Holiday Reflections, the
annual University Holiday Party, on Thursday, December 20, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the 808 Showroom

Week of 14 December 2001 · Vol. V, No. 17


Search the Bridge

Contact Us


A cappella at BU blends entertainment with music biz

By Neil Plakey

Most people think of a cappella -- music made with only the voice -- as songs their grandfathers sang with a barbershop quartet. But a quick glance at the repertoires of the several a cappella groups on campus, which include songs by Pink Floyd, Harry Connick, Jr., and Janis Joplin, indicates that this isn't your grandfather's a cappella.

  The Treblemakers

A cappella has experienced a boom in the past decade. There are now more than 500 collegiate groups, according to the Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA). "A cappella music has been around longer than any other form of music, and it's part of every culture and tradition around the globe," says Deke Sharon, president of CASA. "To the outside world, however, a cappella usually connotes barbershop, doo-wop, or choral music -- none of which accurately represents many current groups."

The origins of this growth can be traced to one song -- Bobby McFerrin's 1988 hit Don't Worry, Be Happy. McFerrin's ability to create a broad range of sounds in addition to singing opened many ears to the unique potential of the human voice. He pioneered what a cappella enthusiasts call vocal percussion -- the art of expressing rhythm with lips, tongue, and voice. His playfulness appealed to young singers, and with the rise of rhythm-driven music like rap and hip-hop, college students began to create innovative music, replicating and expanding on contemporary songs without instrumental accompaniment.

Singing on the road
Much of the growth in a cappella music has been fueled by college groups like those at BU, including the Allegrettos, the Dear Abbeys, In Achord, Kol Echad, Terpsichore, and the Treblemakers. Each group has a unique identity and type of music. The Allegrettos, for example, bill themselves as the Wacky A Cappella Group, and one of their most popular songs is Polka Your Eyes Out by Weird Al Yankovic. The Treblemakers are known for their full sound and powerhouse soloists, but also have fun onstage. In Achord was formed in 1990, making it BU's oldest coed a cappella group -- and the only one with its own neon sign. Kol Echad focuses on Jewish music, including, says Jeremy Lowenstein (SMG'04), the group's business manager, "Israeli pop, traditional Jewish songs, and American songs with Jewish themes." All-female Terpsichore maintains a high profile both on and off campus, hosting concerts for campus a cappella groups, competing nationally, recording on a regular basis, and performing at community events and charities. The all-male Dear Abbeys perform for alumni groups, tour, and sang the national anthem before a Celtics home game at the FleetCenter in 1999.


The Dear Abbeys


Most of the BU groups tour and perform on college campuses. The Abbeys have been to Bermuda and Chicago, and Kol Echad has performed for the past six years at the Jewish Collegiate Festival for the Performing Arts in New York City and has sung in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia Beach as well as on the West Coast. "This coming spring break we plan on touring South Florida," says Lowenstein.

In Achord treasurer Dave Cranson (ENG'03) says the group takes road trips about once a semester, and has performed in New York, Vermont, and on the streets of Boston. "We put a hat out and sing on Newbury Street, and people will crowd around and drop money in the hat," he says. In Achord has competed in the Intercollegiate Championship of College A Cappella, held in Montreal in 2000. "We didn't place, but we learned a lot from some really amazing groups," says Cranson. "There are some very talented a cappella groups out there."

Business manager Kate O'Toole (CAS'03) says Terpsichore tours "whenever we have enough money. We took a spring break tour down the East Coast last year. We went as far as Virginia, but got snowed in in New Jersey and had to cancel a bunch of shows. It was so much fun though, that we didn't mind."

Sometimes the best experiences are close to home. Dave Marshall (COM'04), president of the Dear Abbeys, says the group loves its winter and spring concerts in Morse Auditorium. "Those concerts are the culmination of an entire semester's worth of long hours of
rehearsal," he says. "Performing songs for alumni, friends, and family is the highlight of our year."

To CD or not to CD
A cappella does come at a price, however. Managing a group, touring, and recording a CD take money, and it usually comes from performances and CD sales. "Producing a CD is a multistep process," says Lowenstein. "It begins with recording in either a recording studio or in an auditorium with a professional recorder. Once all the songs have been recorded, the tracks are then mastered in a studio and sent off to a production company to reproduce and package the CDs. The entire process can cost from $2,000 to $6,000, depending on the recording studio and type of recording." Kol Echad has produced three CDs to date -- 1995's Stam, now sold out, Oogah in 2000, and Tchotchke in 2001.

As with any music that's recorded digitally, CDs are vulnerable to conversion into MP3 format, which can then be made available online. "As a small collegiate a cappella group, it would really hurt our CD sales if people began downloading our music for free off the Web," says Lowenstein. "Other than concert revenues, CD sales are our main source of income during the year."

O'Toole feels that "when it comes time to pitch songs for a new semester, a lot of people show the songs they want to sing by playing the MP3 on their computer. This is a new thing. It used to be that you had to have the song you wanted on a CD to be able to pitch it. MP3s make it much easier. Some of our older songs are on the Internet, and that's fine. People ask if we still sing certain songs that they heard and liked online. To us, it's just good publicity. If they like what they hear, they may come to a concert or buy a CD. We want our music to be heard and enjoyed by as many people as possible. We're not really concerned about losing money."

Marshall concurs. "The Dear Abbeys sing songs so people can hear them," he says. "The more people get to hear us, the happier we are." Although recording CDs is admittedly expensive, Marshall feels that "ultimately, it's not about the money. It's about getting the music out to people. Any money we make from sales of our CDs goes into our account along with ticket sales from concerts so the group can continue to go on tours, have concerts, and make CDs."

"It's very common for people to burn an entire CD rather than pay for it at a music store," says In Achord's Cranson. "But our CD is one of the only ways for us to keep funded -- and it took us two years and close to $8,000 to make it!"

Every year the best of college a cappella groups and songs is compiled for a CD by the Best of Collegiate A Cappella (BOCA). Terpsichore spends a good deal to record in a studio, says O'Toole, "and sometimes we send one of our finished songs to be considered for BOCA. When we have a song accepted, we get some of the CDs to sell. That money as well as the money from our own CDs goes into funding concerts, paying for transportation to gigs, and recording a new CD."

  The Treblemakers

In synch
Besides the pleasure of performing, a cappella provides additional benefits. "They say that when you come to college, you find your friends for life, and this has been my experience with Kol Echad," says Lowenstein.
Cranston agrees. "We all went to our club president's house in Vermont for a weekend," he says. "We went sledding, cross-country skiing, played Trivial Pursuit, and sang over an acoustic guitar. Ever since, we've really come together. We are now a large group of friends, and I think we sound better for it."

Another added benefit to the groups is the appreciation their music receives. "Once we were singing on a Newbury Street corner," O'Toole says. "The next day we got an e-mail from a man who had been out for a run, heard us, and wanted to tell us that it was the high point of his day. We got a similar e-mail from a man who heard us rehearsing on the commuter rail on the way to a concert. He thanked us for making his commute so enjoyable. Feedback like that makes singing a cappella priceless."


14 December 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations