October 10, 2005
It's all in the voice
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
They hover like hawks, waiting to snatch the best voices out of the crowd of slightly befuddled freshmen finding their way around the Stanford campus. Excellent sopranos, altos, tenors, basses and baritones are out there among the university's newest students, but which of Stanford's nine a cappella groups will reach them first?
"I said, 'Do you sing?!' " sophomore Jessica Jacobs called out the other day to passers-by in White Plaza. "Audition for Harmonics. DO IT!!!" Not far away, Fleet Street's members tried to sell themselves with glossy knockoff James Bond posters that read "Gold Singer 007." "We all want the best auditionees -- we're looking for the incredible freshman high voice or a great bass," said Ben Rosebrough, standing behind a CD-stacked table in the student commons. "We're here assaulting people in White Plaza."
The competition has grown so great that the university now regulates when its a cappella groups can begin papering the campus with their slick posters and holding auditions. The idea is to prevent anyone from gaining an unfair advantage, which means late September is dominated by students bent on harmonizing in their free time. Singing a cappella at Stanford carries prestige -- people know who you are, maybe not by name but by sight: That guy sings in Fleet Street. It's also about social relationships. Joining an a cappella group is like pledging a sorority or fraternity: A kinship is born of the highly selective process and the fact that members spend much of their free time together.
It's not clear why a cappella is such a big deal on campus. Some theorize it's a natural by-product of a student body full of renaissance folks. It's the same reason, they say, students trip over each other to take swing and ballroom dancing. "By nature, it's a dorky, nerdy thing to do," said junior Bryan Tam of the Harmonics.
Healthy a cappella cultures abound on the East Coast, most notably at Yale, with its famous Whiffenpoofs. UC Berkeley has a fair share of groups as well, although it's not a "scene" the way it is at Stanford. A person has a better chance of getting into the university than of singing with Talisman, known for its repertoire of South and West African folk songs and African American spirituals. About 100 people auditioned for just a handful of open spots this year. Over the years, Talisman has sung at the White House and the Olympics, and in South Africa. Most recently, it recorded music for the video game Civilization 4.
Amy Sun, 18, signed up for a 10 p.m. audition. "I'm kind of nervous," she said, adding that a cappella is more popular at Stanford than she would have imagined. "I guess it's really big."
Each group has its niche. The Mendicants are the all-male oldest group at Stanford, founded in 1963. Testimony sings Christian songs. Everyday People sing R&B and hip-hop. Counterpoint is all female. Raagappella, founded in 2002, is the newest and focuses on Southeast Asian music. The Harmonics cover rock songs from groups like Metallica. Mixed Company is Stanford's oldest coed a cappella group. And then there's the Fleet Street Singers, a crowd-pleaser known for their comedic repertoire.
Most of Stanford's a cappella ensembles have 16 to 20 members and record a CD every few years. At least one of the groups always seems to make the annual "Best of College A Cappella" CD. They often practice several times a week and perform big shows in the winter and spring. On Valentine's Day, a couple of groups do old-fashioned serenades.
Maybe one reason it's so captivating is its simplicity in an increasingly distracting, technological world. Mehul Trivedi, who founded Raagappella, can only make musical arrangements using "what complexity there is in the human voice."
But perhaps more than anything it's just fun and comes with a little fame. At the Fleet Street audition, students trying out are ushered into a room as members stamp their feet, applaud and chant "Name! Name! Name!" until an introduction is made. The auditioning students sing scales -- "la, la, la, la, la, laaaa" -- while members exclaim in delight no matter how they perform. Afterward, the students trying out hear wild cheering as they're quickly escorted from the room, given a CD and a pat on the back.
Gordon Koo auditioned again this year after making it as far as callbacks last year. This time he made the cut. "Everyone knows all the a cappella groups," he said. "They're kind of like Stanford's mini-celebrities."
Posted by acapnews at October 10, 2005 9:06 PM