“We are Coda! Thank you all so much!” exclaimed an emphatic a cappella singer into a microphone, after performing a set beneath the excruciating April sunlight. The all-female a cappella group, which has boasted competitive membership over the years, stood four-strong before a socially distanced crowd. This was Earth Day 2021, in which Muhlenberg College had set up a massive outdoor entertainment festival on the green, and provided the college with its first a cappella performance in over a year. A small cluster of socially-distanced onlookers cheered on the four performers with praise, muffled slightly by their face masks.
These musicians sounded phenomenal, as usual, and blew the audience away with intertwining harmonies and whimsical humor, but something about the lack of membership, the first of which I’ve seen from the a cappella community since arriving at the school, seemed to demonstrate a shift in the balance which made me consider the present and the future of this important substrata of Muhlenberg’s extracurricular foundation.
Fast-forward a week, to another warm spring day in April, where I was hanging out with Zach Rabishaw ‘22, someone I’ve been acquainted with since freshman year of college, who happens to serve as the current president of the A Cappella Council.
“We’re about to have this big concert next Sunday,” said Zach, leaning back into the old, weathered outdoor couch.
“Right,” I replied, staring in his direction.
I was now eager to dive into the a cappella braintrust-of-one, in the hope that maybe the staggering difference in the foundation of a cappella has been something on his mind as well. The question was simmering intensely inside my mind as he spoke about other end-of-the-year plans and preparations, and the eagerness to get it out only made me more anxious. Finally, I posed the question:
“So how do you feel about the situation with a cappella? How do you feel about… like…membership and interest for the future?”
Zach thought for a moment, nodding his head, and placing his phone down on a small end table beside the couch.
“I can tell you right now our biggest problem is exposure. Like– we [the a cappella groups] chose not to have auditions this year because of the restrictions on singing.”
Sitting there with Zach at that moment, so close to the end of a long and tiring semester, it became excruciatingly difficult to separate the practicality drilled into our heads during the semester from other emotional attachments. I put my phone away and we both stared out at the lawn as an old, neon-blue jeep drove by. As college students, we hadn’t really taken the time to appreciate the joys, and even the sorrows, of developmental experiences outside of academics until they were ripped out of our hands by a force outside of our control. It made me think, even if only briefly, that as a singer studying media and computer science, these kinds of experiences aren’t important because they will land that Fortune-500 job, or qualify you for graduate school. They are important because college just wouldn’t be as enjoyable if not for the social experiences gained along the way.
Upon looking through the PDF file of the Updated COVID-19 Singing Policy, which was released by Muhlenberg College in early February, certain earlier phases would prevent live group singing events from taking place on campus. According to the policies enacted under Phase 1, students were only allowed to sing in residences or designated practice rooms, and outdoor singing was prohibited.
Days had gone by, and I stopped by the dining hall to talk with Zach Montenegro ‘23, an active member and musical director of the a capella group Muhlenberg Dynamics, or ‘Nams.
“How many members does Dynamics have as of right now?”
“Hmm…we’ll have eleven as of the fall, but we normally have seventeen or sixteen. Why?”
“I was just wondering how you would feel, hypothetically, if one day the group simply had no members, no interest, nothing?”
This clearly threw him off guard, as he looked down at his plate, deep in thought. Finally, after a few moments, he looked up and spoke in a quiet, introspective manner.
“I’d be disappointed to say the least. It’s fun, and I’ve made some of my best friends in ‘Nams. Also, I mean, it’s an organization that’s been around forever, and I don’t want to be part of the class who saw its end out of ignorance, probably. That would just be irresponsible and kind of disrespectful honestly.”
Time ticked by that week, and Rabishaw’s and Montenegro’s words about urgency remained poignant in my head. The way both spoke about the groups they were involved in radiated a sense of deep concern, and as the bell tower tolled the alma mater, as it does everyday at 6 p.m., my phone buzzed with a message from Alexandra Rivers ‘21, the current president of the Noteworthy musical theatre a capella group, who I’d also planned to speak with later that same day. I replied with an apology for my tardiness, stating that I’d be there momentarily. Something about the consistency of the bells made me, an already very existentially-minded person, think very deeply as I walked down Academic Row, picking up speed so as not to be any more late than I’d intended.
Alexandra was seated at a picnic table under the massive arch between buildings, surrounded by college seniors, who all looked rather confusedly in my direction as I approached.
“Sorry to interrupt, do you mind if I ask some questions?” I inquired, as she motioned for me to take a seat.
I started my inquiries by explaining my conversation with Zach Rabishaw, and that I had been wondering if some of the other a cappella presidents had concerns about it too.
“I think we will take roughly four members and be pretty normal going forward,” states Rivers, with a strong sense of resolution in her voice. “Also, especially since the semester has progressed, we’ve had a ton more events and we will have had three events by the time we leave. I think by the time the fall runs around we will have large numbers of auditionees.”
Alexandra seemed contrastingly positive in her analysis of the situation, and went on to mention the fact that “good and passionate singers” would audition without much need for worry, and the group’s numbers should go back to normal.
She spoke about the social aspect of the community, saying, “The fact that we have been able to be around each other and the community was able to kind of stick together and do little social things here and there really helped us stay unified.”
By the time I left, I heard the bells again; No music this time, just the seven evenly-spaced strikes. The strikes that would always toll proudly regardless of the state of the school around it. Something about the stoic sense of consistency brought me back to Earth Day, when the four singers carried the spirits of the audience even in the absence of a dozen fellow members, and I left questioning why I’d even worried about the survival of music in the first place.
If I’ve taken anything away from this brief investigation, perhaps it’s this:
Like clockwork, where there are creative people, no matter how many, and no matter the size and breadth of their audience, they will continue to create meaningful music that moves the community.