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The Right Notes

October 9, 2012

“Oh right, this is a thing now,” Beca (Anna Kendrick) says to the heads of fictional Barden University’s all-female a cappella group in an early scene in the new movie "Pitch Perfect."

And judging by the fact that a cappella is the subject of a film starring an Academy Award nominee, it seems she’s right.

A cappella has been growing in popularity since the debut of "Glee" three years ago, and collegiate a cappella gained recognition on NBC’s "The Sing Off," a competition show that made several college groups famous nationwide.

Pitch Perfect, based loosely on a book by the same title, follows Barden University’s Bellas as they aim to reach the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (known as ICCA, and a real competition), and feud with the university’s all-male a cappella group, The Treblemakers, along the way. It highlights the competition, cult mindset, and crazy personalities that are found in collegiate a cappella, and has no lack of, to use the film’s phrase, “acapolitics.” 

Filmed at Louisiana State University, the film focuses on Beca, a freshman who dreams of moving to Los Angeles to become a music producer, but whose dad insists she joins a campus group. When a member of the Bellas hears Beca singing in the shower, an understandably awkward encounter, she convinces Beca to audition. Soon, Beca is one among a rag-tag group of new Bellas, including Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), the big but confident singer from Tasmania who coins a new a cappella term when she tells the Treblemakers the Bellas are going to "pitch slap" them.

For actual collegiate a cappella singers, parts of the film ring true, though they insist the a cappella world is not quite as political as it’s sometimes made out to be.

“It was more accurate than I thought it would be, actually,” said Shams Ahmed, a fifth-year finance student at Northeastern University and the music director of a co-ed a cappella group, the Nor’easters. He said parts of the movie were a little more glamorous than real life – for instance, there are no announcers at the ICCA – but that at its core, the idea of an eclectic group of students forming a united whole is real and is an important part of a cappella.

Nick Cafero, a third-year government major at the University of Virginia and the president of the UVA Hullabahoos, an all-male group that performs in "Pitch Perfect," described it as almost a “frat-type feel.”

“We sing, yeah, and we have rehearsals and concerts and gigs, and we work hard, but that is not even close to being half of what our group is about,” he said. “We’re constantly spending time with each other. We’re brought together by music, but music is not what defines us.”

Claire Benson, a sophomore majoring in English and one of the music directors for Wellesley College’s Tupelos, jokes that sometimes the group calls itself a cult, though she’s a little hesitant to use the word. Still, she says, any time you spend that much time with a group of people – the Tupelos rehearse at least six hours a week – and dress the same way for performances and competitions, you start to feel a little cultish.

The a cappella world can sometimes feel like a cult in itself, Ahmed admitted, though he thinks that is changing as a cappella becomes more mainstream.

“It’s become more inclusive and a bit more accessible,” he said.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s become less competitive. Though the fierce hatred displayed between some members of the Barden Bellas and the Treblemakers might be a bit extreme, groups do take their craft seriously.

“Groups are absolutely competitive with each other,” Ahmed said, noting that the competition can be from groups at other universities, or from within one university.

At Northeastern, Ahmed said, there doesn’t tend be too much competition between a cappella groups, because the university has a relatively small number of groups, six, for its size. Three of those groups are co-ed, one is all-male, and two are all-female. He added that some groups don’t compete in ICCA, which makes them less likely to view other groups as rivals.

That said, when it comes to recruiting members, every group is out for itself.

“During audition it’s definitely a competitive situation,” Ahmed said.

Cafero agreed. “We only compete in terms of auditions, in terms of who’s going to get the good ones,” he said. “Other than that, it’s very cordial.”

He added that the Hullabahoos are on very good terms with the all-female groups at UVA -- unlike the bitter rivalry depicted in "Pitch Perfect" -- and he said he even envies their organization.

“Sometimes we’ll joke around. We’re very close with the girls’ groups, we help each other all the time, we always mix with them,” Cafero said. “That’s not what you’ll see in the movie.”

He then brings up a stereotype that is used to generate laughs in "Pitch Perfect," but may hold some truth: people tend to think female a cappella groups are not as good as male groups.

Cafero said this isn’t true, but he acknowledges that all-female groups might have a tougher time gaining popularity.

“Most of the a cappella fan base is female, and I don’t think females enjoy going to female a cappella concerts as much as they enjoy going to male a cappella concerts,” he said.

Benson admits that the Tupelos do have an easier time drawing a crowd when they invite an all-male group to perform with them, though that, she said, may be simply the product of performing at an all-female college.

But Ahmed thinks all-female a cappella is emerging as it breaks away from tradition, just as the Barden Bellas do in the movie.

“The stereotype is that they do a lot of cutesy music, that they don’t really push boundaries,” he said. “But there is a very big shift happening.”

The Tupelos, at least, have evolved in recent years, Benson said. Now, they focus on choreography and on being “more poppy,” a shift Benson attributes in part to shows like "Glee" and "The Sing-Off," which feature high-energy, high-emotion performances.

 “We strive to be that emotive,” she said. “That’s real.”

The Hulabahoos don’t focus as much on choreography, Cafero said, and are not like the all-male choirs in "Glee" and Pitch Perfect. Still, he said, he’s fascinated to see the way Hollywood has interpreted a cappella, and he’s happy to be part of the growing a cappella community.

“It’s music without instruments and yet it means so much to so many people,” he said.

 

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