WU a cappella groups tell their stories

Student Life Newspaper

Letter from the editor

Isabella Neubauer | Managing Editor

A cappella is a major part of student life at Washington University. The campus is home to 13 a cappella groups, all of whom hold popular, well-attended concerts at least once a year. Personally, I am nearing the end of my junior year at Wash. U., and I have never seen a sports game so well-attended as The Pikers’ annual Jammin’ Toast concert, which packs Graham Chapel every January.
Over the last year, many of campus’s regular events have gone away, and a cappella concerts were no exception. But after a long year of quarantine, Wash. U. a cappella is back: practicing virtually and recording for the Association of Collegiate A Cappella’s campus-wide album to be released later this year.
The Student Life a cappella project presents interviews with the music directors of 11 of the campus’s 13 groups, along with music selections the groups submitted. (The other two did not respond to requests for interviews.) These interviews, which were conducted in March and April, present a little slice of campus a cappella culture—what makes each group unique and the reason that all of these members keep coming back to a cappella year after year. For upperclassmen, we hope that this project will highlight a major part of the University. For underclassmen, you haven’t been able to experience Wash. U. a cappella. May this act as an introduction.

  • The Aristocats

    | Senior Social Media Editor

    The Aristocats

    Student Life spoke with this year’s Aristocats music directors, junior Ryan Kim and senior Ethan Zheng about the group and what it’s been like to do a cappella in a pandemic.

    Student Life: How would you describe your group’s music?

    Ryan Kim: We are a more social or community-focused group. We do sing primarily Disney songs which includes traditional animated Disney movies and all those classics. But it has broad applications—anything that is owned by Disney is technically under our repertoire or criteria. We could sing some oldies and goldies or some [featured in] “Guardians of the Galaxy” for example, so we have a lot of variability with our music. Usually, we like to have a bit of a blend between the songs that are crowd-pleasers and the songs we wanna sing—songs that we think are more musically challenging or show of our range the best.

    SL: I had no idea y’all could use anything that’s under Disney’s domain.

    RK: It’s kinda scary if you think about it objectively, but I’m a little biased as a Disney-lover myself.

    SL: How has your group evolved musically since its inception?

    RK: I’m not cognizant enough of our old history to know all the inner workings of that, but I can say from my experience and a bit of second-hand from upperclassmen through the years that we’ve changed a lot and grown a lot over the past decade or so. Obviously people who join can only stay with us for four years because they have to graduate and go on to bigger things, but while they’re with us, they can share musical talents, or their unique voice or if they’re more inclined towards arrangements they can provide their own spin on popular songs. We had a musical director a few years back who was very good at jazz, and so he liked to incorporate a lot of those elements into his arrangements. When we sang those, there were a lot of like chunky sounds throughout the songs and everyone has their own take. Some people are from piano, some are from orchestra and some just like to sing and some kind of bring their own fresh take. With that, our group kind of grows and evolves with its members.

    Ethan Zheng: Musically, since I joined the group I think we’re getting better and better. First, each year we get better newbies—we get more talented people every single year. And we also make our own arrangements. We sing all Disney songs, but the arrangements are all ours. We re-arrange all the music and we pass down the skills as a legacy of this group. I came in not knowing anything about arrangements and now I’m the editor of the arrangements kind of…As we pass down the arrangements they also get more and more polished and better and better. Also, the group is capable of singing more exciting and hard arrangements. In short, I think we’re getting better and better. SL: I love that! So what’s your take?

    RK: My take? *He laughs* My take is more— I am more of a performer…[but] I have worked a bit on musical arrangement, which is something that I’ve never really done before college…so I’ve worked on a little bit of jazz…I’m more of a simple composer myself.

    SL: Beyond the obvious Disney soundtrack repertoire, what makes your group unique at Wash. U.?

    RK: I think it’s definitely the vibe that we’re going for and I know that’s a bit more subjective. Our group is incredibly focused on creating a vibe that is welcoming, of community, and intimacy and a lot of fun along the way. That’s primarily what caused me to join the Aristocats.…Recently we’ve adopted this new sort of unofficial policy to make more of our events free because we realized that it’s not always conducive to put a paywall—no matter how large or small it is—to our concerts when really, we’re just doing this to enjoy music together.

    EZ: As for me, I think our arrangements. It’s like, sometimes it’s more of a show choir style rather than the Pentatonix-type a cappella that you usually hear. We try to give each part exciting lines to sing and we try to make our arrangements so that every single person can enjoy singing the song and also, we try to make our arrangements so they don’t exactly sound like the original song but the have the same vibe that original would deliver…If you come to our concerts, we add our own style into these Disney songs. We all add some of our own understanding about the music to the music when we present it.

    SL: What is something that you would want your group to explore musically that you haven’t?

    RK: If we have the arrangers for it, I’d love to have more jazzier songs. [They’re] a lot of fun to sing. They’re fun to listen to. Everyone enjoys those. Let’s see, other than jazz, I personally am a big fan of more powerful, more rock-esque music. I think more power songs would be a lot of fun.

    EZ: Off the top of my head, I think we should try learning from the other groups’ styles sometimes. I said before that we make our own arrangements, so we sort of have formed our own style of singing, so when we arrange it’s normally in that style that we sing. When you look at other groups’ arrangements, the way other groups rehearse…each group has a different arrangement style and I think it’d be fun for different groups, especially the arrangers, to look at the arrangements of different groups. And I think having joint rehearsals with other groups would be a great idea. A long time ago, we had a joint rehearsal with Amateurs…we learned some things and we still use one of their warmups…I think it would be very inspiring and instructive if the ACats could have some joint rehearsals with other groups and see is there something that we’re doing that other groups could learn from or is there something that they’re doing that we could borrow, implement or try to do their way. Maybe sometimes it’ll work better for us.

    SL: What is your favorite memory from Wash. U. a cappella?

    RK: In my freshman and sophomore years, we did a lot of community bonding stuff together. We had our own ACats retreat which is all 19 of us. We’d get into cars, drive around. We’d visit random stuff, have dinner together, watch a movie…I remember last year after a concert we had a party with alums and current members and we were all having fun and meeting members past and current and just bonding together.

    SL: What’s it been like rehearsing during the pandemic and how do you think that has impacted your music?

    RK: So, you know, we weren’t allowed to do anything last semester. We wanted to keep everybody safe and healthy during the early uncertainties of the pandemic and regarding the school year. This semester, we’ve been given the great opportunity to record songs that we haven’t done in a bit. We try to practice either through Zoom or in Forest Park—socially distanced, masked; we try to practice in smaller groups. Currently, we are teaching our new members a few of the older songs for the recordings because we think that is more feasible to produce the best quality sound and kind of maximize the potential for the recording, which is something we’re all excited for. We are currently preparing “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from “The Lion King” and “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas.” Because our group is a bit big—we have 16 people this year—we’ve split into two smaller teams of eight and even those are paired into teams of two and teams of four and we’ll have weekly check-ins…It’s been really interesting teaching this music to some of our newer members both from last year and this year depending on the song. It is very different on Zoom, for sure. Usually we work on blending our sound and our voices together…on Zoom you can’t really do that…So what we had to do was really work with people individually. It was a lot of cold calling and asking people to sing everything they knew thus far and really working with them. EZ: Something that we never expected the pandemic to bring us, but a lot of alumni that we’d lost contact with, we’ve had Zoom sessions with…So we’ve brought back a lot of those connections from the past 15 years, all those alumni. That’s why we were able to pull off a huge Aristocats arrangement/song project. We call it Aristoversary because it’s like a 15-year anniversary for us. We made the giant arrangement, about a six-minute song, that has a mashup of all the Disney songs put out in history. We brought back alumni who are the best arrangers in the history of this group and they got together and made this arrangement and over 50 people participated in singing it…We got this huge song project going…so that’s basically how we’re doing things in the pandemic—some doors are closed and some windows are open. SL: Once we’re out of the pandemic, how do you think the ACats will change whether that’s musically, socially, whether the dynamic of the group is going to change? EZ: We had to research a lot of creative ways to practice and sing together, so that will help us in case we encounter another hard time. We know that we can be this flexible and we can handle it even when everything feels like it’s falling apart. Basically it tells us that if we divert from our current routine it won’t be catastrophic. I think that’s going to be a really great mindset for the future of this group. Also, like I told you, we brought back a lot of alumni connections so the next time we have a concert, it’s probably going to be a huge alumni reunion.

