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In the spring semester, nine University of Maryland students’ living spaces became sets for a vocal performance.

The members of Faux Paz, this university’s first all-gender a cappella group, were preparing for the annual International Competition of Collegiate A Cappella, the competition made famous by the Pitch Perfect movies. 

With the pandemic forcing the competition to be virtual this year, the group had to adapt. Rather than a 10 to 15-minute live performance on stage, the group sent in a nearly four-minute video covering Sam Smith’s “How Do You Sleep.”

Some members stacked random objects atop one another to get the perfect camera angle. One of them recorded some of her sections with her legs up, holding the camera between her knees.

The final submission, which included hundreds of vocal tracks, took more than 150 hours of editing.

And by the end of the competition last month, the group was a world champion. 

Competing with groups from universities across 33 states and five countries, Faux Paz placed first. Now, the group is ranked third in the ICCA’s all-time rankings.

“It was crazy to know that at the highest level of the competition we were recognized,” assistant music director Sarah Gray said. “It was a combination of shocking and tear jerking because we put in so much work and made so many amazing memories together.”

The victory marks the first time a group from the mid-Atlantic region has won the competition, with the ICCA existing for 25 years.

Faux Paz placed first in its bracket of the mid-Atlantic region quarterfinals. The group also won three awards at this stage of the competition: Outstanding Choreography for the entire group and Outstanding Vocal Percussion and Outstanding Mix for Dylan Nguyen.

Virtually-planned storyboards next to the scenes they ended up becoming. (Courtesy of Faux Paz)

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Nguyen, the group’s music director, also won Outstanding Vocal Percussion and Outstanding Mix at semifinals. In addition to vocal percussion and audio mixing, the rising junior neuroscience major was a soloist for “How Do You Sleep.”

Initially, Faux Paz placed second in the semifinals. However, this year, the second and third-place winners of the semifinals were eligible to be placed into a pool for a video submission round, with the winner advancing to the finals. Faux Paz won the wildcard spot, earning a place back in the competition.

“We’re about to compete against 20 groups around the world that we wouldn’t have competed against and are great, so like, let’s just hope,” said group president Anna Dziki, who graduated in May with a degree in information systems and marketing. “To go to finals and win is just insane. I think at that point we were just happy to be there.”

Along with becoming world champions after finals, Gray won Outstanding Soloist and Dziki, the video co-director and choreographer, won Outstanding Choreography.

The vocals were recorded separate from the video and then the audio was overlaid with the videos, Gray said.

“[We] wouldn’t be able to hear what their voice sounded like with other people in the moment, which was definitely — there was a big learning curve for us, but we came out on the other side pretty successful,” the rising senior biological sciences major said.

Traditionally, a cappella videos consist of all the singers edited together in their own little boxes, akin to a musical Zoom meeting.

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“The box style video is kind of quintessential to a cappella,” Dziki said. “We knew we couldn’t see each other in person so we thought, ‘How can we do something that hasn’t been seen before?’ … We just really wanted it to feel like a real music video.”

Since the group wasn’t able to meet in person at any point of the competition, all of the work was done virtually. They started with a storyboard in Google Slides.

Dziki made demos of herself performing the choreography, editing them together and sending them to the other members. From there, she’d teach on Zoom.

There was also a Google Drive folder, which Dziki called “the vault,” containing planning information such as video tutorials for the choreography and co-director Veronica Adler’s written instructions for the moves and lighting.

“We didn’t have a professional set or professional crew,” Adler, a rising senior psychology major, said. “But the way that everyone in the group just committed to getting that vision of having it look professionally done was incredible.”

Moving forward, the group is working on their 10th studio album, aiming to release it before the end of the year. The group also hopes to release a rendition of “How Do You Sleep” as a single on music streaming services in the fall. 

“One cool thing about college a cappella is that the challenge of incorporating new members is one that we have every year,” Adler said. “We’re really, really excited to get new members, and we can’t wait to see how the group shifts again.”

Courtesy of Faux Paz

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story’s headline mischaracterized the ICCA competition. The tournament is international, not national. This story’s headline has been updated.