More Than Just the Music

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“Our next competitors carry on the storied tradition of the first ever college a cappella group,” said Nick Lachey, the host. “With over 100 years of history behind them, these Ivy League singers are keeping the legacy alive while making their mark in the 21st century.”

The spotlights settled on center stage. For the next few seconds, the men, decked out in tuxedosand white gloves, sang solemnly. Then Brennan Caldwell ‘12 stepped forward and took the song to a whole new level with falsetto, flourish, and verve. And so the Yale Whiffenpoofs introduced themselves to America — with a performance of Mika’s “Grace Kelly” that judge Ben Folds called “sassy” and “fantastic.” They had arrived.

It was the second season of “The Sing-Off,” a reality television show in which ten musical groups from around the country compete for a major record deal. The Whiffs had been invited to perform without even having to audition. Though they were only the fourth group eliminated, their performances gave them a chance to redefine the group.

“We recognized that unless we started pushing our boundaries, we would be sort of doomed to obsolescence,” explains Caldwell, a Whiff from last year. “‘The Sing- Off’ made that threat real to us and encouraged innovation.”

Their performance on the show was met with solid reviews across the board. It “gave us a lot of great publicity,” says Ben Wexler ’12, another of last year’s Whiffs. According to former Whiff Stephen Feigenbaum ’12, the performance was so well-received this year’s crop of Whiffenpoofs, who never set foot onto the stage with Lachey, “almost have to pretend to be” their counterparts from the hit TV show.

Months after “The Sing Off,” the Whiffenpoofs came back to Yale after a world tour that took them to more than 27 countries. They returned just a few days before Camp Yale. One week after a concert in Iceland, they were shopping classes.

“By the end of the year, we were ready to go back to being civilians,” says Adam Begley ’12. But returning to academics after a year without exams or essays is “truly horrible. In the course of that year, you get so used to the freedom of doing only music.”

For the Whiffenpoofs, the contrast between then and now is stark: in a matter of days, they went from national celebrities back to being regular college students. “When you’re in the Whiffs, in a certain niche, you’re very famous,” says Begley. Occasionally, “you felt like the Beatles.” But then the fame is gone.

Every year, 14 Yale men are chosen to be the prestigious Whiffenpoofs of Yale. In a process similar to that of other a cappella groups, junior men try out to be Whiffs with a simple audition. Before the audition, the prospective Whiffs must sign a contract saying they will promise to join the group if they are chosen. Then, on Tap Night, the 14 new members are selected. The Whiffs spend the next 12 months singing prolifically, giving hundreds of concerts in dozens of locations.

The Whiffenpoofs got their start on a frigid New Haven evening in 1909, when five Yale Glee Club members entered Mory’s Temple Bar to escape from the cold. At the urging of Mory’s barkeep Louis Linder, they serenaded patrons to rousing success. They returned the next week for another performance, and again the week after that.

These first five singers performed at a time when singing was “in demand” as never before, according to “An Authentic Account of the Founding of the Whiffenpoofs,” by Rev. James Howard, class of 1909. They were sought to liven up many of the notoriously staid functions of old Yale, including a typical banquet in which one Yale faculty member gave his address “completely in Latin,” Howard recounts.

As the small group became more famous, they cast around for a name. In keeping with the ensemble’s light- hearted tone, early member Denton “Goat” Fowler, also class of 1909, suggested to his fellow singers the word “Whiffenpoof.” Originally found in the 1908 musical comedy “Little Nemo,” the word signified a mythical fish and met with everyone’s approval. The Whiffenpoofs were born.

Over the next few years, the group expanded to its current size. The ensemble is and was all-male, with the exception of an early member’s spunky “prom girl,” who “sang us a swell song and was duly elected an Honorary Member” in 1910, according to Howard.