  • The Amateurs

    | Senior Cadenza Editor

    The Amateurs

    Student Life spoke with The Amatuers’ music directors, junior Thea Portman and senior Daniel Hoffman, about what it’s like working for the group.

    SL: How would you describe your group’s music?

    Daniel Hoffman

    Daniel Hoffman

    Daniel Hoffman: I would say first and foremost, our group’s music changes according to the tastes of the group. We’ve been around now for just about 30 years, and over that time, the genre of stuff that we’ve done has kind of swayed wildly depending on what people are feeling. There’s a very strong country streak in some of our early albums that you won’t see too much of now. At the moment I’d say we do a lot of soul or funk-inspired stuff with interesting chords and patterns. But we do everything from pop to even actual jazz.

    SL: How has your group evolved musically since its inception 30 years ago, other than less country?

    DH: When the group started, they used instruments.

    SL: Wait, so you weren’t a cappella when it was first started? That’s wild.

    DH: I think it was just kind of like a big band, but with a large choral portion also…I think at a certain point they decided to commit to one thing or the other and now we’re a cappella. Everything we hear from old alumni who come back to hear concerts and stuff is that the group has had a real upward trend in terms of musical experience of people by the time they come into the group, like the level of difficulty…The group is called The Amateurs because it comes from the Latin root that means “to love.” So our motto is do it because you love it. That ethos has definitely stuck around for us this whole time, but I think we’ve been able to channel more of that into the [vocal] music.

    SL: What is something that you personally would want your group to explore musically more?

    Thea Portnoy

    Thea Portnoy

    Thea Portnoy: This is less musically and more dedicating our time, but prior to COVID, we were going to partner with Beat Therapy. We were trying to figure out how that was gonna work, for [us to sing at] a nearby nursing home…I think developing not even a more technical understanding, but just a deeper understanding of what we’re working on, because I think that’ll add new layers to our sound and also to our ability to listen to each other. That’s kind of the core of putting out something that sounds wonderful is the ability to listen to each other and know what’s going on.

    DH: I just want to touch on when Thea was talking about establishing a greater understanding of music we’re doing. Part of that is that technical side. And another piece of it is something that we’ve always tried to incorporate to a certain extent, which is, almost always before we perform a song for the first time, we have like a real group conversation about what the song means from the emotional context and what kind of frame of mind…when we’re performing. Having that emotional grounding really helps connect with an audience better and gives us just a stronger feeling of connection to each other and the music. I think really, I would love to see in the next couple of years the group really double down on that and get to the place where everyone feels a very strong, intuitive, emotional understanding of what it is that’s happening when they perform to really give it that extra little sparkle of artistry.

    TP: That’s exactly it. I think that understanding that music is a language through which we’re communicating, and really being able to feel and understand how we’re communicating [while also understanding] different dynamics and what different volumes and different phrasing of certain music is doing to communicate what it is that we’re telling.

    SL: And then what are your favorite memories of a cappella at Wash. U.? Whether it’s like within your specific group or within the collective a cappella community.

    TP: You’re asking me to choose a favorite? (laughs)

    DH: I’m a senior now and I’m coming to the end of my time at Wash. U. and in the group. And so I’m doing a lot of looking back and like taking stock of what moments and what relationships and what experiences have been really important to me. And I found that just a huge number of those really era-defining moments for me have been with the group…in some capacity. Like we normally will do a Fall Break trip together where everyone gets to go and stay in a house in the Lake of the Ozarks or something, and that’s one of the first times in the year where everyone’s together in a place really bonding. Or kind of the opposite end, on stage at a competition really presenting the output, the final result of like a year’s worth of work. There are just so many different experiences like that that have incorporated both the musical aspects and really epitomized the closeness that we like to cultivate as a group. I could point to any number of things, whether the rehearsals, our big trip to New York last year where we opened for the Rockettes at Radio City.

    SL: That’s so cool! I had no idea you did that.

    TP: The community that I’ve built through a cappella…kind of gets baked into a part of your college life. And that’s the lens through which you’re experiencing college. I think on one hand, it’s kind of like a community of musicians and people to geek out over music [with], or like people who are willing to work hard to get to something that sounds good, something that’s interesting. That’s always been a huge personal outlet, so that’s been incredible. But also…that’s where I’ve made the classic college friends for the late night conversations and the, like, middle of the night John’s trips, all the good Wash. U. stuff. But also really just unique mentors for me who not only actively inspire me…[but] push you to be the best version of yourself, but also accept you as you are. Very valuable.

    SL: And then also, as this interview is being conducted via Zoom, I have to ask you this: How has the pandemic changed your group dynamics and how you’re rehearsing? What has it been like adapting to that?

    TP: That’s certainly been different. Everything about it’s been modified from the beginning of the auditions process and such. We definitely can still feed off of each other’s energy on Zoom. So we’ll still have like our weekly rehearsals, [but] it’s less singing together and more of a [time where] we get to spend time together and kind of plan out for the semester.

    DH: One of the real shames of being an organization in college is that really the institutional memory of any student group can really only stretch back four years. People learn things and then they get older and then they leave and then everyone has to start over, each year almost. And so we’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about how we can develop better systems within our group to preserve some of the expertise and skills that people build over the course of their time in school and then to be able to pass those on to better equip people to be able to stand on the shoulders of past generations instead of figuring everything out on their own…One we’re gonna bring back…a little arranging school inside of our group where we’re gonna have a curriculum where traditionally more experienced arrangers can teach interested younger people some of the basics about how to put together music and how to think about, like, music composition and construction for the group…and [we’ll] hopefully set this up as a self-perpetuating system, like develop a range of talented people who are already a group and then pass it on for years to come. And we’ve thought about doing that for other a cappella related skills also, so like vocal percussion school could happen…So the last year has been a real time for us to brainstorm and start to put together ways that we can start those ideas.

    SL: That’s cool! Did you guys both know how to arrange music before you came to college? Or did you learn once you got into The Amateurs and started doing a cappella?

    TP: Daniel did. I kind of did; I had significantly less experience. I was involved in high school a cappella…I was…kind of thrown into the role [of music director] and I kind of had to learn how to arrange, but I don’t think that I really, really learned. It was kind of just like, “Okay, this is the thing that you’re doing, figure it out.” I’ve definitely learned through college and through arrangers.

    DH: I was also in a high school a cappella group where kind of halfway through my sophomore year, I ended up accidentally being in charge of things, and [I] kind of very quickly had to figure out how to produce music for the group. And so I started getting arranging experience there.

  • Ghost Lights

    | Senior Social Media Editor

    Ghost Lights

    Ghost Lights

    Student Life spoke with Ghost Lights’ musical director Caroline Smith.

