Many people view a capella as an antiquated, college-specific extracurricular—a hokey music niche that attracts wholesome, zany geeks. In the past few years, though, it's wormed its way into the pop culture zeitgeist in a big way. Back in December, the latest album by the five-person a capella group Pentatonix went platinum and a whopping 5.1 million people tuned in to watch NBC's a capella competition show, The Sing Off. This past weekend, Pitch Perfect 2, a comedy about an all-female a capella group, earned $70 million domestically and beat out Mad Max: Fury Road for the box office's top spot.
For the college students who actually perform in these groups, a capella is much more than mere entertainment—it's a way of life. Take Yale's all-male, senior a capella group the Whiffenpoofs, which has been around since 1909 and once featured Cole Porter as a member. A capella is so serious to the Whiffenpoofs, the group's 14 members take off an entire year of college to tour for nearly 200 days and perform in over 25 countries. Although Yale's all-female senior group, Whim 'n Rhythm, doesn't get to take a leave of absence, they also tour the world, hitting nearly a dozen countries over the course of summer break.
While it's easy to eye roll at a bunch of kids wearing bow-ties, white gloves, and doing all-vocal (and un-ironic) covers of Lil Wayne's "How to Love," these are students who balance the demands of their intense singing groups with the rigor of being a Yale undergrad. VICE spoke with Ehrik Aldana and DJ Stanfill (the business manager and music director of the Whiffenpoofs, respectively) and Moriah Faye and Caroline Diehl (the business manager and music director of Whim 'n Rhythm) to talk about what it's really like to be in a serious a capella group in 2015.
VICE: What's your musical background like? Did you get into a capella before college?
Ehrik Aldana: I actually didn't sing at all before getting to college, but I had a background in piano and guitar in high school. A lot of Whiffs this year sang in a cappella groups in high school and most have experience playing musical instruments as well. Our musical backgrounds are very diverse ranging from jazz and gospel to classical and musical theater.
Caroline Diehl: Musical experience usually varies a lot within a group, which is great because people bring different perspectives to the table. I had a lot of formal music training before coming to college, mostly in classical music. My vocal training was in musical theater and classical repertoire. The rest of the group includes people who have had formal vocal training, as well as people who didn't start singing until they got to college, people who have played instruments, and people who don't read printed music and learn entirely by ear.
Do many members want to pursue music professionally after graduation?
Ehrik: I think that most Whiffenpoofs join the group without any intention of pursuing music professionally or academically. Even though our touring and performance schedule has us operating at a near-professional level, we all have strong passions outside of singing, ranging from election law and archaeology to biochemistry and Chaucer.
Caroline: Currently, only one person in the group is definitely planning to pursue music (in the form of musical theater), although I know at least a couple others have considered it and might still decide to pursue singing.
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Since the senior groups at Yale have a 100 percent turnover rate each year, how do new members figure out how to book the tours, arrange travel plans, balance finances, etc.?
The turnover is one of the Whiffenpoofs' largest recurring challenges. There is a new group of Whiffenpoofs every August who need to make the performances seem effortless to audiences who have been exposed to the group for years.
However, Whiffenpoofs are selected a few months before they actually start singing together, which gives them a few months to decide where they want to travel, start booking performances, and run what's effectively a small business. Additionally, because each outgoing Whiff group returns to Yale to finish its senior year, that typically means there are 14 recent Whiff alumni on campus to draw advice from—from how to deal with booking a concert in Zanzibar to where to get the best cup of coffee in Seattle.
"In the end, we're still a bunch of a capella college nerds joining together for the last year of college." - DJ Stanfill
Is there a Whiffenpoofs or Whim 'n Rhythm 'type' of personality—a similar energy or attitude that is consistently drawn to the group?
DJ Stanfill: The main thing is that the group attracts people who are into the travel opportunities—people who want to see other places and do a world tour that's paid for. But I also think people are drawn by the tradition associated with the Whiffenpoofs, as well as old, American song book music. A lot of people really value this type of style.
What's the vibe like this year?
DJ: The Whiffenpoofs are all really self-aware, punny, and tongue-in-cheek. Just take the nicknames we give each other for example. We're very conscious of the dichotomy of our image. There's the poofy white ties and conservative vibe, and then also the drunk college kids who like to party image. We wear the older, more ridiculous personality, but in a really self-aware way. In the end, we're still a bunch of a capella college nerds joining together for the last year of college. It's silly, but we are silly.
We're a different type of a capella personality, compared to what you might expect from groups on The Sing Off—the groups that do beat boxing, top 40 covers, etc. That's not what we do. We come from a more choral tradition. We have an appreciation for Cole Porter-esque humor—musical theater songs that have thinly-veiled dirty lyrics, but also more intellectual humor.
