Students Celebrate International A Cappella Championship Win

By 
Mike Keefe-Feldman
May 15, 2014
Berklee students celebrate their win at the 2014 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
From left to right: Pitch Slapped members Nathan Hartono, Liv Gibson, Erin Cafferky, Sam Fischer, Tracy Robertson, and Mark Joseph.
Photo by Joe Martinez
Photo by Mike Keefe-Feldman

Berklee’s student-run a cappella group, Pitch Slapped, won first prize in the 2014 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), which was held on April 18 in New York City. Upon receiving the honor after performing alongside some of the world’s other top a cappella talent, the group of 12 Berklee students was elated. Fresh off their victory, a few members took some time out to talk about the recent win.

“I just instantly felt so proud of the whole group,” says Liv Gibson, a songwriting major and Pitch Slapped member from San Francisco who is currently finishing up her degree at Berklee.

For member Mark Joseph '14 of Boston, the moment of victory felt “surreal” and, after many rounds of stiff competition, his new aim became more simple: “Don’t throw up,” Joseph says, eliciting a knowing laugh from the other members of this group of students who seem to have almost as much fun hanging out together as they do singing with one another.

Ensemble Singing and Ensemble Learning

Winning an international a cappella championship takes more than just talent. “It got really real as each round went on, and the talent just got better and better. We had to work like crazy to get to that point, ” says Nathan Hartono, a fourth semester music production and engineering major from Singapore who both performs as part of Pitch Slapped and serves as the group’s current business manager.

Watch a New England Cable News story on Pitch Slapped’s ICCA win here:

For Pitch Slapped, working like crazy translates to a minimum of three, three-hour rehearsals each week. The group’s outgoing music director, Tracy Robertson, a professional music major from Watertown, New York who will complete his degree in fall 2014, is the only member of the group who was with Pitch Slapped in 2010, which is the last time they made it to—and won—the ICCA competition. The 2014 win is an impressive capstone to Robertson’s collegiate a cappella career, but he says the joy of a cappella lies not in awards, but in the vocal interplay between members.

“When my tenor part is harmonizing with the baritone part and it’s got this counterpoint thing with the soprano part on this phrase and the alto on this part of the phrase—and when we make eye contact with each other as each of these things happen, it’s just this powerful connection,” Robertson says.

The group has also been an “awesome learning opportunity,” Roberston adds. Sam Fischer, a songwriting major from Sydney, Australia who just graduated with Berklee’s class of 2014, seconds this notion.

 “A cappella singing trains your ear so well,” Fischer says. “My sight reading chops have improved vastly since being in the group. You learn how to phrase better, how to groove better—you learn blend if your vowel shape isn’t matching up with the people next to you. It has improved all of us as musicians.”

Erin Cafferky, a sixth semester performance major from Springfield, Virginia who recently performed in Berklee’s production of Footloose: The Musical, says the group’s shared openness to different sounds and styles is what has made it so successful.

“The best thing about Pitch Slapped is that everyone has a different thing,” Cafferky says, “and rather than people being jealous of what others can do, everyone is so supportive and really eager to learn from other people.”

From Student Club to Singing Sensation

Pitch Slapped has come a long way since its founding in 2006, and a key turning point was its appearance on the second season of NBC’s The Sing-Off. Coming out of that appearance, former Pitch Slapped business manager Derek Jayson ’12 was instrumental in transforming this Berklee student club into a well-oiled machine that has regularly booked tours and corporate gigs, recorded and sold albums, and produced music videos.

Watch a music video for Pitch Slapped’s “Good Life” here:

Along the way, the group has formed a network with a strong bond forged in its love of a cappella, as evidenced by a visit from alumni founders of the group when Pitch Slapped recently went on tour in California.

“Pitch Slapped has always had some of the best singers at Berklee, so I think Pitch Slapped alumni are going places,” Robertson says. “I’m really excited to see what we can do for each other and the networking we can do for future members of Pitch Slapped, especially 10 years down the road.”

While several members have graduated, auditions to fill their slots will be open to any Berklee student in the fall. The competition is stiff. Typically, more than 150 students audition for just a few open spots, but Joseph encourages interested singers not to be intimidated, noting that he couldn’t read music when he first joined Pitch Slapped; yet, he clicked with the other members, had the vocal chops, and now reads music with confidence.

“Being a vocalist at Berklee is really inspiring and also very humbling,” Joseph says. “You hear a bunch of great people and that keeps you working so you never get complacent.”

In light of the dedication it took to win this year’s ICCA competition, Joseph’s words ring especially true.