The Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm, Yale’s senior all-male and all-female a capella groups, announced in a joint statement last Thursday that they would consider accepting singers of all genders, prompting an overwhelmingly positive reaction from alumni affiliated with both organizations.
According to the announcement, which was posted on Facebook, Whim ’n Rhythm will remain an “SSAA” — or Soprano I and II and Alto I and II — group, while the Whiffenpoofs will maintain their “TTBB” — or Tenor I and II, Baritone and Bass — sound. The announcement is intended to create an environment “more inclusive to members past, present and future,” especially those who identify as transgender, gender nonbinary and gender noncomforming. It also means that a female tenor could theoretically join the Whiffs, and a male alto could join Whim, according to Whim ’n Rhythm Business Manager and former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News Magazine Gabriella Borter ’18 and Whiffenpoof Music Director, Kenyon Duncan ’19.
According to Borter and Duncan, alumni from both groups were intimately involved in the decision to open auditions to all genders, with over 200 Whiffs and Whims responding to an alumni survey last month. Two members of the Whim ’n Rhythm Alumnae Board and one member of the Whiffenpoofs Board of Trustees interviewed by the News said they offered advice and support while current members discussed the decision.
“I really applaud both leadership of Whiff and Whim because I think it was a pretty daunting task, and I’m really floored by how perfect the response was,” said Mary Bolt ’14, a member of the Whim ’n Rhythm Alumnae Board. “I’m completely on board with what they’ve decided.”
In the announcement, the groups pledged to operate through a joint website that will display shared booking information, as well as further integrate their business teams.
Several Whiff and Whim alumni interviewed by the News said that this increased collaboration could open up more musical possibilities and help mitigate the historical inequality between the two groups.
“What I love is that rather than the Whiffs coming out with something and saying this is what we’re doing, and then Whim being forced into a reactive stance, it was a decision that they worked on together, so that both of the groups could move forward in the future,” said Julie Chernoff ’84, member of the Whim ’n Rhythm Alumnae Board.
Although five Whiff alumni interviewed by the News unanimously welcomed the group’s decision to begin considering singers of all genders, almost all of them emphasized that the new policy should not come at the expense of sacrificing the unique and traditional “Whiffenpoof sound.”
C. Daniel Bergfeld ’65, a Whiff alum who previously served as secretary of the Whiffenpoofs Board of Trustees, said the strong voices in registers normally associated with the group’s “TTBB” are a big part of its historical success. He noted that it could be challenging to find such a sound among women, transgender students and others who previously had no chance to join the Whiffenpoofs.
“That doesn’t mean that your first tenor can’t be a lady tenor or transgender tenor, but it does mean that it would be a full and robust sound hopefully like what we had in the past,” Bergfeld said. “The decisions should be made on artistic grounds if we want to keep that particular sound.”
Bergfeld added that he hopes the current Whiffs do not loosen any artistic requirements in their selection of the next class.
Similarly, Robert Carter ’83, another Whiff alum, said that a dramatic change in sound “would be an unfortunate loss of tradition, which has value in and of itself.”
“I personally think that it’s important that the group be open to people who identify themselves with male vocal traditions and being male from a gender identity standpoint, but I would not want to see the group become a whole-bloom coed-style singing group,” Carter said.
Alumni also shared a wide range of views about how exactly the decision to open up the groups to students of all genders would likely manifest.
In reference to the current makeup of the Duke’s Men — a formerly all-male a capella group that went all-gender last year but tapped just one nonbinary student, Morgan Baker ’21 — Chernoff suggested that the composition of the two groups is unlikely to change significantly. Chernoff said the Whiff’s status as a “TTBB” group and Whim’s as an “SSAA” group are important parts of their identities and praised how the two organizations were able to come to an agreement that will allow them to “honor the past” while still moving toward a more equitable senior a capella landscape.
Bolt said the extent to which the two groups’ compositions will change is dependent on the voices of the incoming class of seniors. Before joining Whim, Bolt was in Mixed Company, an all-gender a capella group for students in all classes, which, she recalled, accepted a number of female tenors.
Judah Adashi ’98, a Whiff alum and professional musician, said that although some alumni might view the recent decision as one that simply makes the group coed, the new policy in fact accommodates a broader spectrum of gender identities.
“Coed is not really the relevant term for what’s happening,” Adashi said. “That’s a dated term. It’s the frame of reference that people have from the late 20th century. I think there’s a little bit of disconnect for some alumni in terms of seeing that there’s a much more fluid continuum here in terms of both gender and music.”
For the past decade or so, each class of Whiffenpoofs has taken a leave of absence from Yale during the school year to go on an international tour. According to last week’s announcement, members of both the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm — which typically toured only during the summer — will have the option to either take a year off with their group or remain enrolled as students.
The choice to stay enrolled as students marks a return to Whiffenpoofs’ practices in place before the turn of the century. According to Carter, only five members in the class of 1983 took a leave from Yale.
“[Taking a year off] was generally an individual decision, and it didn’t become completely the norm till the 21st century,” Adashi said.
Since the 1970s, the Whiffenpoofs have held regular votes on whether to consider female singers for their group, most recently voting against admitting women in November 2016.
After the 2016 vote, more than 135 students signed a petition calling on the group to accept students on the basis of “talent alone,” and the 2017 audition cycle saw the largest female and gender nonbinary turnout in the group’s 109-year history, as singers came to protest the group’s male-only policy.
Women have auditioned for the Whiffs since 1987, when a group of nine female students showed up to protest the group’s long-standing single-gender admissions policy. Although the Whiffs have long allowed female students to audition and encouraged trans and nonbinary students to reach out with concerns, the group has remained all-male throughout its history.
In 1987, David Code ’87 became the first Whiffenpoof to vote in favor of going coed and was the only one to do so that year. In an interview with the News last week, Code said he received tremendous backlash in response to his vote, with members of both the Whiffs and Whim publically shunning and humiliating him. In an interview with the News, Code said he was “grateful” to the Whiff and Whim Classes of 2018 for “finally doing the right thing.”
“I’m amazed at the level of emotion that has welled up on me since I’ve got the news,” Code said. “I do feel sorry for 31 years missed for women who would have loved to sing in the Whiffs and would have been qualified, but I’m so glad this day has finally arrived.”
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