For many years, being a Whiffenpoof was less of a commitment than singing with the Yale Glee Club; the ensemble sang only at Mory’s, with the exception of an occasional holiday performance. Over the decades, the Whiffenpoofs earned a national following. They just might be the most famous collegiate musical group in the world. Members have included legendary musician Cole Porter, class of 1913, and its fictional alumni are equally impressive: Rory Gilmore’s grandfather in “Gilmore Girls” and the title character in Mel Brooks’s musical “Young Frankenstein.” The famous “Whiffenpoof song” — “To the Tables Down at Mory’s” — has been recorded by singers from Bing Crosby to Elvis. The Whiffenpoofs themselves can be heard singing it in the 2006 movie “The Good Shepherd,” and they’ve also appeared on television shows like “The West Wing” and “Gossip Girl.” Despite their fame and a new weekly gig at the swanky Union League Café, they remain loyal to their weekly show at Mory’s.

“There’s something really fun about being part of a group that’s so big,” said Begley. Current Whiff Michael Blume ’13 agrees: “People just love us — in a bizarre way.” Blume qualifies, “People don’t love me. They love the Whiffenpoofs.”

The Whiffenpoofs begin their “Whiff year” based in New Haven, but they travel far and wide to perform. So far, this year’s class has been to numerous grade schools, churches, colleges across the country, and even to Mexico. Their food and travel is covered by the group.

On the road, the Whiffenpoofs enjoy opportunities available to very few other college students. They might drive go-karts, go bungee jumping, climb Mt. Si in Seattle (in the pouring rain), or scale ancient temples in Mexico — just a number of activities they’ve crossed off their list this year.

Beginning in late March, the Whiffenpoofs embark on their world tour. This year the Whiffs plan to, as current Whiff Alexander Oki ’13 puts it, “sing for some penguins” on a cruise to Antarctica, where they will get to camp on the mainland. The group will also give concerts in Nigeria, Kenya, and maybe even Egypt, though that one is still up in the air for obvious reasons.

Last year’s Whiffenpoofs traveled to Norway, Australia, and Thailand. They sailed a boat across the North Sea and sang from a moving streetcar in Europe. They performed for a man who started Japan’s own version of the Whiffenpoofs, and they jumped out of a plane over the New Zealand terrain where “Lord of the Rings” was filmed.

“If the Whiff year were any longer, you’d probably die,” says Begley. The members develop a certain routine: “getting on airplanes, eating fast food, losing contact, drinking too much, staying up too late.”

The world tour was Wexler’s favorite part of the year: “You wake up in a different place every three days.”

This is the first year in Whiffenpoof history that all 14 members have deferred the

year, postponing their graduation date until 2013. It makes for a paradoxical relationship with Yale: in the year they take off as students, they become symbols of the institution they’ve temporarily left.

Decades ago, hardly any members took the year off; now, the trend has become so iconic it earned itself a name, “the Whiff year.” According to former Whiff David Mraz ’80, only a few Whiffenpoofs deferred 30 years ago. “The year off was just emerging then,” he says.

Many Whiffenpoofs say that the Yale administration is against the Whiff year on principle. In 1980, Mraz had numerous conversations with one of the administrators, who, he says, expressed displeasure that the Whiffs were deferring the year: “Yale was considering banning the use of the Yale name in its association with the Whiffenpoofs.” To this day, “a lot of administrators don’t support the Whiffs taking the year off,” Wexler says candidly.

Nevertheless, Whiffs like Wexler proudly acknowledge that “the Whiffenpoofs are an awesome vessel for spreading Yale’s name.” Indeed, Wexler noted how after hearing one concert a woman donated $100,000 to Yale.

The Yale name comes at the price of shouldering elitist stereotypes. Performing on the “The Sing-Off ” may have been “pretty sweet,” says Feigenbaum, but “there was no chance we were going to win — the American public wasn’t going to vote for the Yale Whiffenpoofs.” Numerous Whiffs claim that they were trivialized as the “Yale” group, citing excessive footage of them wearing their “penguin suits” and a random shot of them out golfing.

