Social Structure and Organization, and the Performance of Power


Generally speaking, there is a consistency to the political leadership structures in place in collegiate a cappella groups, resulting in conventionalized positions of power, divisions of labor and patterns of social behavior. For example, nearly all groups install a member as music director and another to manage their business affairs. Additional positions vary, but frequently include the offices of secretary, president, librarian, concert and tour manager, or a combination of some or all of these. These structuring, governing schemes locate certain individuals in positions of power, usually sanctioned by the overall membership through some kind of vote or consensus. They are often outlined in a governing document or enacted following a less explicit set of rules and procedures transmitted orally among members from year to year.

When considering these political arrangements, it is useful to make the theoretical distinction between social structure and social organization. Social structure is an ideal model, “an abstract conception of ideal patterns of group relations, of conventional expectations and arrangements.”12 But the ideal of social structure does not always play out in reality, and social organization is the term applied to the actual “systematic ordering of social relations by acts of choice and decision.”13 Social organization thus retains a sense of individual agency, giving voices otherwise marginalized by the social structure a chance to be heard. In this way, members without official sanction can influence the overall musical product through their social and musical choices. The music-making process, then, must be approached as a dynamic into which individual musical sensibilities, social relationships, and power all factor.

Performance theory is useful for conceptualizing the moves made by actors in this dynamic, whether overt or covert and whether or not the actors are in official positions of power. “Performance” commonly refers to a highly marked occasion such as a concert, play or religious ritual, where the beginning and end are clear, and the progression of events takes the audience or participants out of a sense of normal time14 or has some transformative effect.15 But for decades anthropologists and sociologists have also used the concept of performance to include more quotidian situations not covered by the word’s everyday usage. Here we find performance as Erving Goffman defines it: “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.”16 Goffman outlines a process he calls “impression management,” which is effected by strategies with which actors attempt to control situations and other actors.

In collegiate a cappella groups, the choices elected officers are empowered to make have social and musical consequences, and also serve as a way of performing power. Music directors (who are also singing members) usually choose which songs to rehearse and perform, and when. In many groups, arrangers (who may or may not be elected officers) also hold considerable power, since it is they who decide which members sing which parts of their arrangement. These decisions may determine who gets a featured harmony line and who simply emulates an unremarkable rhythm guitar. By setting up the configuration of voices, arrangers determine whose musical sensibilities will be applied where, and those sensibilities can only be known through their prior performance.

For example, members of one all-male group with which I’ve worked commonly conceptualize their arrangements not in terms of tenor and bass parts, but rather the individual voices for which their songs are arranged. During each rehearsal’s warm-up exercises, members purposefully avoid switching out of their chest voices into their falsettos. As a result, warm-ups become not only a time to “warm up” one’s voice, but also a recurring opportunity to demonstrate (and to perform) the upper limits of one’s vocal range for everyone else in the group, including the arrangers. As one member explained to me:

  RP17: The way that [another singer in the group] sings a G and the way that I sing a G are very different because he can do different things with it. I have to belt it. So that’s part of picking who sings what part…of the song, what kind of a tone you want for that part of the song and where it’s going to fit in that person’s voice. That’s something [one alumnus and frequent arranger] was particularly good at: knowing how it would sound given which voice did it. And he was very good at leaving things right on your break, so that you had to push for it and it sounded like you were trying so hard, and looked like you were trying so hard, that it’s really fun and interesting to watch and listen to.
JSD: So he was really arranging for particular people’s voices?
RP: [Emphatically] Yes.
JSD: Not just “tenor one,” “tenor two”…
RP: Yes. He always arranged for the group that was there.18


This example points specifically to social and musical interaction as a basis on which subsequent decisions (in this case, part assignments) are made—the arranger could only know the voices of the “group that was there” by observing their performance during rehearsals. Moreover, the qualities of these voices are important components of the songs’ vocal and visual presentation.

Through this example, it becomes apparent that the social and the musical cannot be disconnected. It is the interplay between the two that largely shapes the group’s musical output.

The reality of social organization allows for members without official sanction to exert some power through performative strategies of resistance. Here are two examples: First, a member can exert some power merely by placing his or her membership in question. Between February and April 2003, one member of Amazin’ Blue wavered as to whether he would return to the group the following year. Through his performance of indecision—he frequently raised the issue with other members—he sought legitimation from other members in the form of pleas to return, asserting or creating his important place within the social organization of the group. Because his was the lowest bass voice in the group at the time, his departure would certainly have had musical ramifications, a fact that escaped neither him nor the other members.

Second, there can be more direct challenges to those in official positions of power. Elected officers are responsible for making sure rehearsals run smoothly. A common challenge to directorial authority is the timing of extraneous comments made by members during rehearsals. The comments range from small jokes to pointed criticism of the group’s musical progress. In some of the rehearsals I observed, members saved such comments for the very moment after the music director blew the starting pitch of a song on the pitch pipe but before the count-off was begun. (At one of the first rehearsals with new members, the music director of one group even made explicit the group’s “rule” that there should be silence after the pitch is blown, and enlisted the support of other senior members in modeling and enforcing it.) Though one might be tempted to view these interruptions as benign instances of socialization, it is clear in some cases that members purposefully saved their comments for delivery at a time when silence is expected—a performance of power through social organization.