Podculture: For some campus a cappella groups, competition takes a backseat to craft

Wilson Chapman and Nafi Soumare

WILSON CHAPMAN: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Wilson Chapman. Welcome to Podculture, a series exploring the arts on and around Northwestern’s campus. Today, we’ll be looking at the a capella community on campus, and why some groups choose to take part in competitions, while others prefer to just chill and make music together. We talked with members of Purple Haze, Brown Sugar and Freshman Fifteen about the rewards and challenges of competitions.

JACOB LEAF: A capella is a challenging thing to do well, and we at Freshman Fifteen believe that the experience of our members does not hinge upon the level of music that we sing.

WILSON CHAPMAN: This is Communication junior Jacob Leaf, the president of Freshman Fifteen, an all-male a capella group on campus. F15 does not participate in competitions.

JACOB LEAF: The stuff we ourselves enjoy — singing and the type of music we like to do and the way we like to perform — it does not mix with the grading that would occur at a competition. And that’s not a thing we enjoy doing as a group and therefore it doesn’t make sense for us to compete. We’re there mainly as a group of friends who really enjoy singing. We perform as we please and whatever way we please. Really, it’s the learning experience of being on the executive team and being in a group like that. That I think is invaluable.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Although Leaf doesn’t think competing makes sense for Freshman Fifteen, he does say he understands why it is a rewarding experience for groups who are interested in doing so.

JACOB LEAF: We were talking with The Undertones the other night. They were meeting in Bienen, and we were rehearsing at the same time. And they’re just like getting ready for their dance portion, which is tough because there’s this choreo they have to learn and the music and they were picking their theme last night, and it’s tough. It’s really tough as a group to do that stuff. And I think it’s really great. It’s awesome that they actually get real national recognition. And they brought in some group from somewhere that competes and I think was featured in “Pitch Perfect.” But like, they create relationships like that with other a capella groups, which is so exciting.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Leaf says that ultimately, whether or not a group chooses to compete has a huge impact on their rehearsal process.

JACOB LEAF: The really big differences that end up happening are how rehearsals get run, expectations for those sort of things, who ends up in the group. We’re taking on people who really love to sing in choir and really enjoyed it, but have no real desire to do that again with the same rigor that they did it. We’re hanging out as friends when we’re singing. It is the most fun part of my week. We always say “I’m so excited to have this group of people at my wedding singing.” And, you know, it may not be the best singing in the world, but it means a hell of a lot more than that, because we are actually very close to each other. And we can do that because we have the luxury of not having super high expectations for ourselves. You know, we’re lucky we get some really fantastic musicians. And every once in a while we have a really great rehearsal and put out a fantastic concert. That’s always a lot of fun. But, you know, the onus is on our music directors to make music, to make arrangements that not only sound really good, but are relatively easy. And those two things combined with a third thing of, you know, the sound that we’ve cultivated is unique to our own, and we’re not abiding by any rules or any competition standards, makes for a whole lot of fun.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Some groups find competitions rewarding for their members because of the challenges of the environment. Weinberg senior Daniel Goldstein is a member of Purple Haze, which recently made it to the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella quarterfinals.

DANIEL GOLDSTEIN: I’m a senior right now and I’ve been in the group since I was a freshman. I’ve never been on exec or held a position, but I think I’ve been pretty involved throughout my time, and it’s definitely been a huge part of my college experience, socially and otherwise. Our group is filled with so many ridiculously talented singers. I think, 80 plus percent of our group every year are people who are pursuing opera or musical theater for their careers. These people are ridiculously talented. So, when we’re just rehearsing and doing little gigs, we’re having fun, but when we compete, we get to see these crazy talented musicians actually try their hardest. And like, work hard to put together a product that they’re proud of. It’s really fun for me. It’s also fun to be a part of that competitive environment.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Other a capella groups on campus don’t always compete, but focus more of their energy on other artistic endeavors. Communication sophomore Simran Deokule is president of Brown Sugar, a South Asian-interest acapella group that is currently working to release an album.

SIMRAN DEOKULE: It’s our fifth studio album. It’s about eight to ten songs all arranged by Brown Sugar members. Most of them are a mix between an American pop song and a Bollywood or Indian song. It’s hopefully coming out soon. We’re having a little bit of a rights struggle right now. So that’s why it’s not out, but it’s all done. And it covers about six to seven generations of Brown Sugar, I want to say. So, it’s been in the works for a long time and we’re really excited to release it.

We used to compete but we stepped back to focus on the album. I’m sure we will in the future. We are quite a niche group. So, we have a lot of music that is not commonly featured, particularly because we are South Asian and then American fusion. A lot of our music is pretty unique. And so it’d be cool to showcase that in places. I feel like competing for Brown Sugar would be more for the experience, kind of to try out new things, not necessarily competing to win or to be competitive, to kind of like, put our talents out there as a group, and help our group grow. Both in recognition and experience and practice and talent.

WILSON CHAPMAN: That’s it for this episode of Podculture. Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time.

WILSON CHAPMAN: This episode was reported and produced by me, Wilson Chapman, and Nafi Soumare. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

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