In collegiate a cappella, 8 NY schools compete for the crown

On a recent Saturday afternoon, in a small performance space on the Upper West Side, eight college students filed on stage to pick numbers out of a basket.

A young woman leaned into the microphone.

“I’m Noor, I’m with the N’Harmonics,” she said, looking down. “And we’re number eight!”

Noor Hila’s teammates erupted in cheers – their a cappella group would be going last, closing the show at the night’s competition. It was the most coveted spot in the order.

In the world of college a cappella, there is only one tournament that matters – the Varsity Vocals International Competition of Collegiate A Cappella, or ICCA.

Founded in a college dorm room in 1996, the ICCA was made famous as the contest at the center of the “Pitch Perfect” movie franchise, in which the executive director of Varsity Vocals, Amanda Newman, had a cameo as a judge.

The competition is currently in the middle of its playoff season. Of the eight New York City colleges at that Upper West Side event, only two would advance to the semifinals in Boston on March 23. The winner there will compete in the final showdown – the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals – on April 27 at the Town Hall in Times Square.

‘This is their fraternity, this is their sorority’

There is no prize for winning the ICCA – no cash, no guest spot on “American Idol.”

What winners get is bragging rights, and a spotlight. The organizers said talent scouts keep an eye on the ICCA competitions.

Stars who have emerged from college a cappella groups include Sara Bareilles, John Legend and Art Garfunkel. Mindy Kaling, Ed Helms and Meryl Streep also sang on college teams.

But a cappella today is a far cry from the barbershop-style singers of yore. Groups now have coaches, choreographers, steam inhalers and VocalMist Portable Nebulizers to professionally clear their throat before taking the stage.

ICCA Director Dave Rabizadeh said that for many of the college competitors, a cappella is life – as it was for him, as the founder of Rutgers University’s all-male group Casual Harmony in the early 2000s.

“This is their fraternity, this is their sorority,” Rabizadeh said. “It’s the way they socialize, the way they make their friends.”

Rabizadeh said the popularity of the scene exploded after “Pitch Perfect” was released in 2012.

“We started seeing audiences go from one, two hundred people to five, eight, over a thousand,” Rabizadeh said. “There was a lot more at stake. Groups wanted to perform in Carnegie Hall, at the Beacon, in Town Hall – to show off that they’re the best in the world.”

The movie-induced frenzy began to abate before the pandemic, which naturally crushed attendance, Rabizadeh said, but audiences now hover between three and four hundred during the bracket-style tournament.

The teams

Backstage during soundcheck, all the groups were looking for a quiet corner to practice and warm up.

In addition to the N’Harmonics, two other NYU teams were there — the co-ed Mixtapes and the all-female Cleftomaniacs.

The other teams included Hunter College’s Hawkapella, Fordham’s F-Sharps, Pace University’s Total Recall, the New School’s Unjust Intonation, and Columbia’s Clefhangers.

NYU’s N’Harmonics was widely considered the favorite because of strong showings earlier in the season, and in previous years.

“There’s definitely a level of pressure,” said the group’s president, Julian Harper-Gilkin. “We have a legacy behind us and we have something to uphold.”

Hila, who drew the lucky number, creates the group’s musical arrangements. Last year, she attended the A Cappella Academy, a 10-day, audition-only summer camp held in Los Angeles, and said one of her arrangements from camp went viral on TikTok earlier this year.

“I did high school a cappella and like, that was not cool,” Hila said.

Now, she said her old classmates text to say her arrangements are popping up on their feeds.

“I was like, ‘Ha! Take that, people in high school who used to make fun of me for doing a cappella,’” Hila said.

As early arrivals filed into their seats, Hawkapella, the group from Hunter College, engaged in a pre-show ritual.

At their last rehearsal, the team had tied string bracelets on each other’s wrists — at the quarterfinals, they were going around giving each other compliments, and cutting off the bracelets.

“Naomi, you hold the tenors down so unbelievably. Perfect pitch queen,” said one teammate.

“Kayla, I know we don’t talk a lot, but whenever we have a conversation, I really enjoy it because I get to learn more about you,” said another. “You’re an amazing soprano.”

“Brookie, you add so much to this group with your gorgeous runs. I hope you do pursue music, you’re gonna be Taylor Swift 2.0. And you’re also so gorgeous, like, your face card never declines. And you just need to know that.”

As the compliments were shared, senior Brooke Erinakes teared up.

“My freshman year was COVID year,” she said. “Sophomore year I came here, I had no friends. And I’m so happy that this club has brought me some of my best friends. You guys make me so excited to come to school every day.”

Erinakes said she was thrilled to be at the competition, though the experience was bittersweet.

“CUNY is an amazing public school system, but we need more resources,” Erinakes said. “Unfortunately they just don’t have the money to pay for our arrangements, get us a bus places. We have to apply to grants and find money ourselves – even then it’s not what other private schools get. So we know that we’re coming in with a disadvantage. But we work twice as hard with half as much.”

The winners

The ICCA competition panel judges teams on several qualities, including the tone or timbre of the voices, how well voices blend together (do the vowel sounds all match each other, for example), as well as pitch, choreography and stylistic choices from the soloists.

NYU’s Mixtapes took the stage first, to a cheering crowd of mostly parents and friends, as well as some a cappella fans who were just there for the show.

Then they swung into “Dazed and Confused,” a 2018 single by the Australian singer Ruel that showcases NYU’s tenor soloist.

For the next two hours, seven groups followed with equally impressive showings. Each group performed a 10-minute medley arrangement of about three songs, from stalwarts like Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” to newer pop numbers with impressive opportunities for soloists, like “Wolf” by the Swedish singer Skott.

The latter was the centerpiece of the N’Harmonics’ arrangement, as they closed the show. Soloist Maya Monteleone, who had been clearing her sinuses and throat with a special Vicks steam inhaler, shone with an intricate high melisma.

Before the winners were announced, the judges gave out special awards. The F-Sharps’ Anton Karabushan won “Outstanding Vocal Percussion,” and Maya Monteleone from the N’Harmonics won “Outstanding Soloist.”

Finally, the judges announced the evening’s winners. The N’Harmonics took first place, and, along with NYU’s Cleftomaniacs, advanced to the quarterfinals in Boston.

Hawkapella came in third, ending their season.

“It feels sad that I’m never going to do it again.” said Hawkapella’s Erinakes. But I’m really proud of us. We tried our best with what we were given, and we got third place. I’m really happy.”

The Varsity Vocals International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals are on April 27 in New York City at the Town Hall. The event is nearly sold-out and tickets start at around $161.

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