Four years ago, David Hanna (COL ’14) decided he wanted to sing in a collegiate a cappella group.
A relative latecomer to a cappella — he hadn’t participated in any singing group until joining an all-male outfit during his senior year of high school — Hanna nevertheless knew upon selecting a college that he wanted to continue his newfound hobby. One might imagine that, given his all-male-group background, he would be drawn instantly to the famed Georgetown Chimes.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Gaston Hall: Hanna didn’t even audition for the Chimes.
The blue-and-gray striped ties of the university’s oldest a cappella group do create a certain appeal to many young singers. For Hoya alumni of the past half-century, the Chimes’ barbershop arrangements go hand in hand with the toll of Healy bells and the clink of Tombs mugs — the soundtrack to the Hilltop.
The group, founded in 1946 by Frank Jones (LAW ’48), separated from the university in 1950 while still maintaining its presence as an establishment of the Hilltop. And becoming part of the tradition is more exclusive than getting into Harvard. Not only do potential members have to audition, they also have to reach out to alumni and learn over 120 songs.
“You make your best friends in this group because it is so attuned to harmony in its essence,” Chime #226 Michael Luckey (COL ’13) said to The Hoya in January 2013. “The more you sing, the more you build trust, the more you build harmony, and that builds true friendship. As Chimes, we are always there for our brother Chimes.”
But with the demand for a cappella growing by the minute, several groups — many with a more casual, modern feel — are staking claim to talents like Hanna.
“I feel like the Chimes are kind of pushed to the wayside a little bit because of the type of music that we sing. I think we’re looking for ways to make barbershop cool again,” Chime #234 Tyler Holl (COL ’13) said to The Hoya in January 2013.
A cappella performance has become a bit of a national obsession in recent years. Fox’s “Glee” garnered massive ratings in its first few seasons; NBC’s “The Sing-Off” has brought the fad to reality TV; even dramas like Netflix’s “House of Cards” have worked a cappella into their scripts.
And, as The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson noted in a 2010 piece set primarily at Georgetown, college campuses have been no exception to the craze. The ancestral homes of this art have elevated the singing groups to celebrity status, and the proliferation of a cappella factions over the last few decades has brought a new level of competition to the audition process. Old-school groups like the Chimes and Yale’s storied Whiffenpoofs still serenade many campuses, but at Georgetown, less traditional outfits have formed a niche for themselves of late.
And that niche attracts some of the Hilltop’s best voices.
Superfood, founded in 1995, appealed to Hanna primarily for its modern repertoire.
“I loved being in a guys group, and it was something I was looking into,” he said. “But I wanted to sing more contemporary music, so I decided to go in a different direction and go coed.”
A trip to one of the Superfood’s Gaston Hall performances — or, for the less social crowd, a trip to the group’s YouTube channel — serves as compelling evidence to Hanna’s initial impression. At last year’s Spring Sing, they performed Rihanna’s “Stay” with two male leads and their arsenal contains Lauryn Hill, Avril Lavigne and everything in between.
“We like to think of ourselves as a progressive a cappella group,” Hanna said
Hanna appreciates Superfood’s casual atmosphere, repeatedly referring to it as a “family” and speaking fondly of his relationships with fellow singers.
“We aren’t just a singing group,” Hanna said. “We’ve made a lot of music over the last few years, but we don’t just define ourselves as singers. We each do so many things around campus, but we’re really just a collection of friends”
Despite its friendly atmosphere and fun repertoire, Superfood frequently finds itself playing second banana in the recruitment process to the Georgetown Phantoms, a 25-year-old coed group that has taken the lion’s share of talent in recent years.
“The Phantoms get the best talent,” Hanna said. “[Superfood] is right behind them, for kids that want to sing coed.” This past fall, Superfood accepted five new members, three of which chose the Phantoms and one of which chose the Saxatones. They then had to pull a pool of alternates to round out the group of new members.
Like Superfood, the Phantoms embody a versatile approach to a cappella shows. They’ve definitely got the classics down, sure — their Motown medley from last year’s D.C. A Cappella Festival lasted more than eight minutes — but they’ve pushed the envelope as much or more than any Georgetown group. The aforementioned DCAF performance featured a creative rendition of Radiohead’s alt-rock anthem “Creep” that nearly brought down the roof of Gaston. The internal structure of the Phantoms is also rather unconventional. Everything from which songs they’re going to arrange for DCAF, to who gets which solo, to who will lead the group for the following semester is decided by a unanimous vote after a group discussion. This mutual understanding and dedication to the group as a whole allows the members to connect and trust each other on a deeper level.
