Arts & Culture

Pitch perfect: Exploring a cappella audition traditions

At a midnight meeting, the 11 groups induct new members into their singing community

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The “midnight meeting,” an a cappella tradition often thought to be shrouded in mystery and intrigue, will be held Thursday to determine which auditioners have earned a spot in one of Brown’s 11 a cappella groups. With every a cappella group member in attendance, this week’s meeting, the culmination of two weeks of auditions and callbacks, will kick off a cappella’s spring season.

“Crazy,” “intense” and “stressful” are just a few of the adjectives a cappella “Czar” and Brown Derby Josh Linden ’14 used to describe the atmosphere of the late-night meeting. Though Linden said the meeting usually becomes hectic, he said its organizers use a well-ordered system to place singers into the group with which they are most compatible. The Czar, who is elected annually, is responsible for maintaining order at the meeting and ensuring that all groups have an equal shot at securing their desired singers.

Before the meeting, each auditioner lists his or her preferences of groups on a notecard. Once the groups have evaluated each auditioner and selected their top prospects, they are ready for the midnight meeting to begin. The “elves,” who are third-party participants in the meeting that do not belong to any a cappella group, assist the Czar in handling preference cards and assigning singers to groups.

At the start of the meeting, the groups take turns announcing their most desired singers. Once a name is on the table, any of the groups can verbally express interest in that particular auditioner. The Czar’s elves then check the auditioner’s preference card and match the singer with the highest-ranked group that expressed interest. A match requires consent from both the singer and the group — if only one of the two parties expresses interest in the other, the deal falls through. This process continues until the meeting attendees have come to a conclusion about every auditioner, Linden said.

While group members deliberate over their prospective members, auditioners anxiously await the announcement of their musical fate. During the auditions, the singers were told to stay in their rooms on the night of the meeting, with their shoes on and their cellphones close by, Linden said. If a singer is chosen by a group, he or she will be swept away at midnight for celebration and socializing with his or her fellow singers. If no group selects a particular singer, he or she will receive a conciliatory phone call, he added.

“There’s a lot of waiting and anxiety,” said Rachel Ossip ’15, a member of the Alef Beats. “But sometimes that’s necessary.” Nerves are an inevitable part of performing, and the audition, callback and midnight meeting process serves as good practice for the stress of real performances, she added.

While the groups’ audition styles vary, all aim to make a good match between singers and groups, Linden said. Most groups include both singing and socializing portions in their initial auditions and subsequent callbacks.

“It’s like a really nerdy rush,” Linden said. Auditions generally involve the standard measures of vocal ability — participants sing verses, pitch matches and scales. Many also include icebreakers and ways for the auditioner to get a feel for the group and vice versa. The Jabberwocks ask each auditioner to tell a joke at the beginning of the audition to ease some of the tension and stress surrounding the event, Linden added.

Linden said the biannual midnight meeting, which is held once in the fall and then again in the spring, might have started in 2006, around the same time Brown’s Intergalactic Community of A Cappella was formed. IGCAC originally held the meeting to form a more cohesive bond among groups and have a more organized audition and selection process, Linden added.

Linden said he attributes the popularity of a cappella at Brown ­— which has more a cappella groups per capita than any other university in the country, according to the IGCAC website — partly to its uniqueness. At many other schools with prominent a cappella scenes, the singers view it as a much more serious and formal commitment.

“Music is their life,” Linden said, noting that many of the singers at other schools are music majors.

Here, a cappella is more of a “side interest” for many of the singers, who are also involved in other activities, Linden said. “It’s a culture thing at Brown.”

Nate Wardwell ’14, a member of the Brown Derbies, said a cappella’s popularity at Brown is “self-perpetuating.”

“There are so many groups that it just kind of builds on itself,” he said.

Because the upcoming meeting will be held on Valentine’s Day, Linden said he expects many of the attendees will dress festively. Though more hype surrounds the fall midnight meeting because of the many incoming freshmen auditioning, he said he expects this week’s meeting to be exciting as well. The groups are eager to welcome new members into the a cappella community.

Admittance into an a cappella group means entrance into a family, Linden said. “It’s a great community to be a part of.”

  • Rachel ’00

    The midnight meeting, the a cappella czar, and the IGCAC were all in full force when I joined an a cappella group in the fall of 1996!

  • Jkjones

    Reminds me of that crazy Polkafest in Wisconsin!

  • Jon ’91

    I can tell you when the midnight meeting began, because I was there! When I arrived at Brown in the fall of ’88, there was no coherent system of auditions among the groups. By the fall of ’89, we had put the current system in place, with the midnight meeting as the occasion of the final audition decisions. We used the term “czar” even then (I was a Russian Studies concentrator, so the term came to me naturally), but the whole “intergalactic” terminology came after my time. (I see it as a natural Brown desire not to take oneself too seriously.) The meeting was also tamer in my day – only two representatives from each group attended the midnight meeting (with the “admit lists” their groups had given them) as opposed to the full-group bedlam I hear tell of these days!

  • No one important

    Sounds like a crazy, exclusive (in a bad way) process. Brown says there is not a Greek system, I beg to differ, it just involves music as a cover up for being exclusive and creepy selective.

  • A voice

    I auditioned last year: the people were great and even though I didn’t get selected I was happy to have had this experience. The only thing was that I waited all night and when midnight came, I didn’t get any calls.. I waited a little more and understood on my own.I just hope that this year they did; finding out the way I did was a little tough.

  • Style note: Auditioners hold the tryouts; auditionees are the ones trying out.