A company unaccompanied: How the University's 16 a cappella groups learn to live in harmony

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By Jennifer Xu, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 12, 2010

In this stuffy little room on the fifth floor of Burton Memorial Tower with a half-completed hangman scrawled jauntily on the blackboard, the Compulsive Lyres are making music.

It’s only their second time singing their newest song, “Sweet Caroline,” and it begins tentatively. The two beatboxers weave in and out of the melody like professionals, but something's missing. Maybe it’s because the chords are slightly out of sync, or that a section of the harmony sometimes seems to fade out, as if the singers aren’t quite sure of themselves.

Then, about a minute in, the chorus hits. As the chord progression swells up, the singers smile broadly at each other — this time, they know they’ve got it right. The sound that emerges this time is tonally and texturally lush, enveloping the group with its warmth.

From here, the energy bounces around the room like a ping-pong ball. By the second chorus, they are already into the groove of the song, snapping their fingers, joining hands and tapping their feet. “So good, so good, so good!” a singer cries out, using Neil Diamond’s words to authenticate the group’s exuberant performance.

Welcome to the crazy, doo-wopy, harmony-steeped world of a cappella.

From the hallowed history of Renaissance polyphony to contemporary barbershop quartets, a cappella, Italian for “in the manner of the church,” is a type of singing entirely unaccompanied by instruments and usually includes separate parts for each person.

But though it initially began as a style of religious music, a cappella is considerably more modern at the University – groups have been known to perform diverse selections from the likes of Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga to Hanson. Also innovative is some groups’ distinctive approaches to performance. Last year, the G-Men began sing-assaulting people on the Diag, in the Fishbowl and in the bathroom to publicize an upcoming concert — even performing a rousing rendition of “The Lion King” soundtrack on a University bus, roaring wildebeests and all.

The a cappella community at the University has fun, but don't be fooled — these groups are prestigious. Last February, the G-Men, Dicks & Janes and Amazin’ Blue competed against colleges across the Midwest in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, an internationally recognized competition that attracts hundreds of college groups every year. All three ascended to the region’s semifinals, making Michigan the only school in the country to have that many groups at that level.

The process of choosing new singers begins at A Cappella Rush, an event put on by the Michigan A Cappella Council during the first week of the semester. Housed in the second floor Union Ballroom, rush typically consists of a small concert with one song performed by each of the 16 groups followed by a Q&A session. In a Festifall-style arrangement, different tables for each group are lined up around the perimeter of the stage, where curious students can roam around, ask questions and sign up for auditions.

“It’s a good way to get the flavor of all of them,” said Kat Weber, a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Health and member of the Compulsive Lyres.

“I didn’t really have a set idea about who I was going to audition for going in,” Maia Gleason an LSA freshman said. She tried out for four groups during September auditions: Amazin’ Blue, 58 Greene, Gimble and the all-girl Harmonettes, earning callbacks to three of them. She ultimately joined Gimble.

“For me, Gimble and 58 Greene really gave off that feel of fun — you know, it’s not always about the music,” she said. “It’s also about the passion, having fun with it and growing from the music you’re singing.”

Auditions run almost immediately after rush, over the course of three days. This year, the number of auditioners reached a record high, with as many as 150 students showing up per group.

Auditions typically take 10 to 15 minutes and involve testing the vocal range, pitch and sight-reading ability of each singer. Toward the end, auditioners are given the opportunity to sing a short solo. About a dozen people receive callbacks and a chance to test how well they fit in with the group.

“We sort of conduct a rehearsal with them and see how quickly they can learn the music and how well they can blend,” Weber said. “Because blending is really, really important — in a cappella more so than other types (of) singing, because if you have a lot of vibrato it’s not going to blend well.”

“It was almost like the auditions were your musical test and your callbacks were how well you fit in with the group,” Gleason said. “You got to know the people and they got to see if you would fit in with their group, because each group has a different feel and they’re going to want people who are going to mesh with that certain feel.”

Because there were so many auditioners this semester, many groups ended up taking more members than ever before.

“The girls this year were just out of this world,” said Vishrut Srivastava, a junior in the Ross School of Business and president of the South Asian a capella group Maize Mirchi. “We had people that we definitely wanted to take but we just didn’t have space.”

Of course, not all decisions were particularly difficult.

“There was this one person who auditioned this year,” Srivastava laughed. “At the beginning of the audition, we test the range of their vocal ability so that we can test to see where they fit on the spectrum. It’s a pretty easy exercise, but this guy didn’t really understand what we were doing, so he started at the bottom and kept on getting louder and louder and higher and higher, and we were all trying so hard not to laugh.”

“I usually laugh at least three times,” admitted Chaz Cox, LSA senior and a longstanding member of the G-Men. “It’s unclear to me why these people come to auditions.”

Within the a cappella community and across the individual groups, the range of formal musical and technical ability is striking.

“I am an example of a person that can’t really read music,” Cox said. “I can go up when the notes go up and go down when they go down, but I can’t play the notes on a piano.”

In terms of choosing and arranging the songs in their set lists, groups typically go on a weekend retreat every semester and figure out what new songs they want to sing. The person who suggests a song is responsible for arranging it.

