99 problems but a pitch ain’t one: A capella groups harmonize on campus

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Students pace outside the doors as they wait for their turn. There is the quiet hum of sopranos warming up their vocal chords. There is the nervous click-click of a pen as a young man finishes his paperwork. There are boyfriends, best friends and headphones lending emotional support to those waiting to audition. Current members float around the lobby, buzzing from group to group of potential new singers.

The Charleston Vibes. (Photo by Katie Carter)
The Charleston Vibes. (Photo by Katie Carter)

But this is not Broadway. It is not even show choir. It is a new culture, a new movement, cemented into collegiate society after “Pitch Perfect” first idolized it and then raked in enough capital for a sequel. This is the land of a cappella, and at the College, this land filled up four nights of auditions for a handful of coveted spots in each group. The Recital Hall hosted auditions and was divided into three groups, all whispering about sight reading and gossiping over their favorite new singers. The Chucktown Trippintones, the Charleston Vibes and the AcaBelles were all searching for new members — and the talent at auditions this year did not disappoint. Sophomore Danya Firestone, co-public relations chair of the Trippintones, explained why a cappella is on the rise.

“From an internal perspective, people who love music want to be doing something fun like this, where you can still be using training you’ve had prior…but doing something different where you get to choose the music, you get to audition for solos if you want to,” Firestone said. “Because it’s student-run, it’s really catered to the interests of the group.”

Each group has its own ambiance and thus looks for certain types of potential new members. The Trippintones were looking for big voices — power singers who could bring the house down but also reel it in and blend with the group. When it came to personalities, two words instantly came to Firestone’s mind: social and outgoing. The group is hyper-involved in a broad range of extracurriculars outside of a cappella, from Greek Life to the Honors College.

“People in our group really want to be involved on campus,” Firestone said. “So people are bringing their own parts of campus to the group, which is great not only in terms of connections … but also just because it brings really different personalities and insights, too.”

Their connection to the school started with the beginnings of the group, which evolved from what was once called The Dean’s Group on campus. A decade later, the organization  is bigger and stronger than ever. Their history helps rank them as the premier A Capella group on campus, earning them gigs from the annual No Victims No Violence Vigil to semesterly concerts in Sottile Theater. It also leaves them with a large network of alumni, who they plan to bring back this fall for their 10 year anniversary concert.

Although their beginnings are more recent, the Charleston Vibes have certainly made a name for themselves since their inception four years ago. Their diversity stems not from extracurriculars, but from the people in the group themselves.

“It’s people from all different walks of life — people of all different race, ethnicity, age group, gender, everything, but we’re basically just a big group of people who love to sing,” junior Vice President Luke Durbin said.

The AcaBelles. (Photo by Katie Carter)
The AcaBelles. (Photo by Katie Carter)

The group is also close outside of music, many live together off campus. Junior Jensen Tomberlin, treasurer for the Vibes, emphasized the tight-knit nature and attributed it to the one thing they all have in common: cheerfulness. The group is always cheery, leading their rehearsals to be a little more chatty and laidback while they learn their music. The Vibes’ range of songs in each semesterly setlist reflects the group’s motif of of diversity, featuring everything from 70s music to Amy Winehouse.

All three groups are democratic in choosing their setlist. Every member is able to send in suggestions and then later vote on which ones make the cut each semester. This is perhaps the most important decision for an  a cappella group — the singers must have a variety of songs in order to be prepared for certain types of performances, whether it be the Trippintones at a Christmas brunch, a wedding with the Vibes, or a women’s entrepreneurial cocktail party featuring the Acabelles.

For the AcaBelles, picking a set list proves a bit more difficult. The Trippintones and the Vibes can easily find arrangements online designed for both male and female voices, but the all-female group often ends up having to write their own arrangements, a responsibility that falls on the music directors. Sophomore and co-music director Simone Liberty has to adjust many songs to cater to higher voices, a process that can take her up to a month to complete. Although tricky, they refuse to let it limit them from singing songs by men, including this semester’s selection “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. Overall, they tend to focus on girl power, which, according to Liberty, comes with a lot of strong opinions.

“It can get a bit frustrating at times because it’s like 17 different voices coming at once, but it gives us an opportunity to not only grow as singers but also grow as leaders, as musicians, as a team,” Liberty said.

The girls’ group is only on its fourth year at the College, but it has changed drastically in that time. After two years of being an all-girls, Jewish a cappella group,  the singers opened auditions to any female who wanted to join and adopted their current name, the AcaBelles. Despite changes, they remain confident in their unique sound.

“There’s a lot of really cool things that you can do with both male and female voices, but I also think that it’s really interesting to be able to focus in on female,” junior Maisy Deans said. “The sound you can create with that is just different from male-female and they’re both great, but I personally really like all female.”

The Trippintones. (Photo by Katie Carter)
The Trippintones. (Photo by Katie Carter)

Surprisingly, competition within the three groups remains minimal. Even at auditions, there was a consistent understanding that expanding overall numbers is a good thing, regardless of which group new talent picks. The best singers will have their choice of all three, but normally each group can predict a newbie’s choice based on their personality.

“Even when that happens, there’s no hard feelings between groups,” Tomberlin said. “We understand, it’s just nice that you’re part of the aca-community on campus.”

The aca-support system is all-inclusive and everyone supports each other at concerts and performances. A walk down King Street on Second Sunday can even give a taste of each one, as they all enjoy singing for the crowds on a nice afternoon. Despite differences between the groups, the aca-community is a welcoming and talented one that embraces its own and anyone with the pipes to join in on the harmony.

*This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Yard.

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