Arts & Culture

Jabberwocks, Higher Keys compete at MIT

By
Staff writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

Correction appended.

The Jabberwocks and the Higher Keys placed second and fourth, respectively, at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella’s Northeast semifinals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Saturday.

The two groups wowed the crowd in Salomon 101 by taking both first and second place in the Northeast quarterfinals Feb. 20. The Jabberwocks, who came in first, also took home awards for Outstanding Soloist — Andrew Wong ’11 for “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon — and Outstanding Vocal Percussion, won by Erik Abi-Khattar ’10.

MIT a cappella group Resonance hosted Saturday’s semifinals, where eight groups from all over the Northeast region competed. The winners, Pitch Slapped from Berklee College of Music in Boston, will compete in the international finals at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York in April.

But for the Higher Keys, who sang “Cry Me a River,” written by Arthur Hamilton, “Think” by Aretha Franklin and a Beatles medley, the experience was not all about competition.

“We want to work on our sound and not get caught up in the competition,” said Nick Herrmann ’10, the Keys’ president.

Josh Chu ’11, the group’s music director, agreed. “We entered the competition as a goal to motivate ourselves,” he said. “You always study better when there is a test coming up. We weren’t expecting to win.”

Chu added, “When we won at quarterfinals, it kind of validated all the hard work that we put in.” Normally, the group practices six hours a week. For the quarterfinals, though, they put in extra sessions so that they were practicing nine to 10 hours weekly, Chu said.

“A coed group is lot harder to blend than if you were in, say, an all-guy group,” said Dominic Wu ’12 of the Keys. “Adding choreography to the group is also very hard because we’re so big. Another challenge is keeping up the energy.”

Despite the long hours and tiring practices that could last until midnight, the members of the group pulled through.

“After the quarterfinals, the Keys were like, that was a lot of work,” said Wu. “For the semis, it’s more about having fun for us.”

The Jabberwocks, on the other hand, are veterans of the competition. The group had been to the semifinals two years ago, where they also took second. This time, they sang “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, “Use Somebody” and a hip-hop medley that included Kesha’s “TiK ToK,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” and other songs.

Like the Keys, the Jabberwocks put in a lot of rehearsal hours: three or more hours a night the week before the semifinals. “It’s a lot of commitment,” said member Leland Lazarus ’12. Normally, the group practices seven hours a week.

But being in an a cappella group does not mean all work and no play.

“We hang out all the time. Some of us live together, and we do potlucks every once in a while,” said Herrmann about the Keys. “Sometimes we go to Ben & Jerry’s and share a Vermonster.”

“One of the main reasons I would pick the Keys over other groups, even though other groups have different styles that I may be into, is that the Keys has a great family atmosphere,” Wu said.

For the Jabberwocks, hanging out means going to Wes’ Rib House, a southern style restaurant in Providence, before or after a big concert. The group also gets together to play sports.

Lazarus, who joined the Jabberwocks his freshman year, envisioned college a cappella as mainly a campus-oriented function. “It was at (A Day on College Hill) that I first saw the Jabberwocks,” he said. “Everyone in the crowd knew each member, and everyone had their own fan club. There was a lot of campus camaraderie. But I also realized there is a global component. We travel everywhere in the country and have international tours. We went to Hong Kong, Europe and Korea.”

Similarly, the Keys have expanded their horizons beyond the University’s borders. The group has traveled to many places, including San Francisco, and plans to go to Hong Kong next year.

“I did not expect to be connected to such a large network of people,” said Christopher Unseth ‘11.5, the Jabberwocks’ publicity manager. “We have really strong alumni. They are so committed to the group that they give money and allow us to live at their (houses).”

At the competition, the Jabberwocks were first to perform. “There were a bunch of numbers in a hat, and every group picks a number,” Lazarus said. “We got first. It was good because we didn’t have to wait and be nervous. We were able to perform and watch all the groups after us.”

He added, “On the other hand, we were setting the tone. The judges didn’t have anything to compare us to.”

The semis also served as a learning tool for both groups.

“The competition changed the way we approach a cappella,” said Herrmann, who discovered that “a large portion of the competition is based on visuals,” but at the same time, “it’s easy to over-choreograph stuff, and things look unnatural at an expense to the music.”

Herrmann added that he was glad the competition was over, as now the Keys can focus on other songs.

Lazarus said he thought all the groups had great choreography and impeccable sound. “I feel like what differentiated first and second place and the rest were minute things — one person coming in too loud or someone doing choreography a little too late. Little things.”
Hopefully next year or the year after, the Jabberwocks can compete again and get to finals, he added. Currently, though, the group has other projects to take care of.

Their last CD, “Breaking & Entering,” is currently nominated for the annual Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards for best male collegiate album, best all-male song and best arrangement. Results will be announced in April. The Jabberwocks will also be singing at a Mets game April 8.

The Keys also ended the competition on a positive note.

“The finals are during the time of Spring Weekend,” said Herrmann. “So after the competition, one of the members of our group turned to a member of the Jabberwocks and said, ‘I guess we’ll see you at Snoop Dogg.’ “

Wu mirrored the sentiment. “The Higher Keys have a saying: IJA – it’s just a cappella.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Higher Keys had never been to the semifinals in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. In fact, the Higher Keys competed in the semifinals three years ago. The Herald regrets the error.