Pitch imperfect: Competition motivates a capella singers to excel

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Kopitonez, the author’s group, performs Jan. 28 in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Great Lakes Quarterfinal at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor.

There is no experience quite like college a capella. Performing a set of songs arranged by some of your closest friends, dedicating hours of hard work to perfecting notes and choreography, neglecting homework and other social interaction — all to create mere minutes of music.

“Sometimes, it seems like the amount of time I put into a capella is just absurd,” said LSA sophomore and soprano Cristina Noujaim, who is taking a break from my Asian-interest capella group, Kopitonez. 

Is it worth it? Sometimes, I’m just not sure. The long rehearsals can be brutal, especially when group members are involved in different organizations and can’t commit fully to learning and performing the music. Without a clear, defined goal, members can easily lose motivation. Skip rehearsals. Miss performances. But when there is a definitive goal on the horizon — such as a competition — the transformation our collective mentality undergoes is fierce.

On Jan. 28, nine groups of singers competed in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Great Lakes Quarterfinal at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. For months, each group dedicated exasperating amounts of time into arranging, singing, choreographing and performing a 12-minute set of songs. Despite the competitive nature of the event, there was no animosity, only excitement to see everyone’s interpretation of music.

For my group, the event was our first experience in competition. Tension ran high. Throughout the welcome ceremony, sound check and final rehearsals, I could hardly stop myself from quivering with excitement. We’d worked our tails off just to be in this competition. Poured hours of hard work into polishing our set. There was no way we could possibly mess up. Yet I couldn’t ignore the little voice in the back of my head that was convinced we would somehow mess up.

Yet when our music director rounded us up for one last huddle taking the stage, I felt a wave of calm wash over me. I beamed at all 12 members of my a capella family. No matter the result, this was it. This moment, the calm before the storm, represented an end to our insane rehearsals, as well as a new beginning for Kopitonez.

When I stepped out onto that huge black stage that stretched on forever, everything else disappeared. The audience. The judges. The blinding lights. The nerves. Nothing mattered but the group performing as one well-oiled machine. And when the 12 of us linked arms to take that final bow, the sheer relief, adrenaline and electrifying sense of accomplishment was enough to move us to tears.

Noujaim stresses the role ICCA played in giving the previously directionless Kopitonez a goal, forcing “people in [the] group to take charge.” Certainly, entering this competition was the best decision our group could have made to breathe new life into our music and strengthen our bonds. 

While we’d previously been content performing at events around campus and in two yearly concerts, freshman alto Emily Tang observed that our decision to attend ICCA gave us the motivation to “improve every aspect of our skills, from intonation to blending to choreography.”

Yet the road to quarterfinals wasn’t pretty. Naturally, we did the opposite of what ICCA veterans would do. We spent the month of January smothered in a cloud of stress, arranging new music, cramming memorization of notes and choreography into exhaustingly long rehearsals, and spending unhealthy amounts of time together. A mere week before the quarterfinals, we were still memorizing notes and learning choreography while other groups had passed that stage weeks before.

In an ideal world, Kopitonez would have come out of nowhere to snatch the quarterfinal prize from the hailed favorites. Insert catchy dance outro, roll end credits, cue the second-rate sequel. Unfortunately, this underdog tale was not meant to be. At the end of the night, the results were: University of Michigan’s G-Men came in third place. Amazin’ Blue in second, and Maize Mirchi, also from the University of Michigan, took first place. Both moved on to the March 4 ICCA semifinals in Chicago, where Amazin’ Blue came in second place. 

Amazin’ Blue’s sophomore alto Amy Pandit reflected on the experience. “We’d worked really hard on our set’s message and impact, and hearing the positive reactions afterward made it clear that people got it. That meant so much to us.” The group sang and danced their way through the heartbreak and recovery to the audience. As Amazin’ Blue moves on to the next stage of competition, Pandit is ecstatic for “the opportunity to share [their message] with an even larger audience at semifinals.” 

I walked off the stage that night, surrounded by my a capella group — my family — and felt no disappointment that Kopitonez hadn’t moved on to semifinals. We were so elated, so proud to count ourselves among the nine talented competing groups, that anyone would have thought we’d taken home first, second, and third place. We were proud especially to have been the only ones that night performing a mix of East Asian and American music, spreading our appreciation for the two cultures to a new type of audience.

As I glanced around at the smiling faces, heard the excited chatter, felt the sheer happiness fill the air, I realized that there were no losers that night. The meaning of this competition can’t be summarized better than with these concluding remarks from Great Lakes ICCA producer Emily Flanders herself: that a capella is about “talent, innovation, smart musical choices — and above all, heart.” Kopitonez, along with the other a capella groups, will strive to take heart from this year’s results and turn them into next year’s success.  

Katie Zhao

Katie Zhao is an intern with The Ann magazine. She's a student at the University of Michigan.