This is an exciting time to be an a cappella fan, and an a cappella singer. The number of programs, festivals, competitions, TV shows, movies and albums is exploding, giving performers and fans of all ages the opportunity to experience this special genre that we all love. And in no area have we seen growth in quantity and quality quite as exponential as with high school a cappella.
History of ICHSA growth
We began the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) in 2006 with a few regional shows. ICHSA Finals that year were actually held during the intermission of ICCA Finals.
By 2014, we had 10 live shows and less than 100 groups competing. Today, we have 31 shows, with quarterfinal rounds in almost all of our regions; and there are 3,117 performers in 204 groups from high schools across 28 states competing in our tournament.
In just four short years since 2014, we have more than doubled in size. This growth is no doubt a testament to 1) the general excitement around the a cappella genre, 2) musicians and directors giving their time and talent to develop and grow programs at the middle school and high school level and 3) Varsity Vocals’ commitment to running an inclusive program.
On inclusiveness in the ICHSA
The growth of both the ICCA and the ICHSA has been a conscious and often costly effort. In an effort to include as many groups as possible, instead of cutting applicants when they don’t fit the existing structure of our tournament, we have instead added regions, expanded to quarterfinal rounds, redrawn regional boundary lines, and created policies to give as many groups as possible the opportunity to perform.
In 2014, when the ICHSA had reached its capacity at regional semifinals, we reached out to the directors of competing groups to get feedback on the best next course of action — should we cut groups from our program, or add qualifying rounds despite high school students’ already packed schedules? Director feedback was resoundingly in favor of quarterfinal rounds, and so we made the leap.
Director feedback has also helped us understand some of the challenges educators within school systems face when it comes to funding your programs and travel. For example, some schools require classes to be a certain size, which means their a cappella group is forced to be larger than our hard limit of 24 members. We’ve worked to find compromises for situations like this, and others, while remaining true to our rules — and above all, to the spirit of inclusion.
On so-called “supergroups”
We have received enough complaints about so-called “supergroups” that we felt it was time to address this concern publicly, so that not just directors but also competitors, parents, and fans can be quite clear about our rationale and intentions.
The so-called “supergroups” that are the target of these complaints are simply groups that fall outside the norm of public high schools — such as groups from private and/or auditioned fine arts high schools, groups that are subsets of community or church choral programs, and groups that draw from within a particular region of the country but don’t all attend the same brick and mortar high school.
We want to make our policy — which has not changed since the ICHSA was created 12 years ago — clear to directors, competitors, parents, and fans.
Our formal eligibility policy reads:
“Groups must consist of permanent, full-time, full-fledged participants who are students enrolled at your school or university. Exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis and will take into account the academic enrollment status of the member in question as well as the individual school’s policy for participation in registered student organizations.
Under no circumstances should groups bring in outside performers for competition. Failure to comply with this regulation may result in disqualification from any and all future competitions.”
The spirit of our eligibility rule is to ensure that all of the students competing in our tournament are full-time high school students. We certainly do not discourage or prohibit groups that aren’t affiliated solely with one school — in fact, many of our groups (at both the high school and college level) draw from more than one campus. So long as the group is composed of full-time high school students, we consider them eligible to compete in a tournament for high school students.
Certainly, we do not permit groups to bring in “ringers” who are just participating for the sake of competition. Singers must be high school students, though we have made exceptions for the occasional middle school student or student who has graduated a semester early.
Unlike, for example, a state-funded high school athletic association, we are a private organization and are not funded by tax revenue, so requiring students to draw from within a particular zip code or school boundary would be completely arbitrary.
Why we are all here
We know many of our participants and fans share our core belief that competition drives growth. We are presenting this tournament because we believe competition encourages students to come together, work hard, develop friendships, and learn teamwork and good sportsmanship.
There are many places in the country where schools do not have the funding or interest to form a group, so a motivated director (or occasionally, a motivated student) reaches out to students at different area schools or music programs to form a group. And we celebrate that initiative; we celebrate the work going in to give as many students as possible the opportunity to sing a cappella.
We are disappointed when we see directors, fans, and participants approaching competition with the sole goal of winning — to the ultimate detraction from the true, lasting, positive personal and professional growth competing could offer them.
The playing field will never be completely level. Some groups have the luxury of having wireless sound systems built into both their auditorium and their choral room; some students come to our competitions having never sung into individual mics. Some groups aren’t affiliated with one school and get to pull on talent from across town, but likewise can’t get together to rehearse more than once a week; other groups are affiliated with a school and are therefore limited to singers from that school, but they have the advantage of meeting as an academic class during the week, or seeing their director every day for choir class. Some groups are fed from incredible choral programs and community support that starts at the elementary level; some groups have no legacy or support whatsoever.
We can’t correct for those things. But what we at Varsity Vocals can do — and what we will continue to do — is provide as many high school singers as possible the opportunity to sing in our high school a cappella tournament. Period.
At a time when school arts funding is being slashed left and right — and when so much in our world seems so divided — maintaining a policy of inclusiveness in our small corner of the universe is, quite simply, the right thing to do.