Maxine Malvar '21, assistant musical director of the Touchtones, instructing prospective members during auditions.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer)

Maxine Malvar '21, assistant musical director of the Touchtones, instructing prospective members during auditions.

September 11, 2019

Perfect Pitch: A Look Inside Intense A Cappella Auditions

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All students have seen the Ho Plaza chalkings, the Balch and Gothics “arch sings” and the quarter cards. Given the fact that the movie Pitch Perfect was largely based off the experience of Cornell a cappella alumnus Mickey Rapkin — of the banished Cayuga’s Waiters — it is not surprising that the Cornell a cappella audition process is intense.

Cornellian competitiveness seems to inform everything on campus; the 14 a cappella groups are no exception. A week after hundreds of students sang their hearts out for a chance to perform with these groups, The Sun took a closer look at what goes on behind those closed doors.

Auditions follow roughly the same schedule across all 14 groups. First, each group holds open auditions for a few days, in which anyone can walk in. Auditionees prepare a solo that showcases the strengths of their voice. Then, oftentimes the group will request that the singer perform scales to test their vocal range, before moving on to the next person.

After each group evaluates all the auditionees who try out during their group’s open auditions, they deliberate on who will receive a callback. Some groups have multiple rounds of callbacks, and each round is an opportunity for auditionees to get to know each group better in terms of their musical style and personality, as well as prove that their talents are compatible with that of the group’s. All of this takes place during the first full week of classes.

Some groups emphasized that having fun was the most important aspect of a cappella.

“During our audition process, we ask the auditionees to tell a funny story,” said Chase Thomas ’20 of Last Call, an all-male group. “We do comedy in our concerts because we really want to perform so that the audience has a good time. It’s important for our members to be comfortable being ridiculous.”

James Robertson ’21, a member of the co-ed a cappella group The Chordials, admitted that the process can still be strenuous for many.

“For the auditionee, the process is definitely a bit of a gauntlet,” Robertson said. “You’re bouncing around, meeting new people constantly, singing totally new music during every audition, sometimes for hours, like on the last day of callbacks.”

This strain is, in some ways, self-imposed by auditionees. The A Cappella Advisory Council recommends that auditionees try out for multiple groups to find one that works for them. This can be taxing, however, given Cornell’s wide diversity of groups from classic co-ed — all-female or all-male groups — to groups that advertise a certain identity.

Less Than Three specifically invites all who identify as women, genderqueer or nonbinary. Co-ed group Tarana sings Bollywood and English pop songs. Both Hebrew and English songs with a Judaic theme are the Chai Notes’ domain, though Jewish heritage isn’t a prerequisite to join.

With such a large variety to choose from, many students opt to try out for as many as they can to see which they like the best.

“When you go into the audition process, you don’t know which group is the right one for you yet,” said Julia Chang ’20, President of The Class Notes. “Through the process, you get a vibe from each group you try out for and determine what the best fit for you is. A lot depends on your connections with the people in the groups and whether or not the style of the group fits your own music taste. In that sense, it’s a mutual selection process.”

Because a cappella requires a wide range of vocal classifications to arrange songs, the need for certain vocal ranges can drive the audition process, and otherwise qualified auditionees may not make it as a result.

“Our audition process is pretty objective because for us, a lot comes down to musicality,” Eri Kato ’20, member of After Eight, told the Sun. After Eight, an official subset of the Cornell University Chorus, is an all-female group that only takes members that have already been accepted into the Chorus.

“We already know that they’re great singers: they can read music, they can blend, they can hold a key,” Kato said. “When it comes to deliberations, sometimes it defaults to the fact that we need a certain musical part over another.”

However, not all groups prioritize their need for musical parts. Lily Wang ’20 of Absolute A Cappella noted her group’s openness to musical ability, regardless of need in the group for parts.

“We always keep in mind what our group is composed of, but we want people to have an equal chance to wow us, so if we think someone deserves a callback, we will call them back regardless of whether or not we need their voice part,” Wang said.

Other a cappella members voiced their opinions on why some students might be accepted over others.

“It breaks my heart when we get someone who auditions and they have an amazing, powerful voice during their solo, but when they get called back and sing with our group, they can’t blend their voice with the group,” Ellie O’Reilly ’20, member of Callbaxx, said. “Blending is extremely important in a cappella; you’re not going to be a soloist all the time.”

Musical ability isn’t the only factor that can count against a candidate.

“During our callbacks, we pick one of the songs that the auditionee has sung and work with them,” Maxine Malvar ’21, former president and current assistant music director of the all-female group The Touchtones, told the Sun in an interview. “This is to test their ability to be coached — can you take instruction? Can you implement changes well?”

If a singer is accepted, they are notified by the next Saturday night — which, for The Touchtones, involves a “fakeout.”

“The person in our group who liked the new member the best during auditions goes up to the door and says something along the lines of: ‘Hey, thanks for coming out, but unfortunately, we only take the best of the best…and that’s you!’” Malvar continued. “Then everyone else jumps out and sings to them and we give them a gift bag to make them feel really welcome.”

Ultimately, members encourage students to have fun with the process and to use it as an opportunity to learn.

“People shouldn’t be discouraged when they don’t get in the first time,” Wang said. “As a group, we’re always trying to improve as well. When you’re an auditionee, it might seem intimidating, but we all have problem areas too and are always working on sounding and doing better. In the end, we’re the same as you: we all want to improve as well.”