College a cappella!

College a cappella pretty much started at Yale in 1909 with the Whiffenpoofs, a Glee Club spin-off quartet that sang regularly at Mory's Temple Bar, a campus restaurant. Now, a cappella singing has exploded, spreading to campuses all over the U.S. and abroad. Read about how this movement has taken off.

Once the exclusive province of elite Eastern colleges, a cappella singing has exploded in the last decade, spreading to campuses all over the U.S. and abroad. Deke Sharon, who founded CASA (The Contemporary a cappella Society, in 1990 while he was a student at Tufts University and a member of the Tufts Beelzebubs, estimates that there are now more than 1,000 active college groups, four times as many as there were in his student days. CASA and several other umbrella organizations now serve as clearinghouses for events, symposia, music, and information about high school, collegiate, semi-professional, and professional a cappella singing.

College a cappella started at Yale in 1909 with the Whiffenpoofs, a Glee Club spin-off quartet that sang regularly at Mory's Temple Bar, a campus restaurant. The group soon expanded to its present configuration of 14 seniors and became an important campus tradition. Other groups followed, to accommodate underclassmen and serve as a training ground for the Whiffs. The a cappella groups sang their own arrangements of popular tunes, and over the decades, each acquired a signature repertory and style. When Yale admitted women in 1969, female and mixed groups were formed.

Yale now has 15 groups, but no longer a monopoly on a cappella singing. The list of other colleges with an a cappella presence goes on for pages, with eye-catching, often goofy names like the MIT Logarhythms, Indiana University Straight No Chaser, the University of Buffalo Buffalo Chips, Mt. San Antonio Fermata Nowhere, and McGill University Effusion. They even have their own competition, the International Championship of Collegiate a cappella (ICCA), first held in 1996, and this year held on April 25 in New York's Town Hall.

Although love of choral singing is the common denominator, college a cappella groups are generally quite different from traditional collegiate or conservatory choruses. In addition to being smaller, most are student organized and led rather than directed by a member of the faculty, and they sing popular rather than classical repertoire. Groups create their own arrangements based on the strengths of the ensemble members and most maintain a core repertoire, adding to it each year, rather than learning new music for each concert. Their performances are often informal, and many groups tour and make recordings. Don Gooding, a member of the Whiffs of 1980, who is now the president of Mainely a cappella, a Maine-based company that sells a cappella arrangements and CDs, says, "These students are singing and arranging the music that they want to sing. A number of them include skits - for some groups, the schtick between the songs is a big part of the show. They are focused on entertaining and enjoying the singing as opposed to trying to create art."

Adam Hall, age 25, who sang with an a cappella group while in high school, joined George Washington University's Troubadours in his freshman year, eventually becoming music director. "I like singing, and this was fun. We sang the music I listened to on the radio - pop, jazz, oldies," Hall says. "What I sang in my high school choir was not what I heard on the radio. With such a small number of us, it's more intimate. In a chorus of 80 or 100, sure, every voice makes a difference, but not as much as when you're one on a part and everyone gets a chance to be the star."

Some ensembles are more focused on socializing, or formed as affinity groups. Amanda Grish, who sang with No Strings Attached at the University of Illinois and now runs the International Championship of Collegiate a cappella (ICCA) competition, says that when she first joined the group, the first 45 minutes of each two-hour rehearsal were spent socializing. She and the music director made some changes: In her second year, the group was rehearsing for four hours three times a week, with no chat. At Yale, there are ensembles that attract Christians (Living Water), Jews (Magavet), and African- Americans (Shade), with music that reflects their interests. As Don Gooding points out, "Music in general is one of the ways students come about their self-identity. a cappella groups are a powerful mechanism for that. They are also a great way to meet the opposite sex, and for people who aren't athletes to become mini-rock stars on their campuses."

A Shifting Repertoire

Repertoire can also play an important role in the genesis of a group. After college, Adam Hall started his own ensemble, Passing Notes, when it turned out that another group he had joined only wanted to do 1980s rock ballads while he was more interested in a wider repertoire.

Repertoire has undergone a considerable shift in the 100 or so years of college a cappella singing. Gooding identifies three phases, beginning with "educated barbershop," mostly conventional four-part harmony, which started early in the 20th century. In the 1940s and 1950s, vocal jazz harmony, a reflection of that era's popular music, took over. The latest phase, contemporary pop, began in the late 1980s and took off in the 1990s.

This is the style that dominates the world of competitive a cappella. Selections on the Best of College a cappella 2004 CD, or BOCA, produced by Varsity Vocals (also the umbrella group for ICCA and CASA), bear little relationship to the jazzy versions of "Summertime" or "You Can't Take That Away from Me" that were once college a cappella standards. When the University of Oregon's group On the Rocks sings the Coldplay hit "Yellow," it sounds like a band - a single vocal soloist, with instrumental backup, including drums, guitars, and keyboards. But the sounds of the instruments are all made by voices. Each of the 18 tracks on the BOCA 2004 CD is a contemporary pop tune - originally performed by Bon Jovi, Tori Amos, or Depeche Mode, for example - arranged in this manner.

