Television shows such as “Glee” and “The Sing-Off” have sparked a renewed love for a cappella nationwide, but at Wheaton, a cappella groups have embraced the genre for decades and continue to find ways to give it their own notable signature.
Founded in 1947 “on a whim,” the Wheaton Whims are still making music more than 60 years later. The repertoire has evolved from the days when “Tea for Two” and “Moonlight in Vermont” were among their standards, but the musical tradition is unbroken.
On their latest CD, Where We Once Stood, today’s Whims serve up songs by Jason Mraz, Enya, Lady Gaga and other contemporary artists. But now, as then, the arrangements are their own, and the only instruments are their voices.
“The genre of college a cappella has developed over the last 50 years from the shoo-bop/barbershop style of close harmonies to an emphasis on vocal percussion and vocal imitation of instruments,” says Shannon Coco ’11, the Whims’ pitch pipe (musical director). “Using the voice in a more instrumental way, repertoire possibilities continue to grow…. Our musical stylings include pop, musical theatre, classic rock, alternative, barbershop and more.”
The Wheatones, founded two years before the Whims, were Wheaton’s first student-run vocal group. As the liner notes of their 1953 LP quaintly put it, “Back in 1945, … a group of sweet, young things formed themselves into an octet and offered their services at Wheaton dances and various other campus functions.” In contrast to today, the Wheatones were not always strictly a cappella. In fact, their nickname was once “girls with guitars.”
The college began its transition to co-education in the fall of 1988, and the following spring the Gentlemen Callers (GCs) were formed.
“[Then] Dean of Students Sue Alexander decided that the men of Wheaton, then a very small contingent, needed to feel solidarity with one another,” notes David Eklund ’11, current president of the GCs.
The Blend, founded in 2002, call themselves Wheaton’s “first and only co-ed a cappella group.” (The co-ed Voices United to Jam, which performs gospel and R&B, is not strictly a cappella.) Known for their quirky song choices and on-stage antics, members of the Blend dress in costumes that fit their show’s theme. At their fall 2010 “fruit jam,” costumes included a banana, a bunch of grapes, and a juice box.
In addition to presenting their jams at Wheaton twice a year, the a cappella groups perform at many off-campus venues and participate in events such as the International Competition of Collegiate A Cappella. In March 1999, the Whims won a trip to Florida when they took first prize in the college division of a “songfest challenge” in Boston.
For many a cappella alumnae/i, music remains essential. Members of the Blend went on to form the 508s, a Boston-area vocal group. GC alumnus Joe Barbato ’06 sings with the men’s ensemble Overboard, and Raffi Sweet ’12, a current GC member, is already launching a career as a rock musician.
All of the groups have signature songs and special traditions, some dating back many years.
“Each semester, the a cappella groups induct new members with the tradition of singing in the Slype at midnight,” says Coco. “It’s one of our favorite traditions, since all of our friends and fellow a cappella groups come to support us and congratulate the new members.”
Susan Rittenburg Epstein ’58 remembers when the Whims serenaded her outdoors after she auditioned for the group her freshman year. “Once accepted, I never left the Whims, and most of their songs have never left me,” she says. “Those songs are the ‘lullabies’ that I sang to my children and grandchildren.”
Epstein went on to sing in community choruses for 25 years and is now board president of the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra in eastern Massachusetts. The melody lingers on.