Yale Daily News

A cappella members and hopefuls are off to the races in this year’s rush process — but, like so many aspects of this strange semester, it’s hardly business as usual.

While typically a major presence in Yale’s performing arts scene, a cappella has felt the sting of the COVID-19 pandemic, losing over the past 18 months the ability to rehearse in person and recruit new members. This fall affords both first years and sophomores the opportunity to audition for singing groups at Yale for the first time. 

There has been a surge in interest — due in part to having approximately double the number of eligible students — that presents logistical challenges for recruitment coordinators, who are constrained by pandemic restrictions that some told the News unfairly advantage athletics over performing arts.

“It’ll be a hectic process, for sure, but it’s always a very rewarding one,” said Stefy Grau ’22, former business manager of contemporary group Out of the Blue and current member of senior group Whim ’n Rhythm.

Rush kicked off Sunday afternoon with the extracurricular bazaar, a gathering of the University’s myriad student clubs on Old Campus, all hoping to attract new members. Sunday evening brought the SSS Jam, a singing showcase starring various a cappella groups in the auditorium of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall.

In a typical year, groups perform in Dwight Jam and Woolsey Jam, two separate live events before the start of classes that give new students the opportunity to see groups present up to four songs at each showcase. On Sunday, over 400 masked students gathered in SSS to watch pre-recorded performances by all 16 members of the Singing Group Council, each of whom could record two songs.

According to Grau, technology issues popped up at the jam. The audio quality in some videos did not quite replicate the experience of live a cappella, she said. 

“After a year of what felt like a major setback in all of the arts, it was beautiful to see everyone together in one space celebrating music, and all of the (very talented) a cappella groups,” jam attendee Soleil Singh ’24 wrote to the News. “Even though it was recorded, it was still so exciting to simply be in the same room in what was a “live” like audience compared to Zoom boxes, and I really hope that the arts continue to come back stronger than ever.”

Students were able to sign up for auditions directly following the jam. Auditions begin Sept. 9 and run through Sept. 12. Groups must take 15-minute breaks between every hour of auditions for ventilation purposes, Grau said, making the process slower than usual and causing the SGC to add a fourth day of auditions. 

Also contributing to the extended timeline is the fact that two classes’ worth of rushees will be auditioning, in contrast to a pre-COVID-19 year, when the majority of rushees are first years, with a handful of sophomores also participating. The glut of rushees does not necessarily mean that more students than usual will find themselves without taps, though. Sammi Pohly ’24, head rush manager for Mixed Company, said that her group plans to tap double the number of students than in a typical year to make up for last year’s canceled rush. 

In addition to the 16 members of the SGC, several other singing groups are holding independent recruitment processes, including the Yale Slavic Chorus, Tangled Up in Blue and Magevet.

Following auditions, rushees will have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the groups through rush meals and events called singing desserts, where groups perform for friends and rushees and serve food. While rush meals are easier to execute in a COVID-19-compliant way, singing desserts are proving to be a headache for organizers this year.

Ordinarily large, joyful events attended by rushees and friends and family of current members, the desserts must be scaled down and held outdoors this year: Under the school’s current guidelines, no more than 20 individuals can gather indoors and 50 individuals are allowed to gather together outdoors without prior approval from the University. Audience sizes for these events will be limited significantly by the fact that the 50-person maximum includes the a cappella group members — sometimes up to 20 — performing. For groups like Grau’s, which anticipates calling back more than 30 rushees, this forces the difficult decision of either inviting only part of the callback group to the dessert or inviting everyone to attend for just part of it.

Performers and attendees must wear masks throughout the desserts, because, though occurring outdoors, singing is classified as a highly aerosolizing activity per Yale’s policies and performers are standing within 12 feet of each other.

Some members of the a cappella scene feel that the University’s restrictions on the performing arts are unduly burdensome, particularly in comparison to those imposed upon athletics, Grau said. The Spizzwinks(?), an all-male group, penned a Sept. 2 letter to Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd, Associate Dean for the Arts Kate Krier and members of the COVID-19 Review Team arguing against the University’s restrictions.

“[I] am deeply troubled by certain restrictions which have been imposed on a cappella groups because, while being hugely restrictive, they do not seem to reflect standards consistent with the University’s or even the College’s public health standards that are being posed elsewhere,” Emmett Solomon ’24 wrote in the letter on behalf of the group.

Members of several other groups cosigned the letter, including the Alley Cats, Mixed Company, New Blue, Out of the Blue, Baker’s Dozen, Red Hot ’n Blue, Something Extra and Doox. 

Solomon cited several examples of the disparate restrictions, including one in the singing community: a performance by the Glee Club that took place in front of the entire class of 2025 — more than 1,800 students. He also questioned the distinction between restrictions on singing and athletics, because while both are characterized as highly aerosolizing activities, the University has permitted student athletes to practice and compete, outdoors and unmasked, in groups larger than 50. 

Krier referred the News to the University’s COVID-19 guidelines for campus events and the Yale College Arts COVID-19 policy but did not answer questions about the letter or Glee Club performance. The Yale College Arts guidelines specify certain pre-approved exceptions for performing arts as well as athletics, such as optional masks for singers spaced 12 feet apart. Additionally, performances must be planned with the approval of an Undergraduate Production Technical Director.

Solomon also noted that the University has promoted images of crowded, maskless athletic events on its social media channels in recent days.

“It also feels as though by virtue of their budget, their resources, their institutional clout, athletics are being afforded lenience or endorsement from the administration which we are not, and that feels profoundly wrong to me,” Solomon wrote.“The implication of these policies, incredibly restrictive on a cappella, and lenient for others, is that the same effort is not being made to support this — typically vibrant, and currently struggling — part of the College community as is being made for others.”

A cappella tap night will take place on Sept. 22.

Olivia Tucker covered student policy & affairs as a beat reporter in 2021-22. She previously served as an associate editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine and covered gender equity and diversity. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a senior in Davenport College majoring in English.