By Jordan Rabinowitz ’12
Instruments beware: It’s time to face the music. You are no longer needed.
A cappella groups have been crooning in Binghamton since 1983, but recently, the popularity of sans-instrumental music culture has grown considerably. What started as a group of guys called Cliffs Notes — named after then-University President Clifford Clark — has evolved into nine different a cappella groups.
“I never would have anticipated nine a cappella groups on campus,” says Gary McBride ’84, a founding member of The Binghamton Crosbys.
“Our first jam was beyond sold out,” he remembers. “We knew we were onto something. It was amazing, performing in dining halls, dorm lounges. It was great because we were unique, and not many students had ever heard anything like this before.”
Because of the novelty of a cappella, McBride and his peers resorted to unconventional advertising tactics. They would barge into lecture halls, spontaneously sing during large classes and give the professor two tickets for his or her hospitality and to request that the group not be reported to University Law Enforcement Division (ULED.) “We did that morning and afternoon for one day, then opened the ticket booth in the Union, and people were talking about it all over campus,” McBride says. “We sold out in a couple of hours.”
A cappella isn’t the nerdy boys’ club it used to be. Images of men in striped vests singing a Cole Porter arrangement have been replaced by trendy-looking coeds singing contemporary music with hard-hitting performance and choreography.
Binghamton’s a cappella groups include one all-male, one all-female and seven coed ensembles. The a cappella format has become an outlet for students who are interested in music but looking to express themselves in a more informal, recreational way.
Kris Siriban, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and historian of the all-male Crosbys, believes each group exudes its own personality.
“I would say Rhythm Method is the sassy, ’80s group. The Pegs [Harpur Harpeggios] are the bouncy, girly group. The Treblemakers are the kick-ass middle child,” he says.
Aside from the strong presence they have on campus, Binghamton’s a cappella groups have made an imprint on the national scene. The Crosbys (all-male), Harpur Harpeggios (all-female), Kaskeset (Jewish), Rhythm Method (1980s) and Binghamtonics (contemporary) have all appeared in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), the most prestigious annual college a cappella competition. The Crosbys hold the record for most appearances [four] in the finals of the competition and won the event in 2003. Groups have toured the country, appearing in the New York metro area, Boston, Florida and southern California.
In fact, Binghamton a cappella groups have established what is now a widely known and frequently mimicked choreography tactic. Instead of using conventional vocal percussion to keep rhythm and time, The Crosbys and other groups at Binghamton started using a combination of stomps, claps and chest-thumping to create percussion and keep time. “Body percussion,” as it is now called, has permeated the national a cappella scene.
So what’s to account for the rise in a cappella popularity in Binghamton? It’s all about expanding the social circle.
“It has a lot to do with our friends,” Siriban says. “Right now, we have nine a cappella groups, with about 15 members in each group. Each member has a group of friends that want to see them. With that alone, a cappella’s popularity has spread.”
But the groups still need to tap into the right crowd and foster the appropriate audience.
“We’re not looking to draw in people who make fun of music or think we’re lame,” he adds. “We’re looking to pull in people who are open to a new twist on music.”
Popular culture also might have something to do with it. In his 2008 book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, author Mickey Rapkin documented the journeys of three college a cappella groups during the 2006-07 school year.
The book was successful enough to be loosely adapted into fictional, albeit critically acclaimed movie Pitch Perfect, which starred Oscar-nominated actress Anna Kendrick.
Then there are the television shows The Sing-Off, a reality talent competition, and Glee, an undeniable pop-culture phenomenon. While Glee often has that after-school special feel, its message that young singers are cool in their own right reverberates through Binghamton University.
Elyssa Ackerman ’12 recognized a cappella’s growing popularity when she decided to ride the wave of pitch pipes and sheet music, creating Binghamton’s newest a cappella group, No Strings Attached.
“It was very intimidating to start a group considering there were already so many groups on campus,” Ackerman says. “I feared that other groups would feel threatened by a new group because it would create more competition. It was also intimidating to know that we were going to exist among groups that had been around for more than 20 years, who have competed nationally and toured all over the country, who have legacy and traditions. We had big shoes to fill.”
Despite her trepidation, Ackerman is fueled by her passion for the artistic freedom of the a cappella format.
Still, aren’t a cappella singers just irritating, misguided, wannabe pop stars? Mechanical engineering major Daniel DeMarco ’13 doesn’t think so.
“I think that they’re just as popular, if not more, than any other student group on campus,” DeMarco says. “The difference between them and, let’s say, a fraternity is that they don’t just appeal to anyone just trying to get drunk on a weekend.”
DeMarco doesn’t belong to a group, but lived with two members of the Binghamtonics and a member of The Crosbys. “I enjoy the shows, their parties; they’re good people to be around,” he adds.
Siriban doesn’t think it’s necessarily cool to be in an a cappella group, but says it does have its perks.
“I think it’s unique,” he says. “I like to think people look at me and say ‘I’ve seen him sing and perform on campus, I want to know more about him,’ but I know that probably doesn’t happen because I’m weird. But I guess I wouldn’t be involved in a cappella if I wasn’t a little bit weird.”
Some graduates have made a cappella more than just a college-time hobby. Ted Trembinski ’10, is an employee at Sled Dog Studios, a recording/live sound production company that caters exclusively to a cappella groups.
“Has Binghamton helped me accomplish my dreams?” Trembinski asks. “If it has, it was only thanks to the efforts in extracurricular work.”
Trembinski, who was a member of both Kaskeset and The Crosbys, says he first joined a cappella to meet girls. He was just trying to be popular; he didn’t know it would pave the way for a professional career.
“After a year and a half of going on interviews with Manhattan- and Long Island-based companies in finance, economics, media and travel, I gave up on finding a real job and working in a traditional environment,” he says. “I committed to a cappella production, something I personally enjoyed.”
He started attending conferences and festivals, networked with existing professionals in the field, and got a job.
Ultimately, you don’t have to go any further than a stage to understand a cappella’s rising popularity in Binghamton. It’s what got Ackerman involved in the first place.
“I think that there’s this sense of community in a cappella groups that’s clearly evident in performances,” Ackerman says. “I always find that when I watch a cappella groups perform, the members seem very cohesive, and they work off of each other and exude positive energy.”
She also can’t get over that fun beat. “I think that’s pretty appealing,” she says.
Rabinowitz has a BA in English and a minor in sociology. He was president of The Binghamton Crosbys during his senior year. He works in the publishing department at Major League Baseball Properties.
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