Perfect Tone, in a Key Thats Mostly Minor
Patrick Andrade for The New York Times
DOO BE OR NOT DOO BE? The Harvard
Krokodiloes, happily, if relentlessly, a cappella.
MIDWAY through Jonathan Coultons wedding reception in 2001, someone asked
the band to stop playing. In a suddenly silent hall in Boston, Mr. Coulton
turned to his bride, Catherine Connor, and in the company of some 100 friends
and family, began to serenade her.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
PIPES AND DRUMS A cappella groups like the
Tufts Beelzebubs perform on their own strings, adding backup percussion as
He sang a few songs, including Gladys Knight and the Pips Midnight Train
to Georgia, which Mr. Coulton performed without any musical accompaniment, save
for a handful of fellow Yale
graduates harmonizing behind him on a refrain of
doo bee doo bee doo. This was not planned, said Mr. Coulton, 37, a musician
who lives in Brooklyn, though the singing was assumed. As a senior at Yale, he
had been a member of the Whiffenpoofs, the all-star singing group that performs
a cappella and recruits its roster from other campus teams that also sing
unaccompanied. Get a couple of Whiffs together, Mr. Coulton said, and try to
stop us. He does not often talk about his past as a member of a collegiate a
cappella group. There is a stigma associated with a cappella, he said with a
laugh, adding that he admits to this bit of his résumé only when someone outs
Collegiate a cappella is a tradition that goes back to the early days of
, founded in 1909; it now includes more than
1,200 groups on campuses from Appalachian State to the University of Oregon
, according to the Contemporary A
Capella Society. It is a curious genre, one that makes sense under an ivy-strewn
archway only to become inexplicable upon graduation. For some, a cappella may be
a gateway to a career in the performing arts (as it was for Anne Hathaway, John Legend
and Art Garfunkel). It can also be a
lingering embarrassment to those who cannot grasp how a dozen or so singers
making drum noises with their mouths might look to an outsider.
Theres something about a cappella that rubs a lot of people the wrong
way, said Mr. Coulton, who performed on world tours with the Whiffenpoofs and
on an album called Take a Whiff. When youre in it, he said, you do
think youre a rock star. But you have to ignore the majority of the population
who dont want you singing jazz standards at their dinner.
For alumni of these singing groups, membership is a lifelong obligation.
Its like being in a fraternity, but not, said Peter Lerangis, 52, a
childrens book author and an alumnus of the Krokodiloes, a Harvard
a cappella group, who continues to edit the
groups alumni newsletter, Nunc est Cantandum (meaning Now is the time to
sing). Its like being on a sports team, but not. The bond of music is just
different. Other veterans arent as eager to admit to evenings spent in jacket
and tie, singing Madonna
covers without instruments. A cappella I
thought it might catch up with me, said James Van Der Beek, the Dawsons
Creek star and former member of 36 Madison Avenue, a singing group at Drew
University. I couldnt play an instrument well enough to be in a band, so I
thought, O.K., this sounds like something I should look into, Mr. Van Der Beek
said. And yes, membership had its privileges. A girl heard me sing Englishman
in New York and I got to, like, go to her dorm room to give her our CD. But
now, he seemed less enthusiastic about those exploits. I cant believe Im
talking about this, he said.
Whenever a cappella is mentioned in pop culture (see the comedy The
Break-Up, in which Vince Vaughn is beaten up by an a cappella group; the bio
for Stephen Colbert
s broadcast persona, which claims that
he performed a cappella in a Dartmouth group called the Sing Dynasty; or the
recent dismissal from American Idol of Luke Menard, who also sang a cappella),
it is almost always a shorthand for rampant geekiness. On the NBC sitcom The
Office, the grating Andy Bernard, a character played by Ed Helms, often reminds
co-workers that he once performed with a Cornell
group called Here Comes Treble.
Mr. Helms said the shows satire of a cappella was all in good fun, though
he still bears the scars of his own brief encounter with the art form: in 1993,
he said, he quit the Oberlin Obertones after one semester because of a
personality clash with the groups music director. I decided smoking pot was
more important than extracurricular activities, he said.
