Education, Music, and the Lives of Undergraduates: Collegiate a Cappella and the Pursuit of Happines

PDF Education, Music, and the Lives of Undergraduates: Collegiate a Cappella and the Pursuit of Happines 24 décembre 2020

Book author
  1. Dr Brent C. Talbot
  2. Dr Roger Mantie

The undergraduate years are a special time of life for many students. They are a time for study, yes, but also a time for making independent decisions over what to do beyond formal education. This book is based on a nine-year study of collegiate a cappella - a socio-musical practice that has exploded on college campuses since the 1990s. A defining feature of collegiate a cappella is that it is a student-run leisure activity undertaken by undergraduate students at institutions both large and small, prestigious and lower-status. With rare exceptions, participants are not music majors yet many participants interviewed had previous musical experience both in and out of school settings. Motivations for staying musically involved varied considerably - from those who felt they could not imagine life without a musical outlet to those who joined on a whim. Collegiate a cappella is about much more than singing cover songs. It sustains multiple forms of inequality through its audition practices and its performative enactment of gender and heteronormativity. This book sheds light on how undergraduates conceptualize vocation and avocation within the context of formal education, holding implications for educators at all levels.


I deleted the e-mail at first. It was the summer of 2015 and Bobby Cohen, Cornell
Class of 1960, wanted my help. He was one of the earliest members of Cayuga’s
Waiters, Cornell’s oldest all-male a cappella group, he explained, and he had a
story to tell. More than fifty years after graduating, some of the original Waiters
had started singing together again. They were in their seventies and eighties now
and they’d been in touch sparingly, if at all. Most of these men hadn’t seen each
other in decades. Careers, marriages, children—it had all taken precedence.

But then, just like that, Charlie Wolfe ’55 had sent out a letter, asking if the
old gang would like to get together again? What started as a one-time gathering
at the Basin Harbor Club on Lake Champlain turned into an unlikely annual
tradition, and then something even more surprising: Starting in 2005 or 2006,
Bobby told me, these men would descend on Ithaca, New York, for Cornell’s
Reunion Weekend, where they’d frantically rehearse five or six old songs and
perform at brunches and lunches and even on stage at Bailey Hall (a massive
arena on campus). They’d even sleep in the dorms again—enduring communal
showers and stifling heat all in the name of a cappella singing.

Bobby wanted to know: Would I like to make a documentary about them? I
knew why he’d reached out to me. I had some experience in the area. My non-fiction
book, Pitch Perfect, about the competitive world of a cappella singing, had inspired
the movies of the same name. Also, I’d been a Waiter myself, albeit forty years after
Bobby graduated. Still, I tried to say no. I had a quick phone call with Bobby—a
courtesy, really—explaining that I’d recently moved to Los Angeles and was busy
with other projects. I even tried to pawn the idea off on a friend of mine, Zachary
Weil, a younger Waiter alum who was making documentaries and corporate films.

But in the weeks that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about Bobby’s story.
In part because of what he’d said but also because the dude was relentless! He
followed up by e-mail from his home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to put a fine
point on this journey. “What’s compelling about this story?” he wrote, before
immediately answering his own question: “The power and joy of collaborative
singing, how it endures throughout lifetimes, brings people together of different
backgrounds and opinions (yes, there are lots of Republicans in this group, and
Navy veterans, and nobody who made a living as a singer, but a few who tried).”

He finished with a plea disguised as a question: “Does what I’ve said here give
you an idea of what we might make of this?”

I couldn’t believe I was saying this but: Yes, it had. What finally hooked me
was simple: I imagined what it might feel like to be seventy-five years old and
going back to college again. What Bobby was talking about wasn’t just a human
interest story or “Pitch Perfect” for old people. It was the Fountain of Youth. I
called him to say: “I’m in.”

Zack and I teamed up together. And in the lead-up to June 2016—the group’s
next reunion—we took a bunch of road trips to interview some of these men
on camera. We sat in their living rooms in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and
Illinois, hearing wild stories about the Waiters in the group’s heyday—about how
they’d performed live on TV’s “The Perry Como Show,” about how they would
show up unannounced at a women’s college to serenade the co-eds, about how
they toured the world and recorded vinyl records and created a tradition I was
lucky enough to join as a freshman at Cornell in 1996. Actually, that’s a lie. I
didn’t get into the group until I was a sophomore. They made me audition four
times before they finally accepted me—or took pity on me. I don’t care which it
was. Because those friendships changed my life.

When Reunion Weekend finally arrived, Zack and I drove to Ithaca (along with
a second camera operator we’d hired) and moved into the dorm alongside The
Waiters of the 1950s, as they called themselves. The mattresses may have been
thin—as were the walls—but our hearts were full. In rehearsal, these liver-spotted
singers argued like teenagers. Late at night, after performing, they partied like them
too, gathering in the dorm lounge to have a drink and sing some more. When they
took to the stage for the finale on Saturday night—dressed up in navy jackets and
striped ties—to perform for 1,600 Cornellians, I had to fight back tears.
Bobby Cohen was maybe the youngest member of this group. And so, it
was a shock when, on December 6, 2016—shortly before Zack and I finished
the film—Bobby died suddenly at his home. He was seventy-eight. We were
devastated. I went back to find that first e-mail he’d written. And damn if he
hadn’t warned me. “We keep doing it,” he wrote, “year after year. And the Grim
Reaper lessens our ranks little by little.”

Our short documentary—a love letter to the Waiters of the 1950s—played a
bunch of film festivals across the country in 2017. We called the movie Old Men
Singing. The title was meant to be a joke. But when I look back on it now, I think
it’s why we made the movie. And—in a way—why Roger and Brent wrote this
book. Old men singing? We should be so lucky
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