“I like to write in new parts,” Weber said. “Sometimes songs don’t really translate well to a cappella — for example, if you have a lot of guitar and bass chords — you really need to spice it up a little, because you don’t want everyone singing block chords. So I’m a big fan of writing in new parts.

“(Arranging) takes me a really long time,” she added. “There are some people who can just do it in one day.”

The most important position in a group is the music director, who is not only responsible for running rehearsals but also for coming up with a schedule for the entire semester. Once rehearsals start there's a thorough approach.

“Usually we only get to three or four songs in a rehearsal,” said Music, Theatre & Dance senior Alex Kozak, the music director for Amazin’ Blue. “In the beginning we just take time to learn the song.”

Kozak typically runs rehearsals by first listening to the song as a whole, and then splitting up the sections to work the members individually. She also changes up the amount of time rehearsing through a song straight through.

“If we already have the notes learned and we’re doing more stylistic things, we will probably start at the beginning. Then if there’s some section that needs tweaking, we’ll stop,” she said.

Solos are chosen in a similar fashion to callback auditions, with each potential soloist singing the song in the style they want to sing it while the rest of the group sings softly around them.

“After you do your thing, you leave the room, and that’s where everyone that’s left has this formal deliberations process where you pick the people,” Srivastava said. “And we always say, it’s never personal.”

All groups try to minimize accompaniment in practice.

“Sometimes our music director will stand in the middle and listen to parts and tell us what to do in terms of shaping the music,” Cox said. “But there’s nobody sitting at the piano plunking out chords telling us what to do.”

In addition to the three all-female (Harmonettes, Sopranos and Midnight Blue) and two all-male (G-Men and Friars) a cappella groups, there are also five groups dedicated to special cultural or religious interests. There’s the multicultural group 58 Greene, the Asian group Kopitonez, Maize Mirchi, the Jewish group Kol Hakavod and the Christian group Good News, all of whom cater their songs and messages toward these focal points.

“We have a music portion and a fellowship portion,” said LSA senior Cory Chin who is a member of Good News. “For the fellowship portion, we have (auditioners) share their testimony with us, about their relationship with God — just to see if they share the same vision as us in sharing the good news.”

Good News typically sings arrangements from Christian rock bands like Avalon, Switchfoot and Point of Grace, but not always.

“If there’s a secular song that we think has a Christian message, then we can use that too,” he said.

Maize Mirchi incorporates Western music into more traditional Bollywood songs. And though a large number of the traditional songs are sung in Hindi, some of the members don’t know how to speak it.

“Obviously, the soloist has to be able to sing in that language, but everyone else doesn’t really need to,” Srivastava said.

Maize Mirchi members typically wear traditional Indian garb during their concerts, but they’re not the only ones with distinguishable stage costumes. For the G-Men, it’s their trademark blue jerseys.

“We’re defined by our blue jerseys,” Cox said. “We wear them to every gig, and they’re something that will always and forever be part of the G-Men.”

Beyond physical characteristics, each of the a cappella groups has a specific personality.

“I think there’s sort of a spectrum where you’re either extremely musical or you’re very social,” Srivastava said.

“Dicks & Janes and Amazin’ Blue are probably among the most musically focused a cappella groups,” he added. “They put music first, and it shows — they’re both nationally recognized groups. But you can also be more about the relationships than the music, which is a fair distinction. I think Kopitonez falls a little more on the fun side of the spectrum. The G-Men and Friars are also a little more fun.”

“If you’re in the community you understand that you develop a perception of each group, but they’re subtle,” Cox explained. “For instance, when I think of Dicks & Janes, I think of really sharp choreography.”

“I think of technical sound and super intense and really great,” Weber added about the Dicks & Janes.

One thing they all can agree on, though, is that whatever the personality, a group is never limited in the songs that it sings.

“In terms of musical genres, I think it’s very difficult to characterize groups in that way,” Srivastava said. “We all spread out quite a bit.”

In order to accommodate the wide diversity of groups across campus, the Michigan A Cappella Council (MACC) was created in 2002 to organize large-scale events and promote cross-group bonding in the a cappella community. Cox and Weber currently serve as president and secretary of the council, respectively.

“The biggest issues for us are things that affect the entire a cappella community,” said Weber. “It’s just sort of a way to check up on all the groups.”

In addition to putting on A Cappella Rush in the fall, MACC sponsors MACCFest in November, a collage concert featuring performances from each a cappella group on campus. It also organizes social events around the year for the benefit of the entire a cappella community — most notably AcaProm, when members gather together to get dressed up and dance.

Yet beyond the music, the solo auditions, the competitions and the performances, the most important thing to the a cappella community is the singers’ bonds with each other.

“I think it’s so powerful when you’re singing with a group of people that you love so much,” Cox said. “There’s something that clicks and everyone in the group feels it … I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it.”

The Lyres are geared up for their third run-through of “Sweet Caroline.”

“This song is all about energy and value, so do what the music tells you to do,” the music director says. “If you’ve already memorized your music, try to move around a little.”

With that, one girl drops her binder of music with a thud. Another starts tapping her feet in anticipation. They’re ready this time.

When the chorus hits, the singers have merged their movements together — one human instrument made out of a mess of limbs, hips and fingers. Toward the end, this time all the members unanimously belt the words out: “So good! So good! So fucking good!”