actually - we can't see Faux Paz continuing without this person.

HOLMES: But you don't get to New York on love alone. Nathan Heldman is a jazz pianist and the music director of the SoCal VoCals from the University of Southern California. He does some of their arranging, actually figuring out who should sing what. He says the process is exacting.

NATHAN HELDMAN: We think of certain soloists that we want. So we audition the soloist sometimes even before we finish the arrangement and then we orchestrate. So we figure out where everyone's voice sits best and just certain moments we want to bring out to just really bring the audience in.

HOLMES: It's not about imitating instruments. It's about an entirely different sound. You can hear it in their version of "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley.

SOCAL VOCALS: (Singing) Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Possibly.

HOLMES: That inventiveness is one reason a cappella has fans who go out of their way to find it. Before the show, out in front of the theater, there are families from Toronto and New Jersey. They don't know who's competing, they just came to watch. Edwin Williams came from Washington, D.C. and got into a cappella through his girlfriend. They've been coming to the finals since 2010.

EDWIN WILLIAMS: I'm rooting for everybody. I just love a cappella. I love music. I love the way melody sounds together. I love the teamwork. It reminds me a lot about sport.

HOLMES: Williams knows from his sports analogies. He used to play for the Chicago Bears. And just like any game in the NFL, the A Cappella Championships had a winner - Nathan Heldman's USC SoCal VoCals, who won for the fourth time. It's his first year in the group and he could hardly wrap his head around it.

HELDMAN: I'm personally in shock and don't feel much of anything right now. But, I guess a lot of the group, it's hit them already. And they're, you know, crying, screaming. A lot of them are over there, you can see the smiles on their faces. I feel so much and nothing at the same time. I don't even know how to describe what I feel right now.

HOLMES: Maybe one way to understand the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella is to go back to Kari Wei, whose University of Chicago group lost to the SoCal VoCals in a squeaker. Their star, Shubha Vedula, who got a special award for outstanding soloist, once competed on "American Idol." But Wei says that for a lot of people, this night is the big one.

WEI: And it's amazing that a cappella provides that for so many people who go through college because, you know, it's true, most of us after this aren't going to do music again. We're going to move on to other professions. But for a moment in time, we had the opportunity to make music together in a way that was very meaningful.

HOLMES: Next year, there will be new songs and new singers. And they'll undoubtedly carry pitch pipes - because you never know what might come up. Linda Holmes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.