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Chatting with Clark Elliott about the Cleftomaniacs’ historic win

The Cleftomaniacs made history as UMBC’s first a cappella group to win first place in the ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella) Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal competition on Saturday, February 3, where they also won an award for Outstanding Choreography. Next month, they will be advancing to the Semifinals, held this year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they will compete with some of the region’s best a cappella teams in hopes of continuing on to the finals. I spoke with Clark Elliott, who holds the position of secretary on the Cleftomaniacs’ executive board, about their amazing win and what is in store as they prepare for Semifinals.


Basic question: how does it feel to have won the ICCA Quarterfinals?

It’s really surreal and honestly amazing. After going through the past two years of being, you know, an a cappella group and spending all of the time preparing a set and everything, like, trying our best to get there, we have to go on stage and something inevitably goes wrong, whether it be we can’t hear each other, there’s something wrong with the mics, or we go flat… something has always gone wrong. This year, we got up there and it just felt good. Honestly, I never really noticed any problems. There were a few issues with the choreo here and there, but, I don’t know, it felt great. The first award they announced was the Outstanding Choreography award. When they said our name, we all just freaked out. I mean, that was crazy enough. When they announced that we got first place, everything just kind of like exploded. I don’t know, it was insane. I’m still kind of—it’s been almost a week later, I’m still kind of like in shock, honestly.


That’s awesome! So, is there anything you feel like you guys did differently this year that kind of put you over the top? Or did things just go really well?

Honestly, I’m not really sure. I will say that the group that we have right now is, like, we get along really well. Everything feels really organic. There’s no, like, sketchy side-eying or whatever. I don’t know what the terms are, but… we all love hanging out with each other. And we just have fun. I feel like part of is it probably [that] we had a lot of variety in our set, which I want to say probably put us above in the audition, because a lot of the other sets were kind of very similar, each of the three songs. And our four songs I feel like they kind of led into each other, and I know one of the judges, like, on our last song, which is the one I solo in, “Crazy = Genius” [by Panic! At The Disco], had an elevated tempo, and I think he really noticed that.


Going into Semifinals, is there anything in particular you guys are excited about? Anything you guys are trying to improve upon going into this next stage?

In terms of being excited, I think we’re all just really excited to get the chance to move on and perform in Philadelphia in the Verizon Hall, which is this huge, huge concert hall. I don’t know, I just never really thought we’d get this far, just because I know in the past it’s always been like, we go to the Quarterfinals, and we don’t advance. We have fun, but we don’t advance. So, yeah, just moving on in general. In terms of working on stuff, the judges gave us notes, and after reviewing all the footage that we took of the set during the ICCA, we have lots that we need to work on, too. So basically the next month is just us refining that stuff and perfecting everything.


Anything in particular?

Mainly choreo. There’s a few tuning issues here and there. Our mic technique is a big one.


That’s crazy to think about, that choreo is something you need to improve, considering you got an award for it.

I mean, no one’s ever perfect. I personally made a few mistakes. But I mean, you know, I guess when you—I don’t want to sound too full of myself or whatever, but I guess when you perform the way that we did, small mistakes kind of fall by the wayside in the grand scheme of things.


Walk me through the rehearsal process. What’s a day like at a Cleftos rehearsal?

So, we’re focused on ICCA rehearsal, so in terms of that, usually we spend about half the time working on musicality, like, going through the music. If there’s any trouble spots that we have, going through that to review stuff. Doing blend exercises. But mostly just making sure that we can run the music while working on the dynamics, perfecting those. And the other half is spent on running the set with the choreography while also singing, trying to get to that point. Usually AJ Potvin, our vice president and also vocal percussionist, will stand out—he was the head of the choreo committee—he will, like, stand out and watch things, make sure if something happens that needs to be fixed, that we’ll see it or we’ll know about it so we can fix it.


When did you join Cleftos?

I joined my freshman year. I’m a junior now, so that was about two or three years ago. That was the tenth generation of Cleftos.


How do you feel that being part of Cleftos and a cappella in general has improved life at UMBC?

For me, the Cleftos were my first real group of college friends. I came into college having, like, three people here that I actually knew. So getting into the group gave me a base of people to connect with and hang out with, talk to, stuff like that. Over the past few years, I’ve grown a lot closer to a lot of the members, ‘cause at first it was just kind of like, these are people I know, I’ll see them like twice a week, and hang out with them and stuff, but outside of rehearsal I didn’t see them much. I make much more of an effort to actually see them out of rehearsal. We’ve always had a lot of good people. The composition has obviously changed, people graduate and go and we get new members. I’m really happy with the group that we have right now, too. We just get along so well.


Outside of the social aspect, is there anything you can say about how the group has helped you grow musically?

I only did chorus for two years in high school. I’ve learned a lot about musicality and how to sing by being in Cleftos. And everybody knows a little bit about music, but we workshop a lot of stuff so I feel like I’ve learned a lot, definitely. I’ve definitely improved a lot.


For any freshmen or new students who hear the news of you guys winning the Quarterfinals, being really impressed, maybe intimidated, but they want to join next semester, what words of encouragement do you have?

I mean, I wouldn’t be intimidated. When I joined, it was the same kind of thing; a year or two before, that iteration of the Cleftomanics had just gotten the [Outstanding] Choreography award at their Quarterfinals. I don’t really see reason to be intimidated, it’s just like, you come out, you sing. We’re all just a group of people. We love to see people come out and try out and stuff. The more people the better.