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September 17, 2004

Columbia Spectator

Out of a sea of neon posters in every first-year dorm at the start of the year, one set of flyers stands out. The sheer quantity of advertisements for a cappella groups of every kind dwarf every other group or club casually flyering for members. "Do you sing?" can become as frequent a question as "What's your major?" The a cappella frenzy is without a doubt at its peak in September, when every group goes on the prowl for new recruits. The college--and especially Ivy League--obsession with a cappella has been well-documented in the last few decades. Columbia has at least nine groups on campus, while Yale, long considered the hub of college a cappella activity, has more than a dozen.

Yet there are a cappella haters. While walking past one particularly loud audition, an undergraduate male scowled at the sound from inside the classroom. "Man, I wish all those groups would disappear," he said. "They're always so ... peppy."

At Columbia, the all-male Kingsmen relish their role as the first a cappella group on campus. Their repertoire features contemporary, school-themed, original, and traditional compositions. They boast Art Garfunkel as an alum, and they recently sang at the 2004 U.S. Open. They are just as well-known, however, for their posters, described as "very, very off color" by Kingsman Jed Bradley, CC '06. The posters feature the group's characteristic humor that induces roughly equal parts of wincing and laughter. Of course, if the humor and singing aren't enough to attract applicants and audiences to the Kingsmen, there is another major perk, proudly touted by Bradley: "We're the only group that has drinking encouraged."

The Bacchantae, an all-female group, emerge as a softer, rose-colored Kingsmen. While the Kingsmen describe themselves as having a frat-like atmosphere, the Bacchantae resist being characterized as a sorority, though they are "very much like friends," according to member Annie Munson, BC '07. Their special draw to audiences? "We're the hot ones," said modest member Darcy Shiber-Knowles, BC '06. The Bacchantae, who sing original arrangements of contemporary music, is "50 percent music, 50 percent friendship," Shiber-Knowles said.

In terms of friendship among the various a cappella groups, the co-ed a cappella groups interact more. During auditions, Notes and Keys, Uptown Vocal, Non Sequitur, and the Clefhangers shared a common waiting room and held auditions together on the fourth floor of Kent. Members of the four co-ed a cappella groups "all know each other very well," said Steve Melzer, CC '05, of Uptown Vocal.

The Kingsmen, however, held their auditions in the far-away land of Broadway. They were admittedly estranged from the rest of the Columbia a cappella community. "Are there other a cappella groups?" Bradley asked.

Because they shared the same time slot and location, many people came to audition for Uptown Vocal, Non Sequitur, the Clefhangers, and Notes and Keys in one fell swoop. Many were attracted to the groups because of an a cappella performance for first-years held in McIntosh. Predominately first-years, they seemed united in nervousness and in intently filling out application forms.

The applicants laughed nervously at questions asking for their measurements and whether or not they're single. The questions veered in an ever-weirder direction with questions like, "What is the importance of silk in the Byzantine Empire?" and, "Will you go out with me?" Uptown Vocal, a jazz group, intended its unconventional application to "get them to relax," member Linh Truong, CC '07, said.

More than relax the waiting room, however, the application seemed to elicit anger. Kristin Merbach, BC '08, puzzled over a question on Uptown Vocal's application asking if she had any special talents. Merbach finally found an answer: "I cook a mean potato." Rachel Shiovitz, BC '08, stared in disgust at the Uptown Vocal application but did not need to distinguish between the posters and applications of different groups. "They're obnoxious," Shiovitz said.

Matt Thier, CC '08, disagreed, saying that the humor took "the edge off applying to four" groups. However, even the good-natured, smiling Thier could not defend the Kingsmen posters: "Their posters were a little ... shocking. Definitely gave you an insight to that group's psychology." He said the posters were one reason why he didn't audition for the Kingsmen.

All a cappella groups interviewed sought to balance the inherent competitiveness of the audition process with being as friendly, relaxing, and humorous as possible--with mixed results. "We have the reputation of being the nicest group for whom to audition ... but we are no less competitive," Shiber-Knowles of Bacchantae said. Being nice was a major part of the audition process, as personality and musicality are both important components for a cappella groups to work together. An applicant can sing perfectly, but won't get accepted if he or she is "a terror to be around," said Kingsman Koushik Das, CC '05. Some applicants shrugged off the pressure, like Tess Peppers, BC '08, who was auditioning for Notes and Keys. She assumed any a cappella acceptances would just be icing on the cake. After all, she said, "Usually, I just sing in the shower."

Posted by acapnews at September 17, 2004 9:59 PM