Big Voice On Campus

Never mind the frats and sports - today, college students say, those who are really cool sing a cappella

November 11, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,sun reporter

In its earliest days, Jordan Hadfield's a cappella group recruited a member from the laundry room in a University of Maryland, Baltimore County dorm. Since then, Mama's Boys, formed by Hadfield and three other freshmen in 2003, has evolved from a loose crew of guys to a polished group of performers selected through a competitive audition process.

The chorale has sung before an Orioles game, opened for comedian Lewis Black, musician Gavin DeGraw and earned a batch of Rice Krispie treats from a fan on the Ocean City boardwalk.

In an era of high-tech musical wizardry, the art of unaccompanied singing is more in vogue than ever before. College is prime a cappella time, Hadfield says.

"You're living on campus and you have time to dedicate to it, and it will completely change your life if you do," says Hadfield, a Dundalk native who graduated in May.

Once chiefly associated with bow ties and middlebrow sensibilities, a cappella has become a varsity sport with pitch-perfect prestige. Serious groups with as many as 18 members devote at least four hours a week to rehearsals, perform in jampacked theaters, go on tour, record CDs and compete at collegiate gatherings.

Now, it's cool to be a self-professed geek with a flair for arranging tongue-in-cheek covers of songs in frequent rotation on college radio stations. "College is the scene of the great mating dances," says Don Gooding, the founder of "You cannot underplay the importance of trying to be attractive in the growth of a cappella."

Since 1981, the number of varsity a cappella groups has swelled from 250 to well more than 1,100, says Gooding, who also owns Varsity Vocals, which runs the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella and annually releases a "Best of College A Cappella" compilation.

In the Baltimore region, an informal tally of college a cappella groups easily tops one dozen. Johns Hopkins University's Web site lists eight groups on that campus alone. Goucher boasts three groups. Towson University has two registered groups. And one Web site directory shows 10 a cappella groups at the University of Maryland College Park.

A cappella's growing influence can be seen on both YouTube and MySpace, which teem with collegiate a cappella offerings. On a recent episode of The Office, Andy wooed Angela with an a cappella version of ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me," backed by buddies on conference call. In the 2007 film Superbad, one hapless character escapes a rough moment by singing a wavery rendition of "These Eyes" by the Guess Who, accompanied by a crew of wasted coke heads.

The current a cappella craze got a big push from Rockapella, the Persuasions, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bobby McFerrin and other musicians. Beat boxing, ubiquitous in hip-hop, has permeated a cappella in the form of vocal percussion, further propelling the genre's popularity. Because of their emphasis on contemporary music, some a cappella groups have members dedicated solely to imitating drums, bass guitars, violins and other instruments.

Technology helps

With the advent of notation software, a cappella groups have also gained more creative control of the genre. Gooding remembers when as a member of the SOBs at Yale (where he also sang with the Whiffenpoofs, the first college a cappella group), "I had to do my arrangement of `Shenandoah.' It was pencil on paper and absolutely laborious. Now, you can put the notes down on your computer and you can have it play it back to you to hear what it sounds like. It's a huge productivity tool."

From Dr. Dre's profanity-laced lyrics to vintage television theme songs to the Flight of the Conchords' deadpan send-ups, untold anthems have become fodder for the current a cappella explosion.

Gathered around a laptop perched on a baby grand piano, Red Hot Blue, Goucher College's co-ed a cappella group, rehearses a song that you'd never peg as a prospect for four-to-seven part harmonies.

Using music notation software, Arreon Harley, a 19-year-old music major from Columbia, has broken the song down into an onomatopoetic flurry of sound bits emulating strings, brass and percussion.

Later, when soloist Nene Tomi introduces the lyrics in a chunky alto, she lassos the jangling bracelet of notes into the hit "Rehab," Amy Winehouse's unrepentant paean to alcohol.

It's a melodic disconnect, a mash-up of aural trickery and disconcerting lyrics. As arrangements such as Harley's improbably cross heavenly harmonies with hard-edged pop tunes, the possibilities for high irony are endless.

"We just try and take what's fun and make it more fun," says Lindsey Rich, a Goucher senior and Red Hot Blue's president. "And sometimes we use songs to poke fun of ourselves," says Rich, noting the deliberate juxtaposition of "Rehab" with a cappella groups' reputation as "notorious partyers."

A cappella isn't just for fun. Formed in 1991, Red Hot Blue donates all proceeds from their concerts to AIDS charities.

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