    Student Life: How would you describe the Ghost Lights’ music?

    Caroline Smith: We are the soundtrack a cappella group, so basically we will do anything that’s in a soundtrack. Musicals is how it first started out, but we’ve branched out from that and we do movies, TV shows and even video games is a new thing that we’ve started doing more of.

    SL: Is it only original things from soundtracks, or do you also do songs that happen to be on soundtracks?

    CS: It’s really fuzzy. It kinda just depends on what the group wants to sing. It doesn’t have to be originally from a film, but if it’s made famous by a TV show or a film, then we’ll use it. I’m trying to think of an example, but I don’t think that issue has really come up recently. I think we try to stick to originals, but we’re flexible. If the song is really good, we’ll do it.

    SL: How would you say Ghost Lights’ music has evolved either since the group started or since you first got involved?

    CS: So when it first started, I forget what happened, it was part of another a cappella group, and I don’t actually know the whole history. This section sort of branched off because they really wanted to do musicals, and so if you look at the earlier repertoire, it was pretty much only musicals, like Broadway, but now I think we have in our rep two songs from Broadway out of seven songs. So we have diversified in that sense, and I’d say since I’ve been in the Ghost Lights, there’s been a new interest in doing video game songs, just because artists who make video games are now putting way more money into the music that goes into video games. There’s big artists, like Florence and the Machine has made songs for video games. That whole industry is booming, and I think that’s something the Ghost Lights is taking into account.

    SL: What’s something that you would want to do musically that you haven’t done yet?

    CS: I don’t know. I think what’s really great about our group is that we’re a democracy. We all put in song selections and then we have this huge voting process, and so I normally end up getting to do a song that I suggested. I think right now, I’m really happy with the songs that we have chosen. I love our repertoire.

    SL: Speaking of COVID, what’s it been like trying to rehearse or do auditions or any of that during the pandemic?

    CS: Yeah, that’s been really rough. When it first happened, we were like ‘No rehearsals, no singing,’ and then this semester we are doing stuff. We’ll see as the semester moves on, but we are this semester recording on our own songs, so we’re in the process right now. It’s an asynchronous format and then we do social stuff in person. With COVID, the singing, it would just be really hard to do over Zoom, and no one in our group, we don’t feel comfortable singing in person and the University doesn’t allow it anyway. So we have chosen asynchronous recording, and it’s actually really cool.

    SL: Can you say what song you are working on recording?

    CS: We’re working on “Man or Muppet” right now, so that’s one song we are definitely going to be releasing. And then we have six other songs that I have to put out a vote for to see what we want to do next. And then another thing that we’re doing this semester is ACAC is doing a big album with one song for each a cappella group. SL: On a different note, what’s something that you would say—aside from just the music that you do—makes Ghost Lights unique at Wash. U.?

    CS: The music is definitely the biggest one. We tried to define this when we were doing auditions this semester, and we’re kind of the chill group, and we’re super welcoming and friendly. I don’t think we’re as serious as some of the other groups; we just have so much fun in our rehearsals, and we’re not the most productive but that’s fine because we just have so much fun. We’re more about having fun while singing than like ‘Singing, rehearsal, has to be super serious.’ I think that’s kind of the general gist.

    SL: What’s your favorite memory from being involved with a cappella at Wash. U.?

    CS: I would say in general, the car rides to rehearsal are my favorite part. Not the actual singing part, but getting there. We listen to music, and it’s so fun. That’s something I’ve really missed from COVID. It’s been so long since we’ve been together, so it’s really hard. I made one of my best friends through a cappella; I live with her now, so that’s obviously a big deal.

    SL: Once we’re out of the pandemic, how do you think the group will change? How do you think the pandemic will have impacted the group?

    CS: I think it’s definitely going to make us so much more thankful for singing and being in person and getting to see each other. Because we’ve just been away from singing together in a group, and I know when we get together and sing and just have those harmonies present, it’s going to feel so good. I don’t know how to describe it, but for people who sing, they’ll know what I’m talking about when you just get a huge group of people doing six-part harmony, just that feeling, and I miss it so much.

    CS: Oh! Favorite memory! “Mamma Mia” is the most fun song to sing. There’s this one moment in the song where we all sing and we turn to the audience. It’s our one choreographed moment, because we’re not dancers, and that I’d say is, collectively as a group, that’s our favorite moment.

  • More Fools Than Wise

    | Senior Cadenza Editor

    More Fools Than Wise

    Student life had the opportunity in March to talk to More Fools Than Wise musical directors sophomore Meher Arora and junior Lucas Alcantara in a conversation about specialties of their unique a cappella group and how they have adapted their performance during COVID-19.

    Student Life: First, can you tell me a little about More Fools Than Wise? How would you describe your group’s music?

    Lucas Alcantra

    Lucas Alcantra

    Lucas Alcantara: So, our group focuses on folk, chamber and jazz music and we currently have about 16 members. Because we sing some older classical music, we are a little different than other groups because we often buy music instead of composing.

    Meher Arora: We’re big on jazz right now, so we have kind of focused on that recently. We adapt to each new group of members and go with whatever we want.

    SL: How has your group evolved over the years?

    MA: I’ve only been a part of Fools for about a year, so I haven’t seen as much as Lucas, but I really like that we modify depending on the group and what talent is present.

    LA: I’m not that old, Meher! But we were founded in 1999, and like you said, we just focus on music that we like at the time.

    SL: What makes your group unique?

    LA: My approach to music is at its best when there is cooperation. That doesn’t happen in solos, but it does when we work and cooperate with each other. People in the group share that philosophy.

    Meher Arora

    Meher Arora

    MA: We stand out by being collaborative. We let every voice shine–solos happen, but we work on group dynamic and blend. We really honor everyone’s talents and love for music.

    SL: What is something you would like to explore musically with the group?

    MA: I’d like to see some stepping out of our comfort zone and express individual talents. In addition, I’d like to perform at more events and display that talent; of course, in a COVID safe time. I’ve always seen a cappella performances being high energy, choreographed and intense, but I want to promote that our laid-back jazz group can be just as cool.

    LA: I’d love to see more music arranging. We don’t do that often because of the genre of music we sing, but I think it would be nice to look into.

    SL: What is your favorite memory from your time with the group?

    LA: I would say my audition process. I was enthralled by the different types of communities you could be a part of. There were so many options, but everyone was so passionate.

    MA: My favorite memory has to be my first practice where I brought in a ton of tea and someone else brought a kettle. It was such a good bonding opportunity. We literally just took a break in the middle of practice and had teatime.

    SL: So fun. How have you all adapted with COVID-19?

    MA: We started using this app called Jamulus, which is similar to Zoom, but more ideal for singing. It doesn’t have video, so it is much better in quality and picks up sound well. Blending is so important in a cappella, especially without accompaniment, so it isn’t great virtually. It’s definitely not been an easy transition, but singing remotely is better than no singing.

    LA: Yeah, it has definitely been interesting. We’ve been practicing about two to three hours a week and have made practice tracks that have been really helpful.

    SL: That’s interesting. How does Jamulus work?

    LA: My computer science explanation is that Zoom compresses your voice, allowing just your voice to come through and not a ton of white noise. For a singing voice, there are a lot more subtleties. Jamulus helps make it more accurate and controlled. You can also change the volume on certain people to adjust. Because Jamulus requires you to create a server, we’ve had a lot of impostors join randomly–it is difficult to make a server completely private.

