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Trying to Make it Into a Harvard A Capella Group

By Laura S. Kohl

They perform on street corners in Amsterdam, subways in the south of France, Puerto Rican nightclubs, restaurants in Bermuda, and Harvard's Sanders Theater. With solo-quality voices, they sing swing tunes, jazz, blues Motown, spirituals, and pop.

They are the few, the proud, the select who survive rigorous auditions and make it into the small, elite world of Harvard's five a capella singing groups.

A capella singing is a relative newcomer to the Harvard music scene. While the Krokodiloes, the oldest of the five, initiated a capella singing at Harvard in 1946, the Glee Club began in the late nineteenth century. The rest of the close-harmony groups trailed the Kroks by three decades; the Radcliffe Pitches, the Din and Tonics, and the Opportunes established themselves within the past fifteen years, while the all-freshman Veritones wrote their official charter this past fall.

Auditions generally consist of testing three essential elements: how well a student can blend in the group, hold his own part when others sing harmony, and sing solo.

Before you can get up on stage and sing "Midnight Train" and Manhattan Transfer arrangements with the Opportunes you have to survive three call backs. The first requirement is a basic proficiency at sight-reading "My Country 'tis of Thee" along with singing sequences of five or six notes at "strange" intervals to test the ears, according to Director Wayne C. Johnson '88.

The next audition tests a singer's blending ability and how well he can hold his own part by requiring him to sing in close harmony with three others. The Din and Tonics ask students to sing in octets, matching four veteran members with four auditioners. "We gradually pull out the old members to see how well the new people take charge," said Jon E. Berner '86, a two and a half year veteran of the Dins.

Finally, the audition tests solo ability.

The most successful auditioners have some prior collegiate singing experience in the Glee Club, Radcliffe Chorale Society (RCS) or Collegium, although a fair number of freshman break right into the a capella ranks.

Of the 12 Krokodiloes, 10 had been in the Glee Club, says Steven P. Dostart '86, a three-year veteran of the group. "[Prior musical experience] really makes a difference. A guy may audition who has a really nice voice, but he'd never been in anything--essentially his voice was untrained. We tell him to join the Glee Club and then re-audition the following year. They've got the voice, they just have to do something with it."

Kelly L. Parsons, director of the Pitches, stresses that the selection process is impartial; students with a variety of musical backgrounds make the group. "We take students from Collegium and RCS, but we might just as well take a freshman who hasn't sung in a college group."

But often groups look for additional qualities; having an excellent voice may not guarantee acceptance. An extra talent may give the prospective member the necessary edge.

"Funny people are great," says the Kroks' Dostart. "Shows are 75 percent music, 25 percent comedy. If people are funny it really helps. When guys audition we say `Do you do anything else?' But music is really most important."

"Special talent is icing on the cake," says Stephen J. R. Cass '87, business manager of the Krokodiloes. "We do have guys that do tap-dancing, for example, and others have very good stage presence."

Veritones Vice President Inger C. Dewey '89 stresses the importance of getting people with optimism, confidence, and performing ability, as well as musical talent. "We're a wholly new group; we need people who will break that barrier of nervousness and just go out there and give it their all."

Personality may also influence a student's acceptance to the group since groups spend so much time together, says Berner. "You spend so much time together. Rehearsals take a lot of time, as well as weekend retreats, and week-long tours. We may have a concert in Philly at 7 p.m., party with the guys until 1 or 2 a.m. then drive back eight hours together. If a Din says `This guy's really nice; he's really a good guy' that can only help. But you don't need connections per se to get in or anything. If you're good, you're good, and you're going to get in."

"We always look for talent and entertainers," says Scott T. Griswold '87, business manager of the Dins. "We don't always need singers. We'd rather have a guy with a great sense of humor who sings well than a guy with an exceptional voice [who wouldn't cooperate with the group, whose personality might clash]."

Johnson agrees. "Most of the people in the group become your family--you spend so much time's to everyone's benefit if you can cooperate with them."

Most freshmen try out for all the groups and see what they make, while upperclassmen tend to already know people in certain groups and have a preference, say members of most groups. Since the Opportunes' main audition is in the fall while the Dins' and Kroks' are in the spring, the Opportunes tend to draw more freshmen, says Opportune Carole I. Chervin '86.

The Krokodiloes, on the other hand have experienced a decline in freshmen who try out for their group. "A lot of them see us and say `you guys are too good, I'll try out for another group,''' according to Cass. "But there's a great deal of talent out there and we are encouraging them to try."

A major difference in the groups is the type of the type of music they sing. While the Pitchesand Kroks tend to do swing, blues, '20s, '30s, and'50s, according to members, Johnson said theOpportunes do "Motown, jazzy, upbeat music."

According to Griswold, "Our [the Dins] music issophisticated in a crazy sort of way... We like tohave fun, we have a lighthearted spirit; we liketo make people laugh

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