Duke’s Men place first at ICCA regional finals

Pop songs on “American Idol” may be saturating the airwaves, but the Duke’s Men have demonstrated that more traditional performers can still hold a place among champions.

On Saturday, the Duke’s Men won the International Championship of Collegiate a Cappella’s New England Regional Finals in a Yale-hosted tournament, qualifying them to compete against five other groups at ICCA’s finals next month. The victory brings new hope to troupes that long considered the ICCA closed to Yale’s traditional a cappella style, some University a cappella members said.

Roughly 600 guests bought tickets to the event, in which 11 divisional winners from the region, including groups from New York and Fordham universities, competed in two rounds for a place at the finals at Lincoln Center in New York City. The Duke’s Men had won first place at their divisional tournament Nov. 13, automatically qualifying them for the final round of Saturday’s tournament in Woolsey Hall.

Ethan Heard ’06, the Duke’s Men music director, said the group is excited to compete against other groups from across the country in the fabled halls of Lincoln Center on April 30.

“The competitive aspect motivates us,” Heard said. “We really turned on. We are so thrilled to be going to Lincoln Center.”

Duke’s Men Assistant Musical Director Nathan Reiff ’07 said the ICCA, with over 130 competitors nationwide, is considered the nation’s main collegiate a cappella tournament.

The last time the Duke’s Men participated in the ICCA tournament was 1996, when they won second place nationally. Since then, Duke’s Men member Matthew Thunell ’07 said the tournament has been dominated by catchy performances that focus on imitating instruments, in contrast with Yale’s more choral style.

“The Yale style of a cappella is kind of different from a cappella nationally,” he said. “Nationally they tend to do more pop and vocal percussion, and Yale is more old-school.”

The Duke’s Men decided to try their hand at the ICCA when they found out that the regional tournament would be held at Yale and hosted by the singing group Something Extra. Solo coach Joshua Min ’07 said the group barely prepared for the divisional tournament, suspicious that judges would reject their style. The surprise divisional win showed the Duke’s Men that their eclectic repertoire, which includes choral songs, pop, show tunes, R&B, and inspirational gospel, actually gave them an advantage, Min said.

Based on their experience at the divisionals, the group designed a heavily choreographed, “spiced up” 12-minute performance consisting of spiritual, pop and Motown songs for Saturday night.

“We tried to show the judges that we can have just as much fun as the other groups even though we look a little more formal,” Heard said.

The Duke’s Men also attributed their win to the familiarity of the Woolsey Hall and its audience.

Several audience members said the Duke’s Men had an unfair advantage — their all-male chorus and 20-strong performers allowed for richer sound than the smaller, all-female or mixed gender groups from other schools, they said.

“I wouldn’t want to be the judge,” said Kristen Child, a graduate student at the University of Maine who attended to support the University of Maine Steiners. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”

Sara Yood, the New England producer for the ICCA, acknowledged that the variety of groups made judging subjective, but said that there were too few competitors to split the pool.

Audience member Michelle Bulger ’07 said the Duke’s Men won fair and square.

“I thought that all the groups were really good but the Duke’s Men made them look almost amateur,” she said.

The Duke’s Men’s victory in the tournament may lead other Yale a cappella groups to compete. Sabrina Silver ’06, the business manager for Something Extra, said her group’s opinion of the tournament has changed.

“Now that the Duke’s Men won, I think that everyone’s feeling a lot better about our chances in future years,” she said. “The girls are seriously considering doing it.”

Mixed Company was the only other Yale group to participate in the ICCA, but was eliminated in earlier rounds.

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