  • Mosaic Whispers

    | Senior Sports Editor

    Mosaic Whispers

    Student Life sat down with Noah Maguigad, musical director for the Mosaic Whispers, to talk about the group, what makes them special, some fond memories and how they’ve been spending quarantine as a performance group unable to perform.

    Student Life: So to start off, could you give me a brief overview of the Mosaic Whispers?

    Noah Maguigad: Yeah, so the Mosaic Whispers is an all-gender group, we compete, and we usually have a fall concert and spring concert, which is pretty standard. We just love creating music. All the music we do is arranged by members of the group, and we have a strong sense of community but also of making quality music.

    SL: What type of music does the group typically focus on?

    NM: The cool thing about arranging our own music is we get to sing whatever people are interested in. Most recently, especially because of competitions, a lot of it has been pop music, although we’re not necessarily limited to that genre. So one of the goals for the future, but also during this quarantine time, was to kind of branch out from pop a little bit, to try some new genres and see what our voices can do. So right now we’re kind of [in] an experimental phase almost, just because we have done so much pop and we’re trying to do different things now.

    SL: Has that shift mostly come as a result of quarantine?

    NM: Well even before quarantine, a lot of members were discussing it. Pop is really good for competitions because it’s upbeat, and you can do a lot with a pop arrangement that judges will really like and the audiences will really like, but we feel like we’ve gotten too entrenched in that, so we want to branch out a bit. So yeah, it’s a pretty recent development I’d say. Not necessarily because of COVID, but definitely because we’re not singing as much, it’s been something that we’ve been trying to explore a little bit more.

    SL: When was the last time you were able to compete?

    NM: The last competition was last year, and it was interesting because it was over a year ago now that we competed in the quarterfinals for [the International Championship of Collegiate A cappella], and that was actually the last thing we did as a group. It’s funny, I think it was a month ago now, but I was looking at my Snapchat and a memory from competing pops up, and I was like ‘Whoa that was a year ago,’ but it feels not that far off because it’s the last thing we did.

    SL: The Snap memories are a killer. Do you think there’s any particular genres or directions you’d like your group to explore musically that you haven’t already touched?

    NM: Yeah, I kind of touched on it before, but I don’t think there are specific genres. I know R&B is a genre that we want to dig into a little bit more, but besides that it’s just whatever people are feeling, which is very vague, but I say that sincerely.

    SL: What have your group been up to during COVID? How have you gone about rehearsing and continuing as a performance group when there are no performances this year?

    NM: So the first semester, we kind of were just getting our bearings and we didn’t have anything very formal, and that was in large part because we weren’t able to have auditions in the fall semester. Because I feel like every year, one of the big things that pushes groups and motivates groups to do more is getting newbies. One thing that we did was an in-house recording of a section of “when the party’s over” by Billie Eilish, and that was kind of like our experiment, I would say. And now this semester we’re trying to kick it up a little bit now that we have newbies. We definitely want to make things more regular, because one of the challenges is getting them to feel a sense of community despite not being able to directly sing with us, so we’ve been working on that. Also in April, someone’s hosting all the a cappella groups and all of us are recording a song, so that’s kind of the big project for this semester. So definitely one of the goals is to make a few more of the mini projects that we like and post them on social media and stuff.

    SL: What do you think the experience has been for the newbies you mentioned who have come in and haven’t exactly met everyone in the group?

    NM: Absolutely, so that was a big point when talking about fall semester. Not only were we prepping for what we could do musically, but we put a lot of thought into how we were going to get newbies to feel like a part of the group. I remember last year in a non-COVID world, even when you get into a group and you’re clicking with them, it can be really hard in the beginning to ease your way in, and so we wanted to make that experience easier for the newbies. One thing that we did is every year we have a newbie retreat where we have them do a scavenger hunt around campus, do trivia about Whispers and then host them for dinner and stuff like that. Obviously, it had to change a little bit because we have to be safe, but that was one thing that we did. And then we’ve kind of just been involving them in the things we do. One of the big things that some of us do in the Whispers is badminton. We love to go to Sumers and play, so we get the newbies to come with us and play a little bit. It’s just simple stuff like that.

    SL: Do you have a favorite memory from your time with the group?

    NM: Musically, it would have to be winning the quarterfinals of ICCAs, just because we put so many hours and so much work into it, not only the music, but also the choreography and telling a story with our set. And seeing that pay off there was such an incredible experience. Non-musically, we went to Mission Taco a lot, and those were always good memories. Something else that we do usually is during Fall or Spring Break, a Whisper will host all the Whispers. So for Fall Break we all went [to someone’s house] and we spent all break together. We went around and visited places, stayed up late and played games, and it was just a really, really good time. I think the great thing about the Whispers is that we equally value our music and our bonds and our relationships. There are times, like before a concert, when we’re focusing on music and really grinding at that, but also it’s good to have those times when we step away from the music and remind ourselves that we’re in this together and that we all have these people that support us.

    SL: Once the pandemic is over, do you think the group will have changed as a result?

    NM: I’m not really sure. I don’t think recording more content is out of the question, necessarily, but as a performance group, the things that we value are gigs and doing competitions. So it’s not that we don’t enjoy recording, I’m not sure how much time we would have. It has its benefits, but we’re really trying to get back to competitions and gigs and concerts.

  • The Pikers

    | Senior News Editor

    The Pikers

    Student Life spoke with Pikers musical director Devon Finlay.

    Student Life: How would you describe your group’s music?

    Devon Finlay: I’d say we try to keep it all over the place. Obviously, I think one of the biggest things we consider is just picking songs that people know, but we don’t have a particular era or genre in mind. The biggest thing that brings it all together is just popularity, regardless of genre or era.

    SL: Why do you focus so much on popularity?

    DF: For us, we’re all just about performing for the student body. And we find that concerts are the most fun when people know the songs, when, you know, maybe they’re not singing along, but at least they know them and I just think it helps put on a good performance.

    SL: Yeah, definitely. How has your group evolved musically since its inception?

    DF: We’re the oldest group on campus. We’ve been around since 1985, you know, obviously I wasn’t around, but I’ve heard that there’s been a lot of ups and downs throughout its history. When it started it was the only group on campus and I think took itself pretty seriously. And then there’s been some times when it wasn’t as musically oriented. Now we strike a good balance between having a lot of fun, being like a really social group but also producing some pretty good music. So I think we’ve kind of found a good middle ground now.

    SL: What makes the group unique at Wash. U.?

    DF: We are the most fun. Our concert, our big one in the spring, I think it’s the most attended of all the student-run events, it’s the most attended except for ThurtenE. And, you know, we just make a short movie that’s a lot of fun. We have our alums come back and they mess with us and pull pranks on us while we’re on stage. I think every group at Wash. U. on is making great music, but we definitely take kind of the fun and the performance aspect to the next stage.

    SL: That’s really cool. What is something that you want your group to explore musically?

    DF: Earlier I was saying we do a lot of different genres; I think we can always just do more. We fall back into this doing modern pop and classic rock, and you know there’s a lot of music out there. And I think one of the biggest barriers is arranging. Arranging isn’t easy, but it’s much easier if you’ve arranged similar songs in the past to keep doing the same style of music.

    SL: What’s your favorite memory from Wash. U. a cappella?

    DF: Freshman year, our big concert, Jammin’ Toast. It’s in the spring. It’s more than a semester’s worth of work going into it, and just to see—you know the second night we had 700 people in Graham Chapel. Yeah, I mean Graham Chapel was sold out, and just to be a freshman and see that is just absurd, and then to go out there and have a good time and just be with my closest friends was amazing.

