When it comes to a performance, especially a competitive set, the best groups meticulously craft every second, from beginning to end. Here's what goes into an award-winning show:
Average groups give little to no thought to making an entrance. Amateurs will comes out on stage without a plan, wander, place water bottles, and generally behave as though the audience can't see them yet. But, SURPRISE! The audience can see you! From the second you come out from behind the curtain.
The groups that elevate to the top tier recognize this and use their stage entrance as an opportunity to make a professional first impression. How each group does this is not set in stone, but whatever you pick, it should be organized and done with confidence and efficiency. The audience nor the judges want to wait an especially long time while you adjust your lines.
While visual judging gets underway with the entrance, how you present that opening chord can make or break your set. You want to show confidence in your tone, blend, and delivery. In a competition, there is no time to warm up to the audience and get into a groove. It needs to be present from the very first note.
Pick a song and a soloist that is going to draw in your audience. If you are going to pick something obscure, you had better have an impeccable and interesting arrangement and an engaging soloist. Your presentation should also accurately represent the story you are trying to tell. If the audience (or the judges) have to think too hard to figure out what's going on, it will be hard to regain their attention.
Groups approach audience engagement in a variety of ways. There's no rule that says you must address the audience. However, the groups that find a way to do it (and do it well) often score higher. Why? Because while there is art in competition, the audience came to see a show, not quietly observe a static piece of visual art. They react and engage more if the group gives them something to react to or engage with. Even the most objective judges will take a great audience reception into account when considering presentation scores.
Ever drive in a car with someone a little aggressing on the gas and the brake pedals? That jerking feeling that makes you a little queasy? Too much or too jolting a change in emotions and dynamics can cause a similar effect on your audience. The competition formula of fast-slow-fast is not the only option, but it is both popular and well-documented. However, it has to be done with finesse and pacing. Time is limited, but if the songs in your set don't flow together easily, transitions must be added so that the audience enjoys a smooth journey rather than a bumpy ride on a wooden emotional roller coaster.
While the jump back and forth between emotions shouldn't be jarring, it does need to be present. Sets that include all of one kind of song, especially all at the same tempo or volume will not score as high as a set that includes a good variation. Judges are looking to see what kind of versatility you have. Can you realistically deliver more than one emotion? Does the group have a volume other than screlting? Do the arrangements evoke different textures?
Not every set has to end with a belted high-energy popular song complete with backflips and vocal gymnastics. However, the last song should pack the most punch. It's the last chance to wow, so pull out all the stops, whatever that means for your group. And knowing that this last song should be the biggest, make sure you work on your endurance leading up to the show. Practice the set in its entirety with simulated adrenaline to make sure you can sing it without gasping for air. Make sure you can all keep the energy level up without dipping into manic presentation—we still want to see you on an even keel.
You've sung your last note. The audience is applauding. You're hoping maybe the judges have their heads buried in their score sheets? Nope. They are watching you until you exit the stage. Don't finish a meticulously crafted performance by tripping at the finish line.
Have a plan for what's going to happen when you are done singing. How long are you going to hold your last pose? (Hint: it's longer than you think you need to.) Are you going to bow? Practice bowing. Want to give the audience a little acknowledgement? Wave like you mean it and not as a nervous tick. And know how everyone will walk off! No one wants to see you stumble and run into each other because two people are bowing, four are waving, and the rest of the group trips over themselves because they can't get off the stage fast enough. Wait until you're off the stage and out of sight to relax and regroup.
A great way to learn is watching previous winning sets. However, don't fall into the trap of too much borrowing and stealing. Groups win because they are innovative and genuine, not because they can do a perfect imitation of group that won the year before. Ultimately, the set that wins a competition is the one that combines the best of many elements and is presented in a way that is uniquely you.