Widening the Scope—Cross-Campus, Regional and (Inter)national Interaction


An important part of the lived experience of collegiate a cappella groups is the chance to meet, perform for, and hear other groups, whether across campus, regionally, or nationally. Groups frequently invite each other—across campus and across the country—to perform at joint concerts. Many go on tour during their school’s fall and spring breaks to perform with other groups far from their home institution. Two additional sites of encounter are the International Championship of Collegiate A cappella, an annual competition covering all of the United States and drawing additionally on groups from Canada and Asia, and the annual “Best of College A cappella” album, on which the “best” a cappella recordings are compiled from a nation-wide submission pool. (Both ventures began in 1995, though at the time the ICCA was known as the “National Championship of College A cappella30). Any time two groups meet there is the potential for interaction and influence.

These last two venues are significant because of the rhetoric of competition, be it live performance or recorded sound. Group reputations, particularly those that extend beyond their home campus, are made largely by their performance in these arenas. As one group’s music director told me: “That puts you on the national level…that is when everybody knows who you are.”31 Groups that are successful in the live competition or appear on the recorded compilation garner capital in the a cappella world (the manifestations of which may be found in online reviews and discussion forums hosted by the Recorded A cappella Review Board32), and occupy more prominent positions in that field.

The influence of positioning in the national a cappella field can be seen in the example of the syllable “jun.” According to some singers, it was relatively unknown in the a cappella world until one particular group, Off the Beat (from the University of Pennsylvania), made use of it. Off the Beat is a very highly regarded group in the a cappella community, at least in part because it is one of two groups with the most tracks ever selected for the BOCA compilation.33 The innovation of “jun,” which replaced more conventional a cappella syllables like “doo-wop,” “da” and “bop,” has had a widespread effect. Most groups I encounter nowadays, and who appear in the ICCA tournament and on the BOCA compilation, feature “jun,” or a variant of it, in at least some of their arrangements.

Credit for the innovation may not go to Off the Beat alone—Jane McIntosh argues for the importance of the 1991 album, Foster Street (by the Tufts University Beelzebubs), in “spreading the idea[s]” of “different syllables” and vocal percussion. Foster Street sold 5,000 copies, a staggering number for the nascent collegiate a cappella movement.34 A Beelzebubs alumnus also identified the use of “dzj” in an arrangement from 1992, “jung” from 1993, and “jen,” “jing” and “jow” in other arrangements around the same time, with the underlying concept that these syllables helped to emulate the instrumental sounds on which they were based.35 Whoever “invented” these “different syllables,” it is clear that the success of Foster Street and of Off the Beat’s exposure on BOCA helped to turn an innovative syllable into a moment of decisive, and eventually far-reaching, stylistic change.

Encounters between groups in live performance venues have also had defining effects. For example, a Counterparts alumnus shared his experience hearing the Beelzebubs (known as “the Bubs”) perform:

  I first saw the Bubs during my freshman year fall break (New England). That was 1991. We saw them perform at Tufts and were literally blown away. There were several groups performing, and the Bubs were hosting. After the guest groups sang, the Bubs came up to do a handful of songs, and they were in a different league than all of us. …Their style […] was genre-defining. The Bubs made me want to change how we looked on stage (no more single bow), and was part of the impetus to add vocal percussion.36

This encounter was a moment of interaction and influence between groups resulting in changes in habitus. The modifications to Counterparts’ performance practice, such as the physical formation of singers on stage (the switch to what this alumnus called a “cluster formation”) and the use of vocal percussion, can be traced to the shift in habitus resulting from this 1991 encounter. Importantly, the Bubs have long occupied a prominent place in collegiate a cappella’s national field, as evidenced by similar references to first encounters with vocal percussion by Amazin’ Blue alumni,37 and perhaps aided by the Bubs’ uncommon longevity (the group was founded in 1963). The description of the Bubs as “genre-defining” is not that of this alumnus alone: their recent studio recording, Code Red (2003), remains a topic of much discussion for its extreme embrace of studio technology to closely emulate the original recordings on which its tracks are based (one reviewer proclaimed that the album “will make you rethink a cappella as a musical style”).38 And Bubs alumni acknowledge that “pushing the envelope” has long been a motivating factor in the group’s stylistic choices.39

The rise of the Internet and its use on college and university campuses has helped to connect individuals and groups even further. Usenet discussion groups and the forum hosted by the Recorded A cappella Review Board close physical distances and enable singers from groups like the University of Southern California SoCal VoCals and Northwestern University Purple Haze, or the University of Oregon Divisi and the Plymouth State University (New Hampshire) Vocal Order (to choose only a few examples), to connect directly on musical topics. Scholarly consideration of Internet-based interaction has only recently begun, and collegiate a cappella’s national field, as evidenced by these discussions, is ripe for consideration.40

In the final analysis, however, it is individuals (and groups of individuals) who take a new idea and, by embracing it, create such moments of stylistic change. Individuals with more experience in collegiate a cappella are more likely, I believe, to be aware of, own, and listen to a cappella recordings and attend concerts. They are also more likely to be in officially sanctioned positions of power in their own groups, due to their experience and seniority. Thus they are able to more effectively direct their group’s musical choices, shaping the group’s habitus and that of newer, younger members. In so doing, trends like “jun,” stage formations, and vocal percussion are perpetuated to the point where today, they are standard fare.

While my data and conclusions are preliminary, I hope to suggest the efficacy of two theoretical approaches to the musical practice of collegiate a cappella: performance theory and Bourdieu’s habitus and field. By combining the two, we can begin to understand the interaction and influence between and among individuals and groups, accounting for aspects of both change and consistency in musical sensibilities while considering the role of power in shaping this interaction. An understanding of the music-making dynamic in this context could be applied to other situations and lead to better understandings of group music-making, youth music and subcultures, music and power, and musical and social performance—important issues raised by the study of any musical activity.