Gooding traces both the a cappella explosion and the repertoire shift to the 1980s. "a cappella hit the popular airways," he says. "Songs like Bobby McFerrin's 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' got to #1, and artists like Billy Joel and Todd Rundgren were singing a cappella. Also in the 1980s, the hip-hop beat boxers emerged and developed the idea of vocal percussion. By the 1990s, vocal percussion became an almost standard part of college a cappella - about 70 percent of the college groups now use it." The computer explosion also had a big impact on the proliferation of ensembles singing this kind of music. "College a cappella groups do their own arranging," says Gooding, "and the spread of computers and software that allows you to create those arrangements and share them made that easier."

Amanda Grish points out that there is still repertoire variety in the college scene. The current pop songs are key because they attract the campus audiences. "No Strings Attached did country, rap, Madonna - anything," she says. However, there are groups that specialize in more classically oriented material, too, like Bach arrangements in Swingle Singers style. Fermata Nowhere competed in the ICCA using "With a Poet's Eye," a choral piece commissioned and recorded by Chanticleer. Grish's group even tried out Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium," though they found it hard going with so few voices. Older groups, Yale's for instance, keep up their traditional repertoire. Joelle Jaffe, who was in the mixed Yale group Out of the Blue and then in Whim 'n Rhythm, the women's senior ensemble, in 2000, points out that these groups play a major role in alumni connection to the university. "The alums want the groups to be singing the same songs that they did when they were in them," she says.

Singers Know More Than the Score

Many college a cappella singers also participate in the more traditional choral groups on campus. Adam Hall, who was a vocal performance major, also sang in the choir at GWU, and the campus a cappella group, the Troubadours, was even sponsored by the music department. While a group may only have a few music majors, Amanda Grish points out that some level of musical talent and understanding is essential. "A good a cappella singer knows how to sing in a group and has some music background," she says. "The best groups have people with training and experience. Or the director has lots of music background. I know vocal performance majors who sing a cappella, and it's a great way for them to get experience directing an ensemble." Deke Sharon, who graduated from both New England Conservatory and Tufts, acquired the skills through his training. "Music directors are often involved in the music programs in their schools," he says. "They learn different styles, and they know firsthand how to run a rehearsal, when it's do or die at 9:30 p.m."

Joelle Jaffe, a literature major, was unanimously elected music director of Out of the Blue in her sophomore year. "I had to have a vision for the group and convince them of it." Jaffe had been involved in theater in high school, so her vision included working with the ensemble on theatrical skills. "I was training them on basic things, like don't stare at your feet! I coached soloists on movement and the rest of group on how to be the background and help to focus attention on the soloist. Musically, I wanted to do a lot with dynamics. People in the group were so knowledgeable technically and musically that it was a real lesson in leadership."

Singing a cappella requires considerable musicianship from the participants. At the very least, they have to be able to sing in tune, and most of the groups do their own arranging. "My rule," says Hall, "is that we only sing arrangements that we have done," so singers get considerable experience learning about how arrangements work and how to write for the different voices in their group.

"The music they are making is quite phenomenal," says Sharon. "There's lots of nuance, subtlety, and emotional content. When you have 12 singers doing a 12-part arrangement - you have some doing the arpeggiated piano, some doing the drum kit, the solo, the descant - it's a complicated musical style that requires real work. The students would not be able to sing this music if they didn't have choral experience. Unless someone has been singing throughout school, they can't hold their part in nine-part harmony. A traditional music education is the cornerstone of what they're able to do." Indeed, a cappella singing has moved down into high schools, though these groups are generally spin-offs of the traditional choral group. "It's all about getting guys into your high school chorus," Sharon says. "A motet might not pull them in."

Is There Life After College a cappella?

So what happens to all these singers when college is over? Don Gooding and Deke Sharon have turned their passion for a cappella into their professions. Sharon, who is based on the West Coast, has a professional quintet, the House Jacks, directs groups at Disney World and Disneyland, runs a custom arranging service, and teaches workshops and seminars. Adam Hall, office manager at Chorus America, sings in several different Washington D.C. choruses in addition to Passing Notes, including the Cantate Chamber Singers and the six-man Viri Animarum, also a classical ensemble. Joelle Jaffe, a web journalist who works for Bill Moyers, has left a cappella singing behind with her college days, though she likes the idea of possibly singing with a band.

Would such singers be likely to join community choruses or attend their concerts? Don Gooding, who feels that the outsider/popular elements of a cappella are the most compelling aspect of it for college students, thinks they are more likely to start their own a cappella groups. He does point out, however, a cappella Pops, a 50-voice auditioned choir based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, that draws its inspiration from the collegiate style.

Sharon, however, thinks there should be a place for the 5,000 graduating students each year "for whom this experience was central. Just as everyone who played college basketball isn't a professional, not everyone will continue singing, but they will support it." He also sees community choruses "opening up their repertoire to popular music of the 20th century, like Gershwin and the Beatles. It's all music. Music exists because it's a language. The way I see it, a musician who is able to communicate through classical, popular, and jazz has a full palette of expressional tools. I welcome any traditional choral director to consider throwing in a swing or gospel standard to end a show. It gives the audience and the singers something different, and it doesn't take away from classical choral music."

This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2004.