'Powerful Voices'

Author discusses book about the history, inner workings and social role of college a cappella.

March 15, 2016

From Yale University’s Whiffenpoofs appearing on an episode of The West Wing to the recent Pitch Perfect movies, college a cappella jumps off campus and into the cultural spotlight from time to time. But very rarely have scholars turned their eye to taking an academic look at the history, culture and social role of college a cappella. Joshua Duchan did just that in 2012 with his book Powerful Voices: The Musical and Social World of Collegiate A Cappella (University of Michigan Press), and recently, on the occasion of its paperback reprinting, he answered questions about his book via email.

Duchan is an assistant professor of music at Wayne State University.

Q: You trace the history of modern college a cappella all the way back to choral ensembles in colonial America and early glee clubs. Can you talk briefly about the inception of early college a cappella -- what it took from those traditions and what about it was unique?

A: The definitive history of modern collegiate a cappella has yet to be written, but my book offers a sketch. There were choral ensembles in colonial America, usually affiliated with a church. As these choirs gained skills and experience, through rehearsal outside of religious services, they sought more challenging music while enjoying the social aspects of group harmony. Traveling instructors would also traverse the colonies, hosting “singing schools,” not unlike the clinicians who work with a cappella groups today on their campuses and at festivals. One of the contributions this tradition made to today’s a cappella is the promotion of choral singing as an activity that not only had a religious aspect but also a social function.

College glee clubs were formed in the middle of the 19th century, usually as student-run ensembles that, like the earlier church choirs, also had a social component. They were originally organized by academic class, so rehearsals and performances could be times of social bonding among classmates and fostered a sense of identity -- functions that continue in today’s collegiate a cappella groups. Glee clubs embraced a varied repertory. While some focused on classical music, the 19th-century concert programs I examined often included secular songs such as school songs, folk tunes and drinking songs. By the end of the century, glee clubs often fielded quartets, which were perfect for the emerging genre of barbershop. It wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th century that glee clubs came to be directed by faculty, so in addition to the social functions of bonding and identity, one of the contributions these clubs made to collegiate a cappella is the student-centered approach to organizing a singing group.

My book argues that collegiate a cappella is rooted in older traditions like these but could not sound the way it does without the advent of rock and roll. The emulative quality of the music helps set collegiate a cappella apart from these older traditions.

Q: As old as it is, college a cappella really took off in the late ’80s and ’90s. Why?

A: Several factors helped set the stage for the explosion of collegiate a cappella in the 1980s and ’90s. One is a long history of American music education, which helped expand the base of musically literate college singers from which the ranks of a cappella groups could be drawn. And high school bands and choirs had been participating in competitions, conventions and festivals decades before a cappella groups did it. Another factor is the gradual move from single-sex colleges to coordinating colleges to coeducational institutions. While most early collegiate a cappella groups (such as the Yale Whiffenpoofs) were male, this kind of integration helped fuel the rise of women’s and mixed groups, to the point where coed groups now outnumber their single-sex counterparts.

There were also several things going on in popular music in the 20th century that I think inspired students to sing a cappella. There were vocal jazz groups in the swing era, such as the Mills Brothers, who used their voices in instrumental ways and helped lay the foundation for doo-wop in the middle of the century. Although doo-wop sometimes included instruments when it was recorded, the original amateur groups usually sang a cappella, and their way of distinguishing between the soloist and the background singers (who provided the accompaniment) represented an approach to singing popular music that later a cappella groups adopted.

Additionally, there were several a cappella hit records in the 1980s and ’90s (including Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” [1983], Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” [1988] and Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” [1991]) that provided models for college-bound singers. At the same time, the emergence of beatboxing in early hip-hop provided one way to incorporate popular music’s rhythmic excitement into a voices-only medium like a cappella. And finally, the 1990s saw the establishment of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, live competitions, competitively selected annual compilation albums, and websites and bulletin boards on the nascent Internet where singers could share ideas.

Q: You mention in the book that one of the reasons you chose to look at this very specific slice of music culture is that it's received very little scholarly attention in past. Why do you think that is, and what do you find compelling about it from an academic standpoint?

A: When Powerful Voices was published in 2012, there were only a few studies within (ethno)musicology that considered music making on campus. The campus was usually the place the researcher returned to in order to write his or her article or book, not the site of the ethnographic research itself. That’s begun to change. My book has also been cited in several studies in the field of music education, which by definition focuses on an academic environment.

Another reason I suspect there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to a cappella groups was because they are student-led ensembles, almost entirely amateur, and often disconnected from college and university music departments and faculty leadership.

Collegiate a cappella is important to study because it offers a window into the experience of young people at a particularly important time in their lives, during the rite of passage known as college, when they are figuring out who they are and how they will navigate the wider world. By studying a cappella groups, I was able to attend to the ways power is claimed, distributed and contested, essentially addressing the question, “Who gets to decide what constitutes good singing or good a cappella?” within groups, across campuses and nationwide. But I also saw how group members supported each other socially and academically, as older students helped younger ones navigate their college experience. And I saw how groups responded to the world around them by performing skits critiquing everything from student politics on campus to international political and military conflicts.

