A cappella community looks to future of gender integration
Ten members of Yale’s a cappella community weighed in on the future of gender integration across different groups.
Fifty-three years after Yale opened its doors to women, Yale’s a cappella groups are some of the last spaces on campus where gender integration remains an open question.
Yale’s prestigious senior a cappella groups, the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm, were limited to men and women, respectively, until they announced their intention to tap singers of all genders in 2018. In the years following, the discussion of gender integration has been ongoing among Yale’s 16 recognized a cappella groups, complicated by questions of musicality, tradition and equality.
Ten members of Yale’s a cappella community spoke about the status — and the future — of gender integration of a cappella groups on campus.
“I think that a lot of the time, the music — and wanting a certain range of voices — can kind of be a cloak to justify certain decisions and justify keeping some traditions in place that might be quite exclusive,” Mars Adams ’24 told the News.
Adams is the co-president of Red Hot and Blue, which was founded in 1977 as Yale’s first all-gender a cappella group. Red Hot and Blue’s musical repertoire encompasses a wide range of voices, and is labeled in choral notation as “SATB” or Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. By contrast, historically female groups like Whim ’n Rhythm are labeled “SSAA” or Soprano I and II and Alto I and II, while historically male groups like the Whiffenpoofs are labeled “TTBB,” or Tenor I and II, Baritone and Bass.
Yaakov Huba ’23, a member of the all-male a cappella group the Alley Cats, explained that the impulse to preserve the sound associated with TTBB repertoires could dissuade traditionally male groups from accepting people of all genders.
“If there is a delay on accepting people, it’ll be purely a musical thing,” Huba said. “Voices of different registers are extremely different, so a male-presenting person singing a tenor is a very, very different sound than someone who’s female-presenting singing a tenor. It’s a very, very different sound. Not many people can sing that range and not many people can sing it comfortably.”
But Syd Bakal ’23, the business manager of the Whiffenpoofs, told the News that the TTBB vocal range is not necessarily limited to male singers.
Both the Whiffenpoofs and Doox of Yale — previously known as the Dukesmen — have begun accepting singers of all genders without deviating from their TTBB standard.
“I think that arguments supporting an all-male TTBB sound often come from not having heard non-male voices sing TTBB parts before or not recognizing that people of all genders and sexes have expansive vocal ranges that can reach SSAA and TTBB parts,” Bakal wrote in an email to the News.
Huba, a member of the Alley Cats, told the News that while the group’s long-standing TTBB repertoire meant that they typically tapped “masculine-voiced people,” the group was open to tapping non-male singers and had done so in the past.
The longevity of the Alley Cats’ all-male moniker, Huba said, is connected to the group’s branding for paid performances.
“A lot of our clients are old folks’ homes, retirement homes, country clubs — places that are probably less friendly and less open to the idea of a ‘masculine voice,’ or less understanding of that term,” Huba said. “It’s mostly a business thing.”
Although Huba described the question of whether to formally go all-gender as largely “semantic,” the role of gender affiliation within a cappella groups plays a significant role for many members of Yale’s a cappella scene.
Ivana Barnes ’23, the musical director of the non-male group Something Extra, emphasized the importance of a musical environment that specifically highlights the voices of gender minorities.
“A big part of the spirit of having a women’s group is fostering that space for yourself on campus,” Barnes said. “Especially because at Yale, women weren’t allowed for a while, so all the a cappella groups were all-male, so a lot of those groups have longer histories. I think it’s nice to have those spaces that we kind of carved out for ourselves.”
For others, like Simon Van Der Weide ’24, the business manager of Out of the Blue, the inclusivity of all-gender groups was a draw in the rush process. Van Der Weide told the News that the fact that Out of the Blue is all-gender was the “primary reason” why he decided to rush the group this fall.
Dania Baig ’23, president of the all-gender group Mixed Company, agreed, noting that the all-gender nature of the group was “really important” to her decision to rush.
“I knew that I could do well in SSAA groups, or generally women’s groups, but I wanted a fuller kind of sound and I wanted a co-ed environment,” Baig said. “I just feel that I’ve always kind of worked the best when there’s a balance of voices, of people, of opinions and of all sorts of things.”
In theory, Baig suggested, all-male a cappella groups could be affirming to some students in the same way that non-male or all-gender groups are affirming to others.
“A cappella itself is so inherently communal, and in and of itself is less perpetuating of toxic masculinity in the same way as a lot of frats are because you’re singing or performing,” Baig said. “In my personal experience, and from my knowledge, it doesn’t produce the same kind of exclusionary or toxic environments that frats are known to cause.”
But Red Hot and Blue co-president Charnice Hoegnifioh ’24 told the News that a culture of exclusivity still permeated all-male a cappella groups on campus.
The presence of this culture among historically a cappella male groups means that officially going all-gender is not the only step the groups will need to take to make their organizations welcoming spaces for non-men, Hoegnifioh said.
“Some of the groups do have kind of a fratty vibe,” Hoegnifioh said. “Some of them are over 100 years old … they just need to work on diversity, period. Some groups are very white. That’s something else I’m really happy about, because I’m a Black woman and Red Hot is one of the most diverse groups on campus, so we have diversity on all those spectrums.”
Groups that hope to make good on the process of becoming all gender, Hoegnifioh said, will need to tap members who are genuinely interested in recruiting and initiating non-men into the group.
“You could go ahead and say tomorrow that you’re all gender, but that’s not going to make any change,” Hoegnifioh said. “Because next year, if you’ve only got a whole bunch of guys who are interested in rushing and you’re still a male group, can you really say that you’re all-gender without other genders represented?”
Sara Armstrong ’22, the musical director of Whim ’n Rhythm, emphasized the importance of leveling the economic playing field between traditionally male and traditionally non-male or all-gender groups, noting that traditionally male groups often have larger budgets with which to travel and perform. Traditionally male groups, Armstrong added, often receive generous contributions from alumni, who she said are not always receptive to the idea of gender integration.
But at least among the Whiffenpoofs, Bakal told the News, alumni took no issue with the group’s decision to accept members of all genders.
“If anything, when the group has performed for audiences with older alumni, they have expressed pride and excitement to hear the group with non-men and to sing ‘The Whiffenpoof Song’ alongside us at the end of our concerts,” Bakal wrote.
Huba also said that when the question of gender integration had come up in conversations with Alley Cats alumni, they had largely been receptive to the idea.
Four people said that they believed that single-gender a cappella groups would one day become a thing of the past on Yale’s campus.
“I do think Yale is definitely heading down a path where a lot of the groups on campus will continue to go all gender,” Hoegnifioh said. “The way that Red Hot takes pride in now and always being all gender, more groups may start to be able to take pride in the fact that they’re defying their heritage and becoming all gender.”
A complete list of Yale’s recognized a cappella groups is available online.