In the whole history of everything, a cappella music is the most impossible thing to explain to an outsider. It’s deliberately cheesy. It almost always falls short of the original music. The choreography is frequently lackluster, predictable and flaccid. Often, the soloists are neck-craningly inaudible on the freshman-swamped first floor of a frat house, which, despite possessing the stunted acoustical virtues of giant, gritty shoebox, is almost always the site of a capella shows.
By all principles of common sense and ordinary taste, a cappella music and its contagious subculture should not exist on the planet, much less at Dartmouth, where accomplished pianists, brilliant opera-singers and the most stimulating flautists in the western hemisphere suffer daily of almost total ignominy, sequestered in the windowless practice rooms located seven miles below ground at the HOP.
And yet I find all my fluorescent common sense of little importance, for I am, at Dartmouth, the most passionate proponent of a cappella music under the sun.
Last Friday, I sat down in the Ticknor room of Rauner Library and gave over an hour of testimony to the Upper Valley Oral History project. I answered, at length and in detail, questions about my experiences at Dartmouth as a freshman, a sophomore, a junior and now, a rogue senior on a mission to never graduate. I gave my two cents on recent events and my take on longstanding trends and changes in my time at this institution. I took advantage of more personal and philosophical questions about exclusion, tradition and community. For this third principle, I could give no better example of a perfect community than the Dartmouth Cords All-Male a capella group.
I grew up in a house full of song and I knew I loved to sing. Other than the occasional kiddy musical, I’d never performed in a formal capacity. So, more than anything, I was beyond excited to be one of a swarm of anxious freshmen in suit jackets flooding into the Hopkins center during orientation. My trip leader, a Cord in the class of 2014, had heard me singing in the woods. “You should audition for a cappella Pellowski! We always need more basses. You don’t even have to be that good.”
He didn’t have to ask me to audition, since it was already my number one priority. But like all dreams of the young, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After forty-eight hours of being passed around like a dipspit cup among more a cappella groups than I could even now name, I felt fried, frazzled and a little bit afraid. As is chronically my habit, I had underestimated what large proportions of my nerditudinal classmates had as much talent as I had, in this case, it seemed like every other dude was gifted with great pipes and just an ounce more social aptitude than I had.
At 3AM, walking home from the final round, I was accosted by a skunk outside of Russell Sage, causing me to jump out of my pants in terror and, in my delirium, lose all hope in my chances.
So when, as I made my way to my first college class ever as good as drunk from auditions-induced fatigue, the sight of a Cord from the Class of 2013 approaching me on the Green caused me to just about pee myself.
“Hey. Welcome to the Cords!”
“Uh, I said welcome to the Cords.”
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!! THANK YOU!”
I made it to Italian One with an extra helping of bang and bounce in my bottom. I recognized a dude down the row from me from the previous night. He’d made it into the Aires. It was with great mutual smugness that we shared our success stories, taking ten-story-tall pride in our new membership to the most uncool thing to which either of us would ever belong.
There are hundreds more stories that unfolded following that day, many of which would do more representative justice to the experience of being in a Dartmouth a cappella group. But those first few hours, in which I was privileged with my longest-lasting foothold in the Dartmouth community, have become increasingly endeared to me as I look over my shoulder at the past three years.
Winter tour is a blast, rehearsal is high-pressure, frat shows, despite their rampant audio flaws, make you feel like you’re in NSYNC and it’s still 2002. But as I sometimes find myself telling faces befuddled at the notion that it all could still be worth six hours a week of rehearsal, music is really only about 2 percent of what an a cappella group does.
More than anything, the Cords have been the best friends I’ve had in my entire life. Something about the intimacy of vocal harmony, or the painstaking process of working to turn sheet music into sound, or just the hundreds of quiet hours packed snug in a car going straight down a New England road, headed to a five-song show at who-knows-which-college-it-is-tonight, has led to a flourishing little world of twentysomething twentysomethings with backgrounds as diverse as a bowl of Gardetto’s.
Whether I am stressed, ecstatic, depressed or ready to toss back a few Cold Ones, the Cords are the Minute Men, the First Responders, the surrogate brothers, dads and moms. We can all make each other laugh ourselves to pieces, and we have, on evenings of safe, unashamed emotion and honesty, shared our most tender dreams and fears.
From freshmen year on, it was a Cord I talked to on Facebook at 2am, home from the frats, distraught at an unreciprocated crush, Cords I met up with in Boston to smoke hookah and shoot the breeze about love, rap music, phil classes and finance. A Cord let me sleep over in his room for days during the darkest winter of my life, when I was too sad to sleep alone, and it’s with a Cord that I’m currently living off-campus all summer.
I can’t speak for other a cappella groups, though I trust they could tell similar stories. And I know that even if it’s only one of many forces, music has a power to unify and cohere people into communities in a way that dispels the tenacious restrictions of class, masculinity, anxiety, affiliation, religion and ideology. You learn that any voice, however excellent it is in its own right, is brightened and empowered by the empathetic addition of another voice seeking harmony. Unconsciously, the lesson translates from melody to humanity, and you find all the calcification of feeling towards other people drop away.
Whatever I’m saying here is probably too far-fetched or, worse, even too obvious to claim any profundity. But I can’t grasp any better explanation for how I feel about the Cords. Maybe this gives words to a sensation that somebody reading this has had before in one way or another, or maybe I sound like I’m advertising an experiment for those folks just starting, untethered, on their undergraduate exploration. But throughout all its neverending, zany nonsense and tutti frutti narcissism, being in an a cappella group has taught me one true thing: that to create a true community, you must treat people like music.