Late nights, long hours and strained voices characterize the audition period for college a cappella. Group members eagerly await performances from potential new members, while a cappella hopefuls try to swallow their nerves and make a good impression. The only difference this year is that it is all happening via Zoom.
Though most of Tufts’ a cappella groups chose not to hold auditions during the fall semester due to the university’s COVID-19 no singing policy, multiple groups allowed students to audition from home over winter break for the spring semester.
One such group is the Jackson Jills, Tufts’ oldest all-femme identifying a cappella group. According to Miley Xiao, president of the Jackson Jills, the Jills took four new members this semester out of the 27 who auditioned. The Tufts Amalgamates, the oldest all-gender a cappella group at Tufts, led by president Ryan Albanesi, also took new members this semester, accepting three out of nearly 50 auditionees.
Because the Jills and the Amalgamates were mainly targeting underclassmen who live on campus, they knew the best strategy for recruiting new members was to have them audition over winter break. Though the process was challenging, both presidents felt it was necessary to gain newcomers this semester.
“We need new talent, we need new people, we need new voices, we need new energy,” Albanesi said.
The a cappella hopefuls for both groups began the process by sending in a video of themselves singing a solo of their choice. The Jills also asked for videos of auditionees singing along with a recording of scales being played on the piano.
After this initial round of auditions, the ‘Mates called back students for a second round of auditions. These students met virtually with ‘Mates members for a “consultation” leading up to their callback. The singers gave feedback and advice regarding the auditionees‘ solos, such as advising the prospective group member to choose a song that contrasted with their first audition song to showcase a wide range of skills.
The ‘Mates had to get innovative with their audition process due to the difficulty of having more than one person sing at a time on Zoom.
“We ended up making breakout rooms,” Albanesi said. “And then a current ‘Mate went into a breakout room with an auditionee and just went back and forth and tried to teach them a song, and that ended up working pretty well.”
Similar to the ‘Mates, the Jills also held callbacks in which they advised their auditionees to sing a song demonstrating different skills from those shown in their original audition.
“They have to send in a solo again of a song that’s completely different from the first solo,” Xiao said, echoing the sentiments of the ‘Mates. “We want to see how versatile their voices are.”
The Jills’ callbacks were then held live via Zoom. The auditionees sang their second solo again, but this time in response to feedback from the Jills in order to see how well they could adjust their voices and accept the feedback. Along with this, “callbackers” were given sheet music to learn a part of one of the Jills’ songs. With the sheet music, auditionees sang along with a recording of all the Jills singing each of their individual parts.
“That was definitely the hardest part of the callbacks,” Xiao said. “It’s something that we would have done during normal auditions as well … giving them sheet music and seeing how fast they learn and how well they blend with other voices.” In order to keep this aspect of the auditions intact, however, the Jills had to splice together multiple audio files as well as coach the callbacker via Zoom.
This is just one of the many difficulties the Jills faced running their auditions virtually. The Jills also struggled because Zoom often recognizes high pitch as background noise and correspondingly lowers the volume of the singer.
Advertising the audition was also more difficult virtually because the groups had to rely solely on social media to get the word out. Normally, during orientation week there is an a cappella show where first-years can see which groups they like best, and groups often hang posters around campus.
“It was really difficult to make it all digital this year and just hope people are active on social media,” Xiao said.
Digital auditions also took away some of the tradition and excitement that come with holding auditions live, something that was particularly difficult for Albanesi to come to terms with.
“The challenge for me personally was just not being distracted by how unfortunate the circumstances were and not being sad and angry and just embracing it and moving forward with what we were given,” Albanesi said.
However, despite all the negatives of hosting auditions virtually, there were a few upsides.
“I honestly thought that the sending in videos thing is really time efficient because usually the Jills would have probably five to six hours every night for auditions, and that’s from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” Xiao said.
Though these grueling hours can be a big part of the audition experience, according to Xiao, it was nice to end the night without feeling completely exhausted. Albanesi agreed, saying that video auditions allowed the group to “cycle through them very quickly.”
Annie Rubinson, a first-year and newly inducted member of the Amalgamates, also felt that there were some benefits to virtual auditions. “There’s so much stress and anxiety that goes into singing for people live,” Rubinson said. “When you’re recording a video of yourself, it’s not nearly as nerve-wracking as when people are making eye contact with you and people are watching you.”
Though these auditions were difficult, without them, the future of these a cappella groups would be uncertain.
“It’s just for the well-being of the group going into next year. There would be about seven people if we didn’t take anyone,” Xiao said. “So that’s barely an a cappella group in my opinion.”
Albanesi agrees that a cappella groups would be in a stagnant situation if they were unable to accept new members.
“Auditions every year are the way that you create a legacy and cement your impact on the group,” Albanesi said. “It was really important to us as the seniors to make sure that we got new blood and new energy into the group before we graduated.”
Xiao and Albanesi also feel that being a part of the a cappella community is useful for first-years because it allows them to meet new people and create relationships with people outside of their dorms.
“It’s hard for [first-years] to make friends during this time, especially friends who are not in your hallways and friends who are not freshmen,” Xiao said.
Rubinson agrees with this sentiment. “It’s already been so nice to have this new group of close friends who, even if I’ve only known them for a couple of weeks, when they welcome you into the group, they make you feel as though you’ve been there the whole time.”
Now that new members have been accepted, the challenge is figuring out how to make them continue to feel like a part of the group at a time when rehearsals and performances are not happening. The Jills have come up with several creative solutions; for example, they are using recordings taken from auditions in order to create a complete song. They are also planning a Jills trivia night and a virtual solo night, when members of the Jills will each have a turn to sing the song with which they originally auditioned for the group.
“We bond a lot with that because it’s an emotional thing,” Xiao said.
The Jills are also planning a buddy system with their new members in order to help them feel welcome and allow them to get to know fellow group members while FaceTiming or grabbing coffee.
Rubinson concurs that forming relationships with upperclassmen is another helpful aspect of joining a cappella as a first-year.
“I think it was important that freshmen were given the opportunity to join these groups, even though we can’t sing, because it’s really nice to have a network of connections to people, especially upperclassmen who have been through the college experience before and who can kind of guide us,” Rubinson said. “It’s really important to have someone who actually gives you advice and imparts wisdom on you.”
Though rehearsals are impossible under the present restrictions, it is possible that a cappella groups will be able to hold outdoor rehearsals as the weather gets warmer. However, nothing can be certain right now.
The Office for Campus Life has been defining rules for a cappella groups and enforcing Tufts’ no signing policy, making it difficult for these groups to function. Further, the JumboLife platform, introduced by OCL to support student organizations, is not widely used, according to Albanesi.
No matter what, it is clear that old and new members of a cappella groups are still relieved to have some semblance of normalcy in the form of taking on new talent.
“Once you’re in, it’s a family. It’s like this instant connection,” Rubinson said. “It’s nice to have just another network of people who I know I can count on to be there for me but also who share a lot of the same interests as me.”