...and bops, doo-wops, and barber-shops. The popular men's a cappella ensemble turns 10 years young this year.
This is a big year for Ithacappella. IC’s immensely popular men’s a cappella choir is marking its 10-year anniversary, has just cut a new CD, and will say farewell to faculty adviser Randie Blooding, associate professor of music, who is handing over the reins at the end of the school year. To celebrate its accomplishments and honor Blooding, the student group had a blowout tribute and alumni reunion at this year’s Acappellooza on April 8; the annual event was again held at the historic State Theatre in downtown Ithaca, as it has since its inception in 1997.
As the founders intended, the group has evolved into more than just an extracurricular performance ensemble. Since the spring of 1996, when J. Michael Maury ’99, Zachary Levi ’98, Jerome Doherty ’97, and Ronald K. Smith II ’00 started the group, Ithacappella has toured the country, cut three CDs, competed at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, and increased efforts in educational outreach and fund-raising.
“We established the group to offer a rewarding musical experience as well as camaraderie and brotherhood,” explains Levi. By all accounts, they’ve surpassed that mark. Current members and alumni consistently describe the group experience as “life-changing” and “profound.” After living together, touring, competing, and performing—as well as throwing around the football—members stay in touch beyond graduation, socially and professionally; several have joined or formed other singing groups, and many continue to support the group and plan to attend this spring’s commemorative celebration. None of the men is surprised by the group’s relative longevity. While college groups can fizzle after founding members graduate, Ithacappella continues to grow.
“We worked very hard in those first four years to establish a strong foundation for a group that was going to last—that was our main goal,” says Maury. “We made it clear from the beginning that we wanted the group to keep going.”
The group, a recognized student organization but not an official School of Music ensemble, began with several students. Maury, who’d become interested in the a cappella genre during high school, and his friend Smith eventually found their way to upperclassmen Levi and Dougherty. But the four had different ideas about how the group should sound. Some favored more traditional glee club–style singing, while others envisioned a mix of men’s choral literature and doo-wop or pop styles.
“The first couple of years were very experimental,” says Maury. “We were just trying to find our identity. But even from the first concert the camaraderie was there—the ‘brotherhood.’ Through the music and the friendships we were forming something special.”
The group founders approached associate professor Randie Blooding to serve as faculty adviser. Blooding agreed, making clear that the students would need to start and run the group. To fulfill this requirement, the men created an executive board of students.
“We put together all of the concerts and the tours as well as our fund-raising [plan],” says Levi, who now teaches music in Saratoga Springs. “I was able to develop not only musical and conducting skills, but leadership qualities that are invaluable.”
David Stills ’04 learned much about himself while serving as president during his senior year. He had wondered about the pressure of leading the board, but now jokes that since meetings were held on Mondays at 7:30 a.m., the full-time students were often too tired to argue.
Although “Doc” Blooding won’t miss those early morning board meetings, he will miss the sense of belonging he sees among these young men. “How much more wholesome can you get than having a bunch of guys standing around singing together?” he jokes.
On top of regular schoolwork, members spend several hours outside rehearsal going over the arrangements. They attended a retreat this winter to prepare for competition. Students also conduct the group, first spending a year as the assistant. Tim Nowak ’07, the current conductor, is a string major who grew up in New Jersey listening to a cappella groups at Rutgers and Princeton. “I auditioned for the job because it would give me a chance to work with vocal music,” says Nowak. He leads the group through four hours of rehearsals each week. After a few minutes of joking around, the men quickly focus on vocal warm-ups and work on breath control, pitch, and tone. Nowak works each section, striving for a seamless group sound. “My biggest challenge,” he says, “is preparation—making sure I know what I want to do when I go into rehearsal.”
Membership is competitive and is now split among music and non-music majors. Of the music majors, most are not vocal majors. About 70 men audition for about 19 spots, reflective, in part, of the genre’s resurging popularity. “The guys [could book] concerts at least once a week if they chose,” says Blooding. “Since they are full-time students, they are just unable to fulfill all the requests they get to perform.”
