There’s a chaotic scene in the Mather Junior Common Room on Thursday nights. As rehearsal for co-ed a cappella group The Opportunes winds down, the group’s members are so engrossed in talking to one another that they barely notice onlookers. They plan their weekend retreat—scary movies get a thumbs-up, but movie-musicals are promptly vetoed. The group breaks into a rendition of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes, ” prompting someone to jokingly announce next week’s auditions for the gunshot parts in the chorus. They discuss their upcoming gig at the Head of the Charles. Later, they run through the last of their arrangements for the night, and applaud their five newest members—affectionately called “babies”—for mastering their parts so quickly.
The world of collegiate a cappella contains many paradoxes: it is part business and part hobby, part musical expression and part family, the source of college glory and post-graduation stigma. For an activity so routinely ridiculed in pop culture—see Ed Helms’s character on “The Office, ” for instance—a cappella attracts hundreds of new students each year. Despite a burgeoning scene that taxes resources, space, and perhaps the patience of Harvard’s audiences, the sense of community found in rehearsals like this one is what has kept a capella enduring for decades.
Harvard a cappella originated in 1946 with the founding of the Harvard Krokodiloes. Initially conceived as an all-male quartet singing jazz standards, the Kroks were born out of the Hasty Pudding Social Club and modeled on the Yale Whiffenpoofs. Though the Kroks are now a separate entity from Hasty Pudding, their members still occasionally use the Pudding’s offices to practice and are permitted to join the social club without the usual punch process.
After the 1975 founding of the Radcliffe Pitches, an all-female counterpart to the Kroks, Harvard’s a cappella scene grew steadily. The current level of interest in joining an a cappella group has led to an audition season that at times amazes current members.
“We actually feel bad for the kids that are trying out, ” says Frank A. DeSimone ’09, the Krokodiloes general manager. DeSimone adds that competition between groups reaches its peak during the first week of school. “You have to coordinate the schedules of all the callbacks and there are kids that try out for five or six a cappella groups and are trying to audition for eight or ten hours a day.”
Opportune Sasha A. Rohret ’12 describes a cappella audition week—which conveniently coincides with the first official week of classes—as “the most hectic week of my life.”
“It certainly forces you to study at odd hours and choose your dinner times wisely, ” agrees newly minted Lowkey Laura B. Harshbarger ’12.
The week is comparable to an entire punch process crammed into five short days. “It’s like hell week, ” says Ebele M. Anidi ’12. Many groups hold their auditions until one or two in the morning.
“And outside the tryouts, you have people waiting to take you out, ” Anidi adds. “Trying to tell you how great their group was, and why you should stay.”
To reinforce this message, groups aren’t shy about bestowing material tokens of appreciation on potential members. “It’s subtle bribery, ” Anidi laughs, referring to the not-so-subtle stream of handwritten notes, CDs, candy, chocolate, and roses that mysteriously appeared outside his door each night of callbacks.
On the Final Night of audition week, groups dress in their finest cocktail wear and make one last attempt to convince the auditioning singers of their organization’s superiority. “Long black dresses, gourmet cheese, everyone bragging about their tours, champagne…” Amanda B. Wyatt ’12 trails off. “So much champagne.” This is also the night when auditioners fill out the preference forms that will determine which group they join should they receive multiple invitations, a common occurrence in years like this one.