• Cut Off Studios

Getting ready for ICCA!



It’s that time of year again! The groups have been selected, the brackets have been completed and groups are already preparing their sets. We’ve compiled some questions we’ve received and provided answers from some of our team members. Hopefully it will help you and your group have a successful ICCA experience!

What should rehearsals look like as we prepare for ICCA?

“Rehearse in sections, especially the ones that are the most difficult. Be able to start from different sections of the song or set, not just the beginning. Try to have sectional rehearsals at least once a week.” - Shannon


“Don't just run songs. Focus on sections and think of how to strengthen each part before putting it together as a whole. Set aside time to talk as a group about the meaning of the song and think about the audience perspective. Sectionals and quartets can be your greatest friend. Don't wait until the last minute to add choreo!” - Katie


“Find ways to create moments in your overall set. If something isn’t working for your group, don’t be afraid to make changes so that you’re highlighting the best talents your singers are bringing to the competition.” - Mickey


“Do a run of your whole set as early as you can in your rehearsal process. While you shouldn’t focus solely on runs, it becomes much harder to reproduce your work in rehearsal during 12 minutes of straight singing in dancing, especially during your closing song!” - Erik


Should we add extra rehearsals/have longer rehearsals?

“If you feel like the extra rehearsals will be beneficial for the group, then I would say go for it. You don’t want the group to get burned out too quickly and sometimes having more rehearsal time means the rehearsals are less focused” - Matt


“Longer doesn't mean better; unless you add in time just to talk about the songs or practice choreo. Try not to spend an entire rehearsal on one song; take breaks by practicing performance, choreo, or another song. Try and build stamina without making people feel frustrated.” - Katie


“A great way to increase rehearsal time without overloading the entire group is to call only specific people for a rehearsal. For example, the Music Director could run a rehearsal with just the soloists or the rhythm section. This way, specific portions of the set can be rehearsed more efficiently without significantly increasing the average hours per week of each member.” - Erik


Should the songs in our set be separate or flow into each other?

“Songs that flow together are difficult to pull off, but sound great! Sometimes it is nice if they have a story or theme that connects them all...but don’t stretch it too much. If songs don’t flow together, just have nice blocking that transitions well. Try not to walk in between songs or switch placements.” - Shannon


“I don’t judge differently if the songs go from one song into another (no need to sing an entire 10 minute set without stopping). What’s more important to me is that the transitions between songs make sense and are effective.” - Matt


“There's nothing cooler than a great transition, but nothing worse than a bad one. If you aren't 100% confident, the transition doesn't sound great, and it doesn't have purpose, then you lose the audience AND it messes up the beginning of your next song. Better to not do it and have solid songs then weak transitions.” - Katie


What songs should we chose?

“Pick unique songs that your group can perform effectively. Don’t pick the Top 10 “hot songs” - they’ll be old by the time the competition starts.” - Shannon


“Make sure that the songs you pick reflect and showcase the strengths of your group. Make sure the arrangements fit the vocal ranges of your group and the soloist feel comfortable singing the solos.” - Matt


“Variety is great! Try to be versatile while remaining true to who your group is. Be careful about picking too many obscure songs or too many overly popular songs.” - Katie


“Have a short conversation about branding and what your group can do well before choosing songs. Don’t be afraid to pick popular songs or songs no one else has heard of; you’re pitching your group to the audience and judges, not the song choice.” - Erik


How should we build our set list?

“Start strong and be memorable. Give the judges something that will make you stand out (for good reasons, not bad...haha)” - Matt


“There’s different ways to approach this that work. There’s the uptempo/slow/even more uptempo way, then you can always go with the brooding/moody angle for the whole set. Some groups go all popular or all obscure. No matter what approach you go with and what songs you select, make sure you have soloists that can give the best performance possible, something that will bridge the distance between the stage and the audience/judges and truly connect. It doesn’t matter if it’s a happy party song or a deep emotional one, it has to connect, and delivered well. If you have the soloist, the backgrounds will usually take care of themselves.” - Mickey


“Especially in pop music competitions, you want each song to blow the audience out of the water regardless of it’s a banger or a balled. Build your arrangements and choreography around moments so that there always something that the audience is impressed by. If I’m in the audience, I should never be able to pull out my phone and feel like I’m not missing anything. Be careful not to fall into the trap of only making a set that is appealing to the group, since those tend to be lost in subtlety; figure out something that both your group and an audience can love.” - Erik


What tips can you give on choreography?

