In preparation for their end-of-semester concerts, Cornell’s a cappella groups have spent time practicing intensely during the rehearsal period that the a cappella community calls “Hell Week.”
“The two weeks before the concert are known as Hell Weeks because we rehearse every single day and learn choreography to go with the arrangements,” said Caroline Hinrichs ’22, the co-publicity manager for The Chordials.
Hinrichs has been in The Chordials since her freshman spring and is responsible for the colorful chalk drawings below McGraw tower promoting the group. She said she joined the group for its community and sense of tradition.
“I auditioned for the Chordials because I wanted to be a part of this quintessential Cornell thing,” Hinrichs said, referencing a capella’s historical prevalence in Cornell’s campus culture.
All Cornell a cappella groups go through the same rigorous schedule leading up to their concerts: practice every day for two to four hours.
For Claire Meakem ’22, the joy of a capella overrides the difficulties of Hell Week.
“To have a time when I’m supposed to be creative and supposed to be performative is really beneficial to my mental health and my feelings of connectedness to myself,” Meakem said.
While the intense practice schedule may take a toll on some members, Nobonita Paul ’22 — president of Tarana, Cornell’s South Asian a cappella group which creates arrangements with both Hindustani and Western music — said the organization takes measures to ensure that members don’t become too stressed.
“If the feel of the room is that rehearsing anymore would be unproductive, we just call it a day,” Paul said “We don’t want our members to be burnt out on the week of the concert.”
The workload is also lightened by the communal experience of a cappella and the passion members have for their singing.
“It doesn’t feel like work for me because I am just there with my friends doing what I love,” Paul said.
Paul added that the a cappella experience at Cornell has brought her closer to peers of her ethnicity — part of the reason why she joined Tarana in fall 2019.
“I think having a South Asian a cappella group on campus is important because a lot of the members we accept do not have experience with Western music,” Paul said.
Still, burnout is a concern during the rest of the semester as well as Hell Week, as groups normally practice six hours per week.
“A cappella is a pretty big time commitment,” said Maya Voelkel ’22. “The reason that I stuck with it is because a cappella is a really cross-cutting club at Cornell.”
The pandemic was also an obstacle for Cornell’s a cappella community.
“Being online last year was a huge challenge,” said Miranda Price ’24, president of The Chai Notes, a Jewish a cappella group. “It felt like there was nothing we were striving for.”
The pandemic also made practice difficult, due to the challenges of the online format such as Zoom causing voice lag, changing the pitch of notes and having no way for members to hear each other harmonize.
This year, the groups are very happy to be back to normal despite the adjustment, and feel better about their work now that they’re socializing and performing in person again.
To strengthen the community, the groups do ticket exchanges to attend each other’s concerts.
“Thankfully we are all trying to support each other, so other groups come to our concert and we go to other groups’ concerts” says Paul.
Some difficulties have arisen in bringing back the community of a cappella at Cornell. Despite efforts to exchange tickets and avoid concert overlaps, concerts sometimes do overlap, forcing friends to choose which ones to attend.
Additionally, audition time slots can breed tension as it is in each group’s interest to have its audition slot as early as possible to get the best singers earlier. According to Price, the groups compete against each other for talent.
To promote a friendly atmosphere, the groups work with each other and the A Cappella Cornell Association to hold social events, like mixers, karaoke nights and group hangouts. The events provide a chance for members of many a cappella groups to get closer.
“As a group, we are very family-oriented, we are very close,” Price said. “We like to joke around a lot and have fun, but we are also very passionate about what we do.”