    SL: That’s so awesome. And then what’s it been like—I guess you just said you haven’t been up to anything but have you been rehearsing or doing anything at all this year—how has that impacted your music?

    DF: Yeah, we really haven’t been able to do much this year. Obviously with all the guidelines and everything, we can’t do anything in person. And I think some groups have explored some virtual stuff, but we just decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. We actually will be recording soon…[ACAC is] letting a cappella groups record for free. We’re just going to be recording one of our songs that we did last year. But for that we’re not even rehearsing, we’re just gonna have people relook over the parts by themselves. We did take a few new members, this spring. We’ve been trying to kind of do some social stuff on Zoom and outside, but I think kind of our goal is just to show up in the fall and get started again.

    SL: That’s awesome. Once we’re out of this pandemic, how do you think that the group will change either musically or otherwise?

    DF: I think the hope is that we don’t. Obviously from when we started this pandemic to when we will eventually be out of it, the members of the group will be pretty different, you know, a class graduated last May, another class will graduate this year, but I think our hope is that things are kind of the same. We just want to keep being us and keep making the music that we make.

  • Reverb

    | Managing Editor


    Student Life spoke with seniors Joy Chen and Andie Zuzarte, the Reverb musical directors.

    Student Life: How would you describe Reverb’s music?

    Andie Zuzarte & Joy Chen

    Andie Zuzarte & Joy Chen

    Andie Zuzarte: We kind of do every type of genre, it really depends what the group is interested in at that point in time. One of our new things that we’ve been focusing on recently is music that has a message that is relevant to the community service we’re doing, or more wholesome themes, I guess.

    Joy Chen: We’ve done everything from the Beatles to Kesha. We’ve done Panic! at the Disco, a lot of different pop-alt songs. And like Andie mentioned, we definitely are trying to go for more songs that have an uplifting or wholesome message. For example, “Praying” by Kesha…or “All These Things I’ve Done.” Just these things that are appropriate for different audiences and different ages, especially since we do a lot of volunteering around St. Louis.

    SL: What kind of volunteering do you do?

    JC: In the past, we used to go out to different places in St. Louis and perform for fundraisers or galas. We’ve done some sickle cell fundraisers, a food bank, we also have gone to St. Vincent Home for Children. We’re still partnered with them, actually. We used to go and do a couple performances and teach them some things about singing, and now we’re still Zooming with them every week to teach them basic music theory and work through some basic exercises.

    AZ: This semester, we’re also doing a virtual concert, like a virtual fundraising concert. So it’ll be a Zoom or a virtual event that is prerecorded and that goes live and then people can donate to the musical organization that you are supporting.

    SL: It’s only been a few years since Reverb started, but how would you say the group has evolved musically since that beginning?

    AZ: I think one of the biggest things is because the group has grown so much in size, we’ve definitely been able to take on more complex projects and songs. So our arrangements have definitely gotten harder, more interesting. I’ve seen a lot of growth within the group and seen— more people are arranging, people who never arranged before. More people are trying out for solos, or even expanding their range, trying different voice parts. So I’ve definitely seen a lot of individual growth in the group as well.

    JC: Reverb really likes to promote an atmosphere of mentorship and we’re really willing to help everyone grow, so a lot of people who joined the group individually are great singers with good potential, but sometimes they can’t read music or they struggle with intonation or something. Usually by the end of their time here, or within a couple years they’ve definitely learned a lot more. And Reverb hosts specific music theory workshops and arranging workshops for our members, in which people can go, learn, ask any questions they have and we all work on arranging together. It’s definitely been great to see our members of the group start off with very little musical knowledge and then be very enthusiastic about it, helping to arrange songs that we end up performing.

    SL: What would you say is something that makes Reverb unique at Wash. U.?

    JC: I guess the main thing is definitely the philanthropy component, since we’re mainly geared toward volunteering and different community service opportunities. One of my favorite things about being in Reverb is just how rewarding it is to be able to go to a place knowing your singing is making an impact. I love doing things on campus too and performing for our concert, but it’s definitely good to get out of the St. Louis/Wash. U. bubble and get into the community and meet people.

    AZ: I also think that because we don’t compete, we have a different mindset from a lot of the other groups. I feel like there’s not a lot of anxiety that comes from being in the group. Me and Joy probably do get a lot of anxiety about the group because we’re stressed about leading it, but I think the members really get to enjoy singing and enjoy being around the people in the group, because the mission of the group is not as much to win competitions as it is to give back to the community and foster a love for learning music.

    SL: Is there something you would like Reverb to explore musically that maybe you haven’t done or you haven’t done much of?

    JC: So far, I feel like the direction that the group is headed in musically is something I’m really happy with. So it’s just people being open-minded and learning as much as possible was a really good atmosphere for Reverb, as we are definitely expanding our music taste and learning all sorts of new things.

    AZ: A thing that I’m also excited about is us putting our own style on different styles. It’s something that Joy and I have talked about a lot, maybe doing a slowed-down cover of a more pop song, or maybe speeding up a song and doing a more exciting arrangement of it. And that’s something that we’ve talked about and I’m excited to see how that goes, us being more creative with our arrangements in the future.

    JC: In the past we’ve even done some interesting add-ons to songs, like written some sections that weren’t in there or changed the lyrics around. So we definitely like to have fun with songs, give it our own personal touch.

    SL: Do you guys have a favorite memory from being involved with Wash. U. a cappella?

    AZ: It’s an easy one to think of because it’s one of my favorite memories ever…We didn’t have funding from Student Union yet, and we had this gig…We didn’t have cars, so our friend had to borrow a car from his uncle’s cousin or something crazy. We got to the gig, and for some reason or other, the car needed to go back before the gig was over. And so on the way back, we had to pack like 12 people into a Prius. This was our first gig ever, and it was just a crazy experience. The gig was awesome, they fed us, it was amazing. And then we were on this huge high and we felt on top of the world, and then we were like, ‘We don’t have a car to get home.’ It was just a really funny experience.

    JC: Yeah, that was definitely a good one. I would say my favorite was probably—because it was really sentimental—our first real concert. I know that we were kinda nervous. Since the group started from scratch, it was difficult to get people to show up to things and overall coordinate. But once we had our first concert, a real one, and we reserved the location and then the tickets ended up selling out, and just being there was a really surreal experience. That was what I had hoped for, and I was worried we wouldn’t make it, but Reverb is still together after all these years and now in ACAC, so it was a really rewarding experience.

    SL: What’s it been like rehearsing or practicing during the pandemic?

    JC: So we have a lot of people who aren’t in St. Louis right now, and obviously everyone has different comfort levels, so we haven’t really done anything in person unless it’s socially distanced, with masks on, with only people who are very comfortable with that kind of thing. But we have had sectionals, where people meet with their different voice parts and just get a chance to go over the music. It is very difficult to sing on Zoom so we typically avoid singing altogether, but we do have people submit voice recordings and give each other feedback based on the recordings. And just like practicing on our own.

    AZ: And another thing we’re doing is arranging workshops…Basically every week we have tasks, and people come in and peer-edit each others’ arrangements. And it’s a nice way to get to see people right now, even though we’re not meeting.

    SL: When we’re out of the pandemic, how do you think this experience will affect Reverb in the future?

    JC: The main thing that, like Andie mentioned earlier, we aren’t a super competitive or high-stress group, so I think the thing that Reverb misses the most is just seeing each other. Once we’re gonna be all back in person, we’ve all been talking about how much we miss each other, we want to hang out, so that’s gonna be what I’m looking forward to the most.