“Include fluid transitions from song to song. Set up time to practice in front of a mirror (a dance studio, for example). Don’t start choreography until the music is memorized, or you may start memorizing incorrect parts! However, the earlier you start incorporating movements, the more fluid they will be by the end.” - Shannon


“I think it’s important to say that nowhere on the judge's sheet does it say “choreography”. The categories are Energy/Stage Presence, Appropriateness of Movement, Creativity of Movement, and Transition/Blocking. For whatever reason, I feel like a lot of groups get caught up thinking they having to move the entire set - DON’T DO IT. Make your movements reinforce the message you are trying to convey to the audience, make them meaningful and for a purpose.” - Matt


“Number one top thing is SOUND!! It's a music competition, not a glee club or dance competition. Many groups throw all their hard work out the window as soon as choreo comes into play. Do not do choreo that hinders your performance or sound. Don't sacrifice sound for cool movements. Keep in mind simple things can be enhanced by a stellar performance.” - Katie


For a group participating for the first time, how hard should we push ourselves during our preparation?

“Groups participate in ICCA for a variety of reasons; some set out to be the best group in the world and some set out to receive feedback and have an amazing experience as a group. Knowing what you want to accomplish can help you figure out how you approach your preparation. Always work hard though and always make sure you are give it your all!” - Matt


“If your group decides they want to do it, go for it! You can surprise yourselves with how much talent and bonding you find over the course of preparing for a competition. Don't burn yourselves out and remember, this is supposed to be fun! Having a great performance at the end makes all of that tough preparation worth it.” - Katie


“Being the first time and not knowing what to expect, I would do as much as you can to prepare but focus on the quality of the experience. You’ll get great feedback and solid connections to start building for future competitions. There’s also other competitions at various festivals that you can participate as a great warm up to any ICCA competition!” - Mickey


How can we make sure we have a polished performance in time for the competition?

“Practice, practice, practice. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from others outside of the group. If you can, invest in master classes (with us!) from aca-professionals.” - Matt


“One of the problems I see often with groups is neglecting to bring in outside perspectives and feedback. When your MD watches and listens all the time, they are bound to miss things they never even noticed. They are too inside their own bubble. Bring in EVERYONE! Bring in alumni, professionals, other groups, your mom… anyone that can offer another perspective which you can incorporate is the only way you will grow and learn things you never knew/thought of before.” - Katie


“If you’re not able to bring people in for one reason or another, then record yourselves and watch as a group, or send the video to the people you’re looking to get help from. Watching your performances as a group can be very eye opening and you see things that aren’t readily apparent when you’re in the heat of the performance.” - Mickey


“The first time the group runs music and choreography at the same time, it is very common for the dynamics and details of the music to go right out the window. Have rehearsals with choreography that are focused 90% on music, rather than only having music rehearsals without choreography.” - Erik


Any other tips or advice?

“Remind yourselves why you are participating in ICCA. Make sure to stay excited and be willing to work HARD. Take breaks, relax, and breathe! Record yourselves and watch/listen to find areas that you need to work on” - Shannon


“ICCA’s is a ball of fun. Work harder in the beginning so when it becomes closer and people start to get nervous and antsy, you can relax and enjoy the ride. It's great learning experience, take it!” - Katie


“Don’t just plan rehearsals, plan social time too. By doing this, you can enforce rules and focus during rehearsals to get better as a group, and then when you have your social time, it’s your group’s chance to bond and get out all that other energy that could normally disrupt rehearsal. Nothing wrong with playing just as hard as you work, just has to be at the appropriate times.” - Mickey


“Sometimes, adding extra rehearsal time or just rehearsing more intensely can be hard on members, especially when also handling school and their personal lives. Make sure your executive board is periodically checking in on the individual members to see how they’re handling the rehearsal process. If someone is slipping, the President should meet one on one with them ASAP. This way, the President can figure out the best way to keep that member involved, help them through what they’re going through, or in the worst case scenario, come to an agreement that their membership is not best for the group or themselves during the ICCA season. A Cappella is an intense extra-curricular, so it’s important to handle these situations with empathy and proactivity.” - Erik


We hope this helped! Feel free to comment or send us any other questions you might have and we'll make sure to get back to you quickly!​



About the Authors:

Erik Fredriksen is a the former music director of the Carnegie Mellon University Originals, who placed 2nd overall at the 2016 ICCA Finals. He served as an arranger, producer and clinician for Cut Off Studios in 2016. Mickey Hamilton is the Director of Production for Cut Off Studios. He has served as an ICCA judge and is an experienced arranger.

Katie Lambe is the former music director for Vocal Accent (RIT) and assistant music director for Cut Off (Rochester, NY). She is the Director of Education for Cut Off Studios and is also an experienced arranger.


Shannon O'Leary is the former music director of Elizabethtown College's Melica and led the group to the ICCA semi-finals in 2014. She currently serves as the Director of Arranging and a clinician for Cut Off Studios.


Matt Zager is the Chief Operations Officer and Director of Outreach for Cut Off Studios and has been an ICCA judge for the past 4 seasons.


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