Sophie Jester, bass and PR Manager for the 2022 ICCA-winning a cappella group “Pitches and Notes” takes us through what it took for their group to become the ICCA champions.
“Pitches and Notes”, AKA “Pitches,” is a competitive all-treble gender-inclusive a cappella group from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Last year, they were the first all-treble a cappella group to win the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, or the ICCA, in 15 years. Even more impressively, they were the first group from the Great Lakes Region to win the ICCA…ever. Though incredibly talented, Sophie says that at the core of it, they’re just a group of “people who love to sing and have a lot of fun.”
From preparations at the beginning of fall to winning nationals in New York City, here is how they won it all, including Pitches’ 8 keys to becoming champions.
Preparing for the ICCA
At the beginning of fall 2021, Pitches began preparing for the ICCA. The group gathered to decide on their new set with one goal in mind: to break the streak of doing stereotypical pop songs. This time, they wanted to switch it up and explore other genres to move past the typical “sexy pop” songs, as Sophie described it. Their seniors landed on “Animal” by AURORA, “Deepest Lonely” by Birdy, and “Outro” by MUNA. When asked how they chose their set, Sophie explained that they were very intentional about picking meaningful songs that they knew would sound good in their group. Once those were decided, they sent their songs off to be arranged by UW-Madison alumni they had in their network.
They began picking up speed over winter break. Usually, Pitches go on tour over break to sing for their members’ hometown high school choirs. Over this period of touring, the group began focusing on learning the basics of their set, leaving the music dynamics and detail work for later. When they weren’t performing on tour, they were memorizing music and doing what they could to understand each song deeply. Sophie elaborated on this, explaining that they would spend a lot of time just talking about what the songs were about. She said, “we would talk about it for so long [...] everything was made to be so specific to the songs that that was what pulled it together.” By the time break was over, the music was learned and they were ready to start choreography.
Constructing Award-Winning Choreography
They began solidifying choreography during the month leading up to their Quarterfinals. With such an intentional set picked out, there was a lot of room for their choreographer Elise Schroeder to focus on storytelling within the set. A major part of their movement involved conveying deep emotion through the singers’ physicality. As mentioned, they spent a portion of their prep talking about the set and what it meant to each person. She knew that in the end, “it might not have been as perfectly transformed to the audience, but to us, we had talked about what the songs mean to you, what emotions come up when we sing the songs together–we would talk about it for so long.” Sophie continued, “I think it really played into us winning.”
Sophie shared more in-depth how they specifically approached each song in their sets. In their first song “Animal,” the goal was to tap into the theme of being caged. They brought this to life through their choreography and attention to what the text meant. Sophie described the choreography and attention to the text in this piece as “animalistic and centering.” By contrast, the next song “Deepest Lonely” was meant to be the most emotional piece of the set. To lock into those feelings, they worked on picturing the faces of the people they were longing for. Because of all the work they did to connect with their songs on a deeper level, Sophie said confidently, “every single time we walked off the stage we knew that was the best we’d ever performed it.” Elise’s choreography ended up winning awards at each stage of their ICCA journey.
Taking Their Set to the Next Level
In the month leading up to their Great Lakes Quarterfinals, they added an extra 30 minutes to each rehearsal to begin refining their set. They’d laid the foundation and learned the basics, and now it was time to “tear down and rebuild” the set to become as stage-ready as possible.
They invited Pitches alumni to come in and “tech” their rehearsals, which meant getting a fresh pair of eyes to help workshop the set. This included making sure everyone was looking as good as they felt. Sophie recalled alumni telling her to really bring her “facials” out, meaning she needed to be more expressive. To them, having people specifically call out the members with constructive feedback was a crucial part of elevating their set.
Beyond picking the songs, the seniors played a large role in successfully preparing for the ICCA. They listened to ideas, worked together on additions, and asked for feedback from the rest of the group. Maintaining a truly open and collaborative culture promoted group buy-in that set them up for success. They all felt like they had a voice that could truly create positive change within the space.
Ultimately, this growth mindset and intentional culture-building were the reasons behind their success. They never stopped nitpicking dynamics and physicality, and collaborating on the set.
Tackling the ICCA
It was finally time for Pitches to tackle the first hurdle: their Great Lakes Quarterfinals. Going in with no expectations, their only goal was to do their best. Before their first competitive performance, they gathered backstage for a pre-show ritual. They circled up, held hands, and closed their eyes to center themselves. Then, as everyone connected, someone stepped into the middle to give some words of encouragement. This process of “centering” was so critical to their performance process that it became the title of their new EP of their recorded ICCA set, “Centered”. After the ritual, it was time to give their soon-to-be award-winning performance.
