Within the first week of arriving on campus, students have been introduced to the concept of “arch sings” as a quintessentially “Princeton thing.” Many attend the longest song-fest they have ever experienced at Tiger’s Roar. Some may have even seen one a cappella group shoved around by Tina Fey in “Admission.” Unfortunately, aside from those select students who landed a room in Blair, many of us lose track of the goings-on of a cappella groups after the frenzied performances of Frosh Week. From gospel to beatboxing to good ol’ power ballads, Princeton a cappella does it all. But when? Where? How?
It begins with one of the most dreaded words of all — auditions. Member recruitment happens in the beginning of the fall, with most groups holding spring auditions as well. Each audition, individually scheduled, usually lasts from 10 to 15 minutes; the audition material varies from group to group, but most feature vocal warm-ups with the group members and a solo piece of the auditionee’s choice. “Different groups handle the discussion and decision elements differently, but all groups discuss and vote,” Abby Kelly ’15, President of the Katzenjammers, Princeton’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, said. “Across the board, we try to keep auditions as equitable as possible,” she said. “We try to provide a slot for everyone, and there’s no pre-screening process at all.”
For groups of a more specific genre, audition solos can involve much more than the ballad of your choice. Off the Record, Princeton’s only R&B and hip-hop a cappella group, invites both rappers and beatboxers to come with material of their own creation. Umqombothi, the only African a cappella presence on campus, didn’t start holding auditions to select members until last fall. However, Umqombothi has quickly developed a tradition of “breakdown” at the end of each audition. “We have our drummer play something and everyone kind of joins in,” President Tola Emiola ’14 said.
Most of the groups’ interactions take place at their rehearsals, which are generally several times a week for two-hour sessions. “We rehearse in our room; all the groups have one,” Tigertones President Matt McCalpin ’14 said. “The newer groups are usually in Bloomberg and the older groups in the [junior] slums.”
The actual content of rehearsals include refreshing new members on old songs as well as instructing the group in new songs. The process of building and editing a repertoire varies from group to group, depending on the style and age of each group. For Shere Khan, one of Princeton’s co-ed a cappella groups, approximately three or four new songs, all arranged by members, are added per year. “We do a lot of top 40 from the 80s and 90s, but also contemporary, more alternative stuff,” President Scott Wise ’15 said. “We get rid of songs that people wouldn’t recognize or just don’t want to hear anymore, but some, like ‘Always Be My Baby’ by Mariah Carey, have really held the test of time.”
While rehearsals are primarily dedicated to music, singing is hardly the only activity that takes place. Alexandra Cerf ’15, music director of the Tigressions, an all-female a cappella group, discussed her group’s dynamic. “If you happened to walk into a Tigressions rehearsal unannounced, you might find us singing a song while dancing ridiculously to try to get our energy up,” she said. On occasion, the groups even take over dance studios to work on choreography.
All that work aside, the members of a cappella groups dedicate time not just to their tasks as a group, but also to forming relationships. “Shere Khan is first and foremost an a cappella group, but pretty close behind is the sense of being a family,” Wise said. “There’s a big social component to our rehearsals … during the breaks, we catch up on each other’s lives.”
The arch sings presented during Frosh Week aren’t necessarily the most accurate portrayal of a cappella performance throughout the school year. Arch sings, or “arches,” are divided into two sections, one of which is run by Acaprez, an umbrella organization that includes three all-female groups (Tigerlilies, Wildcats, Tigressions), three all-male groups (Footnotes, Nassoons, Tigertones) and two co-ed groups (Roaring 20, Katzenjammers).
“It mostly functions for organizing arches; the Acaprez arches happen about every two weeks, with groups performing in 15-minute slots,” Katzenjammers President Kelly said. “Another role it plays is in the audition process. Groups check in with each other about scheduling and so on.” Groups outside of Acaprez organize their individual arches, which are not as frequent but give each group more performance time. Shere Khan, for example, has a 20 to 30-minute arch once a month.
A cappella performances, however, are hardly limited to Blair and 1879 Arches. All the groups perform at various gigs and events both on and off-campus. Since all the groups are all self-funded, such gigs are an importance source of revenue. Some groups also hold ticketed concerts, including Umqombothi, which had its first ticketed show last spring. “It was more like a musical than anything. We auditioned actors, one of them wrote out the script, and we kind of acted like a chorus,” Emiola said.
Tours, both within the country and international, are also common. Several groups have two tours a year to destinations such as Brazil, Bermuda, France and the UK — to name a few. “Tours are one of my favorite parts of being a ‘Tone, because it’s just incredible how much you get to travel without having to pay a dime out of your pocket,” McCalpin said.
Given the lengthy history of many of the groups, there are inevitably numerous traditions, both public and painfully secret, that are passed down from year to year. The Nassoons, for one, hold the cryptic letters “SFC” near and dear to their hearts. The Tigertones, meanwhile, have developed something of their own lingo. “We have this word that we use among ourselves, ‘harn,’ which is kind of a catch-all. It can be used for ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ but also in a negative context,” McCalpin said. “Another big thing we do is that we always snap, not clap, which can also come in verbal form by just saying ‘snaps.’”
Some groups have established shared traditions overtime. The Tigressions and the Footnotes participate in an endless contest of kleptomania — something akin to the Princeton-Rutgers cannon theft. “Every year towards the end of spring we try to steal a boat paddle from the Footnotes’ room. My freshman year, we managed to take a deer head, too,” Tigressions President Savanna Strong ’15 said.
The inherited pranks are reciprocal. “When I was a newbie, the Footnotes newbies tried to steal our fridge and got caught,” Cerf said. “So their returning members had them write us a note telling us how much they loved us. It’s still on our wall.”
There are new Princeton a cappella groups that are still evolving on a day-to-day basis. Off the Record, which was founded in the fall of 2011, is one such group, and OTR President Caleb Negash ’15 cites the group’s youth as a source of its struggles. “[There is] a lack of resources: Fundraising, along with establishing a repertoire and alumni base, have often been issues for us,” Negash said.
That is not to say, however, that there are no benefits to being new on the block. For Umqombothi, the novelty is liberating. “We’re really flexible and things just come along as we go — what a cappella group does a musical? — we’re free to explore other forms of performance,” Emiola said.
Umqombothi’s music director, Remi Yamazaki ’14, agrees. “Our possibilities are so much more open because of the diversity on this campus. As an African music group, we can never be completely African, but at the same time, nothing is set in stone, and we’re really hoping for some exciting future collaborations with the other groups,” she said.
In the beginning, the only thread stringing members of an a cappella group together may be their shared musical passion and talent. But as time goes by, dynamics change. “We are all from different backgrounds, spanning five different eating clubs, lots of different majors,” McCalpin said. “I met arguably my best friend in the school through the Tigertones, but realistically, I probably wouldn’t have been close to him if not for the group. That’s something we all appreciate a lot — we get to meet people we wouldn’t otherwise, and we all share this common bond of singing.”
The amount of time Princeton’s a cappella groups spend in close proximity with each other can foster something that is, as cliche as it sounds, beyond friendship and, as Shere Khan President Wise said, closer to family. “You might dislike people at certain times in your family, but you always have love for them, and that is extremely true for us,” Wise said.
So, next time you wander by an arch and hear singing voices, take a moment to appreciate the talented, musical members of our big Princeton family.