“Tradition, tradition!”

Balancing tradition and innovation.
Balancing tradition and innovation. // Thao Do

Stephen Feigenbaum ’12 MUS ’13 visited two countries during his first three years at Yale. He had visited thirty by the time he had donned a mortarboard to walk with the Class of 2012 — a year later than scheduled.

In spring 2010, Feigenbaum was tapped for the Whiffenpoofs: the male, all-senior and oldest a cappella group in the United States. That year, 12 of the group’s 14 members, Feigenbaum included, promptly made arrangements to push their graduation ahead to 2012. After criss-crossing the United States and appearing before ten million viewers on NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” their group made nearly $400,000, entirely independent of Yale funding, for their annual world tour. This intensive gap year schedule financed a summer that included stops in Australia, Norway, Africa, New Zealand, the Middle East and France.

The Whiffenpoofs will celebrate their 105th anniversary next semester, but the gap year tradition is only about ten years old. Dr. Stephen Chapman ’84, a former Whiffenpoof, was surprised to hear that the “Whiffenpoof year” had recently become a trend.

“In my day, I actually thought it was kind of ridiculous that people might take a year off,” he said. “From my perspective, if you’ve got such a performance schedule that you can’t be a student at the same time, then something’s out of whack.”

This year, all fourteen Whiffenpoofs are taking the gap year. Ike Silver ’14, a current Whiffenpoof, believes that the year off is essential to getting the most out of your time in the group.

“If you’re in a class and you get a call from a foreign consulate who says ‘We need to fly you to Bermuda to sing for the president,’ and you can’t go because you’re in class, that obviously takes away from your experience,” he said.

Fellow Whiffenpoof Nick Maas ’14 added that prospective members now expect the gap year to be part of their experience, though it is fairly new. The group is much a product of century-old custom, but it can nevertheless date a number of its current traditions, like the gap year, to relatively recent introduction.

So, in fact, can the institution of Yale a cappella. Whim n’ Rhythm, the female, all-senior a cappella answer to the Whiffenpoofs, will only be turning 34 in the spring. Women themselves are a relatively recent introduction to campus: of Yale’s 312 years, women have been allowed admission for just 44.

“We have to figure out how we’re going to make Yale’s tradition ours,” said Misty Anderson ’89, a Whim n’ Rhythm alumna. “We’re not trying to be the Whiffs, we’re trying to be ourselves.”

The Whims have been singing themselves into Yale tradition for over three decades; the Whiffenpoofs, for over a century. Next on the program, for both groups, is deciding how they will compose the future.

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At the close of every Whiffenpoof concert, the members, sharp in their swallow-tailed coats, sing “The Whiffenpoof Song” — “Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled with their glasses raised on high.” While the song enjoyed national popularity during the 1950s and ’60s, current generations at and outside of Yale would be hard-pressed to recall the lyrics, if they have ever heard them at all. The song stands today as a nostalgic relic of old Yale tradition, though that tradition is no longer representative of Yale’s significantly more diverse student body. But the song, as it is brought forth on stage, continues to bear nostalgic alumni back to fond memories of erstwhile membership.

“People would tell me, ‘My father used to sing the Whiffenpoof Song to me to get me to sleep at night,’” Chapman said fondly. “When people wanted to see the Whiffs sing [the Whiffenpoof Song] … it was to capture a bit of Yale tradition,” he added — a tradition he was interested not only in upholding, but also augmenting. Chapman continued, “When I was at Yale, somebody would do something twice and say we should make it a tradition. I loved traditions. We were always starting [traditions] … the Whiffs seemed like a natural part of that.”

The Whiffenpoofs are only comprised of seniors. As a result, a 100 percent turnover results each year from new members replacing the old. “The Whiffenpoof Song” is a permanent part of the Whiffenpoofs’ repertoire, but otherwise the members have control independent of the previous year’s preferences to choose the songs they wish to sing. Currently, the song “Saving Ourselves for Yale,” told from the perspective of a woman who has “had [her] squeezes from lots of PhD’ses” but decides to keep herself chaste for Yale men, is under discussion for removal because of its misogynistic tone. As the Whiffenpoofs consider revising their historic repertoire, Whim n’ Rhythm is still at work on establishing its own. While their selection has been more variable than that of the Whiffenpoofs, one song has remained their tuneful valedictory of choice: The Roches’ 1979 “Hammond Song.” The song is about three sisters, one of whom plans to abandon her plans for college for the boy she loves “down in Hammond.” The other two sisters sing “Hammond Song” to her, asking her not to leave them and to keep her schooling in sight. Despite their pleading, the song implies that the sister leaves.

Current Whim Julia Hosch ’14 interprets “Hammond Song” as a question to its audience that asks if and how a woman can reconcile chasing the man of her dreams with the alternative of staying her intellectual course. For the members of Whim n’ Rhythm, Hosch says, the group “is very much the embodiment of that [reconciliation] — getting an education while also doing what you’re very passionate about.”

It hasn’t always been easy for the Whims to sing “Hammond Song.” While touring Australia in 1984, Whim n’ Rhythm was asked not to perform the song by the managers of a hotel in which they were staying, who took objection to the lyrics.

