Berkshire a cappella groups hit high note at area colleges

Sunday March 31, 2013


Letting loose a falsetto croon that stretches his vocals an octave, Williams College junior Mike Vercillo looks casually cool in blue jeans, buckled belt and tucked long-sleeve shirt and elicits a roar from a late-night crowd of his peers.

Standing onstage inside the stony-church facade of Goodrich Hall at Williams College, Vercillo is one of 15 voices blending to create the charged pop melody behind OneRepublic's "Feel Again" for an a cappella concert featuring Williams' two oldest groups, the Octet and the Ephlats.

Despite the long hours that went into the group dynamic, the crowd is focused on Vercillo, a 20-year-old math major who is soloing while his colleagues sing behind him.

"But with you I feel again/ I feel again," the Ephlats tenor sings.

Another clamor of approval from the crowd.

It's a Friday night. In nearby Chandler Gym, the Williams women's basketball team is winning an NCAA Tournament game, but 200 students still gather at Goodrich Hall to watch the a cappella performance, a genre that isn't easily upstaged at the school.

Buoyed by exposure from such places as the NBC show "The Sing-Off," a cappella -- or singing without instrumental accompaniment -- is increasing in popularity at colleges in the Berkshires. There are 11 a cappella groups at the county's three four-year colleges; at least three of the groups have formed since 2009, and six have come since 1990.

At Williams' Goodrich Hall on a chilly night in March, 60 students are sitting in folding chairs. There's a large group standing in the back without a place to sit. Nearly four rows of mostly women are seated on the floor, and a dozen onlookers sit on the bar stand of a closed refreshment booth.

From high above, at least 50 students watch from a walkway, and the crowd only grows as concert-goers trickle in throughout the 30-minute show.

The Ephlats, the star attraction on this night, are one of nine a cappella groups based at Williams.

The Ephlats, the star attraction on this night, are one of nine a cappella groups based at Williams.

"[Everyone on campus] knows someone in each of the groups, and they come out to see them perform," said senior Meghan Kiesel, who attended the concert. "It's nice to support them. It's the one thing that all freshmen go to, so you grow to like it."

The originals

Williams' oldest a cappella group, the Octet, focuses on contemporary pop. The two groups that have emerged at the school in the past three years perform Korean and Chinese pop music, and one group sings only Disney songs.

About 5 percent of the student body at Williams is in an a cappella group, according to Sam Jeong, who chairs Eph Cappella, the school's a cappella governing board. Others try out but don't make it, and concerts routinely draw 200 to 300 people.

Octet started in 1940 but disbanded at one point. The Ephlats are the school's oldest continuous group after being founded in 1956.

Ephlats president Jordan Roberts, a senior, said about 100 students auditioned for the 15-member group in the fall. He recalled 75 trying out when he was a freshman.

Hollywood has helped drive the increase in a cappella's popularity nationwide.

NBC's "The Sing-Off," a national competition matching a cappella groups, started in 2009 and will return for a fourth season (start date unknown) after temporarily being canceled last year. And the movie "Pitch Perfect," a comedy about an all-female a cappella group, was released last year and peaked at No. 3 at the box office.

As part of the growing pains, Jeong said he wants to preserve the high standards set by a cappella groups decades ago at Williams.

"We care about the a cappella culture that has been part of Williams for a very long time," he said. "We want to uphold the true essence of being an a cappella group."

Jeong said Eph Cappella might need to consider criteria, including longevity of a group, before deciding whether a group can join the board.

The Springstreeters are one of at least three groups with more than 30 years of history at Williams. Sophomore Joshua Torres ranks a cappella as one of his top priorities.

The Springstreeters are one of at least three groups with more than 30 years of history at Williams. Sophomore Joshua Torres ranks a cappella as one of his top priorities.

"Sometimes it means more to me than any of my classes," said Torres, a male soprano. "Perhaps it's because I actively choose to be part of it, and the people choose to let me in the group. I have an obligation to be there and try my hardest because they could have chosen any of the 39 that tried out."

