College a cappella is stupid.
I realize that a full $120,000 worth of Yale should yield a better adjective, and a full four years worth of “doo” and “laba” should secure my loyalty to the genre, not simply evidence my hypocrisy. Nevertheless, a little random clicking on the list of college groups at www.casa.org, chock-full of abominable musical puns, might begin to show how well “stupid” hits the mark.
Sure, it’s fun to sing along with the radio, to imitate the instruments and add harmonies. Talent and training matter much less than a willingness to open your mouth and perform, which is much easier to come by. For the audience, a cappella is deceptively casual; more karaoke than chorus. Freshmen who have never before identified themselves as singers, caught up in the novelty of an instant rhythm section, practice earnestly in the shower for their auditions. Acquaintances of a cappella group members, watching a show for the first time, envy the attention and applause, imagining themselves on stage.
Good friends and roommates of the group members, though, are mostly content to sit in the audience; they know how much work goes into every show. For every hour of performance during the school year, most groups rehearse from four to 10 hours. During my three years with the Spizzwinks(?) and one year with the Whiffenpoofs, I spent over 20 hours a week either with or for my group. If I have excellent musical taste (which I do) and I can’t stand to listen to Rockapella or any college equivalent (which is consequently true) then why, in the name of the Ivy League, did I sing in Yale a cappella groups?
The obvious answer is the social community the groups provide. The Spizzwinks(?) are my best friends at Yale, and my relationships with them will outlast my relationship with a cappella. I could have forged friendships, however, in a real chorus or a real rock band. Why choose the bastard child of the two, and why work so hard?
The real answer is that most Yale a cappella groups are not like the groups at other schools today. Rather than imitate the instruments and voices of popular recordings, our groups arrange songs to take advantage of the depth and fluidity of our voices. While the best generic college arrangements will sound just like the original recording, the best Yale arrangements will be better than the original but will sound completely different. While they can only hope to substitute for popular musicians, we can strive to create new music that is our own.
At Yale, the apparent coolness of the activity, then, is not necessarily overshadowed by the lameness of the product. The standard Whiffenpoof repertoire, for example, contains innovative arrangements and obscure gems that have been culled from 93 years of work.
Poor performance of great arrangements, though, is lame; our ideology counts for very little without execution, and execution requires rehearsal. We rehearse so much, I believe, to make a cappella worthwhile. After all, Yalies are young, dynamic, quasi-urban and sexy. We need not perform poorly; it isn’t sexy. If it takes 10 hours to make our chords ring for one song (believe me, it can), the result is worth the work (just think about all the time you have/haven’t spent at Payne Whitney).
Of course, rehearsal can be fun, depending on the social climate. I will miss, more than any performance, those rehearsals with the Spizzwinks(?) that had us laughing so hard we cried and singing so well that we impressed ourselves. I will try to forget those performances with the Whiffenpoofs that were not sexy. For whether my analysis stands as legitimate explanation or pure rationalization, I will want to believe, as an alumnus, that though college a cappella is stupid, I was not.
Stuart Rosenberg hales from Scarsdale, N.Y. He was a second tenor for the Whiffenpoofs.