March 5, 2010

Out of the limelight, a cappella groups work in harmony

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The U of C’s a cappella groups have historically been overshadowed by their east coast counterparts, but after forming the A Cappella Council (AC), the singers and beat boxers are finally poised to take center stage.

Compared to a cappella groups at universities like Yale or Brown, the U of C a cappella scene is relatively young, and it’s still forming. Only about 100 students sing in the seven a cappella groups on campus, about one-fifth the number of students who are involved with University Theater, according to the UT website.

“At other universities, a cappella dominates campus social life,” said Jessie Reuteler, a fourth-year and musical director of Men in Drag. “We want to improve the face of a cappella on campus.”

The seven groups formed AC at the end of 2008. Previously, each of the seven a cappella groups on campus individually held auditions, scheduled concerts, and purchased equipment. A grant from the Uncommon Fund for the purchase of wireless microphones served as the catalyst for a cooperative effort.

“We needed to formalize a group to use the money,” Reuteler said. “Technically only one group could use the money, and since several individual people from several groups were awarded the grant, that was a problem.”

The solution was the brainchild of M.D./Ph.D. student Chris Rishel, a member of Voices in Your Head. He proposed forming a consortium that would control the use of the new microphones, as well as generally advancing the interests of the a cappella community as a whole. “I saw a lot of potential here,” Rishel said, “but also a lot of risk to such a young community.”

Rishel worried that rivalry between singing groups could be detrimental to the wider community. “There was a big rivalry between two groups at my undergrad [University of Illinois],” he said. “Part of the job of the council is to act before people get upset, not to respond to an existing problem.”

For some a cappella members, however, a little antagonism is a useful thing. “I would characterize [our] relationship as a friendly rivalry, where groups push each other to be the best that they can be,” said third-year Matt Chan, president of the Ransom Notes.

The Council consists of Make a Joyful Noise, Men in Drag, the Ransom Notes, Rhythm and Jews, Run for Cover, Unaccompanied Women, and Voices in Your Head.

Upcoming AC events include a spring concert featuring all seven groups that will also fundraise for Haiti relief. By increasing their presence on campus, AC members hope to demonstrate that a cappella can be both hip and fun, contrary to stereotypes.

“When people think of a cappella, they tend to think cheesy—Billy Joel’s ‘The Longest Time,’ or old-timey barbershop quartets,” Rishel said. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”