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Campus a cappella groups are changing their tune

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By Jenna Johnson
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When the Saxatones and the other five a cappella singing groups hold their annual rush at Georgetown University, hundreds of underclassmen race to sing for each ensemble. The audition process is so extensive that it might remind some students of getting into college in the first place: Paperwork and surveys. Ever-narrowing lists of callbacks. Passionate persuasion. Offers and rejections. Initiation ceremonies featuring singing, traditional rites and, most of the time, drinking.

For decades, a cappella was a tradition that thrived mainly at Ivy League institutions and small liberal arts schools. But a cappella is enjoying an explosion on all manner of campuses, with new groups popping up every year, burgeoning national a cappella competitions and, for the first time in about half a century, a high profile in the popular culture.

Ben Folds recorded a CD with a group of college a cappella ensembles. NBC hosted "The Sing-Off," a nationwide a cappella contest. Fans of "The Office" know that the character Andy Bernard is obsessed with his a cappella alma mater, Cornell's Here Comes Treble. Oh, and remember that episode of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" when a group of former singers at Yale reunited at a rooftop Halloween party? (About 7 percent of Yale undergraduates sing in one of the school's 15 a cappella groups; there's even a Singing Group Council to govern the scene.)

"A cappella was kind of dormant," said Michael Winters, president of the University of Virginia Hullabahoos, a men's group known for wearing colorful robes during concerts and throwing huge after-parties. "Then, all of a sudden, it's something everyone knows about."

Although it's long been cool to consider a cappella a particularly geeky college pursuit, that rep has shifted of late. On many campuses, singers say they've been surprised to find themselves morphing into sexy celebs of sorts.

"People will come up to us and be like, 'Oh! You're a Saxatone,' " said Ryan Zimmerman, a Georgetown junior who is studying abroad this semester. "There's a celebritydom factor. That's a little weird."

"I highly doubt if I auditioned for this group today, I would make it," said Christina Cauterucci, a former Saxatone who graduated from Georgetown in May and remembers much leaner times for her group. "Our street cred has risen significantly."

The Saxatones like to say theirs is the campus's "newest and hottest" coed group. When they started seven years ago, they sang oldies, were never invited to campus concerts and had trouble recruiting members. The repertoire slowly became more contemporary - instead of the Jackson 5, they sang Train, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. They never turned down gigs and gradually built a fan base.

There's no single explanation for the a cappella explosion. YouTube and a growing number of young people who know their way around professional recording technology have helped spread the word about accomplished singing groups.

YouTube has even created a few fleeting sensations. The Singing Knights of Carleton College in Minnesota covered Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" while wearing their traditional white dinner jackets. The video got 5.2 million views. Noteworthy, a group at the University of California's Berkeley campus, sang and danced to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" in gold vests and bright blue shirts for 3.2 million viewers.

And then there's the "Glee" factor. For years, singing groups have been adding more contemporary music to their mix, trading traditional doo-wop tunes for hot pop and adding beatbox vocal percussionists. Then the Fox television show "Glee," about an oddball group of students in a high school glee club that covers hit songs, became a hit.

Some groups - like Yale's Whiffenpoofs and Harvard's Krokodiloes - resist fully "Glee"-ifying, staying true to their old-school roots and playlists divided between classical numbers and Great American Songbook hits of the 1930s and '40s. Often, such groups are protecting generations-old traditions and their brand, which earns them thousands of dollars for road trips and CD deals through singing at private functions and alumni events.

"For God's sake, the logo of 'Glee' is making a loser sign," said Winters. (His Hullabahoos cover lots of popular songs but won't touch Lady Gaga. "Lady Gaga doesn't really . . . show ourselves off.")

The popularity of a cappella has translated into tougher competition at the annual auditions. At Georgetown, each group generally fills a handful of spots each year, leading students to say that the odds of getting in are even steeper than those they faced to get into the highly selective college.

Experience isn't nearly as important as skill. Some who try out arrive on campus having spent years singing with a high school a cappella group. Others don't even know what a cappella is. (One former Saxatone still gets ribbed for having brought a guitar to his audition.) Most a cappella singers have no plans to pursue a musical career; they're just looking for a way to keep singing.

"I'm the kid who sings just walking around," said Tim DeVita, 18, a Georgetown freshman. He and a friend, Alex Field, studied the groups' Web sites and watched dozens of YouTube performances. They asked around to learn each group's reputation.

The campus's oldest group, the all-men Chimes, has been around since 1946. The Chimes have their own rowhouse near campus, don't usually sing anything more modern than the Beatles, and operate like a frat, with pledges who have to clean the house after keggers and aren't allowed to sit on the couches during rehearsals.

Two years ago, students launched another men's group, the Capitol G's. Then there are the Saxatones and two other coed groups, The Phantoms, who have opened for the Black Eyed Peas, and Superfood. The sing mostly contemporary songs. A women's group, the GraceNotes, has been around for 30 years and is known for wearing short skirts that sometimes barely pass the fingertip test.

The groups sometimes compete to snag each new class's standout performers - a guy who can beatbox, a woman whose belting voice can easily fill an auditorium, someone who loves the daunting task of rearranging Top 40 songs.

DeVita and Field - both with years of music experience - auditioned for every group they could. DeVita sang "Stand By Me;" Field went with "Ordinary People." DeVita received offers from all but the Saxatones, and Field got offers from every group.

As they made up their minds about which group to join, the freshmen tagged along to the ensembles' initiation ceremonies. The Chimes serenaded them on the quad, Superfood shared their favorite beverage and a Cranberries song, and The Phantoms went on a scavenger hunt.

The two friends weighed fun against prestige, and coed against all-guys. They considered each group's repertoire. Then they both chose the Phantoms - and a new core of their college experience.

"Now that I'm in it, I realize it really is a huge time commitment," DeVita said. "I see them more than anybody."


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