Vocalist Traces History of A Cappella at Oberlin
By DeShaun Snead

In the American tradition there are so many hybrid forms of music, dance and ways of life that it is nearly impossible for one to delve into every aspect of our culture and live the full experience. We are barred from many cultures by birth, and others we just lack the drive to explore. This diversity ranges, for example, from hip-hop culture to pop culture, punk culture to a cappella culture. Yes, a cappella music and all that comes with it is a culture many probably aren’t too familiar with — but it’s very old and it’s a large part of many lives on Oberlin’s campus.

As a bass vocalist for Nothing But Treble, Oberlin’s first all female a cappella group, I have had first-hand experience working in this strange world of unaccompanied voice. When I joined this ensemble a year ago, I didn’t know much about a cappella, besides that it would involve singing intricate harmonies. A love of singing, the richness produced from the beautiful blending of voices and the rush of performing for friends is what I discovered the members of this group have in common.

A cappella groups sing unaccompanied works in any musical style. Members of the group frequently use their voices to replace and imitate all the instruments of a band, including percussion and bass. Some people are even beginning to replace the term “a cappella group” with “vocal band.”

A cappella groups on Oberlin’s campus include Nothing But Treble, as well as The Obertones, Cleftomaniacs and The Offbeats, just to name a few. Singing in one of these groups requires at least six hours of practice a week plus performances.

“Coming to [a cappella] practice is like a release,” senior Nothing But Treble vocalist Abbey Tennis said to the new members. “It’s something I need…it takes up a lot of time, but it’s at practice when I stop and breathe.”

In 1987, the women who founded Nothing But Treble wanted to “provide Oberlin College with an all women’s a cappella [group]…with a unique style of musical entertainment.” To this end, according to Nothing But Treble’s charter, a cappella members would be involved in “all facets of musical production” from arranging music to directing songs, from stage production to publicity.

The closest thing to a cappella at Oberlin in its early days was the Men’s Glee Club founded in 1881, then later the Women’s Glee Club founded in 1918. Browsing the programs and pictures stored in boxes and folders at Oberlin College Archives, I found that these Glee Clubs were based upon many of the same principles of Oberlin’s current a cappella groups. Glee Clubs were not only associated with an avid love of music but also served as an important addition to a liberal arts education.

“The object of college life is to develop men…in every way,” a reporter for The Oberlin Review wrote in 1899. “In the American college one of the best forms of…recreation is the glee club.” Though this assessment excludes women, it captures the essence of what musical performance can add to education and quality of life. Senior Jordan Balagot testified to this as a member of the Offbeats.

“I did a cappella in high school,” Balagot said. “[But] I didn’t know much about the Offbeats when I joined. I auditioned…randomly and when I found out how good they sounded I loved it.”

You might associate a capella with EnVogue or Boyz to Men, but the tradition is in fact tied to a monolithic idea concerning race and sex. Most people picture college a cappella as a bunch of upper middle class, khaki-clad white men standing in a semi-circle and snapping their fingers. A black woman who sings college a cappella is, to many, an oxymoron, but there are those like me who follow in a tradition of women and men of color who sang, and continue to sing, in a cappella groups like Nothing but Treble.

I didn’t know any of these stereotypes when I began singing last year. As most who frequent a cappella events on campus know, Nothing but Treble sings everything from The Indigo Girls to Destiny’s Child. But when I became a member, I began to notice the meager (albeit growing) number of people of color in groups on campus. This, I believe, could be due to a plain lack of interest or a lack of information available about college a cappella organizations. Perhaps some people are still turned off by this false notion that white males dominate a cappella culture.
In general, Oberlin’s history in extracurricular activities refutes many of our old stereotypes. Just walk through the gym and look at the early photos where one or two black athletes can be seen amidst rows of white teammates. A cappella at Oberlin and other colleges around the country is changing and transforming. The style of music and performance is becoming more and more important in our society.

That many Oberlin students love a cappella is all too clear at any one of the packed concerts, especially the performance on Mudd Ramp during midterms. For those who haven’t come to a concert or a cappella event, you are missing a very rich part of the “Oberlin experience.” A cappella is slowly becoming more than a magnet for dorky doo-woppers and transforming into an important aspect of college life.

September 20
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