Competition Tips

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2009-02-26

It's the spring, which means it's competition season.

The ICCAs, the ICHSAs, the Harmony Sweepstakes... people from age 14 to 70 will be performing on stages across the US over the next couple of months, hoping their group proves to be the best of the night.

I'm often asked how a group can improve, and what they should focus on in the rehearsals before the performance, as well as when they're on stage. Here are a few suggestions I find myself saying often:

1) Have fun. I mention this first because it's the single most important thing a group can do on stage. All of the a cappella competitions are for amateur groups, and at its root, the word "amateur" means "for the love of." Let your love of singing shine while you're on stage. If you smile, genuinely smile, you'll have the audience with you.

2) Do not play to the judges. They don't matter. Play to the general audience. If you win over the audience, you usually win over the judges as well, as the audience will sweep them up in a tide of clapping, laughter, singing along. It's impossible to deny the force of a mob, and moreover judges realize the supreme importance of connecting with the crowd.

3) Consider the emotional focus of each song, and make your musical decisions based on it. Too often groups spend most of their rehearsal time on details without having a reason for those details, other than the laws of music theory and the principles they were taught in chorus. Tuning is nice, but making an audience laugh, gasp or cry is moreso. Dynamics, tempo, pacing... all roads should lead to the same emotional place, and your decisions about what to do in measure 23 should have the same overriding priority.

4) Solo, solo, solo. See my last blog.

5) Forgive and forget. Yes, your alto sings the bridge out of tune sometimes, maybe even usually. Fine. But don't shoot her that glance, or bristle when she does. Accept that we're all imperfect, and the nature of a live performance is rife with imperfection. Everyone expects this, including the audience and judges. However, when you let the imperfections effect your performance and/or make them apparent, you're pulling the audience out of the emotional journey you'd like to be taking them on, and pointing an enormous arrow at a flaw. It's as if when watching a movie you hear a voiceover from the director stating "So sorry! I know this scene is a bit dimly lit! I did the best I could." All of a sudden the moment is broken. This includes apologizing in any way for a solo, be it coughing, rubbing your chest, straining your neck, or any of the other insecurities that overtake singers. Just do it.

6) Segues. It might seem like a little thing, but the space between songs matters, and few groups pay attention to it. From the way you move onstage and get your pitch until the first note of the song matters, as does that space between songs. If you're not sure what to do, let me offer:

* as soon as a last note has been cut off, hold the moment! Do not turn away. Let the chord ring in the hall, and savor the mood for a second (or even a couple seconds, if it's a heartfelt ballad).

* next, when you relax your muscles, acknowledge the audience response. Smile, nod, whatever. Especially the soloist. It's rude for a soloist to turn and disappear as soon as a song is done, and moreover you need them to pull focus while...

* the background singers should all be moving into their next positions, if they're different. Also, the person who will deliver the next spoken intro should be moving to the front of the stage to speak as the applause dies down. No dead space/silence!

* If you're not planning to have anyone speak, give the pitch during the applause, and try to get the music happening before it's gone, so there's a seamless flow. If someone is speaking (which I recommend for amateur groups, so you can relax, focus on the next tune, and get a clean start), then practice having them speak while the music comes up under them. This can make a big difference.

* As soon as the music starts, have the speaker finish up and move back into the group. As focus on him dissolves, the audience should see the rest of the group completely focused on the mood of the next song, whatever it is. And then the soloist can step forward, already riding an emotional wave.

It's not hard to make this happen between songs, but it does take a little focus, coordination, and rehearsal. You'll be glad you did, and it will send a very strong message to the audience and judges: you're focused on taking them on a journey for these ten minutes, and they're in good hands.

7) Blocking and stage placement. Your group doesn't need to be the Temptations, but it does help if you've given some thought to how you're placed on stage. I don't mean choreography (at all), but rather the stage picture you're creating, and if your singers are near the people they need to hear. The stage will likely be larger than your rehearsal space, and you'll likely be dealing with some mic issues (e.g. for scholastic groups: where will the mics be, and for adult groups: will you have wireless mics? stands?)

8) Variety. If you haven't yet decided what to sing, choose your strongest songs, and if they're all strong, then go for variety. Different soloists, different tempos, different styles. Audiences and judges (especially judges) like to see a range of talent and technique from a group. Play to your strengths, no doubt, but show off as many different strengths as you can.

9) Breathe. It sounds stupid, but this is the single most important thing you can do before you get on stage and while you're on stage. Your nerves will be up, which will cause your muscles to tense, and you'll likely be only getting a percentage of the air you've been used to during rehearsal.

To counter this, take a few long slow breaths. Breathe in deeply and exhale fully. The effect of this is significant, as you'll slow your heart rate, relax your muscles (especially your diaphragm), and literally reset your overall system, reducing stress.

9) Have Fun. I'm ending with this again because people forget and tend to focus on rehearsal on things they can fix, and on stage they get carried away with their technical duties. Once you hit the spotlight, it's time to let go, relax, and trust your director, your experience, your rehearsals, your memory. Perhaps bring with you a couple words to consider at the beginning of each song to trigger the mood, but that's it. Let go, ride the wave, and focus on performing.

Don't sweat the details, don't get caught up in technique, and don't drift into autopilot - all of those things take you away from the crowd. Look at your fellow singers, smile, connect, then turn and share that energy with the audience. And that's it. That's the whole thing. That's performing. 

Then, once you walk off stage, you're not done! The best part of the night is still ahead of you: Who wins? Who cares! Would you rather have a little trophy or a thousand new fans? Certainly both are nice, but one of them is in your hands and the other is not. Let the judges do what they will, and focus on doing what you can: a great performance on stage, and a great time off stage meeting the other singers, listening to their performances and learning from them, greeting the audience and make new fans, and enjoying the afterglow.

What do you think? Do you have any comments, thoughts, tips? Feel free to add 'em to the comments below.



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