EMILY HARRISON WEIR
The crowd is elbow-to-elbow; devotees murmur excitedly in anticipation of their idols' arrival. Finally, the stage lights come up, and singers in black acknowledge applause and cheers. Is this an Ani DiFranco concert? The latest Lollapalooza? No, it's a jam session featuring Mount Holyoke's five a cappella groups.
"Even before I came here, I knew a cappella was big at Mount Holyoke, but I still can't get over how excited people get about our concerts," says Linda Weeks '01 of the M&Cs. "We say we're going to do a particular song and faces just light up!"
A cappella singing--in which voices unaccompanied by instruments handle melody, harmony, and percussion--is hot nationwide. Traditionalists continue the doo-wop, gospel, and barbershop traditions while upstarts infiltrate pop, rap, and rock. Mount Holyoke's groups sing everywhere and in many styles. They entertain in residence halls and local coffee shops, at community events and alumnae gatherings, with songs ranging from the jazz standard "How High the Moon" to Britney Spears's pop hit "Baby One More Time."
Audiences rave about a cappella's combination of primal vocal power and sophisticated arrangements. "There's something amazing about a successful a cappella group because it's just raw, pure talent and hard work on the stage," says Karey Scheyd '99 of the V-8s. "There's nothing for performers to hide behind; just bodies and voices." For music major Caroline Green '99, a cappella provides "a huge creative outlet." The draw for listeners, she says, is simple: "It's fun, and the shows are free!" Crys Latham '00 of Voices of Faith adds, "A cappella is very different from what audiences are used to hearing, and I think they appreciate the time that's needed to get the right sound. A cappella may seem easy, but it's very difficult."
Campus groups practice up to nine hours a week to perfect their close harmonies and choreography. And that doesn't count the time groups spend arranging their own music. Toni Lundeen '01 says the V-8s develop new numbers "by listening to recordings and picking out the parts," rather than using sheet music or professional arrangers. At MHC, a cappella is totally student-run.
What do they get for all that effort? Applause, adoration, and opportunities to perform with (and party with) singers from other top colleges. "Everyone who hears us says, 'You look like you're having such a good time.' We are, though it's a lot of work," says Fran Blanchard '99 of the M&Cs. Nearly every singer mentions how tightly knit her group is despite the diversity of people in it. "Students working together in a cappella form an incredible bond and have great dedication to one another and to the music," says Ruth Lopez '99 of Voices of Faith. For Vanessa McGovern '02, Nice Shoes "embodies my vision of what coming to a women's college was going to be like: a supportive community where we share a common joy in music and in being feminists."