    AZ: That’s the really big one. Also for me, having the whole ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ thing, not having been in Reverb for so long, I listened to a voice memo last night of us singing and I actually was like ‘Oh my god, how have I been living without this for this long?’ I think especially underclassmen in the group have been really missing it and next year, they’re gonna be excited to be back together.

  • Sensasians

    | Managing Editor


    Student Life sat down with Chris Hemauer and Lacy Wilder, the musical directors for Sensasians.

    Student Life: How would you describe your group’s music?

    Chris Hemauer

    Chris Hemauer

    Chris Hemauer: It is predominantly either solely English, solely some typically East Asian language, but there are some other languages as well, or some mashup between the two.

    Lacy Wilder: So the Sensasians is an Asian-interest a cappella group, so we specialize in bilingual mashups. They typically consist of a Western pop song mashed up with an Asian song, so we’ve sung music in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Tagalog…Like we’ve sung a mashup of “Boy with Luv” by BTS and “Cut To The Feeling” by Carly Rae Jepsen. We’ve sung a mashup of “Low” by Flo Rida and “Lotto” by EXO. Kind of things in that similar range, typically very upbeat and poppy.

    SL: All excellent music. How has the Sensasians evolved musically since its inception or since you’ve been in the group?

    CH: Freshman year, I’d say, is just a time more so of us getting to know each other, getting to know the group and everything, and in the middle of spring…that’s usually when we’d find ourselves developing musically. But now we’re back on track, so really, I think with this semester and probably next semester as well, I think we’re going to develop to really embrace the Asian side of the music more.

    Lacy Wilder

    Lacy Wilder

    LW: I think when the group first started out, they sang exclusively mashups…but for a couple years, starting around right before I joined, there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on the bilingual mashup side, and that’s something we’re actually trying to get back to as a group to preserve that sense of cultural identity. Musically, we’ve been trying to return to that space as we move forward and really stay true to our group’s identity. And also as our group has evolved, we’ve been able to improve a lot technically, and our blend has gotten really good and I feel like musically we’re a lot stronger.

    SL: When you say mashups were not the main focus, was that drifting more into Western music or more into Asian music?

    LW: It was more into Western music. We have a lot of people in our group who arrange, and to try and encourage a culture of arranging—there became more of a focus on just arranging rather than specifically arranging bilingual mashups. And we kind of realized, so last year was my first year in the group, and we realized during our fall concert that we didn’t have any new mashups. So we ended up having to use an old arrangement just so we had that representation in our concert, but now going forward that’s something we have really made a point to prioritize in our arrangements. So me and Chris, we try to incorporate that into almost every arrangement if not every arrangement that we make, so that we’re staying true to that cultural identity.

    SL: You’ve kind of already answered this, but what is something in your opinion that makes the Sensasians unique at Wash. U.?

    CH: So obviously our music choice and appreciation of Asian culture is something that makes us stand out, but then, within each group there’s just a vibe that each give off, a little differently. I’d say we definitely have our own vibe that just sets us apart, and definitely it’s one of the reasons that I chose the Sensasians, the vibe that they gave off I really liked in addition to the Asian music, because I was really curious and wanted to get involved and learn more about that stuff, but also the feeling that you have, the family that’s created within the group also sets it apart, because everyone gets along in their own special way to form a unique family.

    SL: What’s something you would want your group to explore musically that you maybe haven’t already done or could do more of?

    LW: I would love to see us do more Asian ballads. Because I think we do really well with ballads, and it always sounds really good whenever we do it, but I think with ballads specifically, that’s where we tend to stick with mostly Western music, but I think it would be really cool to explore and we could execute it really well.

    SL: Do you have a favorite memory from being involved with Wash. U. a cappella?

    CH: There are a lot of memories scattered along the way of the ICCA competition that we did in early spring of 2020. Not only was learning all that stuff pretty fun just because the time dedication for that is really high, so you get to see everyone more, and you obviously have really fun bonding moments within that with the rehearsals, but then just the performance itself—it’s just a culmination of all the work you put in together, which really helps the group create that memory of just how fun it is to sing together.

    LW: Last year, when we did ICCA, I think that whole experience of preparing for the competition and getting to be part of the arranging process—because that was before I was music director, but I still got to be involved with the arranging. So just that whole process of preparing for the competition—doing arrangements, choreography. And then we got to travel to Springfield, Missouri, and have a little overnight-weekend type thing as a group, and that was a really special experience, and we just got so much closer and it was so incredible to get to perform something we had worked so hard on. It was also literally two weeks before COVID hit, so it’s my last major memory from before COVID.

    SL: Speaking of COVID, what’s it been like trying to rehearse or run an a cappella group during the pandemic?

    CH: Even though Lacy and I had never run auditions before, I do have the feeling that it was significantly more difficult than normal auditions would have been, just because of the challenges of how to get audio to sync up exactly how you want. ‘Cause if two people are doing things at the same time on Zoom, it will never line up well…Now, we are slowly ramping up our rehearsal schedule, and more so prioritizing individualized rehearsals just because you can do that over Zoom versus any kind of rehearsal space you can’t really do multiple people singing yet. So we have to wait until the University guidelines change in order to open that back up again. So it’s a little unfortunate, but…it’s still nice to be somewhat back in the rehearsal schedule versus just not singing.

    LW: We’re just now getting off the ground. We were on hiatus for a bit in the fall, but all the groups held auditions, and so we have new members now. We’re working on making a recording project, so we have some studio time booked in the end of April. It’s an arrangement of “Rise Up,” so now we’re just getting back into the swing of rehearsing. It’s definitely more difficult to coordinate and it requires a lot more technical skill that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for when I decided to be music director, but it’s still really rewarding and fulfilling to get to work with people on music again and just to hear people’s voices, even if it is on Zoom.

  • Staam

    | Managing Editor



    Student Life spoke with Staam musical director Madeline Canal.

    Student Life: How would you describe Staam’s music?

    Madeline Canal

    Madeline Canal

    Madeline Canal: We are an a cappella group that sings songs by Jewish artists, so anything that’s been written or produced by a Jewish artist is what we focus on singing. We’re open to all types of people who can come and be a part of our group, but we do focus on Jewish artists.

    SL: How would you say your group has evolved musically, whether since it started or just since you’ve been involved?

    MC: I think we’ve realized how many artists are truly Jewish or have connections to the Jewish faith. When I first joined, I didn’t realize there were so many different types of songs we could sing, whether that be traditional Hebrew songs or contemporary pop music or anything like that. So we’ve branched out in the types of music we’re singing; we’re not really just singing basic Hebrew songs, so we’ve really branched out in that form. And also I think reaching out to more synagogues in the area and being able to travel during Spring Break has allowed us to be able to have more of a presence outside of just the Wash. U. community, but also reaching out into the St. Louis community and wherever we go over Spring Break, into other synagogues and other Jewish communities across the United States, so I think that’s a way we’ve been able to branch out a little more.

    SL: So do you have a Spring Break trip with the group every year?

    MC: Yeah, typically we’ll go to the hometown of someone in the group, so this past year, not during COVID, we went to Nashville…and so we were able to sing in a couple synagogues there. We had reached out to some people there and were able to perform. I think the year before they went to Chicago, and I don’t really know the year before that; I wasn’t in the group. But it’s just a great way to get out of the little bubble of St. Louis.

    SL: What’s something that you’d say makes Staam unique within the Wash. U. a cappella culture?

    MC: I’d say Staam is a very open and accepting group. I think every group, honestly, is very open, but we’re kind of known as the laid-back group. Just very relaxed, and we’re really here for each other and have just a great sense of community within our group. Everyone’s always welcome to all the events that we hold. I think every group on campus is amazing and I have nothing negative to say about the other groups, but I just really enjoy the vibe of Staam. I think that’s what really draws people to the auditions, because we just have this great sense of community within ourselves.

