On the evening of Sept. 12, Main Building’s Villard Room slowly filled with the humming excitement and contagious nervousness of first-years on the verge of tackling a new college experience. On this particular night, this experience took the form of the annual a capella preview concert, where students could watch and sign up to audition for any or all of Vassar’s nine a capella groups and/or UJIMA: A Groove Society. Students discussed the prospect of becoming one of the select few chosen to spend the next four years harmonizing, performing and (in some cases) competing with a group.
For many, this experience has been a longtime dream. Dana McCray ’22 belongs to this category: “I’m a singer, and I’ve wanted to do a capella for a long time,” he said before the event began. “I’ve seen the Night Owls, and the Devils performed at our Accepted Students Day and they’re incredible, and I know that there’s a whistling group, which sounds dope,” he continued. Unsure as to which groups he would end up auditioning, McCray kept an open mind. “We’ll see what happens,” he concluded, “I have to hear them first.”
His friend Taylor Worthington, also a member of the Class of 2022, attended the event with a different mindset: “I was walking out of the building with a package and I saw a friend who was walking in, so I turned around and came in here with him,” he elaborated. “I’m just here to listen to some good voices.”
At the preview concert, groups aim to not only showcase their collective talents, but also to convince students like McCray that their group is one worth auditioning for. Vassar Devils member and preview concert organizer Lily Carmichael ’20 explained in an email statement, “[The event] is put on mainly for the first-year students, especially for those looking to join one of the a capella groups.”
According to Carmichael, this recruitment process can prove highly effective. She wrote of her own experience, “I attended the preview concert when I was a first-year. I remember thinking I wasn’t going to join an a capella group, since I believed the stereotype that a capella music is ‘boring’ or ‘not challenging.’ After seeing all the groups perform, my view completely changed; the arrangements sung were more intricate and emotional than anything I’d sung ever before.”
Hoping to produce the same effect that changed the course of her college experience two years ago, Carmichael took on the planning for this year’s preview concert. She explained the process behind organizing the event: “Members of the exec board of each a capella group came together to discuss the date, time, location, concert order, etc.” Carmichael believes that the effort of putting on the preview is warranted: “This event is important for…all the…groups because it offers a taste of what each group is all about.”
The groups took on this opportunity with zeal, each performing an approximately 10 minute-long sample set. Vassar’s only all–male identifying a capella group, The Axies, served as emcees, opening with a skit which led into their stunning set, one highlight of which was a powerful rendition of The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The group returned about two hours later to close out the concert with Paul McCartney’s “I Will.”
Following The Axies, Measure 4 Measure, one of Vassar’s female-identifying and/or non-binary a capella groups, took the stage. The group opened with “The Story” by Brandi Carlile, featuring the melodic voice of Sophie Novak ’21 as soloist. Measure 4 Measure was followed by The Night Owls, a women-identifying jazz group. One definitive highlight of their set was “Bring on the Men” from the musical “Jekyll & Hyde,” in which a rotation of members soloed the song’s cleverly misandrist verses, interlaced with “oo”s and supportive choreography from the rest of the group.
The famous Aircapella followed. Vassar’s whistling-only a capella group breathed their way through “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” After, Worthington proclaimed, “I think I have to do that. That was so cool!”
Next was Home Brewed, who immediately broke the whistle-induced lull by racing on stage through side doors, whooping and screaming. Introduced by Axies members as “some of the coolest people on campus,” Home Brewed was determined to showcase themselves as a purely fun a capella group. According to member Georgia Hahn ’21, “Our literal only goal was HIGH ENERGY. We chanted it before we came out.”
The Vastards followed, carrying out an equally high-energy and fun-filled set. When the group finished, UJIMA: A Groove Society came onstage. This was the first time UJIMA had been included in the preview concert, as they are not solely an a capella group. A POC artists’ coalition, the group focuses on “music of the African Diaspora, specifically soul, gospel, jazz, funk, spirituals and rhythm and blues,” according to their Facebook page. Only the singers attended the preview, and many of them were already familiar faces to the audience as UJIMA members are allowed to be in a regular a capella group as well. Their voices filled the room with haunting gospel melodies.
Beauty and the Beats, the Disney-themed group, followed, finishing with a rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” which recalled for many childhood memories of belting Hannah Montana into hairbrushes—although Beauty and the Beats’ version was a touch more sophisticated. Finally, BAM, a group whose name is an acronym for “Broadway and More,” showcased an entertaining, dramatic performance of “Take Me or Leave Me” from “Rent.”
The crowd members who stuck it out until the end found themselves swept into a mad dash to reach the audition sign-up sheets posted outside the Villard Room. The following weekend was full of nervous practicing for first-years, and stoic scale-leading and decision-making for veteran a capella members as auditions took place. Of the approximately 50 students who tried out for each of the nine groups, about 20 per group were called back for a second round of auditions on Sunday. Of that 20, an average of three or four singers were “sung in” to a group—a capella speak for woken up in the middle of the night by a group of singing semi-strangers, inviting the new member to join them for the next four years.
Novak reflected on the importance of the preview concert in the process of reaching the end goal of recruiting first-years: “The idea that people were potentially basing their decisions about auditions on the performance…was honestly really terrifying…But it was cool to see so many people and not know who could end up being a part of the group.” Soon enough, new members will soon learn the tricks of the trade, continuing the cycle of impressing new students and inviting them to join in.