My younger sister begged me not to sing when I came to Yale. She had no prophetic insight into the impossibly strange world of Yale a cappella; she was simply annoyed that I had spent so much time singing in high school, and probably thought (correctly) that I could use a break. And yet, as I get ready to tour the world with the Yale Whiffenpoofs, I cannot imagine having gone through Yale without it.
The truth of the matter is that singing at Yale — and I mean Yale a cappella in particular — is one of the weirdest phenomena I’ve encountered to date. I joke with some of my fellow Whiffs about how crazy it is that we spend so much time singing a cappella arrangements of semi-popular to generally obscure songs. We always come to the conclusion that real people care nothing about it.
But those of us who do it are inexplicably (and often unalterably) drawn to it. It somehow makes sense to spend hours each week caring whether doo’s and dah’s are rhythmically precise. “Basses, your bah’s are a bit flat” becomes a more immediate phrase than, “Your papers are due next Friday by 4 p.m.”
In our respective groups, we take shifts selling tickets in Commons to our friends and fans, and get disappointed if someone can’t come to our “jam.” We fight about group politics, spend hours deliberating over new members, and devote even more hours choosing group members to fill yearly positions. And why? Ah, I’m sure our parents would love an answer to this question, but I’m not sure we can give one.
A friend of mine once said that it seems that singing at Yale is an education in itself. I suppose that’s the closest I can come to summarizing exactly what it means to sing at Yale. I am certain that I won’t care about the papers I’ve written at Yale twenty years from now, but I will remember talking about how close the moon was one night while in Brazil on spring break.
The experience is social, intellectual and cultural such that its musical component seems largely peripheral, which is not to say that we don’t make great music. Both the performances I hear, and those in which I take part often astound me.
Perhaps the amount of time we spend rehearsing, eating, sleeping, driving, singing and dancing together is unnecessary, or at least a bit much. I don’t think I’d argue with that. But there’s something so rewarding about it that makes the stress which accompanies it quite forgivable.
The Yale experience is replete with constant stimulation, and much of it occurs outside the classroom. There are times when going to a concert — probably for a group as obscure as the Women’s Club of New Canaan, Conn. — is more important than going to an econ lecture. And at a time when everyone wants to know what I’ve taken from Yale that has prepared me for life, I’m glad I can cite something that has nothing at all to do with my Bachelor of Arts degree in English.
Kevin Quinn is the pitch of the Yale Whiffenpoofs. He is a member of Saybrook College.