Hanna credits a combination of talent, practice and creativity for Superfood’s improvement — a trend he’s seen in his own group over the last two years.
“It’s been a positive feedback loop. You sound better, you take your music more seriously and you get better talent,” he said.
Of course, some singers still favor a single-sex group environment. That’s the case for Maggie Wardell (SFS ’14), whose older sister Becky Wardell (COL ’11) recruited her to Georgetown’s oldest all-female group, the GraceNotes (the other being the international-themed GU Harmony).
After three-plus years in the group, the younger Wardell is convinced she made the right call — and not just to continue the family legacy.
“GraceNotes has been the best thing I’ve participated in during my four years,” Wardell said. “I think that as an all-female group, we are extremely close. … We challenge ourselves to choose songs that aren’t typical of all-female groups, and I think that sets us apart.”
Joseph Laposata (COL ’16) chose the all-male Capitol G’s for their “fun” factor.
“I’ve been singing since I was 12, so I knew I wanted to sing in some capacity,” he said. “The [Capitol G’s’] vibe is very fun, very personal and that’s what I was looking for.”
The Capitol G’s are the polar opposite of the Chimes in many ways. Founded in 2008, they stake claim to the title of youngest group on campus. They dance on stage with regularity. A “throwback” for them refers to a song from the 1980s, not the 1880s. Where the Chimes are buttoned up, the Capitol G’s take pride in remaining a bit rough around the edges.
“My favorite song is our drinking medley. It’s ‘Cowboy Boots’ by Macklemore, ‘Cheers’ by Rihanna, ‘Buy You a Drank’ by T-Pain and ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic. The choreography is exactly what you’d imagine,” Laposata said.
While the group’s relative youth can be an obstacle — the Chimes, for example, have alumni funding that younger groups couldn’t dream of — Laposata believes the Capitol G’s’ lack of both mandated institutional knowledge and fraternity culture can actually be a draw.
“It’s fun because we don’t have to adhere to any esoteric traditions,” he said. “If you’re not necessarily into the fraternity thing, you would not be interested in joining the Chimes.”
With so many groups — some with undeniably overlapping styles — it would be reasonable to expect a certain degree of rivalry among them, especially as they recruit top talent from the freshman halls every year. Almost everyone who has seen “Pitch Perfect” knows that the college a cappella scene is basically Sharks vs. Jets minus (most of) the hair grease.
Except, it’s not.
Sure, there are natural rivalries between similar groups. But they’re friendly, and for the most part, tensions dissipate when the new talents have committed themselves.
“There’s informal, casual, joking rivalries — the most rivalry we have is with the Chimes, just because they’re another all-male group” Laposata said. “We may disagree with each other’s musical styles, but there’s no serious rivalry.”
According to Hanna, the closest the groups get to serious rivalry is during the recruiting season. With seven a cappella clubs at a midsize school not particularly known for its arts programs, a strong talent is likely to be courted by several groups.
“For the size of our campus, there are far too many a cappella groups,” Hanna said. “There aren’t enough great singers to go around. So for the first couple weeks of each semester, you’re trying to sell your group and it gets competitive.”
Wardell sees the flagship a cappella shows — DCAF, Cherry Tree Massacre and Spring Sing — as opportunities for groups to bond. But the GraceNotes are becoming more proactive than that, organizing smaller events specifically designed to get to know other groups.
“In terms of the a cappella community here, I think we’re becoming closer,” Wardell said. “In recent years, we’ve been making more of an effort to foster intergroup bonding events and whatnot.”
Where does the a cappella explosion leave the blazer-clad frat boys of the Chimes?
It’s complicated. They’re still old-school, but as they round out their seventh decade, they’ve interspersed decidedly modern hits with the folk songs and jazz standards customary of a classic Chimes performance. Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” pops up alongside “Ave Maria” and “Runaround Sue” on the group’s most recent album; last year’s Cherry Tree performance featured an impressive rendition of Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait.”
College a cappella wouldn’t really be itself, of course, without the barbershop pop the Chimes bring. But the rise of other, less traditional groups has allowed a historically stuffy stage to take on an edgier feel — without a major drop in performance quality.
“Dubstep beatboxing in Gaston Hall? That hadn’t really happened before last fall,” Hanna said.
“I’ll remember years from now that in my college experience, I was miming things I won’t want shown at my wedding on the stage at Gaston Hall,” Laposata said