Dear Competitors, Here's How to Win. Love, The Judges

The question at the start of every competition season: What does it take to win?

Or, the question at the end of every competition season: Why didn't we win?

Since the true recipe for success still eludes many groups, we've actually published a lot of advice on the subject. However, once you're at the show or in the audience, the winner usually stands out pretty immediately. You know they will win, but you can't put your finger on exactly WHY they will win. What's their secret?


Know exactly what is being asked of you and where the judges will focus. Is the competition more focused on musicality? Presentation? Audience interaction? Is it an even split or heavier in one area?

For example, if only 10 percent of your score goes toward visual presentation, it should be towards the bottom of your priority list. Master the point heavy sections first and then work for the lower scoring areas in final polish. Competitors headed into ICCA Finals this year should have the Varsity Vocals Score Sheet and Category Summary Sheet memorized. Not just memorized, but a core understanding of what excellence means for each line of the score sheet.


Unless you're in preschool (OK, maybe kindergarten), there are no sympathy points for visible or audible nerves. Every move and every sound you make should be done with complete confidence. At the top level of competition the margin of error is minimal, if not non-existent. Every member should know their exact notes, rhythms, dynamics, movements, and facial expressions. The judges shouldn't question whether that funky chord you just sang was intentional or not.

And if you do make mistakes? Don't let us see it. You might get lucky and we just might miss it.


The top groups come in and do something we've likely never seen before. Or execute something we HAVE seen before but on an entirely different plane from the rest of the field.

The problem with many competition sets is that groups will watch past winners and then imitate them, usually with less skill and poorer presentation. When judges see that, we just compare you to the group that did it the best. Old tropes won't win new competitions. You're not up against last year's winners—you're trying to be this year's winner.

Need some examples of things we'd like to see retired? 

  • Standing in a clump mid-stage and extending arms out to look like a human firework. (Unless you are singing about fireworks. Even then, maybe.)
  • The "powerful" walk to the front of stage so you can belt a huge chord which is neither big, nor powerful.
  • Walking around each other in never-ending circles.
  • Keeping your backside to the audience for extended periods of time.
  • Dramatically reaching forward when it has nothing to do with the context of the song.
  • A dub step breakdown in the middle of song that doesn't need it.
  • And, dare we say it, dramatic flips and gymnastics. If it fits with the theme of your set, sure, but most of the time we see this, it just comes across as a party trick.

Authenticity & Commitment

Do not try to be something you are not. We repeat: Do not try to be something you are not.

Unless everyone in your group is a world class actor, stick to being yourself. If your group members don't have the life experience to emote the true meanings of the songs in your set, we'll see through it. If your group is not naturally cheery and totally committed to an upbeat song, we'll notice if you're not having fun. If your soloist can't riff, don't. If tuning a minor second or a flat 7 chord isn't in your skill set, pick something different. If not everyone in your group can dance comfortably, we will pick those people out. Immediately.

Going back to innovation: Copying someone else's success isn't your road to success. Give some real thought to who you are as individuals, as a group, and what you all do well together and work from there.

Look Back: The Last Five ICCA Champions

Just over a week from now, a new ICCA Champion will emerge, to go down in the history book of a cappella success stories. This year is already set up for some history-making, as all of this year's finalists are not previous champions, although several of the groups have made it to the finals in the past.

The Anatomy Of A Competition Set

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:

The Storied History of ICCA

As the ICCA is quickly wrapping up its 23rd season, we thought we'd look back on just how far this battle for the best in collegiate a cappella has come.

Varsity Vocals: The Road To Finals

The big dance in New York is a little over a month away, but the road to get there started long before even this school year for many of the groups who will advance to the stage at PlayStation Theater.

What It Takes To Be the Best

Each day, in schools around the country, students enter a classroom and create music using their voices or any number of instruments. Starting with simple unison songs and plastic recorders, America’s youth can quickly advances to include repertoire from the world’s finest composers. It’s part of everyone’s education at some point, but what does it take to really be the best?

FloVoice & Varsity Vocals Announce Historic A Cappella Partnership

The world’s biggest a cappella event to air exclusively on

The Effects Of Classical Music No Matter What Genre You Love

Incorporating pop music into traditional music education is a hot topic for school teachers as of late. However, the greatest thing about music is that you don't have to love and practice just one style or even just one instrument. In fact, some of the best musicians out there, pop or not, have a deep history with classical and traditional styles.

#BHSOpry Comes To A Grand Close

After nearly a week of barbershop excellence, the curtain has closed on the 2019 Barbershop Harmony Society Midwinter Convention, where singers young and old crossed the Grand Ole Opry stage, historic contests were held and thousands of people had their love of singing renewed.

A Variety Of Excellence At #BHSOpry Chorus Invitationals


They may have all been singing the same style of music, but Day Two at the BHS Midwinter Convention was anything but indistinguishable.