    SL: Do you have a favorite memory from being involved with Wash. U. a cappella?

    MC: I’ve only been in one concert with Staam, because of COVID sadly we weren’t able to do our spring concert, but I think participating in our Staamakkah—it was in December, so instead of Hanukkah, we called our concert Staamakkah, and just being able to sing with the group in that, that’s one of my favorite memories. And even though rehearsals leading up to that were a bit stressful sometimes—we had so much music to go over—it was always so great to be around the people in the group and it never felt like a chore.

    SL: What’s it been like with you guys trying to rehearse or make music during the pandemic?

    MC: It’s definitely been difficult. I think every group’s struggled with being able to find the sense of music within all of this, because we aren’t able to rehearse in person due to SU’s guidelines. But we were able to actually find an online platform called SoundTrap—it’s kind of like Google Docs for music, in a way. I can upload some piano tracks and then people can go and record over it. So there’s still a sense that you can hear other people’s recordings, we can have that sound that we used to have even though it is purely online. But yes, it is difficult to be able to still have the sense of Staam. But we have periodic Zoom meetings, and this semester we’re trying to do more outdoor gatherings, whether that be social events, just a couple of people, or just listening to music or trying to plan for the future.

    SL: That sounds nice. At least it’s nice enough that you can do that now. Once we’re out of the pandemic and things are back to normal, how do you think that experience will have changed you guys as a group?

    MC: I think we’ll definitely appreciate the time we have in rehearsal a lot more than we used to. I mean obviously we had appreciated the time we had before, but now realizing what it’s like to not have those seven hours a week that you did have before with the group, I think it’s going to cause people to try to attend rehearsal more periodically. You know, if you were before skipping out a few times because you were stressed about work or just didn’t feel like going, I think now we’re going to have people more dedicated to the group in a way. Like, ‘This is something I really missed and something I could have taken for granted before but now I really want to appreciate it and try to go to as many rehearsals as possible.’ So I think just a better appreciation for the music, especially, too, because that’s something we really aren’t able to have a full sound of everyone in the group together.

    SL: What’s something that you would want Staam to explore musically that maybe you haven’t done or haven’t done very much of?

    MC: That’s a good question. I think maybe trying to do some more Israeli pop music. A lot of the Hebrew music that we do is more on the traditional side, so I think trying to branch off and do some more pop music is what I would personally like to do. But musically, we’re not really a group that competes, so I don’t think we would try to do that anytime soon, but just trying to incorporate more genres or styles of music into our concerts is something that I would look forward to.

  • The Stereotypes

    | Senior Cadenza Editor

    The Stereotypes

    Student Life sat down with Kevin Wang, musical director for The Stereotypes, to talk about the group, what makes them special, some fond memories and how they’ve been spending quarantine as a performance group unable to perform.

    Student Life: To start off, tell me a little about The Stereotypes: who are you, what type of music do you make, that kind of thing.

    Kevin Wang: [The Stereotypes] are an all guys group, we’re pretty relaxed and we do pretty much whatever music the group wants to do. I know some a cappella groups specialize, but we do whatever the group feels like. One of the biggest things we do every year is a male beauty pageant concert, Mr. Stereotype, for fun in the fall. We’re also one of the competitive groups, so in the past we’ve gone to a lot of tournaments, a lot of competitions and placed really well there. So I’d say we’re a group that’s fairly competitive, but also very laid back, very fun loving at the same time. I’m sure that’s what every other group has said too, so it’s kind of generic.

    SL: No, no, that’s an interesting mix of competitive and casual. Tell me a little more about the Mr. Stereotype concert.

    KW: Yeah, so that’s in December every year, and it’s in Graham Chapel usually. What happens is, we all take up a name, like a “Mr. Something,” and then the audience votes on who they think should win the title of Mr. Stereotype. It’s super fun every year and it draws a huge crowd in Graham Chapel. It’s the highlight of the year probably for me.

    SL: What stereotype were you last year?

    KW: Last time I was Mr. Clean. I couldn’t think of anything, and so I just dressed up in all white and had some Windex with me, so that was my thing. People move around and there have been some really fun ones, they’re all over the place so it’s a lot of fun.

    SL: Sounds like a great time. In terms of your music, how do you think the group has evolved musically since its inception, or alternatively, how has it changed since you’ve joined?

    KW: I think a cappella as a genre is sometimes seen as a little odd because all it is is taking songs that already exist and then, to a lot of people, you’re just making it sound worse. You’re doing a worse version of an already existing song and that’s what a lot of people think about a cappella. And I think it’s fairly accurate in a lot of cases, like I don’t know anyone who would rather listen to an a cappella version of a song over the actual song. But I think that’s something that people are starting to recognize as not desirable as a genre, and a lot of people in The Stereotypes recognize that there’s not much fulfillment that comes with just doing an existing song worse, so as a group we pushed ourselves to do a lot of different things musically. The last time we competed, my freshman year, we really pushed ourselves with our competition set to be unique, to be creative, and that’s what helped us place really high in the competitions. I feel like a cappella gets really boring after a while, but we push ourselves to change that, and we’re continuing to push ourselves to change how we think of the genre and what a cappella can do, besides just do what it’s always done.

    SL: What changes did you guys make musically to try and differentiate yourselves from other groups?

    KW: So we have arrangers that do original music. We’re not just arranging existing music, we have an exceptionally talented arranger, Josh Feldman, and he’s very into music and super passionate about the genre in general. As a group we like to think about a cappella as its own instrument. Because it is, it’s this collection of voices, and you don’t want to take a song made for Beyonce and Beyonce’s instruments and shove it into an a cappella instrument because it’s not going to sound good. So you want to make an original song made for this instrument to sing, and that’s what’s going to sound the best.

    SL: Is there anything musically that you think the group should explore in the future that you haven’t already?

    KW: I’m not sure, the group’s been around for a long time and it’s actually our 20th anniversary this year, so I’m not sure about everything we’ve done in the past. Personally, something I want to do is adapting jazz songs or just taking music and changing all the chords and rhythms and making it something new.

    SL: Well, I was going to ask you what your favorite memory is, but I have a feeling it’s the Mr. Stereotype concert.

    KW: It actually isn’t! Something else that sets The Stereotypes apart is we do a winter break tour every year (except for this year, obviously). We pick a region of the U.S., and we basically do a two-week-long tour where we stay at each other’s houses and sing around the area at whatever gigs we can pick up. So last year we went to Albuquerque and Dallas, and we sang the national anthem at a rodeo in Dallas which was super cool. So that collective experience is my favorite memory.

    SL: That sounds like a lot of fun. What’s it been like this year, rehearsing and just being a performance group during the pandemic?

    KW: I’m not gonna lie, it sucks because we’re not allowed to perform. But it’s also exciting because for the last three or four years, this group hasn’t prioritized our Spotify very much. But because the pandemic is happening and we can’t compete, we’ve been recording and we have big plans to record an album and release it by the end of next year. Just recently, actually, we released a single, and it was the first content we’ve released as a group in about five years. It’s gonna be a lot of fun, and we already have a decent amount of songs recorded actually. It’s not like we’re doing it all in one go—we have stuff from last year recorded, we have stuff from three years, four years back recorded that have never been put on Spotify that are on the album. So something kind of interesting is this album is going to span six or seven different classes of graduation years, so it’s pretty exciting for a lot of the alumni too.

