It’s that time of the year again. You can see the signs everywhere: colorfully decorated tables fill the Branford courtyard, harmonies float (or blast) from William L. Harkness Hall, someone you know walks across campus in conspicuous black tie — it’s a cappella rush.
A recent piece by my peer Rachel Shin ’25 in The Atlantic rightfully points out that many of Yale’s clubs are “competitive to the point of absurdity.” A cappella is certainly a culprit of this phenomenon, with its nearly monthlong recruitment season, some groups brandishing an acceptance rate lower than Yale itself (if you took the time to calculate). Is there an upside to all of this pomp and circumstance? Rush all but ruins my life each year, and yet I’d still like to argue that there is.
“I’m busy with rush,” I’ll often say casually to a friend from home.
“You’re in a sorority?” runs the typical response. I’m not, but I might as well be. At Yale, a cappella is Greek life and then some. It’s singing and social life and your entire fall, circling the drain in a whirl of performances, auditions, and rush meals. For me, it’s the Pitch Perfect version of hell.
I rushed a cappella the fall of my first year, and it was one of the most difficult experiences in my time at Yale. I attended performances, prepped for auditions and went on countless rush meals, all while juggling a Directed Studies courseload and making my first friends at Yale. Two years later, rush hasn’t gotten less demanding. It is, however, just as rewarding as it was my first year, when I was tapped for the group that would become one of my second homes at Yale.
After two years in Something Extra, one of Yale’s three historically all-women a cappella groups, I have learned that a cappella is much more than silliness, singing or even friendship — or SEsterhood, as we like to say in SE. It is also a radical act of belonging in the strange and exclusive world of Ivy League a cappella.
It can be easy to forget that a cappella is a staple of Ivy League culture — and a fundamentally weird one. A lot of higher education institutions have zero a cappella groups, and Yale boasts more than 15. It says quite a lot about our elite schools that a necessary piece of college life has consisted of getting into groups and making music without instruments. In other words, our predecessors had a lot of time on their hands.
Back in the day, a cappella groups were exclusively male, rich and WASPy — white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. So WASPy, in fact, that a Columbia a cappella group used to have an antisemitic song. It is easy to forget that a cappella is not just about singing, it’s about status. It’s saying that our institutions have the resources, and our students have the time, to focus on a tradition as fundamentally random as this one.
While Cambridge may be the home of the nation’s oldest college, New Haven houses its oldest a cappella groups. Yale’s Spizzwinks(?) is the oldest collegiate a cappella group for underclassmen in the country. The Whiffenpoofs, an all-senior a cappella group, is the oldest overall and likely the most famous — and certainly the most well-known outside of campus. In the past few years, both groups have gone all-gender (along with all of Yale’s other a cappella groups).The opening of these historic and exclusive groups speaks volumes about the cultural shift towards inclusion, regardless of whether one agrees with the decision.
Some gender disparities still exist in a cappella, as historical all-men’s groups continue to benefit from larger alumni networks and therefore greater funds. Nevertheless, the great popularity of predominantly women’s a cappella is an easy thing to take for granted. The New Blue, one of the other historically all-women’s groups, was the first Yale women’s group of any kind when it was founded in 1969, the year women were admitted to the college.
As rush is consuming half of campus and all of my time, I like to remember that its all-encapsulating nature is a testament to its newfound inclusion. Rush may be absurd, and even a little exclusive, but it is an absurdity rooted in tradition and an exclusivity now based in vocal skill rather than identity. Yale now has a cappella groups for students of all genders, all races and a variety of cultures and religions. There is even an a cappella group for jocks!
So I am standing here today, selling my soul to a cappella, but also making a statement about my right to exist at Yale, a magical place where singing groups seem to sprout on trees and students have the privilege to partake in a long legacy of making music just for the hell of it. If the traditions are a little silly, at least I’m a part of them, along with more and more Yalies of all backgrounds. Of course, only as long as they can sing.
ARIANE DE GENNARO is a junior in Branford College. Her column “For Country, For Yale” provides “pragmatic and sometimes provocative perspectives on relevant issues in Yale and American life.” Contact her at email@example.com.