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Synchronized heartbeats: A cappella groups fight to stay connected on the virtual stage

<h6>Hazel Flaherty / The Daily Princetonian&nbsp;</h6>
Hazel Flaherty / The Daily Princetonian 

It has been almost a year since the arches of Princeton University swelled with the sounds of a cappella and audience members watched from the steps as groups showed off their repertoire. The arches are quiet at night now; a passerby may hear only the sound of their own voice. 

Since March 2020, a cappella, like so many other pillars of campus life and tradition, has migrated to the virtual realm. A cappella has become one of the most dangerous activities students could engage in — studies have shown that singing in groups is much more likely to spread COVID-19 than speaking, therefore presenting major risks. 

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Despite the barriers presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Princeton’s 14 a cappella groups have banded together to continue to do what they do best: create music. 

At the start of the fall semester, the eight a cappella groups under the jurisdiction of “Acaprez” — a collection of eight Princeton a cappella groups governed by certain rules — decided not to hold auditions. According to Chaz Bethel-Brescia ’22, music director of the Princeton Footnotes, this decision was “pretty unanimous.”

“The main concern is competition among the groups and making sure that membership is steady throughout those eight groups,” he explained.

Sean Crites ’22, president of the Nassoons, expressed similar thoughts. 

“The concern was solidarity amongst the other a cappella groups … because it is a competitive process, it has to be collaborative as well,” he said. 

Sally Root ’22, president of Shere Khan, a group not under the jurisdiction of Acaprez, explained that her group also decided not to hold auditions, mostly because the majority of groups were also not holding auditions. 

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“We didn’t feel like we could muster up the energy,” she said. 

This semester, though, Shere Khan is strongly considering holding auditions. 

“It’s going to take a lot of planning so it will probably be much later in the semester,” Root explained. 

Koleinu and Kindred Spirit held auditions last semester and will be doing the same this semester. Acappellago, Princeton’s non-audition a cappella group, also took new members in the fall. 

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While VTone and Old NasSoul did not accept new members in the fall, both groups held auditions this spring.

Nancy Xu ’24, a new member of VTone, described the audition process. 

“There was a Google form that we had to submit … which [included] scales, vocal swells, a short a cappella excerpt, and a solo,” she wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. 

“I’ve never been involved in an [a cappella] group and was more of a singing-in-the-showers type,” she continued. “I think the virtual aspect might have actually been an encouragement for me because the audition process doesn’t seem as daunting.”

Moreen Rezkalla ’23, fellowship chair of Kindred Spirit, Princeton’s Christian a cappella group, explained their group’s decision in an email to the ‘Prince.’ 

“While KS is an a cappella group, we do have a space that is used for more than just singing, and we wanted to open up our group to people in any class year to be able to be a part of this smaller fellowship and interact with others who share the same interests and passions,” Rezkalla said. 

Just as the a cappella groups are taking advantage of the spring in different ways, so too did they find a variety of creative opportunities in the fall. While some chose not to create music, others brought their voices together in impressive ways. 

Over the summer and the fall semester, Footnotes created several a cappella videos. However, the group met only a couple of times over the semester. With virtual projects, Bethel-Brescia explained, there’s “less urgency around meeting.” 

“The biggest downside to virtual a cappella is that it takes away from the process of music-making and puts all the emphasis on the product,” Bethel-Brescia said.

The Tigertones have also stayed connected by putting videos together. The group was featured on Good Morning America on Christmas morning, sharing two videos they had made.

The Nassoons released an arrangement to celebrate the start of the spring semester and have a few arrangements they’re working on. 

“This year is our 80th anniversary,” Crites noted. To commemorate the milestone, Crites said that the group is looking at digitizing some of their old albums

Julie Wilson ’23, incoming social chair of Roaring 20, shared, “For our virtual reunions event, we cut together a video of us and a bunch of alumni singing “Time After Time,” which is a song that has been in our repertoire for years. It was really sweet to hear voices from so many generations come together for the final product.”

Carina Lewandowski ’21, a member and former business manager of the Tigressions, explained that the group had taken in a lot of new members in spring 2020. 

“I think the focus is just going to still be a lot of learning, working on getting our new members up to speed because of course, in the fall, once I’ve graduated and the other seniors have graduated, they’ll just be fewer people who can kind of transmit all that knowledge.” 

Looking into the spring, a cappella groups have a variety of ambitions. 

“We think we’re going to [record] a five track EP this semester, hopefully featuring our graduating seniors,” Bethel-Brescia shared. “We try to get everyone on a recorded solo before they graduate.”

Shere Khan has finished creating an album they were supposed to release last March, and Root shared that part of their plan for the semester is going to be deciding when and how to release it. 

Roaring 20 has been rehearsing three times a week. 

“We spend one rehearsal per week doing lots of vocal exercises to keep our voices warm, one rehearsal using Soundtrap (an online audio mixing platform) to record songs from our repertoire, and one rehearsal working in small groups of each voice part — sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses,” Wilson shared. She expressed optimism for outdoor, in-person rehearsals in the future.

Xu is excited to join a community of people who share similar passions. 

“In the past it feels like I’m the only one in my immediate community who enjoys [singing East Asian music], so it’s nice to find a group of people who also like East Asian music and sing together.”

As the groups initiate their new members and look forward to accepting more, many have devoted their energy to becoming more equitable organizations, partnering with the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion ODUS Arts Circuit. 

The Nassoons were one such group. 

“[We are analyzing] our traditions [and] our history … concentrating on what our core values are, so that we can make audition processes, membership, belonging, a better place for all students,” Crites said. 

Root echoed this. Shere Khan has also been working with the ODUS arts circuit, examining their traditions to make sure their group is “actively anti-racist.”

For all of the ways the groups have persevered this past year, reflecting back brings bittersweet memories.

Lewandowksi discussed what it means to be graduating from Princeton — and the Tigressions — in the middle of a pandemic. Since she is not pursuing a music-related career, Lewandowski is concerned about the musical part of her life. 

“It’s hard for me to imagine how I’ll be able to incorporate signing and performing into my life [post-college],” she said.

In spite of this difficult ending, Lewandowski shared her appreciation for a cappella. 

“[I’m] grateful I’ve had such an amazing experience even if it was cut short,” she said. “It’ll be okay at the end of the day.”

Representatives of each group shared a common sentiment: they miss singing with other people. 

“There’s something magical about singing in a shared space together. You can feel the vibrations of music, it’s a very intimate experience,” Crites said.  

He continued, “There have been studies showing that if you are singing in a group for an extended period of time, or if you’re really comfortable and know the group well, there are points at which your heartbeats synchronize.”

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