“A reality TV show latches on to whatever it can find,” says Begley. In this case, “‘The Sing-Off ’ latched on to the traditional Yale stereotype.” When the Whiffenpoofs had finished their rendition of “Grace Kelly,” a snarky Lachey remarked: “Somewhere out there, George W. Bush is smiling.” Judge Shawn Stockman thanked the Whiffs for “inventing a cappella. We would not be here if it were not for you. And we appreciate you gracing us with your presence.”

Stockman’s jibe rang true, though not in the way he intended. The Whiffs are always pressed for time, and their presence on the show is one reason so many singers took last year off. In recent years, it hasn’t been so much a matter of how many take the year off as how many do not. Last year, all but two deferred. Current Whiffenpoof and musical director Ben Watsky ‘13 says all 14 members deferring this year is simply a coincidence: “It just so happened that all fourteen of us wanted to take the year off.” Watsky says he guesses the same will not occur next year, but many juniors interested in applying to be Whiffenpoofs say they plan to take the year off. “You’re only in college once,” says Spizzwinks(?) member Alec Torres ’13. “So why waste the opportunity for a free year of singing and travel by taking on a full course load? I have a whole lifetime of work ahead of me, so I think it would be really smart to take time off while I can.”

That all 14 members are taking this year off has given the group some unprecedented opportunities. As Oki noted, “This year we have added about two months’ worth of domestic touring that couldn’t happen if some of the singers were in school.”

Away from campus even more often than in previous years, the Whiffs miss some key social events at Yale. For current Whiff David Martinez ’13, missing his last Safety Dance and Masquerade Ball with his own class was disappointing. Current Whiff Eliot Shimer ’13 is preparing for next year, when all of his 2012 friends will be gone, by “trying to spend as much time with them as I can while I am on campus this year.” But the Whiffenpoofs are primarily in New Haven only on weeknights, and while they may not have the burden of schoolwork during the week, their friends do.

So the Whiffs spend a lot of time around each other, both on tour and at Yale. “The social dynamic of the Whiffenpoofs is a crapshoot,” Begley says. But Whiffenpoofs from both last year and this year say their respective groups were unusually “socially cohesive.”

“You get to know a group of fourteen people really well,” says Wexler of the tight-knit community. “You see them at times when they don’t want to be seen … There’s so much more to the Whiffenpoofs than just the music.”

When they’re not singing, most Whiffs are working nearly full- time in New Haven. As Begley recalls, “When you tell your parents, ‘I’m going to take a year off,’ their reaction is, ‘That’s fine, but you’re paying for it.’” So the Whiffenpoofs must find jobs. John Yi ’13, for example, is a recruitment coordinator for the admissions office, which is a nine-to-five job. Yi says that the one downside to him about the Whiffenpoofs is how busy you are: “I literally spend tops six hours a day in my apartment — to sleep.”

Other Whiffenpoofs tutor, do research for their senior essays, give tours, audit classes, write or arrange music, and work for companies in their areas of interest. And, of course, many of the singers also have to plan a tour, and the group tries to practice six hours per week. Last year, Wexler taught music part-time at Amistad High School. This year, he passed that job on to Blume. Wexler said that he hopes a Whiffenpoof continues this tradition every year.

One New Haven tradition that the Whiffenpoofs have kept alive since 1909 is the weekly concert at Mory’s. The concert takes place in the dim light of the landmark bar, where oars from past Yale crew teams hang from the ceiling and tables display the carved initials of more than a century of Yalies.

On the evening of November 11, at first, the Whiffs could be heard warming up in the distance. As they trooped downstairs, their sound swelling, they sang “Aj Lucka Lucka Široká,” the traditional first song of every Whiffs concert. Instead of their iconic tuxedos and gloves, they wore suits and ties. As they walked through the sea of tables — Mory’s is always packed when the Whiffs perform — all conversation ceased, and everyone turned to look. When the Whiffenpoofs sang their last line, the applause was thunderous.

