Vacation a cappella tours help singers bond

When Joe Kye ’09 found the wheelchair, he knew it would have to come along. On stage minutes later, the able-bodied member of the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus writhed in his newest prop, hoping to get a laugh out of the high school crowd. As the SOB’s show progressed, Kye shook and moaned, eventually rising to his feet to join in the singing, red-faced and full-voiced, seemingly revitalized by the chords.

If only Kye had known the principal’s daughter was watching from a real wheelchair nearby. But she laughed along with the SOBs, and the group continued its tour, crossing much of the country to perform for high school students, alumni, the elderly and others.

The SOBs, like most of Yale’s a cappella groups, use winter and spring breaks to travel, raise money and improve as singers. But as the recent attack on members of the Baker’s Dozen signals, not everything on tours can go as expected. Such long trips leave room for unscripted moments, although they rarely garner national media attention.

“Tours are crazy and fun shenanigans through which the group can grow together as well as provide us with musical experiences that will help us become better singers, better musicians,” Kye said. “Even better a cappella citizens, perhaps.”

Where that citizenship will take the group is unclear for SOB freshmen. Rather than trying to avoid unscripted moments, the SOBs seem to seek them out by keeping tour destinations secret from freshman members until the moment of departure.

“For mini-tours over the weekend, they have no idea where they’re going, and we just tell them what to pack,” Kye said. “This spring we’re going on an international tour crossing one ocean. That’s all I can tell you.”

From New Orleans to Australia, Yalies cross the country and the globe each break to share their music, sing to celebrities and ride in tightly packed cars. Clayton Crooks ’09, who has taken three tours with the Baker’s Dozen, said each trip has brought the group closer together.

“We generally take a 15-passenger van, and everyone’s in the van the whole time,” he said. “You can’t avoid getting to know each other better. It’s a great shared experience.”

Tours are also a chance to meet new people, be they celebrities or homeless residents of New Orleans’s devastated Ninth Ward.

Crooks said the personal contacts that members of his group have built over years of touring have helped them book impressive gigs. The Baker’s Dozen performs at the holiday party of Bruce Cohen, the producer of American Beauty, every year in the Hollywood hills. This year, they gave a more private performance for Hilary Swank as she relaxed on Cohen’s bed, Crooks said.

Like many Yale organizations, a cappella groups often gain extra attention because of their affiliation with the University. Several singers said this can be an advantage for booking events and getting publicity.

“On the one hand, the audiences — if they know we’re from Yale — sometimes have higher expectations of us,” Jonah Rosenthal ’09 said. “But at the same time they feel that if they have questions for us, then our answers actually mean something, especially if we’re performing for high schools, where kids have questions about college and the future.”

Crooks also acknowledged that hailing from Yale has helped the Baker’s Dozen. Many of the contacts they have built over the years have come through Yale alumni, he said.

But the name also brings unusual attention. When the Baker’s Dozen were assaulted last month in San Francisco, media the in city and elsewhere seized on the story, rarely missing the chance to mention the group’s affiliation with an Ivy League institution.

Last year, the all-female, all-senior group Whim ’n’ Rhythm ran into some trouble of its own. Susan Block ’77, author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure and owner of a Web site that offers “Sex, Fun, Wisdom,” videotaped members of the group performing at one of her parties and now sells a DVD portraying the singers “like you’ve never seen them before.”

Whim business manager Jess Thomas ’07 said that the group’s alumni association, which includes members of the 2006 group involved in the incident, has advised singers not to discuss the issue.

“Look at the article on naked parties that just appeared in the New York Times,” Thomas said, referring a January piece in the paper’s Education Life section that referenced the University. “You mention Yale and sex in the same sentence, and it’s bound to get some attention … I think it’s very important for groups, when you’re traveling together, to remember you represent Yale and to represent it well.”

In that vein, some a cappella groups have voluntarily shifted the focus of their tours towards increased community involvement.

Magevet, a mostly Jewish choir that does not sing in English and often performs at synagogues, makes community service one of the central goals of its trips. This winter, after traveling through Tennessee and Mississippi, Magevet’s members performed in New Orleans and helped in the ongoing rebuilding effort by volunteering a day to gut houses.

“I’d say for Magevet, especially for the tour we just did, it had a very big community service component,” Rosenthal said. “The South is a pretty small but close-knit community, especially going to New Orleans after Katrina. We really got to see what it did to the people there.”

This year, Whim ’n’ Rhythm has expanded community outreach efforts to make it a more integral part of tours. The group made an appearance at a hospital in Brooklyn and a Girl Scouts benefit in New Jersey, which focused on empowering women.

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