Ben Watsky was born to sing a cappella. Well, if not born, then certainly bred to it.
The Woodbridge native first learned The Whiffenpoof Song (“We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa….”) in eighth grade, coached by his choir teacher at Hopkins School, JoAnn Wich. With a voice somewhere north of tenor at that point, Watsky auditioned for the Hopkins male a cappella group, the Harmonaires, but didn’t make it. Sophomore year he took his place in the Harmonaires with a group of guys he remembers fondly to this day.
Hopkins is a stone’s throw from Yale and sends a good number of its graduates there each year. Watsky was one of them in the fall of 2008. Naturally, he continued with a cappella, becoming a tenor member of the all-male Spizzwinks?. (Many groups try to have funny, sometimes punny names.)
“I got in on my friendly and easygoing nature,” Watsky said. “I didn’t understand how hard it was going to be to get into a group. I know I wasn’t their first choice. The talent was there but I didn’t know how to use it; it took me a long time to feel comfortable as a singer. It was one of the most important things I’ve done in my life.” Watsky described the a cappella rush process: a month of politicking to get into a cappella groups by attending concerts and meals with the groups on campus, followed by, of course, auditions, and the whole experience heightened by being at Yale.
American a cappella was basically founded at Yale in 1909 with the formation of the Whiffenpoofs, “after a drunken night of singing at Mory’s, a New Haven supper club,” according to the book “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory,” by Mickey Rapkin, Gotham Books 2008. The Whiffs still perform there every Monday night.
What started so casually has sprung into a nationwide phenomenon and is particularly popular in Connecticut. Nearly every college has multiple a cappella groups. (The University of Connecticut has eight for example.) And high schools, both public and private, and even a middle school are not only supporting a cappella clubs, but hosting competitions, camps and showcases.
Is the hit television show “Glee” or the movie “Pitch Perfect” spurring this cultural change and turning music into a varsity sport? Television shows like “The Voice” and “The Singoff,” which hosted an a cappella competition for three seasons, as well as thousands of YouTube videos, also help to spread the popularity of the genre.
Just so we’re clear, a cappella means in Italian, “from the chapel.” Think Gregorian chants or the joyous, uplifting music of South Africa. It literally means singing with no instrumental accompaniment. Groups typically number 10 to 14 people, all male, all female or co-ed. The group stands in a horseshoe formation, known as the “shoe,” and is conducted by a member of the group, known as the “pitch,” who starts the singers off with a single note from a pitch pipe.
It’s challenging to sing on key with no accompaniment and no conductor.
Rather than the simple soprano, alto, tenor, bass parts of a chorus, a cappella aims to add the sound of instruments, like the beat box of a vocal percussionist, to take the place of instruments. Sometimes, there is a soloist — other times the group stresses harmony. The result is a rich, beautiful sound made entirely by the human voice. Groups sing every type of music from Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” to more traditional pieces like “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”
It’s may be surprising to learn that college-level a cappella groups usually don’t include many, if any, music majors. At Trinity College in Hartford, the majors of the all female Quirks run from criminology and political science to biology and creative writing. There’s isn’t a music major among their 12 members, who have performed at school functions as well as at Fenway Park (the national anthem), the “Festival of Trees” at the Wadsworth Atheneum and at the Hartford Business Journal’s Women in Business awards ceremony.
The explanations for the huge participation in a cappella range from simple to complex to downright philosophical. “Music without rests is like a line of jumbled noise,” said Guilford High School a cappella singer Matthew Mininberg. “When I hear the rest in the music I can find the silence within myself and then find the passion within me.”
Teachers agree that singing, whether during the school day or after hours, offers students a break from over-scheduled lives. “It’s a big emotional release,” said Marcos Carreras, coordinator of vocal music at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford. “After you’ve gone through your AP and honors courses, driver’s ed, boyfriend and girlfriend issues, student government, you come here, you can let it go. A cappella is your moment of respite.”
KO hosts the largest a cappella high school competition in America and the only a cappella summer camp, whose singers performed last summer at Blue Back Square in blistering heat. KO has a total of nine a cappella groups even though it has just 513 students in grades 6 through 12. Callie Miles, a KO senior, never thought she would sing because her voice is low.
“With a cappella, every and any voice is needed to make it sound really great; it’s an advantage to have a low voice,” she said. At KO, Miles also had the opportunity to work with Ysaye Barnwell, a famous a cappella and blues singer/songwriter whose group Sweet Honey in the Rock taught a workshop at KO.
“Having that exposure to Ysaye is probably the reason I’m singing,” Miles said. “She had a lower voice than I did and rocked it.” During the holiday season, it seems everyone is looking to hire an a cappella group to liven up a party with Christmas carols. Voices, the Guilford High School select a cappella chorus, has booked more than 100 gigs this season.
“Caroling is a little nerve-racking, but the coolest part is when you walk away from a gig and the host of the party says that you made the holidays for them,” said Megan Vanacore, adding that teachers understand if singers can’t get ALL their homework done during caroling season.
Guilford High School has a long history of producing professional singers, actors and musicians including Broadway actress Kate Jennings Grant, Becki Newton of “Ugly Betty” fame and sought-after touring musician Morris Pleasure. So it’s no surprise that Voices sounds amazing.
Growing Popularity of A Cappella Groups
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