Pitch perfect: Student groups striking a chord

It looks like a version of musical chairs. Just without chairs.

Young women stand in a circle as junior Jordan Adam plays two notes at a piano, and they all begin to sing “Al-le-lu-ia.” The voices climb higher as her fingers proceed up the keys.

“Switch!” she says.

Five singing women exit the circle, walk around it and then join in at a different spot, leaning in to listen to the singers on their right and left. The piano notes rise higher and higher, and the voices respond until Adam says, “Good,” and the music stops.

There’s an ever-so-slight sigh of relief.

UGA a cappella singers(Left, members of UGA’s five a cappella groups came together for a photo shoot. On the front row (left to right) are Leah Shedrow (Classic City Jazz), Sarah Gooding (the Ecotones), Gemille Walker (the Accidentals), Amanada Wolfe (Noteworthy) and Robert Thomas (With Someone Else’s Money). Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA.)

Five of the young women in the circle are vying for a coveted spot in Noteworthy, a women’s a cappella group on the UGA campus. To get to the finals, they had to pass the first hurdle two days earlier, by singing a solo, doing some sight-reading and displaying range and tonal memory. Now they’re singing with members of Noteworthy — who are evaluating them — on either side and trying to blend in with the established group. It’s critical they sound good together, because in a cappella the voice is the only instrument.

“I’ve been singing my whole life,” says Adam, assistant music director and a member for two years. “Noteworthy actually visited my high school.

When I saw them, I knew I wanted to be a classy and sassy lady of Noteworthy.”

The women’s group, established in 1988, isn’t the only campus outlet for a cappella student singers. There’s also the all-male Accidentals, whose beginnings date to the 1970s. And there are more recent coed groups, With Someone Else’s Money (WSEM) and the Ecotones, whose members are largely ecology students. Classic City Jazz, also coed, sings both a cappella and with instrumental accompaniment.

“I knew I wanted to be in a coed group,” says senior Dina Zolan, a member of WSEM. “You’re singing music and making something together, it’s really unlike anything else in the whole world. We really enjoy doing it.”

To sing well together, a cappella singers say they have to get along. The members choose what they will perform, arrange the songs, choreograph the numbers and rehearse hours each week. They sing on campus and in town, for nonprofits and for private parties. They raise money for competitions, create and market CDs of their work and maintain an active online presence.

“If we didn’t get along so well, we couldn’t do what we do,” says senior Courtney Purvis, who counts the other 12 women in Noteworthy among her closest friends. Four of them even share a house.

Accidentals(Left, Accidentals members (left to right) David Miller, Hunter Ballard, Tony Rhone and Jacob Plunkett sing during a rehearsal. Photo by Jonathan Lee/UGA.)

“There are so many groups that just pop up here and there, it’s kind of amazing,” says Amanda Newman, executive director of Varsity Vocals, which runs the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA). “Before ‘Pitch Perfect’ it was, well, kind of a joke for people who didn’t know about it.”

Released in 2012, the movie “Pitch Perfect” stars Anna Kendrick and tells the story of the underdog Bellas, a women’s a cappella group from fictional Barden University, as they learn to sing together and compete for a national title. In “Pitch Perfect 2,” released last month, they advance to an international competition.

“After the [first] movie, I think, more people began to think that a cappella singing was cool,” Newman says. “It was a huge bump for us. Now it’s in the general public awareness, and it’s really exciting. I think ‘American Idol’ is also helping to drive interest in a cappella singing.”

The ICCA tournament is structured sort of like the NCCA basketball finals. There are quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, and even a wild card spot, which bring 10 teams to New York’s Beacon Theatre for the championship. Each team has 12 minutes to fill with songs and choreography. In 2010, the Accidentals came in third, the closest they’ve come to winning. In January, Noteworthy placed third in the 2015 quarterfinals, with Adam winning an award for best solo.

Noteworthy(Left, Ally Ulmer sings while practicing with Noteworthy. Photo by Jonathan Lee/UGA.)

Although its popularity is surging, a cappella — Latin for “in the style of the chapel” — has been on college campuses for more than 100 years, Newman says. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Rensselyrics may be the oldest college a cappella group, evolving from the RPI Glee Club founded in 1873. In 1909, a few members from Yale University’s glee club began meeting to sing songs of their own choosing; the group became the Whiffenpoofs, said to be the longest continuously operating a cappella group in the country.

Like the other a cappella groups on campus, the Accidentals perform at private parties and nonprofit events like UGA’s annual Dance Marathon. They also give concerts around the state and region, and they stage UGAPalooza, an a cappella fest at the Morton Theatre in Athens. Every other year they enter the ICCA, trading off with Noteworthy, and they’re usually in the finals. During the off year, the Accidentals often record an album, says music director Gemille Walker, a UGA senior.

“We sound as good as we do because of our awesome music director,” says senior Jacob Plunkett, a member of the Accidentals for four years. “Gemille arranges the music to make us all sound good together.”

The Accidentals sound like they’re using instruments, but they’re not. The sounds of drums or guitars or trombones or cymbals or a tambourine-or some combination of pieces of a drum set-are coming from freshman Harold Liu, the group’s beatboxer, or vocal percussionist. Though he plays the trombone, guitar and piano, he’s also been “making those noises” since the seventh grade, he says. His many contributions keep things moving along and make the singing snap, crackle and pop with electricity.

At a recent rehearsal, the group is singing Walker’s arrangement of Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True.” Walker stops the singing a few times: The baritones need to fade a little, and the tenors need to sing a little louder, in harmony, he tells them.

“And it’s da-da-DAH! Not da-da-daaaaah,” he says. The tenors crisp up their da-da’s, and Walker nods as he snaps his fingers.

He and junior David Miller, assistant music director, work to hear when someone is a little flat or is rushing the song. If Walker hears a false note when they’re performing, he’ll smile at the audience but make eye contact with the singer and raise an eyebrow or change his facial expression slightly.

“It’s helped us in performance,” he says with a laugh. “I think everyone is getting better at reading my expressions.”

— Rebecca McCarthy

(At top, Marcus Whitten sings a solo during rehearsal for With Someone Else’s Money. Photo by Jonathan Lee/UGA.)

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Georgia Magazine