But the pandemic required singing a new tune, so to speak. This spring, Faux Paz assembled virtually to enter the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, the competition featured in the “Pitch Perfect” movies.
The result? Faux Paz won.
The structure of the ICCA competition was changed this year. Instead of 10-minute live performances onstage, college singing groups were allowed to send in four-minute videos for judges to view.
Dziki said the “box video” format has long been common in a cappella: singers in their own boxes, like at a musical Zoom meeting.
“We thought, ‘how do we flip this on its head and also make it feel like a real music video?’ ” she said.
The group chose the Sam Smith song “How Do You Sleep,” arranged by Isaiah Carter. Dziki and her co-director, Verónica Adler, 21, then storyboarded the video. The approach was simple — the singers plainly dressed; the sets just chairs and beds.
To teach the choreography, Dziki demonstrated what each person would be doing: the different hand and body movements, and facial expressions.
“I would do these demos,” she said. “I filmed like 10 versions of myself.”
This was a true do-it-yourself project. The singers transformed their bedroom closets into vocal booths. They cleared space for makeshift soundstages.
“Just finding a white wall was a hassle for so many people,” said Daniel Longest, a 21-year-old journalism major who edited the project. “Everyone has a bed, a chair and a white wall, right? No.”
Said Adler, a psychology major from Columbia, Md.: “We were putting cameras on chairs and books, propping them up with boxes, asking our cousins to hold the phone upside down. It was the funkiest, most hilarious arrangement ever.”
The song was transformed into a duet. As soloists Dylan Nguyen and Sarah Gray sang from their separate beds — one bathed in cool blue light, the other in fiery orange — the other singers rippled around the borders of the screen.
Gray, 20, a biology major, filmed herself in her family home in Cockeysville, Md.
“We were all very covid-conscious, to the point where no one could come in the house,” she said. “Some shots, I had to hold a tripod between my legs or over my head.”
Just as much attention was paid to the vocals. Though the tools were basic — singers sang into their iPhones; some plugged in $50 microphones — the result was complex.
“In this format, it’s different from a live performance, where it’s one and done,” Gray said. “In this case, if we hear a mistake, we have to do it again.”
Singers would sing the same words and sounds over and over, making sure not only that the phrases were in tune but also in the right cadence to sync up with everyone else.
“No one actually heard other people while they were recording,” Gray said.
Nguyen, a 20-year-old neuroscience major from Tysons Corner, Va., handled the audio mixing, tinkering with it until the deadline. In the end, he stitched together 298 different vocal tracks, including his percussive beatboxing.
In true “Pitch Perfect” fashion, there was drama along the way. Faux Paz won its quarterfinal round, but lost by two points in the semifinals to a strong team from Virginia Commonwealth University, Ramifications. To advance, they had to finish first or second in a wild-card round.
“We won wild card and got pushed through to finals,” Dziki said.
Groups were allowed to tweak their entries after each round. By the May 8 final, pandemic restrictions had been eased and the group — which also included Alexandra Alberta, Ethan Limansky, Jacob Toll and Casmira Williams — was able to gather in Dziki’s Fallston, Md., basement to see themselves declared the victors.
The win was satisfying, but for Longest there was another upside to the competition. Assembling all the video clips at his house in Timonium, Md., gave him unedited glimpses of friends he hadn’t seen in person for a year.
“It’s so funny the amount of things you see behind the scenes, even just the few seconds before and after people do their videos or turn off the camera,” he said. “They’ll sing to themselves or talk or make funny faces or check their hair. That was definitely my favorite part of editing. . . . It was just people being themselves in a room.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.