This time last year I was flying back to Boston from my social development stint in Bangladesh. Mulling over set ideas, choreography, a possible costume change, and arrangements during the trip, I was obsessed with a cappella and my group’s success. Upon arriving in Boston, The Nor’easters and I were knee-deep in preparations for what would be our most competitive ICCA season yet. Unified in our goal to excel in the tournament, we did not let anything get in our way.
Some friends in the a cappella community mentioned a possible a cappella festival in Boston during the fall semester. A cappella festival. At first I thought “carnival”. Like a cappella clowns and balloon animals of Peter Hollens. No, too weird. Then, I thought “festival of lights”. Like a totally non-denominational celebration of a cappella that took place around a huge campfire with candle ceremonies. No, too spiritual. Not really knowing (or caring) what that meant at the time, I glossed over it – “cool. ICCAICCAICCAICCAICCAICCAICCAICCA.”
Get what I mean?
As the fall semester progressed, so did we. With a quarterfinal championship under our belt and a new song to bring to the semifinals stage, it was time to really bring out the big guns. We rehearsed pretty much daily to perfect choreography, dynamics, vowels, emotions, faces; you name it, we did it.
During a recording session, Alex Green mentioned that submitting a video for BOSS might be a good idea for our group. “What’s BOSS?”, I asked. “Boston Sings, an a cappella festival”, he replied.
Festival. Okay, let’s actually think about this now. I had only really heard of SoJam, which at that point was a nebulous rodeo show in the south that our friends in Pitch Slapped had won earlier in the school year. While I do love a good rodeo, I had my reservations about taking our focus off ICCAs to record a submission video. After talking it over with the group, we came to the decision that this might be a fun, possibly worthwhile experience. With a video recorded and tickets purchased, we waited to see what the outcome of the collegiate competition would be. But not for long, because we had to go to rehearsal for ICCAs.
And so ICCA preparations progressed: our sound was slick, our belting was high, and our bass was booming. The sheer number of hours we clocked in was impressive. We spent so much time with each other that the only thing we really knew about a cappella was ourselves.
By attending and competing in BOSS, we opened up a world of connections that we had not previously known existed. Meeting other groups and people who care about what we do was priceless. Don’t get me wrong – I love to compete. I love spending countless hours with my group honing our art. I also love knowing and talking to like-minded people. BOSS provided me with a venue to meet numerous people like me. It was just as comforting as it was surreal to find out that other people in the world were just as obsessed with a cappella as I was. The competition kicked off the weekend, and was naturally a huge component for us at the outset, but by the end of the festival, other very important moments overshadowed it. The moment when I finally shook off the importance of the competition was the pinnacle of my experience. No longer did I feel isolated by exclusively focusing on my own group, spending hours prepping for competition. I appreciated the aca-bombs and the workshops and the people that ran them. It allowed me to see the work of the community in motion. I met the engineers that produced albums, their clients, and gained insight into their relationships. I met with people who made arranging music their full-time job and people who wanted to bring contemporary a cappella to high schools. Watching professional groups perform with the consistency and zeal that I always dreamed to achieve was inspiring. While the value of competition still resounds, I can now say that I truly enjoy watching other groups, because I know how similar we really are.
BOSS had ultimately opened a new side of a cappella that I hadn’t known before.
So as I sit on the plane on my way back from Bangladesh this year, I will still be obsessively checking arrangements, devising blocking, and pondering costume changes. The difference now is that I will be able to appreciate the art form, not the competition.
Shams Ahmed is a 5th year Finance and Chinese student at Northeastern University. He is also the Music Director of The Nor’easters. His involvement with the creative direction of the group started his freshman year and he is proud to have contributed to the group’s success over recent years. Under his direction, the Nor’easters have place 2nd at the 2011 and 2012 ICCA Northeast Semifinals as well as 2nd in the Wildcard Rounds for both years. He has also been presented with numerous Outstanding Arrangement awards since 2010 and led the group to 2nd place at BOSS 2012 and 1st place at SoJamX this past year. His biggest a cappella love is arranging and he is the primary arranger for his group. Additionally, Shams arranges music for other collegiate groups. He is enthralled by the sheer talent surrounding him and will continue being heavily involved in the a cappella world after graduating!