“The women who founded Whim in 1981 — there were things they really had to fight for. Basic respect, a basic right to have your voice,” Anderson said, came only as a consequence of Whim initiative — even a right to have a place to sing at all. According to Anderson’s fellow Whim Fiona Scott-Morton ’89, Mory’s, which hosts the Whiffenpoofs in performance every Monday, was reluctant to extend a similar invitation to Whim n’ Rhythm, citing how “they already had the Whiffenpoofs.” Now Whim n’ Rhythm performs at Mory’s on alternate Wednesdays. The Parents’ Weekend concert, once an exclusively Whiffenpoof affair, is now among the largest domestic concerts on Whim n’ Rhythm’s schedule.

“[Whim] had to get out there and shake the tree,” Anderson added. To write their own traditions, the founders of Whim n’ Rhythm needed to rewrite those of a society that met their presence with unopen arms. Then they turned their focus to the matter that drove their inception in the first place — singing.

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Little besides photographic quality would distinguish a portrait of the Whiffenpoofs of 2014 from any that date decades back. Fourteen apparently white, senior men in tuxedos, sometimes tailcoats, stand in each shot. In most, there is at least one member whose abashed grin strongly suggests he had help fastening his bow tie. Their stiff suits fail to straighten a pervasive, naughty slouch of mischievousness; in the shoot from 1978, the centermost member proudly flaunts the dress code with his conspicuous white oxfords. They poke just slightly out from beneath his slacks, like the ears of an eavesdropping rabbit.

But to dismiss the Whiffenpoof class of 2014 as a repeat performance of a formerly homogeneous Yale would be in grave error. Pointing to the current members’ diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds, Silver said “to pigeonhole the Whiffs as a white male supremacy does a disservice to the amount of diversity that Yale offers.” He mentioned that current Whiffenpoofs on financial aid have managed to balance their near-professional livelihoods on their gap year with means of self-support. All fourteen members have jobs either on or off campus; Silver added that he is living independent of his parents’ financial help while not at school.

Powering the Whiffenpoof gap year, beyond the contributions of its members, is a vast network of alumni and other connections that the group has accumulated over the course of a century. Whim n’ Rhythm, being substantially younger, lacks a network like the Whiffenpoofs’ that would give them as many opportunities to perform. Their schedule, presently, is not intensive enough to warrant taking the extra year.

“[Even] if everybody were to take the year off right this second … it would be so financially unsustainable, it just wouldn’t work,” said current Whim Julie Aust ’14.

Fellow Whim Chandler Rosenthal ’14 mentioned that while she personally would not have wanted to take a gap year, she considers it commendable that the group has been working to establish an alumnae base that would someday permit the option. This year, the group implemented a long-anticipated mentorship program that will further solidify relationships between current and former members.

The interviewed members of Whim n’ Rhythm 2014 had no complaints about staying at Yale for the year.

“It’s nice, being able to do other things,” said Hosch, who, in addition to singing, is a Freshman Counselor and plays the French horn in the Yale Symphony Orchestra.

What frustrates Whim n’ Rhythm’s hope for recognition, both in and out of Yale, is not the lack of a gap year but institutional biases. Hosch said that, in her experience, potential clients have associated a cappella singing with men’s voices, and are dismayed to find out she leads a women’s group. “People just assume we’re like the Whiffenpoof’s little sister. We get called the ‘Women’poofs … I think it’s just a shadow that Whim has always been trying to get out of,” Aust said.

Whim n’ Rhythm is doing more than trying. When the groups sing together at President Salovey’s inauguration, the Whim’s pitch, not the Whiff’s, will be directing. In recent years, the groups are performing together with unprecidented frequency, but Whim is also expanding the number of gigs it will be doing on its own. And only a single year separates current Whims from the freedom that a gap year would afford. They have much to look forward to — this summer will mark their longest and largest world tour yet, a nine-week whirlwind that includes performances in Jordan, South Korea, Hungary and Ireland. Substantial strides will, quite literally, be taken.

The “‘Women’poofs” Whim n’ Rhythm is not, particularly with regard to name recognition on and off campus. But fame, said Anderson, should not be the group’s primary concern.

“When I’m 60, what’s going to make my heart glow isn’t that I was part of something prestigious,” she said. “The fame isn’t as important [as] keeping this tradition available for subsequent generations of Yale women.”

Last year, current Whim Mary Bolt ’14 made Yale Daily News headlines when she auditioned for the Whiffenpoofs. In her subsequent column, she wrote that “We, both in and out of the a cappella community, have to actively keep this discussion alive and work to create some sort of change, because we all recognize that there is a problem and we haven’t tried to find a solution” — among the problems is a society that speaks more about equality than embodies it. Solutions have been suggested, such merging the Whiffs and Whim, or forming a co-ed group independent of the two.

But making changes for the sake of making changes will not improve Whim’s circumstances, or those of female a cappella singers at large. If biases against them recede, even gradually, it will be to great Whim fanfare. For now, though, what the members are most empowered to do, and what they are dedicated to above all else, is “just, making good music,” Rosenthal said. “That is the first step to contributing to female empowerment.”

If making good music is their most compelling tradition thus far, a listen to their recent recording of “Hammond Song” will verify that they are upholding it in full.

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