The tall and slender Jason Hunter saunters down the aisle in the Bloomberg Center's Schafler Auditorium, a keyboard half his size held at his side. He is quickly greeted by students seated in a tight bunch at the bottom of the steps. It's a relaxed group, several of whom have their legs hanging over the armrests.
To an outsider, the sight of the electronic instrument might be a little misleading because this is certainly no rock outfit. Hunter is one of 14 members of the a cappella group called the Vocal Chords, and tonight, like at every rehearsal and performance, they're completely unplugged.
Now in their fifth year of existence, the co-ed Vocal Chords perform contemporary songs, mostly standard FM radio fare. The group was founded by Dan Yochelson and Greg Stevens--both of whom are still members--and is one of eight student a cappella groups on the Homewood campus.
The Vocal Chords normally meet for rehearsal twice a week at different locations, but with less than one week to an upcoming show, three hours each night will be spent in this 400-seat auditorium, the venue for their performance. The group also has a date this week on a local radio station to promote both the concert and their soon-to-be-released CD, Deep Fried Happy.
The keyboard, used to help them find the right key or note, is promptly turned on, and two members sit down Indian-style to rehearse a chorus, their voices rising above the hum of friendly discussion.
The group's music director, Robin Cohen, raises her voice and kneels in her chair to get everyone's attention.
"Guys, for our first warm-up, I think we should sing a song hopefully everyone knows," says Cohen, who then starts off the tune.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you ... ."
The rest quickly join in to serenade two who had celebrated birthdays over the weekend.
After finishing the song, one member remarks upon the impromptu performance: "Wow," he says, "that was a lot better than last time."
Next the group gets semi-serious. Hunter passes out sheets of paper that contain a list of staging and choreography ideas he is proposing for their upcoming performance. Cohen, in full teacher mode, says that when everyone is done reading, there will be a short discussion. Silence reigns for a moment but quickly evaporates.
"Black lights?" someone blurts out, referring to the lighting effects proposed for one song.
"Where do you read --black lights'?" another asks.
"He's just being creative," a third chimes in.
Hunter smiles but appears mildly perturbed.
"Just read the whole thing," he says, a phrase that will become an oft-repeated chorus as the Vocal Chords continue to not-so-quietly read.
Overall, everyone seems quite amused with the ideas, especially the one that involves somebody dressing up as Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies.
After the reading, someone notices that one group member is missing. "He's in a lab tonight," someone offers. Another member says he can't make it to practice the next night--once again, a lab conflict.
The group wraps up its discussion on the performance ideas, and it's on to the next order of business. Problem: The show is just five days away, but there are still no confirmed opening acts--those referred to on the Vocal Chords' Web site as "Mystery Guest Groups."
The Vocal Chords are responsible for filling the time, and Joe Yoon, the business manager, says he has contacted an a cappella group from another school but has not confirmed anything yet. The students, who now have filled the front row of seats and face Yoon as if he were their professor, start one by one to offer their opinions on the matter.
"We'll just have to sing all our songs," someone quips confidently.
One member asks Yoon what this other group sounds like. Yoon responds by saying he honestly doesn't know. "They could be really great," he says. "Or they can be really, really bad."
A vote is taken to see how many opening acts they should have, one or two. The two-vote wins. As for that unconfirmed group, the band members trust Yoon's instincts that it'll sound fine and leave the whole matter of opening acts up to him.
Cohen now has everyone's attention. She points to the two lists she has written on the chalkboard. One is labeled "new stuff" and the other "old stuff." Beneath these words are shortened titles of songs in the group's repertoire.
"OK," Cohen says. "What songs don't we want to do?"
Members offer choices, and Cohen begins to put checkmarks next to songs people want to do and X's for no votes. The list of new songs is left untouched. It appears the upcoming show will consist mostly of new material, a fact that delights many.
One song remains in question, and Charlotte Millard says that she has heard from four people that they were slightly offended by the lyrics of that particular number. Millard reminds everyone that the normal audience for a Vocal Chords show is not fellow students but older adults and parents with their children. The song is not chosen.
Next, it's on to the music.
First they rehearse Cyndi Lauper's Time after Time. The song is brand-new to their repertoire, and not everyone has it memorized. Some question whether the tune will be polished enough for Saturday night.
The group forms a horseshoe shape on the stage, and a blow on a pitchpipe starts everyone off in the right key. The group has shared a lot of laughs up to this point, but when it comes to singing, these undergraduate and graduate students are all professionals.
The song begins with a lovely chorus of "ahs," and the auditorium fills with the wonderful melody. One man on either side of the horseshoe enters the song mouthing percussive elements that mimic cymbal and bass sounds. One member air-drums to the beat.
The soloist slowly emerges from the pack and takes her place in front. The lyrics begin to merge with the background, and the harmony is complete.
The group sings the whole song through, and when they're done, they critique.
"I think the solo sounds great," one member says. "But the background needs some work."
In a pure democratic form, everyone gets a chance to offer a suggestion on how to improve it.
The group continues to work through the list of songs. Most are done twice, some three times, to work out the kinks. They start and stop often in the middle of songs as someone hears something that doesn't sound right--a "wah" that should be an "ah," an "ooh" held too long.
But as the night continues, they stop less frequently. With each song, their voices become stronger, each tune more polished.
Yes, they still have a lot of work to do, but the Vocal Chords will be ready for their next gig.