By Sophie Cannon, deputy A&E editor
They say good things come in threes, and this year’s International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) is no exception as the last of three northeast region quarterfinals came to a close Saturday. Northeastern’s own Treble on Huntington and the Downbeats finished strong, each group earning awards and one earning a place in the semi-finals at the Boston Symphony Hall on March 26.
The Downbeats, one of four co-ed a cappella groups on campus, took home second place, and landed a spot in semi-finals. They will compete against two other Northeastern groups, the Nor’easters and Distilled Harmony, both co-ed groups and very familiar with the semi-final scene, as well as Upper Structure, the winning group of the night from Berklee College of Music. The Downbeats also won special awards for outstanding arrangement and outstanding choreography.
Treble on Huntington did not place at the competition, but stood out in other ways, taking home an award for outstanding female vocal percussion, or beat boxing. The strong beat under all of Treble’s powerful songs garnered the judges’ attention, earning them this special award. The group placed fourth out of the eight groups who performed that evening.
The Downbeats earned their second-place win on Saturday night, coming out on stage in black and white with a pop of their team color: Navy blue. Choosing to stick to songs the audience would know, they sang a collection of new material, like “Heartbreaker” by Marina and the Diamonds and a mash-up of Beyoncé’s “Pray You Catch Me” and Mumford and Sons’ “Believe.” However, the song that stole the show and led to a collective gasp from the millennials in the room was “Leave, Get Out” by JoJo.
“We like to pick songs that people know, but also love to do throwbacks,” said Charles Zheng, the music director of the Downbeats and a third-year computer science major. “Last year we did ‘Baby One More Time’ and that was a hit. Basically, I feel that personally if the audience isn’t having a good time then it isn’t worth it. If they know the songs, it’s a jam.”
The Downbeats’ path to ICCA is a well-rehearsed one, as they competed last year and the year before that, both times getting closer to placing but not quite making it there. This year came with rigorous preparation and long rehearsals, ultimately paying off in the end.
“ICCA is something that we do pretty much every year, and every year toward the end of the fall semester we discuss what we want our set to be and go from there,” Zheng said. “We go into winter break knowing who is singing what and in what order so we have all of break to rehearse.”
To stand out from the competitive collegiate crowd, the Downbeats have coined a phrase. Calling themselves, “aggressively fun,” the group strives to be a mix of energetic and determined.
“I would say our fun-loving attitude sets us apart,” said Emma Parrish, a senior psychology major and a member of the Downbeats choreography committee. “We work hard and take ourselves seriously… but not too seriously. We are aggressively fun and flirty while still sounding great.”
This year, Zheng disclosed that the choreography was less difficult than previous years and that the set was a bit easier to learn. This allowed for shorter rehearsals, but also tempted the group to stray from their normally hard-core pre-ICCA routine of dancing and vocal warm-ups and focus more on the competition as a whole.
“As a group our biggest struggle is to keep focused,” Zheng said. “We never really got into hard, strict, hammerdown ICCA mode that we did last year. We are focused on the judges this year though. We feel that the judges can be fickle. We read their comments at the end and one will say they didn’t like one part while the other judge will say they loved it, so we’re trying to make it so all the judges like us.”
The Downbeats want to be viewed as a fun-loving family, using ICCA season to not only advance as far as they can, but to grow closer as a group and establish themselves in the Northeastern community.
“We are a group of best friends who love to make enjoyable, powerful music together,” Parrish said.
“We look the best and sound the best that we’ve ever before,” added Zheng. “We’re on the up and up.”
The other Northeastern group of the evening, Treble on Huntington, also made the NU community proud, as they performed pump-up songs with a powerful message of female empowerment. Their vocal technique and amazing beats also set them apart, so much so that beatboxer, Kellyanne Caccavale, won one of two awards for outstanding vocal percussionist.
Despite not placing high enough to advance onto the next round of the competition, Treble on Huntington is proud of how far they have come as a group and, more importantly, as a group of friends.
“For us, it’s not about placing, it’s not about winning. It’s about performing an awesome show in front of a ton of people,” said Ally Schulz, music director of Treble on Huntington and a sophomore biochemistry major.
At a school with six unique and fiercely driven groups, it can seem like a challenge to be constantly competing, Schulz said. However, Treble reminds themselves that it isn’t all about trophies and competition in the end.
“I think it’s tough being in an a cappella community that is so competitive,” Schulz said. “It made us so much better than we would ever be at any other school, but I really want to get away from the idea of categorizing a cappella as a competitive thing, and I think a lot of groups do think of it in that light. For Distilled and the Nor’easters, this is what they mostly live for. That’s great, but I want people to think of us as the fun group of girls on campus that sings and is really good, but also wore flannels and t-shirt dresses to one of their shows when everyone else wore all black and heels.”
Even though competing is not everything to Treble, their work ethic and devotion to making music is evident in their set, choreography and dedication to including every member of the group. This semester, Treble on Huntington took on two new women, both competing at the ICCA for the first time, an accomplishment in and of itself.
“We started this year with seven members,” said Natalie Jones, the president and treasurer of Treble on Huntington and a sophomore math and biology combined major. “We went from 15 to seven, lost a bunch of members and had a complete turn around on the editorial board and we came into the semester starting fresh. We ended up getting four new members this year and that is my favorite accomplishment we’ve had. I love all four of them and we’ve all come such a long way.”
Treble carries a girl-power aura about them, as one of the two all-female groups at Northeastern and the only one to compete in their quarterfinals. This can be seen in their set list, but also in the way the group members carry themselves. Described by the emcee of the evening as, “balancing fun with the fierce,” Treble on Huntington consistently works to develop their fun loving but determined reputation.
“We always sing Ariana [Grande],” Jones said with a laugh. “It’s not like we are opposed to singing songs by men, but we always gravitate to female singers.”
“We’re trying this year to pick popular music because we’ve learned from past years that audiences, especially in the college scene, if you’re not singing relevant music they don’t care. We try hard to stick to popular music but also pick songs with substance,” added Schulz.
Taking home a special award was a definite perk of competing in ICCA this year, but at the end of the day, Treble’s main goal is to make audiences and classmates alike feel like part of their gang of girls.
“I want people to be able to come up to us and say ‘Hey, I saw you, you were so good,’ and just get the vibe while they were watching us that we could be friends,” Schulz said.
photo by Lauren Scornavacca