All hail Yale
March 14: John Walters finds the roots of college a cappella at Yale University, where singing truly becomes an athletic endeavor.
"Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Japan, New Zealand," says Kjeldgaard, who dropped out of Yale after three years of study. "Australia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, India, South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti, Egypt ..."
The list goes on. Six continents. All four hemispheres. Approximately 20 states in the U.S. And Puerto Rico. Here is a sonic expedition upon which only the Rolling Stones -- or those who've appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone -- might embark.
Kjeldgaard is a classically trained pianist, but neither he nor the other 13 members of his group will require a roadie for their world tour. Who needs them? The only instruments the Yale Whiffenpoofs ever require fit snugly into each member's respiratory system.
There's nothing like the original
The Whiffenpoofs. The original collegiate a cappella group, founded in 1909 at Mory's, a supper club on York Street in New Haven, Conn., by four falstaffian fellows in the Yale Glee Club. Past members include Cole Porter and Prescott Bush (the president's grandfather). The Whiffs still perform each Monday night at Mory's and, as you can see, almost anywhere else humans exist.
They just do not compete in the Intercollegiate A Cappella Championships (ICCA). Never have. Why should they? Does Warren Buffett need a resume? Does Jack Nicholson still audition?
"The reason we don't compete is two-fold," says Kjeldgaard who -- don't worry, parents -- is only taking a year's sabbatical before graduating due to the demands of his role as the Whiffs' business manager. "First, our style is just different. It's more old school. Second, we operate as a business."
The Whiffs are to Yale a cappella what Yale is to all but one or two academic institutions in the United States. Original. Elite. Sine qua non. To begin with, the Whiffs are composed only of males who have completed their junior year. They are akin to a senior-only All-Star team, culled from the top vocalists of Yale's other groups. Few if any male seniors-to-be at Yale continue in a cappella if they fail their Whiffs audition (the ladies' counterpart, Whim 'N Rhythm, originated in 1981).
Second, from a budgetary standpoint, the Whiffs operate on a different plane -- and take more of them.
"Most groups here have an annual budget of anywhere between 15 and 100 thousand dollars," says Kjeldgaard, who never sang before matriculating at Yale. "We operate on a significantly higher budget than that highest figure."
Kjeldgaard says that with the self-assuredness that only a Yalie can muster.
And why not? The Whiffs are by far the most prominent and prestigious of Yale's eighteen a cappella groups, a sub-culture that overwhelms if not outright replaces the Ivy League bastion's fraternity system. Consider that there are 4,800 undergrads at Yale and that approximately 250 of them belong to a cappella groups. That is more than five percent.
"I arrived here in 2005 and observed the a cappella scene," says Sarah Weiss, a professor in Yale's department of music. "I thought, this is an anthropology/musicology course waiting to happen."
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