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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A Capella groups take the stage by storm

Published: September 16, 2005
Section: Arts, Etc.

With one of the highest group-to-student ratios in the country, Brandeis provides an expansive selection of a capella groups from which its students can choose, covering musical genres such as theatre, gospel, pre-80s, and, of course, plenty of modern rock. Each new year brings a wave of freshmen eager and ready to test the a capella waters, bringing with them wildly varying levels of experience.

While some had devoted much of their time in high school to singing, others had reserved it for the shower. Regardless, the concept of singing with a group of friends in front of an excited crowd strikes them all as a worthy endeavor. This past week, it struck many.

Although the genres available are diverse, the methods used by Brandeis groups to attract and select new members are fairly standard. Whether through a multitude of flyers plastered over university dorms and buildings, Dorm Storming concerts in the stairwells, or the ever-faithful word of mouth, groups have but one goal during the first week of classes: to get as many interested people as possible to try out. Naturally, groups reason, the greater the number of auditonees, the greater their chance of finding that perfect wailing tenor or smooth alto to fill out the groups sound.

And so, on Sunday, September 4th, that wave of freshmen descended upon the Activities Fair, eager to sign up for auditions. The average student strolling through the Activities Fair would be stopped by no less than four strangers asking, Do you like to sing? and even the slightest nod of approval would earn an audition slot in under 30 seconds flat. Prepare a verse and a chorus of a song of your choice, each auditionee heard as many as ten times. Walking away with a pocketful of reminder cards, they were left to make the decision that would have a profound impact on their upcoming auditions success: choosing a solo song. For most, choosing a song was an uneasy process of finding the one song that couldnt be forgotten. Thankfully, a single song choice would cover all of the auditions.

Outside the audition rooms wait students filling out sheets asking about their musical experience and aptitude, along with a host of seemingly random questions, each question attempting in some way to gauge whether the applicant would both fit in and be an asset to the group. With as many as 10 or more students auditioning for each available position, groups need all the information they can get to make an informed decision.

Without fail, the auditions themselves consist of range-testing, pitch matching, and the solo, performed in front of the entire existing group. Some asked those auditioning to perform additional rigorous vocal exercises, including interval, scale and chord recognition. While the groups are genuinely kind to those auditioning, the 5 to 10 minutes with the group gives the impression of a high-pressure do-or-die situation. Sent on their way, having been informed about the announcement of callbacks, auditionees are left to wait. However, for those who make it past this point, things take a turn for the better.

Callbacks are almost fun. For those genuinely interested in a capella, it provides a glimpse of the years to come, the opportunity to learn a few new songs, and the chance to meet a few people along the way. Although seemingly more laid back, callbacks serve a critical role in choosing those who will be asked to join the group. During this time, groups look for those singers who can most comfortably blend with the group, maintain a melodic line amongst a chorus of others, observe dynamic shifts, remain in tune, and keep to a steady tempo. Not surprisingly, the attributes that contribute to a good callback are the same attributes that make for good a capella. After singing the newly learned songs in every combination of singers imaginable, those at the callback are sent on their way, to once again wait for the upcoming news. For some, this preview would turn out to be the closest they got to singing with the group, while for others, it was just a beginning.

What goes on behind the scenes from that point on is highly individual to the groups. While some groups spend hours deliberating who will be asked to join, other groups end the callbacks having a fairly clear sense of how they will proceed. In all, the week-long audition process is trying but thrilling, exhausting but exhilarating.
Good luck to all of our groups in the upcoming year.