Everything changed when Pitches took first place in their Quarterfinals. Sophie remembers having the feeling that somehow, “this year was different. We knew we were good and having fun with it, but after seeing other groups, we thought ‘there is no way that we are beating them’.” But in the end, their hard work paid off.
Between competitions, the work continued. Pitches continuously added to their set. Their choreographer Elise never stopped finding ways to improve the movements. Sophie shared how each time they performed looked different than the last because the choreography kept changing and evolving. Without changing too much, the group continued to rehearse and refine the musicality within the set.
After hearing more about their journey to becoming champions, it was no surprise to me how they went on to win it all.
8 Keys to Success
After learning more about Pitches and Notes’ journey, Sophie and I compiled a list of 8 key ways to optimize your ICCA set.
Find a deeper meaning in your set. Pitches spent whole rehearsals sitting and talking about what their set meant. This gave them a better ability to connect with the music and bring emotion to each song. Beyond that, it gave them the confidence to better perform their choreography. When you’re working with your a cappella group, take time to discuss your set’s theme, choreography, and what the songs mean to each person. It may take time, but you might find that creating a connection to the music will take your set to the next level.
Choose your set wisely. Their song selections played a large role in building their success. The group chose their songs with a theme, contrast, and the singers in mind. It was important to choose varying pieces that could tell a story while being mindful of the talent that already existed within the group. When choosing songs for your group, think about where your strengths lie. Are you a musically dynamic group? Do you do well with high-energy pieces? Do you have singers who can support the song’s strength? Identify the things your group does well to help guide your decision-making.
Teamwork makes the dream work. Pitches had a confident, collaborative, and determined group of leaders. But nothing could have been achieved without merging their talents with the rest of the group. In this type of high-intensity and time-consuming work, your culture will be everything. Ask for feedback often, collaborate whenever you can, and be open-minded. This kind of approach will inspire your team and will make the long, and sometimes painful, process worth it.
Put in the time. Rome was not built in a day, and your ICCA set won’t be polished within a week. Set aside more rehearsal time than you think you’ll need to make sure your group feels as prepared as possible to take the stage at Quarterfinals. When you have your set on its feet, invite alumni, teachers, or anyone else to watch your performance and give honest feedback. If you can’t bring outside eyes into your process, record yourselves and discuss ways to improve together. You won’t believe how much you can improve just by gaining a new perspective.
Set goals, not expectations. Pitches didn’t enter the ICCA expecting to become national champions. Instead, they set goals for themselves that pushed them to new levels. For example, before each performance they set a single goal to go out and do their best. With that mindset, they were able to go out and give their best performance every single time. Goals can also look smaller. Before each performance, they set a goal to connect with each other. Find ways to bring goal-setting to your group, whether its nailing a certain choreography movement, or connecting with each other in a specific area.
Tear-down and rebuild. To really nail your ICCA set, it’s healthy to find ways to deconstruct your set without setting back a lot of progress. Tearing down could look like swapping out chunks of choreography if they don’t feel right, taking intentional time to nail harmonies and entrances, or simply thinking critically about what could be improved. As mentioned before, inviting alumni or spectators to help tech a performance can be crucial in doing a rebuild. Getting a fresh pair of eyes can do wonders for elevating a set. At the core of it, simply don’t be afraid to change pieces that aren’t working.
Test out your set. Pitches sang their set several times in varying environments: with lights off, walking around the room, with fake microphones, in their outfits, etc. Preparing in various circumstances is the key to optimizing your confidence. Beyond this, try to find a rehearsal space that mimics your future performance stage. Do what you can to imitate the environment and see if you can do a whole run at 100% energy and without stopping.
Consider the logistics. Your group’s success goes beyond music. To prepare for the ICCA, Pitches created committees to make each trip possible. To maximize your group’s performance potential, it’s best to consider how to make the background logistics run as smoothly as possible. Delegate tasks like figuring out lodging, transportation, and other important duties. Even if there’s a council or eboard within your group, there are always responsibilities that can be distributed. That way, distracting logistics are out of the way and the real work can take place.
Of course, these are only a few ways to be successful when tackling the ICCA. Remember that performing is supposed to be fun, so cherish this time spent competing with your group.