As legend has it, the Vassar Night Owls—a campus all-female jazz a capella group—was founded in the wake of the 1942 polio epidemic, when the entire campus was quarantined. A few adventurous students, however, snuck out of their quarters in the night and sang to students inflicted with polio. Today, the Night Owls continue their tradition of secrecy and adventure. Before spring break, the Owls hosted a concert in one of the THs, held in secrecy. Most recently, the singers traveled by car—driving for hours on end—to tour over break.
The Vassar Night Owls, who are one of the oldest all-female a capella groups in the country, brought their music outside of Vassar’s campus on their spring tour.
Charlotte Candau ’14 and Brielle Brooks ’16 organized the Night Owl’s most recent tour. The Night Owls visited many locations around the area known as the “DMV”—or D.C., Maryland and Virginia—to perform their songs. The tour was based in Annapolis, MD, and they traveled to nearby locations, such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C.. In Maryland, the Night Owls performed at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital, Brighton Gardens Assisted Living Home, 49 West Coffeehouse and the United States Naval Academy. In D.C., the Owls performed at the Vassar Club as well as at American University and Georgetown.
The tour was a big project and took a lot of time and energy to plan and execute. Candau shared her view of the trip as one of the organizers, saying, “My experience was great. It was stressful at times, since I was one of the two tour organizers. Ultimately, it made me feel so much closer to the girls in the group, and made me appreciate being a part of a tradition as long-standing as the Night Owls.”
Aside from the tour organizers, the pitch of the group, Hannah Ellman ’14, played an integral role in bringing the tour together. The pitch of an a capella group conducts the members during songs and provides the singers with their starting note. Ellman held this position throughout the tour. Ellman said, “This tour was fantastic. While I have been going on Night Owls tours since my sophomore year, I have never been the pitch of the group while on tour. So, this was a new experience for me—conducting and leading for a week—but we have a really relaxed group dynamic and were able to rely on each other in a number of ways to make this a successful, exciting, and rewarding week.”
One Owl, Anna Been ’14, particularly enjoyed connecting with past Night Owls while traveling on their tour. Been said, “My favorite part of tour was singing at the alumni club and inviting Night Owl alums up to sing one of our songs with us. Three Owl alums were in attendance, with the oldest being from the class of ’62, and she remembered all the words.”
Hannah Reynolds ’16 found singing for new audiences to be particularly refreshing—and a great way to diversify their fan-base—while spending time with her group of fellow Vassar students. “It was amazing to perform for people who had never seen us before, especially because so often when we perform at Vassar it’s the same people who come to all our concerts,” said Reynolds. “Because the group and our repertoire have been around since the 1940s, a lot of our songs are older, and so the nursing home especially was a treat because they really loved a lot of the classic jazz music that we sing.”
Aside from gaining a larger fandom, the tour also allowed the Night Owls to preform with a capella groups from other schools. “We performed on the Waterfront in Georgetown with their all-male group, the Georgetown Chimes,” said Reynolds. “It was so beautiful and warm—ish and a huge crowd gathered.”
The Owls’ vintage repertoire allowed the Owls to hold appeal to both older and younger audiences alike. “Singing with other a cappella groups was a lot of fun, and visiting the pediatric hospital and retirement home were wonderful because they really appreciated the entertainment,” said Brianna Lear ’17. “Touring over break allowed us to put all of our energy into our music, which allowed us to grow as a group more than ever. And we had a pretty awesome sing-off with Georgetown’s oldest all-male a cappella group, the Georgetown Chimes.”
Lear is one of the new members of the Night Owls, so this tour served as an important part of her integration into the group. She shared her experience as a new Night Owl. She said, “I love being a ‘baby Owl.’ The Owls are so loving and all have a great sense of humor, so joining the group and getting along with everyone was a breeze. They already feel like family.”
Hilde Wulf ’17, another new member of the Night Owls, had a similar experience on the tour. She wrote in an emailed statement, “To be honest, given the group of women I knew I’d be traveling with, I didn’t worry for a second. Everyone is so clearly talented and valued that even as a first year I only ever feel loved.”
Now back at Vassar, the Night Owls are tighter than ever. The tour also revived the group’s excitement about future performances. Lear said, “Performing for new audiences definitely reinvigorated my excitement to perform back at Vassar and to share the passion we had on tour with the people we know and love.”