Yale a cappella’s move away from gender labels
Several of Yale’s formerly single-gender a cappella groups moved to include students of all genders in recent rush cycles — a shift cemented by official policy from the Singing Group Council.
Ariane de Gennaro, Illustrations Editor
A cappella groups on campus have begun to move away from gender-specific classification over the past five years.
The Singing Group Council, an umbrella organization that oversees 17 a cappella groups’ collective fall rush process, cemented the shift away from labels this fall when it instituted a new rule requiring all a cappella groups to consider rushees of all genders. The guidance only requires groups to be open to auditions from people of all genders; it does not make any requirements for callback or tap choices.
Groups now label themselves by voice part rather than by gender, a change many in the community have welcomed.
“I think that it’s really good to formally acknowledge that gender is no longer how we’re going to define groups,” said Rachel Folmar ’24, business manager of the SATB group Mixed Company. “We’re going to define based on the voice part, and then, as always, it’ll be about talent and it’ll be about meshing with the group.”
But the movement away from gendered labels and gender-specific groups is not new. The policy change follows several groups’ independent choices to describe themselves as all-gender or by voice part.
Proof of the Pudding, a historically all-female group, dropped the label last spring. Several other groups — including the Alley Cats and Something Extra — followed suit. And two other historically all-male groups — the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus and the Spizzwinks(?), now count women among their ranks.
Yale’s prestigious a cappella culture
A cappella rush is a notoriously rigorous process at Yale. Students hoping to join a cappella trudge through over a week of auditions, callbacks, rush meals, walks, singing concerts and mixers — on top of typical class work.
With the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ‘n Rhythm reserved for seniors, there are 15 SGC groups open for new recruits. Rushing involves auditions, often for many groups; callbacks, also sometimes for multiple groups, extensive deliberations and, ultimately, a tap night.
“Rush is always hard to evaluate as a whole,” Jay Mehta ’24, who is in Redhot & Blue, wrote in an email to the News. “On the one hand, rush has given me some of my best friends in the whole world. It’s given me my home at Yale. At the end, there’s always this huge thrill of adding a group of amazing new people to your group. On the other hand, during rush, I often find myself looking around thinking, ‘My God… How seriously do we all take college a cappella?’”
The time-intensive demands of a cappella at Yale are not limited to the rush process.
Several of Yale’s undergraduate a cappella groups – including, but not limited to, the Whiffenpoofs –– embark on world tours, where they are met by fans across the globe. Members of the Whiffs, specifically, take a full year off of school to travel and perform.
Some groups, like the Spizzwinks(?), work to produce albums. These endeavors — world travel and album production — necessitate “a lot of work” to materialize, Liam Richardson ’24, business manager of the Spizzwinks(?), noted.
What changed this year?
As a result of the new SGC rule, some historically single-gender groups saw a different rush pool this year, whether or not they chose to tap differently.
The SGC board consists of two senior co-chairs: Wara Kibuga ’24 and Adrien Rolet ’24, both of whom are current members of the Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s oldest a cappella group.
“We introduced this clause to move the conversation forward within single gender groups,” Kibuga wrote in an email to the News. “We made it clear that the SGC did not want to change the makeup of any group, groups could tap whomever they wished, they could not, however prevent someone from auditioning for the group based on gender.”
But for many — like the Spizzwinks(?) — conversations about gender within their ensemble predate the SGC mandate.
“Spizzwink groups have been discussing whether to open up the group since at least 2017, when the Doox made the decision to go all gender,” Richardson wrote. “Consensus is an essential part of our deliberation process, and consensus takes time. We did not want to make this change unless everyone was on board. I’m proud we had such a thoughtful series of discussions.”
This year, the Spizzwinks(?), tapped five new members, two of whom are women. Richardson said that the group’s decision was independent of the new SGC guidance, noting that if they had only wanted men in the group, the SGC would have allowed them to only offer callbacks to male students.
Other groups, like the Alley Cats, Proof of the Pudding and the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, made the choice to remove gender labels before SGC guidance altogether.
“Non-men have been allowed to rush the Alley Cats for years now,” Logan Foy ’25, the Cats’ musical director, wrote to the News. “This year we officially dropped the moniker of ‘all-male’, and judged all rushees by the same vocal criteria. This allowed rushees of all gender identities to show off their voices in a much more inclusionary way.”
Foy noted that this change happened “independently of and before” the new SGC regulations, but that the Cats were pleased to see the universal requirements change.
For Proof, which has historically been all-female, the choice to consider voice part alone came in the spring of last year. Stark explained that Proof calls themselves by their voice parts now: SSAA, or sopranos and altos.
