March 27, 2008

A Cappella Combines Harmony, Tradition

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A cappella has long been popular on college campuses across the nation, and Cornell is no exception. The University alone is home to fifteen different groups, each with an individual sound.
Jay Emelen, the office manager of, explained the appeal of the genre to college students.
“Audiences love it. It’s interesting because the music is so familiar, usually a cappella groups are singing pop music and jazz standards that everyone knows,” Emelen said. “It looks like so much fun because everyone is smiling and moving around. Generally the music is memorized so there is a lot of interaction with the audience and the groups aren’t staring with their heads in the music.”
A cappella began on college campuses in the early 1900s with the Yale Wiffenpoofs. Rev. James Howard, Yale 1909, described in his history of the group how it formed with a couple of members from the Yale Glee club, according to the Wiffenpoofs website.
“We had sung together so much that, to an extraordinary degree, we had the feel of each other’s idiosyncrasies and instinctively blended into a well-rounded musical entity,” he wrote. The formation of the group followed naturally.
Collegiate a cappella quickly spread, and now includes over 1,200 groups on campuses across the country, according to The New York Times.
[img_assist|nid=29154|title=High note|desc=Cayuga’s Waiters performs in Statler Auditorium at A Cappella Night Live V, which was hosted by the Orientation Steering Committee in February. 11 different Cornell a cappella groups performed at the event.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
David Markowitz ’10, a member of Cayuga’s Waiters, was first exposed to a cappella at Cornell, and quickly recognized the appeal.
“A cappella is different than other types of music because you are imitating sounds that come from actual instruments,” Markowitz said.
He also drew connections between a cappella groups and Greek life.
“People, especially at Cornell, take Greek life very seriously,” Markowitz said. “In some ways, for both good and bad reasons, a cappella groups are similar to fraternities and sororities because of the reputations they uphold and the traditions they keep. The tightness in an a cappella group, especially the Waiters, can definitely be seen in shows.”
Nicole Brodsky ’10 explained that it is the relationship between the a cappella singers on stage that makes the performances so much fun.
“Nothing But Treble is the perfect example of the close companionship you would hope for in a group of girls,” she said. “Either at arch sings or late-night movies we always enjoy each other’s company and we think it shows when we sing. It’s always more fun to watch a performance when you can tell that the performers are having a good time.”
Cornell a cappella groups also maintain close-knit relationships with the other groups on campus. Both Brodsky and Markowitz mentioned that the two groups support each other at shows and arch sings, and occasionally have guest appearances in each other’s performances.
Prof. Mark McCarthy ’86, hotel administration, and alumni of the coed Class Notes is proud of the progress that his a cappella group has made since he sang in the original group.
“I think the Class Notes have a very different or fuller sound than many of the other groups,” he said. “They have an extremely polished repertoire that relies on a high degree of individual musical ability. The mere ability to carry a tune and blend with other voices is not going to cut it with the Notes.”
Katherine Congelosi ’11 describes herself as a groupie of the Class Notes.
“Other than the fact that every person in the Class Notes has an amazing voice, they are a great group of people to be around,” she said. “Their fun personalities come out when they sing. It is worth it to attend their arch sings for the experience of a rare combination of amazing voices with amazing personalities.”
But the appeal of this voice-only music genre usually withers once students graduate from College.
“The problem after college is time commitment,” said Don Gooding, a former member of the Whiffenpoofs and former owner of “Once you’re out in the working world, the combination of career pressures and family time make it much more difficult for people to commit to being in a group.”
With this in mind, Golding is working on bringing a cappella past the college campus, and making it appealing to older people.
“Once people get to be my age where they have kids in college, it’s easier to get together,” he said. Also, “because of the enormous numbers [of groups] that are in existence now in colleges, just recently, there are the beginnings of post-collegiate a cappella for 20-somethings.”