‘We all went through the same thing’: Competition unites UNC a cappella

By Molly K. Smith

Disco lights illuminate the dimly lit room, pulsing to the beat of a Mariah Carey anthem blaring from the television. An empty bin sits on the sticky kitchen table where used plastic cups lie dispiritedly, having served their purpose. Impassioned cheers drown out a drunken symphony of “doos” and “das” from Tar Heel Voices as the Walk-Ons gather in the center of the room for the next impromptu performance.

It’s 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2, and this is a college a cappella party.

There are 11 a cappella groups at UNC-Chapel Hill. Intergroup mingling, while generally celebrated, is a rarity. Saturday night’s shenanigans had at least five groups represented after the UNC Walk-Ons, the Loreleis and Tar Heel Voices competed in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, or ICCA, at The Carolina Theatre in Durham.

The Results

Just an hour before the camaraderie commenced, the three groups were crowded among over 90 singers from other schools under hot stage lights, awaiting the South Quarterfinal competition results.

First, producers announced the special awards. Outstanding Soloist went to the Ramifications. Hearts fluttered. Awards for vocal percussion and song arrangement were given to Wolfgang A Cappella. Sweat dripped. No Ceiling took the prize for Outstanding Choreography. Faces fell.

Each announcement elicited shouts and whistles from families in the audience. They felt thunderous compared to the feeble smiles and scattered applause on stage.

Junior Faith Jones and sophomore Tyler Haugle of Tar Heel Voices exchanged defeated glances before the top three groups were called.

“Well, I think I can tell where this is heading,” Haugle said, his shoulder glued to students from No Ceiling as they prepared for a win by grasping hands and squeezing their eyes shut in anticipation.

Ten groups competed. Three groups placed. Those same three groups – from the College of William and Mary, North Carolina State University and Virginia Commonwealth University – won every special award. Zero groups from UNC earned enough points to advance to semifinals.

Final remarks gave way to a chorus of heel clacks on the stage floor as students rushed to greet loved ones. “Tar!” one UNC student yelled, laughing, in an effort to to instigate the college chant usually reserved for sporting events. “Heels!” others screamed back, locking eyes with one another in spontaneous solidarity.

The Camaraderie

The collective loss was the birth of the biggest UNC a cappella gathering in years and the resurrection of a long-forgotten bond.

“First of all, we were so hype to be invited to the after-party,” said Olivia Dunn, senior and Loreleis president. “But we thought it might be awkward if, like, one group placed in the competition and the others didn’t. While I was shocked that no UNC groups got recognition, it was nice that we were unified in thinking, ‘Hey, screw this.’”

By the time results were out, Dunn was so proud of her group she had forgotten there were winners and losers. When she expected to feel the competitive fire, she felt waves of relief.

“I wasn’t disappointed for our group – it had been six years since we did this thing, and we went into it with no expectations,” she said. “But I was surprised to feel frustrated that our school as a whole didn’t perform well by the judges’ standards.”

The judges score each group’s performance based on 16 factors, including rhythmic accuracy, visual cohesiveness and professionalism. With no cash reward, ICCA South producer Lindsay Howerton-Hastings said judge feedback is the main incentive for groups to compete.

“Our judges are all professional musicians or teachers, and they’re able to help groups develop who they are,” Howerton-Hastings said. “Good execution and originality always fare well with the judges, but no matter what, these kids are always grateful to perform, grow and love each other.”

Philip Riddick, senior and music director for the Walk-Ons, said the score sheets were not helpful.

“Most of the comments were incredibly arbitrary and nitpicky, and they had no artistic merit,” Riddick said.

While the UNC groups didn’t share their individual scores with one another after the competition to avoid further rivalry, they all agreed that the judges’ comments failed to spark concrete plans for improvement.

“It just seems like a shortcut to me,” said Emma Wilson, the ICCA coordinator of Tar Heel Voices. “We put hundreds of hours of work into this. Three people put 20 minutes into a discussion and get to decide we don’t deserve to be recognized.”

The Preparation

Hundreds of hours of preparation precede the 2-hour show, filled by 12-minute sets of animated choreography, full-throated background harmonies and powerful soloists.

ICCA, produced by Varsity Vocals, rose to the spotlight with its feature in the 2012 film “Pitch Perfect,” which shows the quirks and triumphs of fictitious college group performances. The actual competition is almost identical to the movie portrayal – minus the on-stage vomiting.

Students submit audition videos to be placed in regional competitions for quarterfinals, and the top two groups then advance to semifinals. Those who win each semifinal head to New York for the final competition, where one group is crowned the ICCA champion. Groups often incorporate sharp movements and daring song choices to edge out competitors.

“When I started this job, we sometimes had to cancel shows because groups wouldn’t show up,” Howerton-Hastings said. “Now we’ve grown in ways I don’t think anyone could’ve envisioned, and we’ll continue to expand. We thrive on inclusivity, not exclusivity.”

But before the competition, UNC’s a cappella groups grew more isolated from one another as the students prepared. Sets had to be a secret. Rehearsals were private. Even speaking with someone from a competing group created tension.

“Because it’s UNC and we’re all type A people, things get a little competitive with a cappella – and unnecessarily so,” Riddick said. “We don’t actually compete with each other on campus, so it doesn’t have to be this weird. We could all benefit from exchanging ideas.”

Coed groups, like the Walk-Ons and Tar Heel Voices, tend to clash with one another more often than other groups. Their similarities become battles, and their talents become weapons.

“I honestly feel like I’ve never interacted with any Walk-Ons,” Wilson said. “But after walking off that stage and bonding over our letdown, I feel like I know them better. We all went through the same thing.”

Dunn, leading the school’s oldest all-female group, believes the lack of interaction is primarily a scheduling issue. Maybe if there were fewer groups or students had emptier schedules, it would all work out.

“But I feel more connected to the community than I did in my first or second year, so I hope that growth continues,” she said.

For Riddick, future get-togethers may spring from a newfound appreciation for one another. When a cappella groups see each other on campus, it’s often in unrehearsed performances in the Pit or recruitment efforts outside first-year dorms.

“We don’t really get to see other groups performing at their best,” he said. “ICCA showed me that we’re not only all incredibly gifted, but we’re driven as hell.”

Edited by Bailey Aldridge