Resolving Dissonance: Drama in the A Cappella Community
Written by Bwog Staff
Mark Hay relates the story of the controversy surrounding the formation of new A Cappella group Sharp this past fall. Read this and more in the upcoming April issue of The Blue & White.
When Columbia got a new a cappella group this past fall, most people didn’t think twice. A cappella groups, though perhaps not central to life for many people, are a defining feature of collegiate institutions—especially in the Ivy League. So the addition of another band of wandering male minstrels popping up in floor lounges to serenade students with soothing Top 40 hits was just part-in-parcel with everyday life.
But within the a cappella community, the birth of “Sharp,” as the group calls itself, was a dark bit of history, resulting in a disquiet that emphasized the seriousness and professional competitiveness undergirding collegiate singers. Upon founding, this new group poached the big talent in a capella across campus, threatening the established choir hierarchy. Through the silent background efforts of the other a cappella groups to resist Sharp, however, a new tone of cooperation, communication, and respect has developed in this idiosyncratic community that may change it forever.
Sharp was born into a Columbia atmosphere teeming with a cappella offerings. At the end of last year, at least thirteen a cappella groups were active on campus, including one all-male group, three female groups, two Jewish-oriented groups, and two Christian-oriented groups. Offerings included gospel, R&B, rock, pop, comedic music, barbershop quartet tunes, traditional school songs, jazz, Jewish liturgical music, and countless mashups.
While it might seem difficult for a new group to find its niche, especially one with a not-unique preference for pop and rock, the atmosphere seems welcoming of a plurality of groups. But the controversial formation of Sharp disturbed the fine balance of the musical ecosystem.
Members of Sharp’s all male ensemble were plucked from pre-existing groups, leaving their former song-fellows mid-season to start this new venture. Notes and Keys, the oldest of the co-ed groups, took a particularly hard hit as three of its star members broke off, announcing their new commitment to Sharp and leaving Notes and Keys in the lurch.
A cappella, members of the community stress, is a delicately balanced performance. When a group loses any member, even if he is not a soloist, this upsets the composition and quality of pieces fine-tuned to reflect and best exploit the specific strengths of the group members. And Sharp, created as a super-group, skimmed off many of the stronger members of Columbia’s a cappella groups, creating a massive challenge to their vitality. Even among groups which maintained integrity, there was worry about the genesis of a new a capella powerhouse.
“Some were concerned with the effects that another all-male group on campus could have on existing groups,” says Connor Spahn, CC ’12, and president of the jazz-oriented Uptown Vocal. “And those are valid concerns since great male singers can sometimes be hard to come by.” Audition seasons, already a free-for-all in which groups compete to attract the year’s best talents, could become even more contested.
The separation was even more painful considering the bonds of friendship between members of a cappella groups. As Spahn stresses, those who sing together, stick together. These groups travel together up and down the eastern seaboard to record and perform constantly. On Uptown Vocal’s last tour, the group participated in communal busking, hiking, and even spelunking, all for the sake of fun and bonding. This is a family more than a group, they say. Losing members is debilitating; to have a member leave without warning? A betrayal.
In response to concerns among a capella leadership over the emergence of a bitter and corrosively competitive atmosphere, Leah Sikora, BC ’12, president of Notes and Keys, called together representatives of most of the campus’s a cappella groups in what numerous sources have referred to as the High A Cappella Council. The High Council was a novel solution, and one welcomed by many of the other groups as, Sikora admits, “Historically, we have not interacted with each other all too often.”
By the end of the High Council, most representatives of the a cappella community left feeling content. After engaging in dialogue, they now express universal support for Sharp, even collectively applauding Sharp for filling a niche on campus—the only other all-male a cappella group on campus, the Kingsmen, focuses on a more comedic or traditional feel than Sharp’s pop tone. And, as Josh Warshawsky, GS/JTS ’13 and co-music director of mixed-pop group Clefhangers, notes, the founding of Sharp puts Columbia on par with most of the other Ivy League schools, which have at least two all-male a cappella groups themselves. That last statistic may threaten to open a whole new can of gendered worms in and of itself, but it does speak to a peace and acceptance from the High Council.
Everyone believed by the end of the semester that they had achieved a golden level of communication between groups. Standards were set, the past was behind them, and in the future they would be better equipped to handle the genesis of new groups and any competition that came with them.
But the peace didn’t smooth out all resentment toward the new group. “Around the time of auditions at the beginning of this semester, somebody ripped down Sharp’s audition posters,” says Sikora. The posters were high quality broadsides with color printing, making it a very expensive form of sabotage. This silent, bitter targeting was exactly the sort of thing the High Council sought to end, so it proved a particularly disappointing setback. Even more upsetting is that this sort of petty targeting has been taboo in many groups for ages. Spahn sits down with the members of Uptown Vocal every audition season to talk about respecting the audition posters of other groups and hopes and believes that other groups do the same. Sikora believes the incident, while troubling, was limited to the actions of a few anonymous and highly aggrieved individuals and should be viewed as an isolated event.
But that kind of backstabbing will more than likely subside with time, and all groups believe they now have the tools to avoid any such future crises. The High Council was ubiquitously appreciated as an opportunity to air grievances and resolve inter-group conflict. And this semester, Sikora says, she has noticed more openness and cooperation between groups and less competitiveness in auditions.
With the Sharp incident behind them and new collaboration and peace being fostered among groups, a new balance moderates the musical geniuses of campus. And with that, a cappella at Columbia continue to offers a competitive group of talented individuals, butting up against each other and coming into conflict, the opportunity to subsume it all into an environment of support and friendship.