Imperfect Pitch

in Points of Departure
Illustration by Devon Geyelin.

“DO YOU SING?”

Yale boasts over four hundred active undergraduate organizations, but if you measure activity in terms of decibel levels, there is really only one to note. Every August, hordes of ardently chirpy a cappella singers descend upon timid freshmen continuously asking the dreaded question. Oh, you anxious-to-please freshmen, making bad jokes like, “Only in the shower!” “Well, I’m not going to quit my day job!” After the hundredth ask, even questions such as, “Are you mad at me?” and, “Do you have a boyfriend?” would suddenly seem like fun, normal conversation starters to you. You begin to wonder, “Should I sing?” before remembering that you cannot, and have never been able to.

The onslaught doesn’t stop at the extracurricular bazaar. One night at the dining hall, the topic of conversation is “rushing.” Well, every night at the dining hall, the topic of conversation has been rushing, but it isn’t until this particular plate of Berkeley mac  ’n’ cheese that you realize: it’s never been about Greek life! It’s always been about a cappella! You feel bewildered and bereft as you try to keep up with the chatter about callbacks, rush meals, and singing desserts. None of this was in any of the movies. Is this college? Where are the togas?

A cappella rush season and its full calendar of parties and performances has traditionally sprawled over the entire month of September. It ramps up for a pre-tap period, when the thirteen singing groups under the Singing Group Council (SGC) alert the hopefuls of their picks. When the process finally culminates in “tap night,” each singing group selects its fastest runner to sprint through the Old Campus gates and up the stairs of the freshman dorms. The upperclassmen singers are drunk—either on vodka or on the festive spirit. Some groups wear matching T-shirts and yell nonsense. Other groups wear matching jersey pinnies and sing nonsense. Some freshmen cry of joy. Others cry from rejection. Together, the newly constituted and divinely chosen groups belt out that immortal anthem that closes out the musical version of Les Miserables: “Do You Hear The People Sing?”

Yes. Yes we do.

But rush is not the lawless free-for-all that we tone-deaf outsiders may think it to be. It operates according to a highly ordered system of rules spelled out for the first time this year in a Rush Manifesto—a document sanctioned, circulated, and enforced by the aca gods, the almighty SGC. The council is always composed of two men and two women, including one member from each of the all-senior groups, the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ‘n Rhythm.

“In recent Yale a cappella history, we as a community have gotten vicious during rush,” the 2013 manifesto, sub-headed “How to Not be an Ass,” admits. The document speaks to change that is radical and relevant for the entire campus: rush will be shortened by almost two weeks. The calendar change avoids the overlap of Peter Salovey’s inauguration and Parents’ Weekend.

Over the course of seventeen pages, the manifesto outlines proper procedure for each stage of the rush process. Before the first big a cappella party at the off-campus house of the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, each group must deliver their tithe of alcohol to the house no later than forty-five minutes before the start of festivities. During the second, more intimate Dwight Hall Jam, space will be limited, the manifesto warns, leading us to rule number two, “Only necessary personnel should be present during setup—Don’t crowd Dwight with people standing around doing nothing. You’re not fooling anyone.”

Further bylaws govern behavior outside of official events, including what the manifesto terms “outside contact.” It bans unsanctioned meals, secret meetings, and a litany of other activities: “No picnics,” “No sketch walks,” and, “No sitting with rushees in class.” Bolded type announces “the new T-shirts rule,” which has been relaxed this year in order to allow singers to wear their group’s T-shirt as soon as their feet land in New Haven in August. “It takes a special person to abuse the power of an a cappella shirt,” the manifesto reads. We think they’re all special.

But what is crime without punishment? Extreme violations of the “Spirit of Rush” may call for the convening of not only the Singing Group Council, but also a subcommittee, which needs to rule with a three-quarters majority vote that a violation had occurred. These measures are supplemented by online “badgering hotlines,” which allow rushees to email the SGC to anonymously report instances of harassment.

Unfortunately the Council has yet to release the badgering hotline information for the rest of us, but we’ll let you know if we hear anything. After all, this is an a cappella world. We’re just living in it.

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