A performance highlight for Levi was singing at the 1998 inauguration dinner for President Peggy R. Williams. They performed (of course) “Peggy Sue” and “Peg of My Heart.” She’s been a fan ever since. “I love a cappella music,” says Williams. “It dates back to my father’s participation in barbershop quartet singing. When my father died in 2003, I gave some of his music to Ithacappella, and they have used some of it. I think their energy is contagious, and they seem to have a very strong following on campus.”
“What set us apart back then, and still does, is the group’s ability to sing the classic repertoire,” says Maury, noting that the strong musical foundation at Ithaca College encourages experimentation. “[Ithacappella] can do an African-American spiritual and shock the world, then do a Dave Matthews song and shock the world.”
Today the group’s play list is split about 70 percent pop and 30 percent traditional arrangements, but true to the founders’ vision, the group remains committed to its choral roots—a distinction that still sets it apart from many other collegiate groups. Ithacappella still closes every concert with “Coney Island Baby,” a barbershop standard, and the group even commissioned a piece entitled “Witness” from Moses Hogan, the celebrated arranger and conductor of spirituals, shortly before Hogan’s death in 2003. The singers choose new tunes that they hear on the radio, and they often write the arrangements—another talent that distinguishes the group. Anthony Healy ’06, for example, has cranked out five-part arrangements of hits by Counting Crows and Coldplay. The original versions of familiar songs help Ithacappella to draw audiences and build a library.
Something else attracts the large audiences: these guys have fun. Their shows often include skits that may spin off from songs or current events. “It’s a novelty genre; to have people singing like instruments is a goofy idea,” admits Nowak. “So we need clever ways to keep the audience interested.”
Off stage, the group is committed to community outreach, raising nearly $1,800 for the campus-wide Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Inspired by their trip to New Orleans last year, they also reached out to musician Will Dawes from New Orleans, who lost his home and belongings. The students worked out a deal with Benjamin Peters, the local men’s clothier that provides the ensemble’s blue blazers, to outfit Dawes with a blue blazer and other work-appropriate clothing.
Ithacappella tours the Northeast each year, performing and conducting workshops at high schools and middle schools. The singers demonstrate vocal percussion techniques, or “beat boxing,” which current board president Chris Pearsall ’06 says is popular with the kids.
School visits often involve alumni. Twice the group has traveled to Westborough Schools in Massachusetts, where former member Joe Stillitano ’00 is choral director. “Ithacappella gets music out to a lot of people who aren’t exposed to singing,” says Stillitano. “When we used to perform at Ford Hall it was packed, but not just with music majors. Students attended from across the College. It’s the same when they visit my school—it’s the students I don’t have in chorus who are being exposed to music in a different way. It’s really exciting to see.” Stillitano stays connected socially and professionally with his Ithacappella brothers; two current members, Eric Dittelman ’07 and Anthony Healy ’06, are former students of his.
For some, life after Ithacappella has included stints with other choirs or spin-off ensembles, such as the successful Ithaca-based Sons of Pitches (SOP). Several Ithacappella members went on to sing with SOP, including founder Ryan Ainsworth ’00 and Mizrahi, who now teaches music near Ithaca. David Stills ’04, who was a psychology major at IC, says his time in Ithacappella inspired him to pursue a singing career. After graduation he spent 10 months singing full time with BC3, a professional group based in Madison. Stills has since moved to Atlanta and continues to sing professionally.
Ithacappella alumni Maury and Caleb Whelden ’03, both originally from Nantucket, sang in the Nantucket Cobbletones while on breaks from IC. For the first eight years, there was always a student from Nantucket High School in Ithacappella. Maury says he would like to join another group, but he is busy working on his acting career in Los Angeles. For now, he just smiles each time he pops in a CD from Ithacappella and hopes to attend the reunion concert.
In March, Ithacappella was first runner-up in the national semifinals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, making it one of the top 12 a cappella groups in the country. It was also ranked best male a cappella group in the mid-Atlantic region.
“Everything they are doing now is what I wanted the group to do when I was there—going to competitions, singing to packed auditoriums, selling CDs,” says Maury. “Looking back, I’m so proud that I was a part of it.”