Traces History of A Cappella at Oberlin
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.”
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
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.