Singing Groups and Secret Societies

Disclaimer: I went to college with the author of this article.

We knew of one another, though we were never friends, possibly because we sang for competing a capella groups. I know, “competing a capella groups.” However, the system at Yale really lent itself to that atmosphere, with singing groups working as hard as political candidates to woo the small pool of talented singers to their side during the crazed Rush period. Rastogi nails the attitude in the article. Frats weren’t big at my school, but we made up for it with the fervor of singing group Rush. They had me convinced, a month into school, that I was socially doomed unless I was tapped.

For the next two years, every weekend, every vacation, and most evenings were utterly defined by the activity. I missed a lot of campus events, and I was unable to participate in many other activities because of the sheer amount of time I’d committed to singing doo-doo-doos (at least 6 hours a week of practice, with usually 10-15 more spent with activities, gigs, or special rehearsals). Eventually, it got to be too much, and I quit. It was only after that I discovered all that my university really had to offer. I became a costume designer, got part time jobs, acted in a children’s theater show, took up intramural sports, got involved in my residential college, produced plays, wrote for a publication, took on a second major, threw weekly parties with my suitemate, and actually enjoyed a spring break.

My favorite line in the article deals with the manipulation and complexity involved in Rush campaigns:

Of course, that’s precisely what so many people find off-putting about the whole thing—the insularity, the cultishness. There are many similarities between cult members and a cappella singers: Matching outfits. Frozen smiles. Intense recruitment tactics. Obscure traditions. (“No, no, no—for 15 years we have been stepping on the one and snapping on the two!”) But what is cult if not another word for community? I arrived at Yale fresh from the suburbs, terrified of all the chic city kids I imagined would be roaming about, ready to mock me because I didn’t smoke pot or know all the bylines in The New Yorker. A cappella gave me something to belong to. Rushing singing groups—a complicated, monthslong process involving hundreds of hopeful freshmen—meant that, suddenly, dozens of upperclassmen were going out of their way to say hello to me on campus. Later, when I spearheaded rush efforts myself, I realized that these seemingly casual encounters were as carefully planned and executed as a military bombing campaign.

From the perspective of the person on the inside, it’s really not so different from secret societies. Those hundreds of hopeful freshmen who are actively rushing are traded out for a handful of hopeful juniors who may suspect, but don’t always know, what is happening to them. But to the knight (or the soprano), it’s a hard-core, all-consuming quest, an exhausting operation which to me, felt a bit like reverse hazing. I have been reminded of the madness and the drama and the sheer physical and emotional drain of this period while writing the fourth secret society book.

In the opening scene of Under the Rose, Amy delivers a critique of the Rush period, and compares it to joining Rose & Grave. I think there is a difference between being forced to make this commitment your first few weeks of college, as you do with singing groups at Yale, or fraternities and sororities at many universities, and choosing, at the end of your junior year, when you are aware of the range of campus activities and opportunities, to make a huge time commitment to a society for one year.

But perhaps not as big of a difference as she thinks in UTR.

Posted in series, UTR

4 Responses to Singing Groups and Secret Societies

  1. Patrick says:

    a capella reminds me of the (bad) movie The Break Up.

  2. Kristin says:

    And then there’s MY university experience…sororities with an annual singing competition! A double whammy. Except we did ours around themes. You would take pieces of songs and lump them altogether in one themed singing/choreographed extravaganza. Themes were highly secretive until the last minute.

    You could do a transportation theme: Midnight Train to Georgia, I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane, Mustang Sally, etc. Or maybe numbers: One is the Luckiest Number, Two for Tea, Three Coins in a Fountain, etc.

    It was actually a ton of fun to come up with the themes and try to find different kinds of music to do. Our sorority won almost every year when I was there because we knew how to mix it up. Give ’em a 50s rock song and then a 70s disco song, a hymn, and maybe a negro spiritual.

    We would sing in parts…just alto/soprano, nothing too fancy. And then there was the choreography as you performed on the steps inside the big university chapel. You could do lots of cool formations and such.

    Anyway, you just brought back a lot of memories!

  3. Bella Andre says:

    Diana – This is hilarious! Mostly because Jami Alden and I both sang for Counterpoint at Stanford….in fact, I was the director Sophomore year. Ah, the memories. I, too, cut myself loose after that and lived a more normal junior and senior years.

  4. Rachel P. says:

    Bah.