    SL: Once the pandemic is over, do you think The Stereotypes are going to return mostly to competition, or are you going to try and continue to release content consistently on Spotify as well?

    KW: That is the decision of the group. Competitions are never a set thing; we’re a group that competes, but at the beginning of every year we take a vote. We have a very large group discussion on it and then see how the group is feeling, because competitions are an enormous time commitment. If you are doing a competition, you’re devoting so, so many hours of practice and rehearsal. I remember when The Stereotypes competed my freshman year, in the two-week lead up to the competition date, my life was rehearsal rehearsal rehearsal, and it was great, but some people can’t do that, so it’s always a conversation. I don’t know what the group will want to do next year, I don’t know what I want to do next year, so it’s kind of a game-time decision.

    DH: I was also in a high school a cappella group where kind of halfway through my sophomore year, I ended up accidentally being in charge of things, and [I] kind of very quickly had to figure out how to produce music for the group. And so I started getting arranging experience there.

  • Sur Taal Laya

    | Managing Editor

    Sur Taal Laya

    Sur Taal Laya

    Student Life spoke with Priyanka Iyer, the musical director for Sur Taal Laya.

    Student Life: How would you describe Sur Taal Laya’s music?

    Priyanka Iyer

    Priyanka Iyer

    Priyanka Iyer: Our music is fusion South Asian. South Asia is pretty broad…and there’s a lot of diversity in that music, and I think we’re still working on showcasing that diversity. But for now we do a lot of Bollywood music, and we try to combine that with Western music or American music. Basically anything that feels like it could go together or it should go together, we put it together.

    SL: How would you say you guys have evolved musically either since the group started or since you’ve been on the group?

    PI: The founders of the group, a lot of them just graduated or are seniors right now. Before we became an official group, STL would perform at Diwali, just Diwali, every year. It was people from different a cappella groups coming together to perform at Diwali and then going back out to their own groups. And then my freshman year, we became a group, so we performed at Diwali, and then we had our own spring concert, and we tried to do gigs, basically, with other a cappella groups, dance groups, we’d just perform as an opener or something. So we did that throughout the year, and then my sophomore year, which was last year, we did Diwali, and then we also participated in one of our first competition seasons. So we participated in the ICCA, and that was a really great experience, and then COVID happened so we couldn’t do our spring concert, but we would have done a spring concert, anyway. And then this year everything’s virtual, so we’ve been doing a lot of virtual videos, we’ve been part of a competition that we’ve been making videos for, so we’re just trying to do as much as we can.

    SL: So you said you’re making videos for a competition – what is that competition?

    PI: The competition is for the ASA, the Association of South Asian a cappella. Usually they host different competitions throughout the U.S., but this year they’ve made it virtual, and so we had to send in an audition tape, and then different competitions throughout the U.S. basically went through our videos and selected who they wanted. So we got into two competitions, and we made one video for each competition. I think the competitions are going to be happening slowly over the next month, two months.

    SL: Good luck!

    PI: Thank you.

    SL: You got started doing competitions really fast. What was that like going from just Diwali to doing all these competitions in just over a year?

    PI: Honestly, we struggled a lot. It was kind of overwhelming, but I think it was good knowing that we all had like no experience with it, so we were just going to go in and do as much as we could and have fun. And I think that’s what we did. We made some mistakes along the way. We made a video for a competition, and we didn’t realize they wanted choreo in the video, and we didn’t know how to do that, so then we had to teach ourselves how to make a cappella choreo. But it was honestly really fun and I don’t think we took ourselves that seriously. And then when we did the competitions, I just remember we were onstage and we were all like ‘This is crazy.’ We were onstage, we did it, and obviously we had a lot of areas to improve on, but we were really proud of ourselves. Putting some choreo together, getting the whole moving around onstage and singing and sounding good at the same time aspect. We did our best with that and we improved a lot…We realized that it was a good experience to understand what our priorities are and what we wanted. Because I think there are some teams that are really focused on the competition part and they want to win, they wait for that every year and that’s part of who they are as an a cappella group. But we realized that we have a lot of fun just having fun together, vibing over music, doing gigs. I think the competition was really fun, but being super competitive and having those deadlines, it was a little too much. I think we’re still gonna participate in competitions in the future, but we’re gonna be mindful about how that affects how much fun we have as a group. Because we’re all doing this because we like music and we want to relax and we like each other, and so I think we realized that should be the focus.

    SL: What is something that makes STL unique within the Wash. U. a cappella community?

    PI: The quality of South Asian music itself, the richness and diversity of it, the history of it—it’s so old—and also a lot of the people on our team are classically trained, so it’s Indian classical music. There’s two different types of Indian classical music. There’s Hindustani and Carnatic, and a lot of us are trained in either of those. And I think because of that, that really influences the way we sing, the music that we choose to intertwine with American music. I just think the depth of skill and also just cultural depth in the music that we do and also how we sing and how we approach the arranging process. A lot of us are Indian ethnically but we’re born in America, so seeing those two identities come together in really beautiful ways is really meaningful for all of us.

    SL: What’s something that you would want STL to explore musically that maybe you haven’t done or haven’t done very much of?

    PI: We got feedback from the ICCA about the formula of doing one South Asian song and one American song and the way you arrange those together. It’s almost become a formula, at least nationally, because a lot of a cappella groups do the same thing. For one of our songs they really loved the Indian song, like it was so good, but whenever it switched pretty predictably to the English song, they were like ‘Oh, instead of following this formula, why don’t you try to run with one Indian song and do it to its fullest and just experiment within that song instead of fusing it with something else?’ And so that’s something we’ve been trying to think about critically, just playing around with one Indian song or maybe two Indian songs or something like that. Also, we want to do more languages than just Hindi songs. Hindi songs from Bollywood basically are very popular. Everyone knows them within the South Asian diaspora no matter what language you speak, but there are so many languages within that area. We want to use more songs from other languages, also maybe incorporating a little more classical music. We’ve been seeing some songs from some other groups across the U.S., and they’ll take a little more inspiration from classical, true classical songs, and that’s been interesting to see, so I’m curious to see if we could do something like that as well. Also, trying to do more music videos and more producing and recording. I think this year we’ve been forced into that. I’ve been forced to learn audio editing and how to do this whole recording process: What are the best ways for everyone in the group to record, produce a video. It’s been such a learning curve, but I think we can use that as a jumping-off point to do a lot of other cool things. More established a cappella groups record in a studio all the time and even make Spotify albums, so we maybe could do that eventually, someday…I think COVID has forced us to be a lot more creative on the digital front.

    SL: Once we’re out of the pandemic and you can practice in person again, how do you think the challenges of COVID will change the group as a whole?

    PI: I don’t know. Because I think in my head, we’re just going to go back to how it was, which is pretty dysfunctional and we have a lot of fun during practices. And I feel like there will be a certain aspect of that, but I feel like we might appreciate those practices more. We probably will appreciate being able to sing together again. Honestly, I don’t know. I think we’ve been able to accomplish so much virtually, honestly. We’ve been able to make these videos, which we haven’t posted on our YouTube channel yet but we will. Making these videos, even if they’re not perfect and they’re not great, we put a lot of effort into them and it’s something we’ve never done before, so I think just knowing that we’ve been able to do that. When we come together in person, I feel like a lot more opportunities are going to open up. There’s a whole lot we could do, and there’s just so many talented people in the group. In the past two years we were so young, we were just like, ‘Okay, let’s do what we know how to do and keep going and take it one step at a time,’ and now I think we’re strong enough to do a lot more.

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