Among their peers

Why join an a cappella group? Beyond the enjoyment of singing, a cappella members say their peers quickly learn who they are, and there's networking with upperclassman and an alumni group.

"As soon as I became a member, people recognized me or my name," said the Springstreeters' Sugi Min, a senior.

Each a cappella group is run differently, but in the 15-member Springstreeters, founded in 1980, there is an almost boot-camp-style discipline. No one should be late. There are three rehearsals a week -- a five-hour time commitment -- and mandatory attendance.

There is no reason to miss rehearsals because they're arranged around everyone's schedule -- even if that means practicing between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.

It also is an unspoken rule that no one is allowed to question Min, the musical director. Everything from energy, timing, vowel pronunciation, choreography, and, of course, blend, is critiqued.

The Springstreeters don't compete, so rehearsal is done to prepare for performances. And improvement is always the goal.

"I never want it to sound worse than when I first heard it," freshman Richard Whitney said.

‘The voice'

There is a broad range of a cappella music in Berkshire County, including Russian Orthodox songs performed by the all-male group Anonymous 10 at Bard College at Simon's Rock.

Bard faculty member Jack Brown said instruments weren't allowed in the church at one point, so there's a rich history of a cappella from the medieval and Renaissance period. In previous years, Anonymous 10 has sung medieval, Renaissance and other music, depending on the mood of the students.

"The original instrument is the voice, and anything else is second class. So if you're going to honor God, it should be the voice," Brown said.

At MCLA, the Allegrettos, founded in 2009, have grown from about 10 members singing in a storage closet to about 18 now, according to founder Jay Cottle, a senior.

There are about two dozen members in the Allegrettos' gospel chorus, a separate group that includes nearly all members of the a cappella group. The 18-member a cappella group recently advanced to the 10-team semifinals in the International Championship of A Cappella, held at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The Allegrettos finished fourth there, leaving them out of the finals, but they're still proud of how far they've come since their founding.

The Allegrettos finished fourth there, leaving them out of the finals, but they're still proud of how far they've come since their founding.

The Allegrettos also won the Lenox Caroling Competition in December.

"We are powerful and full of resonance as a group because of the gospel section," said Cottle, who learned about the musical form while attending a Baptist church as a child.

Cottle will graduate in May. He recalled the nervousness that he and some of the original Allegrettos members -- but not the freshmen -- felt leading up to the semifinal competition.

"I realized that for them, all they know is winning," Cottle said. "They know victory from Lenox and great performances and placing in quarterfinals. We know rehearsing in closets."

After four years of rehearsals and performances, Min, of the Springstreeters, didn't hesitate when asked what he'll miss most after he graduates.

"I'll miss being able to spend the end of the day going to rehearsal, forgetting about work and singing with my friends, because in four years that's been a constant."

To reach John Sakata:
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @JSakata

Voices in the Berkshires

The county's 11 college a cappella groups:


Group Year founded Type of music

Octet 1940 All-male group performs contemporary pop and other genres

Ephlats 1956 Co-ed; contemporary pop

Ephoria Circa 1990 All-female; contemporary pop and other genres

Springstreeters 1980 All-male; contemporary pop and music from the ‘50s, ‘60s and other decades

Accidentals 1989 All-female; a wide range of artists, including Ingrid Michaelson, The Beatles
and T-Pain

Elizabethans 1993 Co-ed; sacred and secular choral music from Middle Ages to the present, plus folk, spirituals, and more

Good Question 1995 Co-ed; a variety of music, including contemporary pop acts No Doubt and Maroon 5, the rock group Queen, Elton John, and other styles

Aristocows 2010 Co-ed; Disney songs only

Far Ephs Movement 2011 Co-ed; Chinese and Korean pop music


Allegrettos 2009 Co-ed; contemporary pop and soul music with gospel influence

Bard College at Simon's Rock

Anonymous 10 Unknown All males now, but gender makeup varies from semester to semester. This semester, the group sings Russian Orthodox music, but previous groups have done medieval, Renaissance and 20th-century Eastern European music

Sources: A cappella group members and a cappella group websites


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