Glee makes unlikely stars of a cappella singers Abby Drumright sings with The Amazin' Blue, an A Cappella group, during a practice session at Pierpont commons in Ann Arbor, Michigan (AP photos)
Glee makes unlikely stars of a cappella singers
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Their musical performances pack university auditoriums. However, they play no instruments.

Universities have long nurtured the niche community of a cappella singers. The TV show "Glee" and movie "Pitch Perfect" also helped create a new generation of fans that propelled the soulful, unaccompanied vocal sound into mainstream culture. Now, they're unlikely stars on campuses across the U.S. A cappella is pronounced aah-kuh-PELL-uh.

On April 18, about 3,000 people will flock to New York. They will watch eight groups compete in the collegiate championship of a cappella singings. The sold-out show at the Beacon Theatre is a far cry from the paltry crowd of 200 that watched the national finals more than a decade ago.

"Now the larger world is seeing that it's awesome," said Amanda Newman. She is the executive director of Varsity Vocals, the event's organizer. "Everyone's just over the moon. It wasn't a secret that we wanted to keep."

This isn't your grandfather's barbershop quartet. With pop songs like Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" and Hozier's "Take Me to Church," the groups earn the adulation of cheering fans through their complex harmonies and choreography.

"People used to think of vocal music as boring choir stuff," said Isaac Hecker. He is a member of Amazin' Blue at the University of Michigan. "Once you figured out that you can do crazy beat-boxing, awesome bass lines (and) throw everything together, you just have really cool music."

The April 18 contest is the 19th International Championship of Collegiate A cappella, or ICCA. In its early years, Newman said, only 35 groups competed leading up to the finals. This year, about 320 groups in the U.S. and Britain vied for a spot.

The SoCal VoCals of the University of Southern California made the cut. They practice for hours every week. "Because we all really want it," junior Malia Civetz said.

"It is very difficult and we all know that. So when we nail it, it's just this incredible feeling," Civetz said.

Though Civetz is majoring in popular music, many students who sing are pursuing studies completely unrelated to the arts. They want to make the most of their brief time in the spotlight.

"This is their first and last big chance to be a pop star," Newman said. "And they are when they're on their campus, they are when they're on our stage."

The a cappella craze showcases a tradition that dates back decades. The Yale Whiffenpoofs were founded in 1909.

Off the Beat started more than 25 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, it had audiences of fewer than 100, said junior Jasmine Barksdale. She is the music director. Now the 15-member group performs in an auditorium that can hold about 1,000, she said.

"There are people I meet randomly who are like: 'Oh my gosh, you're in Off the Beat? I've been to every Off the Beat show since I was a freshman,'" said Barksdale. She is an economics major.

The success of "Pitch Perfect," based on a book about the small but robust a cappella community, has led to the planned May 15 release of "Pitch Perfect 2." Two days before that, the Pop cable network debuts "Sing It On." It is a documentary-style series on this year's ICCA competition. Grammy winner John Legend, a former a cappella singer at Penn, is the executive producer.

Critical thinking challenge: How has popular culture changed a cappella?

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COMMENTS (43)
  • jaceyn-Eic
    4/21/2015 - 03:08 p.m.

    That is really cool!!! I used to watch glee all of the time. I honestly think that it is really cool that people can make the sounds of instruments with their voice. I also hope that Pitch Perfect 2 will come out soon!

  • John0724-YYCA
    4/21/2015 - 07:33 p.m.

    I do agree that these days kids and some adults like hip hop music or some really loud music that are literally sick in their opinion wile grandparents listen to old boring music that is so deep and trust me my grandpa does listen to old boring music which just wants to make me sleep. These days a lot pf things are changing like these days music sounds are changing.

  • StephanieS-3
    4/21/2015 - 09:14 p.m.

    Glee has made ordinary singers into now famous stars that got their lives changed forever. 3000 people are watching groups compete in the championship in New York coming up. April 18 was the international championship of the Capella groups, the biggest championship of the year. The Southern California group made it and practice for hours over the week. Off the Beat started more than 25 years ago when they had audiences fewer than 100 people. I think this is a great opportunity for these people. I would like to see them perform.

  • JohnL-4
    4/22/2015 - 02:27 a.m.

    A capella is starting to become more and more popular as a music genre daily. People used to think of choir as boring singing, but now, shows like Glee and movies like Pitch Perfect are beginning to publicize it now. People in new modern a cappella started to add baselines and beat boxing to give it a more modern sound. Arenas used to have less than a hundred people, now, they have closer to 1,000. I think it is pretty cool how a cappella is beginning to become more popular with younger people, and personally, I think it is soothing and relaxing to listen to.

  • leahl-Fit
    4/22/2015 - 12:08 p.m.

    Wow! This is so amazing! A cappella has become so famous over the years! I knew "Pitch Perfect 2" was coming out soon, but I didn't know that the reason behind it is this. This makes me really excited after reading this because my sister is a big fan of a cappella since she loves all types of music. Especially the ones from "Glee".

  • Bentley316
    4/22/2015 - 12:44 p.m.

    I have to say a Capella is not the activity for me, but after reading this I feel like even I, the worst vocalist ever, could be a star!! I feel like without things like Pitch Perfect, and Glee, a Capella wouldn't be as popular as it is today. It is so cool that something as simple as a T.V. series or movie could spark such an increase in inspiration. I love music and enjoy listening to a Capella because if you didn't know any better, sometimes you can't tell that it's all people. My favorite part of a Capella is that anything is possible if you can just put your voice to it!

  • KiraC-Ste
    4/22/2015 - 01:14 p.m.

    I think popular culture has changed the music a capella groups perform. The groups usually perform hit songs everyone knows, and are very influenced by whatever is popular at the time. I don't think a group would perform a song no one knows, because people wouldn't really want to watch/hear them perform.

  • katiemay11
    4/22/2015 - 01:18 p.m.

    This article was very interesting to read and learn about. The movie, Pitch Perfect, and the T.V. show, Glee, probably showed how fun and amazing the experience of a capella could be. That's why I think a capella has grown in popularity. I researched and found out that a capella means "from the chapel" or "in the manner of the chapel" in Italian. It was also the earliest form of singing in the church.

  • Karena-OBr
    4/22/2015 - 02:01 p.m.

    I think a cappella has changed because they're using popular songs that we kids like to listen to. They still make changes to popular songs, like making it slower and adding more rhythm. On television, I saw an episode about a glee club.

  • BrookeW-Kut
    4/22/2015 - 03:54 p.m.

    This article was really cool. It's awesome to know that in the ICCA there used to be like 35 groups, and now there is about 320! I love acapella, I think it is so cool! I enjoyed the movie Pitch Perfect too! So I think it would be so cool for me to go and watch the ICCA!

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