After the audition, a cappella groups court new members

Students strut their stuff, then await 'drunkapella' to decide their fates

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Late last Thursday night, an excited group of seven girls crept quietly down a hallway on Pembroke Campus. “We have to be quiet like ninjas – we want it to be a surprise,” Kim Gemme ’09 heard one of her co-conspirators whisper.

The girls knocked sharply on Naomi Heilweil’s ’12 door. When it swung open, all seven – members of the Brown’sTones a cappella group, of which Gemme is president – burst into song and enveloped Heilweil in hugs.

This wasn’t an isolated incident – such festivities happened across campus Thursday night, marking the culmination of a more than week-long a cappella audition and selection process.

With over a dozen a cappella groups, Brown has one of the most vibrant and active collegiate a cappella communities, said Jonathan Aronchick ’09, a member of Harmonic Motion and the “Czar” of Brown’s “Intergalactic Community of A Cappella,” an umbrella organization for all the groups that sing without instruments on campus.

This year saw a record number of students audition, said Allison Schneider ’10, a member of the Chattertocks. Schneider said 60 to 70 girls showed up over two nights of auditions for her group alone.

Matt Bauman ’10, musical director for the Bear Necessities, said his group was also “blown away” by the talent they saw this year. “In the past … 20 people would go by without us wanting to call them back. This year we had 20 people go by and we wanted to call back all of them.”

The audition process

Several current members and auditionees compared the a cappella audition process to the rushing of a fraternity or sorority.

Auditions often involve a nervous freshman singing a musical number while simultaneously acting the song out. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘Les Miserables,'” Bauman said. “‘Rent’ is a big one too.”

Many auditionees are also asked to do pitch-matching exercises or sing scales – all in front of a group of potentially intimidating upperclassmen.

Aronchick said less-than-qualified auditionees sometimes show up. “There are definitely people who do not have experience.”

Bauman agreed. “It’s hard not to laugh … I’ve had a few American Idol moments, but of course I’m not Simon (Cowell) and I won’t say anything that will make someone stop singing for the rest of their lives.”

Not only are the frightened auditionees trying to stay on pitch, but they’re also trying to showcase their style. Personality is “very important,” Aronchick said.

“We always do the cool-factor,” Bauman said.

Just before midnight, the Thursday after the first round of auditions – and a week before final decisions are made – each group posts its list of callbacks at MoChamp and Wayland Arches, Aronchick said. Clusters of excited first-years – many attempting to appear nonchalant – flood the area to look for their names.


On any given weekend evening, the campus is full of students attempting to impress a potential mate. The Friday after these callbacks are posted, the same process of wooing begins between a cappella groups and the students they’ve called back – the so-called “call-backees.”

“We’re auditioning for them just as much as they’re auditioning for us,” Schneider said.

Bumping into a call-backee is comparable to bumping into that cute girl from last Saturday’s party. “If we bump into them, we’re as friendly as possible,” said Ben Simon ’11, business manager for the Brown Derbies.

And while the main focus of call-backs is to gauge a student’s musical talent, it’s also a time for call-backees and current group members to get to know each other.

“The point isn’t to bribe them with a free lunch,” said Bauman – though that tactic is actually employed quite often. Courting is more about letting the groups get a feel for the call-backees’ personalities, while the call-backees figure out which group feels like the best fit, said Priyanka Chatterjee ’12, who got called back by three groups.

“You can usually tell which person will go with which group” based on their personality, Aronchick said.

“We say, ‘That guy is totally a Jabberwock,’ or, ‘That guy is totally going to go to the Derbies,'” Bauman said.

The much-anticipated moment

Last Thursday at 11 p.m., all the a cappella groups crowded into lower Salomon for their traditional “midnight meeting” – affectionately dubbed “drunkapella” by some, Schneider said.

As the group continues imbibing, Aronchick serves as a moderator “because we’re all so loud and we’re so drunk,” Bauman said. Alongside Aronchick is someone commonly called an “elf” – a neutral individual not involved in a cappella.

No one else outside the a cappella community is allowed to attend, Aronchick said.

Before this meeting, all of the call-backees fill out a preference card ranking the groups that called them back. Only the elf is ever allowed to see these preference cards.

The meeting’s procedure is relatively straightforward: One group shouts the name of the student it wants the most. If any other group wants that student, its members raise their hands. The elf examines that call-backee’s preference card and then announces the pairing. This repeats until all groups have selected all of the call-backees they want.

“It’s a lot of fun. Everyone is laughing and cheering and booing,” said Emily Borromeo ’09, president of the Higher Keys.

After last Thursday’s meeting, the groups left Salomon energetically. “Everyone was sort of on a high,” Gemme said.

Meanwhile, across campus, Heilweil and dozens of other call-backees waited nervously in their dorm rooms for either a celebratory knock or a disappointing phone call.

Anna Samel ’12 was “sung in” by Harmonic Motion. “I heard Mika’s ‘Lollipop’ coming down the hallway and ran outside. … I was so excited I couldn’t really do anything but hug all of them,” she said.

Though it’s a festive event, a cappella groups sometimes leave disappointed, with fewer recruits than they had hoped for.

And some students answer the knock to find their third-choice a cappella group singing, or don’t get chosen by any groups, Gemme said.

After “singing in” their new inductees, each group has its own special celebration – which members often consider secret. “We don’t haze,” Bauman said, adding, “If they don’t want to drink, they don’t want to drink.”

Heilweil was the first inductee to hear the good news from Brown’sTones Thursday night. She joined her fellow singers as they all left her dorm to announce the news to the other new girls.

“I’m extremely happy,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “(I) got accepted into a close-knit group that I already feel a part of.”

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