“We are the Yale Whiffenpoofs,” one announced, and they immediately began their second song, “Rainbow Connections.” All Mory’s patrons sat enraptured by the music. While some of the older diners’ mouths hung open in amazement, waiters walked by as if the concert were nothing. To them, it must be: the Whiffs are there every week, as the maître d’ proudly whispered to a large woman in a red dress who entered late.

After they finished their second song, the Whiffenpoofs abruptly sat down. The weekly concert at Mory’s is not an uninterrupted string of songs — the Whiffs sing a few songs, then sit down to eat, then sing a few more songs, then eat some more, for hours. Traditionally, according to Caldwell, the Whiffenpoofs sang for liquor, but these days they sing for food.

Every now and then, for the rest of the night, the Whiffenpoofs rose and sang another song or two, walking around Mory’s so that all could hear. At one point, they ventured over to a table and serenaded a blushing woman with “Happy Birthday.”

The post-Whiff year — the renewed pressures of student life, the need to figure out a post-Yale path, the fame suddenly lost — is so difficult to describe that only metaphor can suffice.

“I joke that the post-Whiff year experience is best encapsulated by the end of ‘The Return of the King,’” says Caldwell. “The hobbits are back in Hobbiton, sipping ale in the pub, glancing at each other knowingly. They don’t really need to talk, because they’ve been through hell together. It’s a similar feeling for me, running into a Whiff.”

And that does happen, of course. “We try to get together on a pretty regular basis,” Wexler says about his fellow Whiffenpoofs.

After a year of singing and traveling, Begley says, getting back to normal life is a challenge — “trying to achieve that same sense of significance through your own work, rather than by riding the coattails of the group you’re a part of.”

Being a Whiffenpoof “is the kind of experience I know I’m never going to have again,” agrees Watsky. “A year of this recognition, this prestige, the opportunity to go to places you could never have any other way … It feels really lucky.”

At every single concert, the Whiffenpoofs sing the famous “Whiffenpoof song.” If you listen carefully, you will hear them say: “We will serenade our Louie while life and voice will last. Then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest.”

Even after their Whiff year, the members stay involved in music. They may return to their past a cappella groups, perform in plays, or sing with the Glee Club. Caldwell recently played the title role in a Dramat production of “Sweeney Todd,” for which Begley served as music director.

Every now and then, former Whiffs get a taste of their year as stars. When the Whiffenpoofs recently appeared on “The Daily Show,” only last year’s members performed. Whenever current Whiffenpoofs are out of town, past Whiffenpoofs do the concert at Mory’s. “Everyone wins,” says Wexler. “We get a free meal; the restaurant gets better business.”

“I hope that by the time this year ends, I’ll feel ready for it to end,” says Watsky. “I think being a student again will take some getting used to.”

Earlier this year, during what was only their second week as a group, the Whiffenpoofs ventured down to Mexico for a short tour, singing at the embassy and other destinations.

On the last night, they were to give a concert at a very upscale party for a magazine. “It was so, so lavish,” recalls Watsky. Their hosts wanted them to perform the Whiffenpoofs’ “Sing-Off” rendition of “Grace Kelly.” When the ensemble rehearsed the song for them, the Mexican hosts were shocked. “Where’s Brennan?” they asked. The Whiffenpoofs explained that he was no longer a member of the group, which the hosts found unacceptable.

So the hosts paid to fly Caldwell down to Mexico City for one day. For one show. For one song.

“He’ll never be able to get away from that for the rest of his life,” says Feigenbaum, of Caldwell’s solo on “The Sing-Off.” “The whole thing was ridiculous.”

Begley compares his experience with the Whiffenpoofs to the AC/DC song, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll).” In the first half of the song, a musical group gains fame, living the hard and fast rock ‘n’ roll life. In the second half, after living on the road, the group gets old and tired.

For one year, college seniors are Whiffenpoofs and celebrities. As Watsky says of the extravagant Mexico show, “It felt like being famous.” And then you’re not famous anymore. But, as AC/DC sng, “that’s how it goes, playin’ in a band.”

By band, AC/DC surely meant an a cappella group.

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