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What's the commitment like to be in one of Yale's senior a capella groups?
Ehrik: By the end of this touring year, we will have spent about 191 days on the road and sung about 225 concerts. We also will have visited 21 states and 26 countries by the end of our Whiff year. It's definitely a lifestyle.
Caroline: For me, Whim has often felt like a full-time job, and at times it's been very intense balancing my responsibilities as musical director with a full course load, scientific research for my major, and a thesis to finish. But I went into the year planning that Whim would be my most time-consuming extracurricular, so I carved out a lot of time for it.
Since there are only 14 members, you probably get to know each other very well. Do people within the group ever date others in the group or in other a capella groups?
DJ: In the past, it's happened. One couple started dating and they're still dating. There's been some Whiffcest, as we call it. We also have a thing we call 'Team Singles'—meaning the single guys who want to go out together when we tour and try to meet local girls. A lot of Whiffs have long-term girlfriends, and they aren't always up for going out and partying after we perform in various cities. Team Singles is usually down, though.
Are there Whiffenpoof groupies?
DJ: It's pretty low-key—nothing in the groupie groupie sense. There are people who've been waiting 50 years to see us, or remember seeing us when they were kids and now want to bring their kids, or even grandkids. Occasionally, we get middle and high school students who want to be a capella singers and they look up to us and send funny Twitter or Instagram messages. But, no, we're not rock stars.
Do you ever party as a group?
DJ: There are definitely people in the group who go out on the town after every show. When we can, we go to clubs, get drunk, etc. We like to get hammered and sing drinking songs together which people love because we're actually good. We even go to open mic nights and kill it. It didn't happen as much at the beginning of the year, but now we're close and we go out and have a baller time. Everyone once in a while, we'll have someone still be drunk at a performance the morning after going out, but for the most part we are pretty good at getting four to six hours of sleep and maintaining an air of professionalism, even if we're hungover.
Caroline: Yes, we hang out together in all manner of ways, whether that's watching a movie or studying together in the library or baking or partying. We usually have after-parties after our big concerts, and we definitely go out on the town sometimes when we're on tour.
Are the pop culture stereotypes about a capella kids being zany nerds true at all?
DJ: I would say some of them. The jazz groups and choral groups not so much. But with the rise of Ed Sheeran, Pentatonix, Pitch Perfect, and the Sing Off, there's a whole new sub-genre of a capella that's taken off recently. We take them seriously—and, after all, we also do Sam Smith and Selena Gomez covers—but we do a more classic, doo wop men's singing group version of this bright, forward, Pentatonix-type sound. We respect those groups and they respect us, but we recognize we're in different sub-genres of a capella.
What's it like being in an all-female group?
Caroline: There are tons of things that are special about being in an all-female group. Times are changing, and all-female a cappella is breaking into the top tier of culturally-trendy a cappella. By creating top-notch music and touring around the world, Whim helps bring women's voices into the spotlight.
How do you use your voices in comparison to the all-male groups?
Caroline: Women's voices are different from men's voices. They can be used to create incredibly tight, colorful harmonies and a unique ambience that is impossible to achieve with a mixed or all-male palette of voices.
In addition, women's groups are often more able than mixed or all-male groups to communicate meaningfully about certain issues or represent certain attitudes. For example, if an all-male group covers Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts," there's a good chance that it's going to be ironic and lighthearted—it's more about imitating the diva-esque qualities of the song than about delivering an earnest message. But when Whim covers it—which we do—we are able to show off our vocal chops while also making a powerful statement about body image and destructive beauty standards.
How do other women respond when they see and hear your group?
Caroline: An all-female group of musicians is a very special social environment that can be incredibly empowering both to members and to audiences. One of Whim's primary missions is to empower women and girls to pursue higher education and leadership opportunities. We believe that by performing for and conducting interactive workshops with women and girls around the world, we can serve as positive role models.
Whatever you think of Pitch Perfect as a movie, it's really significant that a (fictional) all-female group is being featured in a trendy movie. I think it has helped include the all-female genre in the a cappella craze that is now a part of American pop culture. It places an all-female a cappella group on the same celebrity-like pedestal that many all-male groups have already occupied for years.
Do Whim 'n Rhythm members typically stay close after finishing their year with the group?
Caroline: Yes! I know that past years have arranged 14-person Google Hangouts so that they can all video chat at the same time, and other cute things like that. Some people have had their Whim classmates sing at their weddings. Many recent alumni come back to campus for big concerts, and there are also reunions during our big anniversary years. Whim's 35th anniversary will be next year. Most people in collegiate a cappella find that singing in a group allows them to form connections with other people that are incredibly unique. Ultimately, that's what makes it most fulfilling.
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