Q: How did embedding or spending extended periods of time with several groups affect your thinking about the scholarly, sociological, ethnomusicological aspect of your work and vice versa?

A: I began my ethnographic fieldwork having already been a singer with two a cappella groups, one in college (the University of Pennsylvania Counterparts) and one in graduate school (the University of Michigan Amazin’ Blue), so I knew generally what to expect from the groups I worked with. But my role as a researcher was quite different from my experience as a singer -- although I did a good deal of singing while researching, too. Spending an entire academic year with an a cappella group meant that the way I was perceived by the singers gradually changed. I went from being that guy who sat in the corner taking notes during rehearsals to someone who could offer the group feedback on the songs they were learning to, eventually, someone they would ask to fill in if a member couldn’t make it to a gig. Thus, spending a good deal of time with the groups enabled us to build up a good deal of trust. That probably wouldn’t have happened if I had just showed up to one rehearsal, taken some notes, asked some questions and never seen them again.

One thing that surprised me was the way some of the groups I worked with came to see me as an expert on a cappella, inviting me to critique their performance and arrange songs for them to sing. From my perspective, I was hardly an expert -- I was there to learn! But for me, seeing the situation from their perspective highlighted the two-way nature of my relationship with the singers. And it prompted a feeling of obligation, that they should benefit from me just as I was benefiting from my experience working with them. Ultimately, that’s the way a lot of ethnomusicological research goes, but there’s a difference between talking about it hypothetically in a graduate seminar and living it in the field. I now have a much deeper appreciation for the role and perspective of the people with whom I conduct fieldwork.

Q: The book, now out in paperback, was originally published four years ago. Have there been any developments in that time or hints at new trends that stand out to you?

A: There have been some wonderfully exciting developments since the book was originally published in 2012. I wrote at the time that a cappella was getting a good dose of the media spotlight, as evinced by an a cappella group on the television series Glee, a member of an a cappella group on American Idol and an album by piano rocker Ben Folds almost entirely comprised of a cappella groups covering his songs (Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!).

Since then the spotlight has only grown wider and brighter. NBC began airing an a cappella competition show, The Sing-Off, which has run for several seasons. The film Pitch Perfect was a big hit in theaters and the soundtrack was highly successful, topping the Billboard soundtrack chart, reaching number three on the Billboard 200 chart and going platinum. The professional a cappella group Pentatonix won two Grammy Awards. And there have been several other television shows focusing on high school and college a cappella.

Q: A cappella, and college a cappella in particular, seems to be having something of a moment in the pop culture spotlight -- from the Pitch Perfect movies, The Sing-Off and Pentatonix to the way major news organizations like The New Yorker and NPR covered the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella last year. Is a cappella having a moment, and if so what do you think might be behind it?

A: I think audiences are drawn to a cappella for many reasons. For one, the repertory includes a lot of covers, and its often interesting to hear how popular songs, originally recorded in a studio and with instruments, are reconfigured for the a cappella medium. Second, in many cases a cappella retains its amateur quality and I think audiences enjoy seeing nonprofessionals work hard and succeed. But most of all, I think audiences are really good at seeing and hearing just how much fun a cappella groups have while they perform, whether at the high school or college competitions, or on the small and big screens. Singing together in harmony is not easy, and I think audiences respect and appreciate that.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: I hope that readers learn not only about how the music is made, but also how participation in an a cappella group provides an experience that is both musical and social. My book is not the last word on a cappella, and I hope that others will continue to pick up where I left off (several researchers already have). And since I remain involved in the a cappella community, someday I’d like to return to it as a topic of study, too.

Q: Can you recommend some groups or recordings you like that readers could check out?

A: A good place to start is the BOCA (Best of College A Cappella) series, an annual compilation album featuring recordings of collegiate a cappella groups from across the country (and, more recently, the world). The series began in 1995, so you can hear how the sounds of a cappella have changed over twenty years or so, and it can be purchased from iTunes and other music retailers; it is distributed by Varsity Vocals.

My other suggestion is to check out a live competition. The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) and the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) are both run by Varsity Vocals. The season typically runs from January through April, with multiple rounds of competition all over the United States, Europe and elsewhere, eventually leading to the final round in New York City. Tickets are not expensive and it’s a great way to see several groups at a time.

Q: Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about my favorite part of college a cappella, which is the names. Nearly all of them have puns or references or some humorous aspect (but mostly puns!). Why? What's going on there? And what are some of your favorites?

A: A cappella group names can indeed be hilarious, and tend toward puns. They often reference their schools (Amazin’ Blue is a play on the University of Michigan’s colors, maize and blue), something musically punny (Treblemakers is a common one), or make some inside joke that only members know. Like many names and labels, I think they help establish a sense of identity as part of a school community, as a musician or as an insider to the group. They sure are fun, though!


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