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September 25, 2008

A cappella is a campus hit

USA Weekend:

Anne Hathaway, John Legend, Diane Sawyer and Art Garfunkel all hit a high note -- in collegiate a cappella groups, that is. A cappella, Italian for "in chapel style," is an ancient form of singing without the accompaniment of instrumental music.

The Yale University Whiffenpoofs, which formed in 1909 after a boisterous night of song at a local supper club, are widely recognized as the first formal collegiate a cappella singing group to capture the ears of Americans. Notable Whiffenpoof alums include composer and songwriter Cole Porter. The group has even appeared on "Saturday Night Live."

For decades, collegiate a cappella singing remained a "frenzied subculture" of campus life, writes Mickey Rapkin in "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory" (Gotham, $26). Then, in the mid-1990s, a cappella singing boomed on college campuses, growing from approximately 200 groups to more than 1,200, according to Rapkin.

"Now, it's bubbling up in pop culture," Rapkin says. He points to a long- running a cappella joke on "The Office" (Andy's college a cappella group was called Here Comes Treble) and the inclusion of situations involving a cappella performances in TV's "30 Rock," the Jennifer Aniston film "The Break-Up" and Broadway's "Young Frankenstein." "The people who were part of that explosion in the mid-1990s are adults and writing for TV. It's what they remember from their college days," Rapkin says.

A cappella singing captivates not just TV and film writers but also today's stars. "The Office" star Ed Helms (Andy Bernard) actually joined a group during his time at Oberlin, but he quit because he thought the group's leader took it too seriously.

Although Helms didn't reach celebrity status until his post-collegiate years, a celebrity-esque feeling is common in the collegiate a cappella scene. Exploring why a cappella singers are perceived as stars is part of what drove Rapkin, who sang in an a cappella group as a student at Cornell, to write "Pitch Perfect."

"I thought there was this hysterical story to tell about singing to screaming girls and traveling the world as a 'rock star,' " Rapkin says. He weaves a cappella's celebrity-filled history into a story that follows three current groups -- Divisi from the University of Oregon, the Hullabahoos from the University of Virginia and the Beelzebubs from Tufts Univer-sity -- over the course of a year.

In writing "Pitch Perfect," Rapkin found that a cappella still resonates with its alumni and today's collegiate stars. "There's a real sense of camaraderie," he says. "And you really are being celebrated. It's so hard for people to let that go." Which may be yet another reason why a cappella keeps piping up everywhere.

A potpourri of a cappella's celebrity story

Before John Legend (University of Pennsylvania) collaborated with Snoop Dogg, he performed at Carnegie Hall in the a cappella finals.

Besides their appearance on "Saturday Night Live," the Whiffenpoofs have performed on episodes of "The West Wing" and "Gilmore Girls" and at the World Series. The group has sung for Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

James Van Der Beek (Drew University), Mira Sorvino (Harvard University), Art Garfunkel (Columbia University) and Jim Croce (Villanova University) got their start in collegiate a cappella.

Jessica Biel (Tufts University) and Brooke Shields (Princeton University) were rejected from a cappella groups at their colleges.

Not everybody appears to be happy with Mr Ripkin and his book but one certainly must give him credit for doing some great PR over the summer publiczing his book and a cappella. There have been articles in many major media outlets and this one (USA Weekend is the insert one finds in many Sunday papers including my own local one) was probably seen by millions.

Posted by acapnews at September 25, 2008 12:29 AM

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