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Beyond the barbershop: Stanford’s diverse a capella scene


SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily

From the silly to the soulful, a cappella groups are a vivacious and visible part of life at Stanford from one’s first days on the Farm–surely, most students can recall hiking over to Frost Amphitheater with their new ProFro friends, taking in the diverse musical talents of the various troupes at the annual a capella show during Admit Weekend. While a cappella is far from unique to Stanford, the array of musical styles explored by the groups on campus is varied, including classic rock ’n’ roll, Bollywood and jazz, to name a few.

Stanford currently boasts nine a capella groups. Founded in 1963, the Stanford Mendicants is the oldest group on campus, an all-male crew known for its red sport coats, khakis and swoon-worthy hits like “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Pretty Woman.” Mixed Company and Counterpoint are the oldest coed and all-female groups, respectively, and both sing contemporary radio tunes.

Then there are the thematic troupes: Everyday People explores R&B and hip-hop, and Talisman sings African and African American folk songs and spirituals. Testimony performs Christian music, and the Harmonics is a coed rock ensemble. Fleet Street’s tunes like “Everyone Pees in the Shower” speak for the all-male group’s goofy personality. And founded in 2002, Raagapella is the newest member of the bunch, featuring Southeast Asian sounds.

This mixed nature of the groups appeals to the similarly diverse Stanford community.

“I think [the a capella groups] are a great asset to our college community, because they represent the Stanford community as a whole,” said Rebecca Amato ‘14. “There is such a diversity of groups that students can relate to. The combination of groups makes for a good concert because the different songs and styles all mix well together.”

For the singers, a capella is a serious extracurricular undertaking, entailing a tryout in the fall followed by a year of hard work and dedication.

Talisman, a group that has traveled across the globe to perform, has regular practices that can add up to 10 hours per week. This does not include the occasional gig and extra sectionals. However, its toil does not go unnoticed–Talisman receives far more students auditioning each fall than spots available, and the group enjoys great popularity among the Stanford community.

“We sing music that tells stories of people with real experiences of struggle and oppression,” said Sterling Camden ‘06, the 2010-11 manager of Talisman. “We try to portray it as accurately as we can and to tell where it came from and show how the individuals felt.”

“Many of the songs originated in South Africa, which we’ve visited five times, and the story travels through the music,” he added. “We never want to just sing the songs–we want the audience to engage and to talk about the song.”

Founded in 2002, Raagapella is the newest of Stanford’s nine a capella groups. The all-male troupe performs South Asian music. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

While trying to engage the audience and reach out to them through music is important, perhaps the most appealing aspect of a cappella groups to their members is the sheer joy that comes as a result of making music.

Natalie Cheng ’14, a member of Counterpoint, the second oldest and only all-female a cappella group on campus, says that the group chooses to sing songs that they simply love to listen to and sing along with.

Cheng knew before coming to campus that she wanted to join an a cappella group due to her “love for music and singing.”

“I remember seeing a visiting a cappella group come to my high school,” she said. “It was just really inspiring to see how much fun they were having and how much fun it was to watch.”

“A cappella is a community where you get to do what you love,” Cheng added. “It is a fun activity rather than just another commitment. There is such a sense of enjoyment from singing, which I think really adds color to the University.”

Though Cheng knew that she hoped to pursue a capella in college, this is not the case for all eventual singers, many of whom never sang formally before coming to Stanford.

Luke Knepper ’14, a member of the rock-focused Harmonics, is one such student. With no prior experience in the world of a capella, he was inspired to join after seeing the group’s energetic performance during his Admit Weekend visit and has not regretted the decision.

“I am so glad I joined Harmonics,” Knepper said. “It’s great to be in a group of people and just make music. We’ve also had such cool opportunities, such as being able to perform at four different UC campuses and for the mayor of San Francisco.”

Knepper also appreciates the opportunity to perform for his peers, the same types of performances that originally attracted him to the craft.

“The performances for people during [New Student Orientation] or Admit Weekend are some of my favorites,” he said. “It’s so fun and exciting to welcome them to campus.”

But in addition to providing a venue for fellow students to enjoy live, raw musical performances put on by their friends and classmates, a cappella is quintessentially Stanford–visibly passionate students collaborating in a creative atmosphere, producing an original end product that the entire community can benefit from.

“A lot of the ideas behind our songs come from the interactions between the group,” said Andrew Forsyth ’14, a member of Fleet Street. “It’s a group of friends that gets together to sing. We joke around, we sing and we have fun.”


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