Between shrapnel-filled slushies on Glee and accusations of “aca-cest” in Pitch Perfect, Hollywood has painted a cappella as something vicious and dorky, powered by competition, cardio, and catfights.
But last Friday, in a dimly lit lecture hall in Kenmore Square, a group of Boston University students told a different story.
Chordially Yours, an all-female a cappella group whose name was written in loopy cursive on a chalkboard, —the “I” was, of course, dotted with a heart — was supposed to take the stage promptly at 7 p.m. They did not.
Instead, In Achord—a coed a cappella group clad in togas—sang the opening numbers. Amidst John Lennon’s “Imagine” and One Direction’s “One Thing,” they explained their presence: since their concert had been canceled by a city-wide lockdown the week before, Chordially Yours had invited them to share a stage.
While that kind of camaraderie is commonplace in B.U.’s a cappella community as a whole, it seems to be especially present in all-female groups like Chordially Yours.
“Chords, as cheesy as it sounds, is definitely a family,” said Emma Tressler. “I can honestly say that the girls in Chords are my best friends.”
“A Cappella” is a Latin phrase, meaning “in the chapel.” That’s where a cappella’s roots are: in the realm of religion, a la Gregorian chants and intoned liturgies that date back to at least the 15th century.
Two of B.U.’s thirteen performance groups carry on this religious tradition: Kol Echad, a Jewish group, and Mustard Seed, which sings Christian music.
But even the secular groups display a notable level of devotion.
“You cannot have a decent a cappella group without every single member being fully dedicated to the team,” said Emalie El-Fakih, a brunette sophomore who sings with Aural Fixation, an all-female group that touts itself as “BU’s sassiest.”
She explained that Aural Fixation’s “main goal as an a cappella group is to make our audience feel something.” Whether that “something” is to make them “feel alive through one of our signature sassy upbeat songs, or make them feel hope or even heartbreak through one of our more relaxed, soulful songs,” El-Fakih said it comes from ”squeez[ing] into a small room of the College of Fine Arts basement every Thursday and Sunday night and…giv[ing] each other everything we have.”
Conversely, Micki Dupnik said she chose her coed a cappella group, In Achord, “because they seemed like they had lives outside of a cappella. Some of the other groups were all about the group and pretty much that was it.”
According to Tressler, Chords is such a group.
While “some people think [Chords] is sort of like a sorority,” she said, she prefers to think of the 16-woman group as “an extremely devoted cult.”
“Once you’re a Chord, you’re in it for life.”
While the Top-40 songs that all thirteen of B.U.’s groups include in their repertoires might be catchy, turning them into a cappella songs is more complicated than simply learning the lyrics.
Like most music, a cappella arrangements include melodies and harmonies, which can be assigned to singers based on vocal part. El-Fakih said that is always Aural Fixation’s first step: “we split the ‘instrumental’ and back-up vocals into at least four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.”
The instrumentals are created by sounds that mimic instruments and provide “vocal percussion, or ‘perc’ for short in the a cappella world,” Eden Beaudoin explained. Sometimes called beatboxing or scatting, perc can be a challenge for all-female groups.
The Terpsichore singer and English education major said that “guys seem to be naturally much better at it, so female beatboxers in coed groups are rare. I got to learn and get pretty good at percing being in an all-girls group.”
Some, like Talah Khalaf, feel that “in girls’ groups, you get a less rich sound because of the lack of bass.” Khalaf sings with the coed Alegrettos.
“Musically, there are a few difficulties in all-female groups,” Beaudoin admitted. “We can't sing as low as guys can, so we have to be wary of sounding too "girly," but I personally love the difficulty because I see it as a challenge, and it just feels so badass when we overcome it. I'm one of our "basses," and my vocal range has gotten so much lower over the last four years because I've pushed myself in that direction. I would never have gotten the chance to do that in a coed group,” the senior said.
Once the ingredients—harmonies, melodies, percing—are assembled, a cappella groups then weave them together into one piece.
It’s this weaving that impresses freshman Allison Penn the most. “I think a cappella is beautiful, and it’s great to see how a simple human voice can join with others without instruments to create really great music,” Penn said.
Tamara Fattaleh, Tressler’s roommate, an athletic training major who is not musically inclined, said that being exposed to the behind-the-scenes process has given her more appreciation for a cappella music. “I feel like now I really see all the work that goes into it, and can appreciate how hard they work and how incredible their voices are as a whole… instead of ‘oh, that sounds pretty,’ I know how much work went into arranging and memorizing the solos and parts,” she said.
Song arrangements were not the biggest obstacle Chordially Yours encountered this season. That honor went to producing their newest album, appropriately titled ‘A Minor Setback.’
“We’ve been working on recording this new album since last spring, and we were all really determined to release it this spring at our concert,” Emma Tressler said in an interview. “As the deadline for our concert quickly approached, we realized that we were basically bleeding money, so I just sort of took it upon myself to do whatever I could.”
Tressler, an education major, created an online fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com with hopes that “generous benefactors” would chip in and help Chords raise the additional $1500 it needed. “I (almost literally) worked my ass off to reach our goal,” Tressler said.
“I legitimately tweeted to Ellen DeGeneres and Beyoncé. Beyoncé! I had the nerve to clog up her twitter feed with my lowly request for a retweet.”
Groveling aside, her plan worked—Chords received $2,242 in three days.
“They reached their goal in less than a week, which is just incredible,” said Fattaleh.
“Raising that much money and having that much support in that much time? Emma’s a baller.”
In addition to seeing Tressler’s hard work, Fattaleh said that living with a Chord has taught her a lot about the group.
“I learned more about what goes into the music, as opposed to assuming that they just get together and pop out music,” she said, laughing.
“I also learned the lingo,” Fattaleh added. “It’s like they have their own language…when they can’t find words, they just come up with them. ‘TM’ is ‘too much,’ if you’re being ridiculous. ‘Touched’ is if you see someone screw something up really badly, like trip and fall or a really bad outfit. ‘Tears’ is precious, or at least that’s what I’ve equated it to.”
There were plenty of tears, both literal and verbal, at Chords’ spring concert. Combined with the members’ attire (dresses), alumni taking the stage to perform a special song (TLC’s “Unpretty”) with current members, and the anecdotes shared about each member in-between songs (which included Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”), it was quite an estrogen-fest.
For Terpsichore’s Beaudoin, that might be the best part of all-female a cappella.
“I’m going to miss having Terps as my support system,” the senior said. “We’re all so there for each other. Whenever one of us is in crisis, the rest of us basically envelop her in love, listen to her vent, offer advice, and generally make her feel better.
“Then we sing, and everything is a little bit better when we leave.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.