Inspired by the a cappella scene from his baritone days at Cornell, Mickey Rapkin decided to write a tell-all about this musical campus phenomenon.
Rapkin spoke about his book, Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, to a small audience at Barnes and Noble Thursday evening. During the “behind-the-scenes peek” — as a bookstore employee announced over the intercom — Rapkin detailed the ups and downs of life in a cappella: camaraderie, pressure for perfection and group rivalries.
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To welcome Rapkin, members of the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus performed songs from their repertoire, such as the Jungle Book’s “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Shenandoah.”
“You hear what I just heard right now, and you kind of just get sucked back in,” Rapkin said after the performance.
To write the book, Rapkin followed three singing groups from Tufts, the University of Virginia and the University of Oregon — the Beelzebubs, the Hullabahoos and Divisi — while touring, recording and practicing. All the groups had one thing in common: They wanted to be the next new breakthrough.
“Each group attempted to set the stage and up the game,” he said as he recounted some highlights from his book.
In a practice that is becoming more widespread, the Beelzebubs used computer technology to perfect their soundtrack.
And sometimes, he said, the groups would fail in their ventures. Divisi members were shocked when they ended up with second place in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. Reminiscing about their past, the Hullabahoos decided they wanted to travel the world and sing the national anthem at a Lakers game.
“This is the closest to being a rock star that these people will ever get — they’re being paid to travel the world,” he said.
Although he has not read Rapkin’s book, Micah Hendler ’11, a member of the Duke’s Men, has his own perceptions of the road modern a cappella is following.
“I just think that it’s easy to lose the richness that can come from a variety of repertoire and style that includes more traditional a cappella singing,” he said. “If you get so caught up in the world of contemporary a cappella, it is so easy to idolize or sensationalize, especially through this kind of focus on the star groups.”
Rapkin continued by discussing other aspects of a cappella culture. The singers he met, he said, had many reasons for joining a group: the road trips, international trips, recording albums and friendship. For Rapkin, the benefits of participating in a cappella outweigh any pressures being in a group entails. Traditions such as tap night and retreats play an invaluable role in building community, he said.
“People join a cappella groups for the same reason they join anything,” said Rapkin, “They’re looking for a second family, they’re looking to be a part of something, and they want a place to belong. People like to be celebrated.”
At Yale, there are dozens of students who participate in the 15 a cappella groups on campus.