If you haven’t heard at least one group singing in the Pit to promote their upcoming concerts this month, you're either enrolled in Kenan-Flagler Business School or you don’t go to UNC.
The a cappella tradition at UNC goes back to 1977, when Barry Saunders founded the UNC Clef Hangers. Since then, the a cappella scene has exploded across campus.
If you have ever seen these groups perform, they seem to have it all together. But looking past the black dresses and bowties, you might realize that some of these singers were just recently auditioning before their respective groups with butterflies in their stomachs, hoping to stand out.
“Auditioning was definitely one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done here so far,” said Haley Prakke of the Loreleis.
Gayathri Raghavendra, a member of the Tarpeggios, compared the process to that of sorority and fraternity recruitment.
“It kind of felt like speed-rushing in a way,” Raghavendra said. “You are exposed to like 10 different groups at once, and you’re trying to choose what you want in a group or who you think you’ll gel with, and they’re trying to do the same with you.”
Emma James of the Loreleis said the audition process involves singing half of a song, testing vocal range, seeing how one’s voice blends with those of other members and some vocal exercises, such as sight reading.
Most students who audition are first-years who are just starting to find their way around campus. Membership in an a cappella group can provide these new Tar Heels with a much-needed sense of community and belonging.
Jordon Reynolds, a new member of the Clef Hangers, described a sort of welcoming ritual the group performed for new members.
“We have a little destination under the Kenan Laboratories where they go and sing,” he said. “So, we go there, and they sing a song to us, and it really brings you into the family, you know, and it really makes you feel like as though you’ve taken part in something special.”
Many a cappella members have backgrounds in chorus. Although the Italian term “a cappella” references singing in church, the musical style has since drifted towards a more modern and pop influence.
When asked about the difference between choir and a cappella, Noah Tobias of the Tarpeggios noted how formal choir was in comparison.
“A cappella is just like, you’re having fun, grooving with your buds,” he said.
On the other hand, James feels that college a cappella is more structured than her high school all-female a cappella group.
“It is definitely much more structured, and it is more business-like,” she said. “We make money through gigs and stuff and are sponsored by the (General Alumni Association), whereas in high school we just performed at chorus concerts and stuff.”
No matter what musical background one comes from, there is always a learning curve for joining a new group. New members cited very positive differences from their past musical experiences.
“Choral music is, like, all emphasis on tall vowels and sounding beautiful and sounding like a church and that kind of thing," said Raghavendra, whose background is in classical Indian and choral music. "But a cappella is more like you try to show off your individual voice but also blending in with everyone else when you’re not trying to be a soloist.”
She also emphasized the importance of collaboration.
“Instead of, like, sitting down and learning the music, we’re sitting down as a collaborative effort where I try to help someone else and someone else tries to help me in a way that’s not selfish,” she said.
First-year Bram Raets, who recently accomplished his long-time goal of joining the Clef Hangers, said he enjoys the way new members are immediately welcomed as a part of the creative process and have the opportunity to run for positions as soon as they join. He was even able to beat box and do vocal percussion for the group’s latest single, “Castle on the Hill.”
Raets also highlighted the passion and dedication of his fellow singers.
“It’s so much more satisfying and gratifying because any amount of effort you put into the group just gets returned ten-fold,” he said.
The Clef Hangers, the Loreleis and the Tarpeggios are all preparing for concerts in the next two weeks, which will provide new members the opportunity to officially debut within their respective groups. The performances are sure to start these new vocalists on a high note.
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