Photo of the 2015 class of Whim 'n Rhythm. Image courtesy of the group.
Many people view a capella as an antiquated, college-specific extracurricular—a hokey music niche that attracts wholesome, zany geeks. In the past few years, though, it's wormed its way into the pop culture zeitgeist in a big way. Back in December, the latest album by the five-person a capella group Pentatonix went platinum and a whopping 5.1 million people tuned in to watch NBC's a capella competition show, The Sing Off. This past weekend, Pitch Perfect 2, a comedy about an all-female a capella group, earned $70 million domestically and beat out Mad Max: Fury Road for the box office's top spot.
For the college students who actually perform in these groups, a capella is much more than mere entertainment—it's a way of life. Take Yale's all-male, senior a capella group the Whiffenpoofs, which has been around since 1909 and once featured Cole Porter as a member. A capella is so serious to the Whiffenpoofs, the group's 14 members take off an entire year of college to tour for nearly 200 days and perform in over 25 countries. Although Yale's all-female senior group, Whim 'n Rhythm, doesn't get to take a leave of absence, they also tour the world, hitting nearly a dozen countries over the course of summer break.
While it's easy to eye roll at a bunch of kids wearing bow-ties, white gloves, and doing all-vocal (and un-ironic) covers of Lil Wayne's "How to Love, " these are students who balance the demands of their intense singing groups with the rigor of being a Yale undergrad. VICE spoke with Ehrik Aldana and DJ Stanfill (the business manager and music director of the Whiffenpoofs, respectively) and Moriah Faye and Caroline Diehl (the business manager and music director of Whim 'n Rhythm) to talk about what it's really like to be in a serious a capella group in 2015.
Photo of the 2015 class of the Whiffenpoofs. Image courtesy of the group.
VICE: What's your musical background like? Did you get into a capella before college?
Ehrik Aldana: I actually didn't sing at all before getting to college, but I had a background in piano and guitar in high school. A lot of Whiffs this year sang in a cappella groups in high school and most have experience playing musical instruments as well. Our musical backgrounds are very diverse ranging from jazz and gospel to classical and musical theater.
Caroline Diehl: Musical experience usually varies a lot within a group, which is great because people bring different perspectives to the table. I had a lot of formal music training before coming to college, mostly in classical music. My vocal training was in musical theater and classical repertoire. The rest of the group includes people who have had formal vocal training, as well as people who didn't start singing until they got to college, people who have played instruments, and people who don't read printed music and learn entirely by ear.
Do many members want to pursue music professionally after graduation?
Ehrik: I think that most Whiffenpoofs join the group without any intention of pursuing music professionally or academically. Even though our touring and performance schedule has us operating at a near-professional level, we all have strong passions outside of singing, ranging from election law and archaeology to biochemistry and Chaucer.
Caroline: Currently, only one person in the group is definitely planning to pursue music (in the form of musical theater), although I know at least a couple others have considered it and might still decide to pursue singing.