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Chips 

The Buffalo Chips are back in town! And they have stories to tell.

The Chips -- pictured above, in a shot that ran in a recent Buffalo News Spotlight story -- were one of only six groups in the nation competing in the finals of the ICCA competition Saturday in New York City's Lincoln Center. The top prize was taken by the SoCal VoCals, from the University of Southern California. The Chips — who took fourth place, narrowly missing third —  garnered rave reviews for their spirit as well as their musicianship. The lengthy, thoughtful review of the group on the nationally respected A Cappella Blog included the observation: "Given the nature of this tournament — that it’s all college students, balancing a cappella with the rest of their lives — there’s a lot to be said for people who can take in the moment and just have fun."

Good vibes for the Chips also came out in the Mouth Off! podcasts that previewed and reported on the finals.

"The whole trip to us was the greatest validation," says Mike Donohue, the 26-year-old engineering major who serves as the Chips' music director.

The Chips, an amateur group made up of all non-music majors, won a lot of hearts because of their Buffalo-style authenticity. Their presence in the finals was a unique victory because, they discovered, the other groups were all "show choirs," ultra-polished groups with repertoire dominated by songs from musicals. Amusingly, most of the competition also had professional help.

"They had academic advisers who do their arrangements. They have coaches. Someone on a podcast said, 'I actually coached the group from Georgia,'" Donohue laughs. "We're watching the podcasts, we're like, 'All these people have help?'"

It didn't bother the Buffalo boys.

"Almost every other group was talking about their vocal coaches and their choreographers. We're like,
'Hahaha, what are those??'"

Donohue marvels that the Buffalo Chips not only sang well in the competition, they enjoyed themselves. Walking out on stage at Lincoln Center was "awesome," he said.

He had a joke with his fellow Chips. "I said, 'I'm not blowing the pitch pipe till I hear everyone take a deep breath and see a smile." He was thrilled as he heard a deep "ahhh," as the singers complied. "It's funny, looking around seeing the biggest smiles, you're like, that's awesome, everybody's got your back. We were doing what our group was founded on," he says. "As our alumni put it, if we're not having fun up there, we're not here for the right reasons. That's what got us here. That's what the group is about."

What Donohue calls "the coolest moment of the whole trip" happened Friday, the night before the big night. "I knew people would want to walk around New York City, and that would really tire us out," Donohue says. He had his teammates start the sightseeing early, and between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. they found themselves at Times Square. Immediately, they burst into impromptu song.

"We started singing on the Red Steps. We sang 'Good Love Is on the Way' by John Mayer, 'Drive' by Incubus and 'Lady' by Styx," he says. "And about 200 people sat down Indian style in the middle of Times Square. To have 100 to 200 tourists just sitting there, listening ... it was awesome."

On the way back to Buffalo, they sang on the train for their fellow passengers. UB had arranged for them to take Amtrak, and the Chips made the most of every minute.

The Chips' great showing suggests a bright future for the group. Donohue, an engineering major, made valuable connections that make him want to explore the idea of a career in music. A recognized, esteemed a cappella producer wants to work with the Chips on their next CD.

At 26, Donohue will be semi-retiring from the Chips, but he'll be "in the wings," as he puts it. He says the group, with its ever-shifting personnel, is at a watershed moment.

"This year, they're losing all but one of their tenors," he says. "We've been averaging 50 people trying out. With the notoriety we got, it would be great to have 200 people audition this year. People might finally hear about us somehow."

--Mary Kunz Goldman

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