Taken to an extreme, dislike and mistrust of a cappella has even led to
violence: a 2007 fight outside a New Years Eve party in San Francisco
instigated, allegedly, by an impromptu performance of the national anthem by the
Bakers Dozen, a mens a cappella group from Yale sent several members to the
But many alumni eventually learn to embrace their musical identities. When
Bruce Cohen, an Oscar-winning producer of American Beauty, graduated from Yale
in 1983, he was certain he had made a clean break from the Bakers Dozen and
would never return for its shows, or jams. In my day, he said, you kept in
touch with your friends, but you wouldnt be caught dead going back to the B.D.
Jam. You went on with your life. In January 1992, Mr. Cohen received a call
from a friend who told him their old group was performing in Pasadena, Calif.
This was shocking to us, Mr. Cohen said. That the B.D.s could afford a plane
trip in our day was unimaginable. We went to Florida and we drove! From
Connecticut! In vans!
Patrick Andrade for The New York Times
The Harvard Krokodiloes.
When the group returned to the Los Angeles area in 1993, Mr. Cohen invited
it to perform at his annual Christmas party, as he has done every year since. He
maintains a strict no-talking policy during the annual concert, and regularly
wangles celebrities like Jim Carrey
and Marisa Tomei
into attending. When they get here and
they go into the bedroom and get a private concert from the B.D.s, theyre
loving it, he said. Hilary Swank
fell in love with them.
There are now increasing numbers of post-college outlets for enthusiasts
who arent ready to stop snapping their fingers in unison with friends. Last
August Deke Sharon, founder of the Contemporary A
Cappella Society, created a league for recovering singers, with some 25 groups
across the country. Five thousand collegiate a cappella singers graduate every
spring, he said. What are their options? Church choirs and karaoke.
Sara Yood, 26, an alumna of the Washington University
Amateurs, continues to perform
with a womens group called Treble. For Ms. Yood, who discovered the group four
years ago while searching for a cappella on Craigslist, it is more a social
outlet than a way to make money. In college, a cappella was about competing and
recording and rehearsing three nights a week, she said. But this is low key.
We all have lives.
The collegiate groups expect the occasional teasing that comes with their
brand of entertainment. There will always be people who say a cappella is
stupid, said Alexander Koutzoukis, 20, music director of the Tufts
Beelzebubs. We like to think what we do is
different. He and his group had just performed a short set (including a medley
of Kanye West
s Stronger and Christina Aguilera
s Fighter) at the Chelsea offices
of EMI at the invitation of a Beelzebubs alum, Marty Fernandi, who works in the
companys music resources department. The EMI staff had, of course, experienced
its share of live music. But the Bubs, as they call themselves, still managed to
impress with their manic energy. After the show, the C.O.O. told us this was
one of the best performances hed seen in that setting, Mr. Koutzoukis said
proudly. And theyre used to seeing the original artists. Indeed, some
performers who make peace with their pasts in a cappella go on to become
respected artists in their own right.
On a recent Friday night, two hours before a show at the Beacon Theater,
Sara Bareilles, the writer and performer of the pop hit Love Song, sat in her
cluttered tour bus. As Ms. Bareilles, 28, took a swig from a bottle of Corona,
her guitarist, Javier Dunn, recalled the first time he saw her perform. It was
years ago, he said, at a U.C.L.A. student talent show called Spring Sing, where
she appeared with a campus group called Awaken A Cappella. Sara sang that
George Michael song Freedom, Mr. Dunn said, not quite concealing a
smile. The girls all wore leather, like a biker chick thing.
Be honest, Ms. Bareilles said. You hated it. She said that Awaken A
Cappella had played a crucial role in her coed life. Its so goofy, she said,
but I felt like Id found my family at school.
Mr. Dunn continued his inquest. When I think of a cappella I picture drama
students and nerds, he said.
Ms. Bareilles shook her head. You love action figures! she said to Mr.
Dunn. Why cant you let us sing and be happy?
Mickey Rapkin is the author of a forthcoming book on the history and
traditions of collegiate a cappella singing.