“We made this decision in order to make Proof as welcoming a space as possible for people of all marginalized gender identities,” Josephine Stark ’25 wrote in an email to the News. “One of our signature songs is called ‘Sisters,’ and we’ve long considered the key components of our group to be ‘sisterhood and song.’ We’ve talked a lot recently about sisterhood not as a concept of gender, but rather as an ethos of support, close-knit bonds and family.”
The Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, the historically all-male sibling group to Proof, also made the choice to go all-gender last spring. The group admitted their first female tap last semester, and they admitted two more women during this rush cycle.
There are now six TTBB groups, four SSAA groups and seven SATB groups in the Singing Group Council.
A brief history of gender in a cappella
Long a hallmark of campus culture, a cappella at Yale began in 1909 with the formation of the Whiffenpoofs. When Yale welcomed its first class of women in 1969, students at the College formed the very first all-women singing group: The New Blue.
In the over-50 years since, various newer groups, all-female and mixed-gender alike, formed. Yale’s first all-gender a cappella group — Redhot & Blue — formed in 1977, featuring soprano, alto, tenor and bass, or SATB, voices.
In 1981, a group of seven senior women came together to establish Whim ‘n Rhythm, initially an all-female singing group formed as “an answer to the decades-old tradition of The Whiffenpoofs,” according to the Whim website.
As time progresses, even the oldest single-gender a cappella groups have begun to engage in conversation about the role of gender in their performance space.
Doox of Yale, formerly known as Duke’s Men, inducted its first all-gender rush class in 2017. The Whiffenpoofs and Whim ‘n Rhythm made national headlines a year later with their decision to accept singers of all genders.And The New Blue, according to Whitney Toutenhoofd ’25, includes past and current nonbinary members, while still an SSAA-designated group.
Foy was careful to note that the question of single-gendered single spaces is complex, explaining that he personally found being in a single gender a cappella group “extremely beneficial” for his personal development.
“As a gay man going into college, I had nearly zero meaningful relationships with other men,” Foy wrote. “It was undeniably the thing I was most worried about in the transition from high school. The Alley Cats have provided a comfortable space for me to build healthy relationships with other men and has been an example of how all/predominantly single gender spaces can function outside of traditional toxicity.”
At the same time, Foy is supportive of the recent change in SGC policy. He wrote that the ability of an individual to join various groups should be based on “vocal range and [timbre],” especially in the context of SSAA, TTBB and SATB designations, and not based on gender.
Similarly, Mehta noted that gender is not strictly linked to vocal range.
“Musically, I think it’s important to remember that gender and voice parts being so formulaic is a total myth,” Mehta wrote. “I couldn’t tell you the number of rushees who came in identifying as a Soprano and sang down well into the low notes of the Tenor range.”
Richardson noted that while Spizzwinks(?) moves to include increasing numbers of non-men, he believes the group will likely remain a majority-male space.
“Some women do not have the right range to sing one of our parts,” Richardson wrote. “Most men do have the right range to sing one of our parts. As a consequence, I imagine that we—like the Whiffenpoofs — will remain mostly men, even as (hopefully) increasing numbers of people who are not men rush and join the group.”
Still, Richardson also expressed his support for the move to all-gender groups, explaining that the all-gender paradigm helps enable “trans and non-binary people [to] feel unambiguously welcome in Yale a cappella.”
Similar thoughts were involved in the Cats’ decision-making process. Foy noted that the previously “‘all-male’ nomenclature wouldn’t be moving forward along with the Alley Cats, particularly because the group has multiple nonbinary alumni.
But some members of Yale’s a cappella community say there is still work to be done to make it a truly inclusive space.
Ava Dadvand ’25, a transgender woman who, she explained, “was assigned male at birth, … sings bass, and has an uncharacteristically low voice for a woman,” was the only female bass in most choirs she sang in. Dadvand is a member of the Yale Glee Club, a choir that operates independently from the SGC.
While Dadvand expressed support for the direction Yale a cappella is trending toward, she criticized the pairing of historically male and female a cappella groups as sibling singing ensembles, even as their present gender composition is changing.
“[It’s] going to be difficult to get rid of them because of alumni and tradition, but it doesn’t matter if you’re accepting all genders if you’re still in opposition with another a cappella group that is essentially the opposite,” Dadvand said.
For Mehta, creating more diverse a cappella groups is critical to ensuring both a more positive group culture as well as a more musically rewarding one.
“Beyond being the right thing to do, that more groups at Yale are going all-gender is a good thing in more ways than one,” Mehta wrote. “The diversity of experiences, opinions, backgrounds, communities at Yale that you get from [an all-gender group] creates a really close culture of collaboration and support that makes singing an even more fun thing to do.”
In 2018, Sofía Campoamor ’20 became the first non-man tapped by the Whiffenpoofs.
Correction, Oct. 18: This article has been updated with the corrected name of the a cappella group, the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus.