Four-part harmony: Stanford students share 2018 a cappella audition experiences

Oct. 23, 2018, 6:00 a.m.

NOTE: A previous version of this article included a comment that inaccurately portrays the a cappella callback process and a spoiler for one group’s initiation process, which have been cut.  

You open the door and are immediately drawn in by thunderous applause, every person in the room calling your name and smiling at you. No, you have not stumbled upon a surprise party — you have just entered a Stanford a cappella audition. With 10 groups known for their great camaraderie, music-making and representation of musical styles as diverse as gospel, indie rock and musical comedy, many students may audition for a cappella.

As new members of a cappella groups are just now experiencing rehearsals, retreats and first shows, I wanted to capture a diversity of voices on the Stanford a cappella audition experience. The four students I interviewed collectively represent well- and lesser-known groups on campus: Emma Grover (Testimony, tenor, ‘20), Victoria Chiek (Everyday People, soprano, ‘22), Joshua Buchi-Abianake (Harmonics, tenor, ‘22) and George Hosono (baritone, ‘22). Below are their responses to questions that capture their unique perspectives on Stanford a cappella.

Why did you decide to audition for a cappella at Stanford?

EMMA: It was a spur of the moment decision — I was walking through White Plaza, people were tabling and someone from the Testimony table said, “Do you want to audition for Testimony?” I started the default “No,” but then said, “wait, maybe I do.”

VICTORIA: I have sung all my life — even before I could talk. So I was really keen on getting into an a cappella group here at Stanford.

JOSH: I was initially 50/50 about whether I wanted to join some musical thing freshman year as I really enjoyed doing choir in high school. I figured I might as well try [a cappella] now.

GEORGE: A cappella would provide a great home — a safety net of sorts for starting at Stanford. I did musical theater in high school and took voice lessons but I’m not good at harmonizing so I hoped to learn to sing better through a cappella.

How did you choose what groups to audition for?

EMMA: I only auditioned for Testimony because I enjoy the spiritual focus of singing in the 10 p.m. Catholic mass choir. Testimony has a conscious spiritual dimension; a focus beyond the artistry of performance I think is important for taking music to the next level.

VICTORIA: I auditioned for seven different a cappella groups but EP was definitely my first choice because I enjoy their musical genres of R&B, Motown and soul. I have a background in gospel because I was a lead singer in my church worship band growing up.

JOSH: I auditioned for the three groups that most interested me. One of the Mendicants approached me when I walking through White Plaza, I saw Talisman performing outside Alondra and I discovered the Harmonics at O-Show.

GEORGE: I auditioned for six groups that interested me. My first choice was Fleet Street Singers because I enjoy their musical comedy and improv focus, having spent my gap year studying improv.

What was the audition process like? What song(s) did you choose for your solo?

The a cappella audition process consists of three stages. First, on Tuesday and Wednesday, every group has prospective members fill out a form with personal information such as their dorm number, interests and voice type. Students audition by singing a 30-60 second solo and by performing a series of short rhythmic and vocal exercises.

EMMA: I was fairly confident going into the process. I have done lots of auditions for singing groups such as my high school chamber choir, which was “technically a cappella” but with a classical emphasis. I chose the contemporary Christian song “10,000 Reasons” by Matt Redman for my solo because I had cantored the piece before in 10 p.m. mass.

VICTORIA: I had seven auditions back to back on Tuesday and Wednesday. Every group was different but all had great energy and I met a lot of interesting people. I got a welcoming, happy vibe from the upperclassmen who encouraged me while I sang. I sang a 30-second excerpt from Whitney Houston’s “I Love the Lord” for all my auditions because it best represented my vocal range, ability to project and is meaningful to me.

JOSH: The audition process was really cool. People do a ton to make you feel comfortable but it was a little stressful auditioning for multiple groups. I chose different solos for each of my three auditions: Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside” (Mendicants), The Greatest Showman’s “A Million Dreams” (The Harmonics) and Josh Groban’s “Evermore” (Talisman).

GEORGE: I sang “O Mistress Mine,” which is a song set from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. For a cappella auditions, I think it’s not what but how you sing that matters. At all the auditions, you fill out a form at the beginning with personal information. The a cappella group members are nice and uplifting. They clap for you when you perform. Some groups have unique things they do during auditions — Mixed Co. has you bring in a personal object and talk about it while the Mendicants had a “panic button” or a piece of paper you could “press” to indicate stress.

What was your experience with receiving callback offers?

Students find out Thursday morning whether they have received callbacks from letters slid under the doors of their dorm rooms. The callback auditions on Friday test how well the student can groove with the group by having the student perform their vocal part with current members singing all four vocal parts.

EMMA: Callbacks were a couple days after auditions. I came in with all the other people and we were given pieces of music to sing that are apparently “classic Testimony songs.”

VICTORIA: On Thursday morning, I was annoyed to wake up to what sounded like things dropping off my roommate’s desk. I tried falling back asleep but my roommate said, “um, Victoria, I think you have a present over here.” I then saw the callbacks folders and I was really surprised to see that all the groups I auditioned for had given me callbacks. Since you only have a day and a half to learn the music they give you, I only ended up attending four callbacks. I had a great time. There was that Stanford spirit where everyone is so friendly, open and encouraging.

JOSH: I thought callbacks would be posted at Tressider on Thursday so I was surprised when I was getting ready to go to class in the morning and saw folders by my door. Preparing for callbacks was difficult because I had to learn five songs on top of all my classes in only 24 hours. For the Mendicants callback, I was thrown off because I wasn’t aware I’d be singing alongside people of other parts and for one of the songs couldn’t find my place in the solo. I was much more confident going into the Harmonics callback six hours later because I could change how I was learning the music and was more comfortable.

GEORGE: I discovered a red Folder with cut-out bowtie, the Fleet Street logo by my door shortly after I woke up. It contained a letter from, some music to learn for the callback, the Fleet Street “Page of Fun” (full of puzzles and mazes) and an invitation to a Fleet Street BBQ that Thursday night. The BBQ was hosted behind Haus Mitt and I got to chat with Fleet Streeters as well as practice the callback parts in sections and with the whole group. The actual callbacks were held in Roble Theater but before you sing your part with quartets of each voice type, they have you start the callback by telling the group a joke.

What was your experience being accepted to your a cappella group?

Early on Saturday morning, students who have received offers from a cappella groups will find out via the time-honored Stanford tradition of “rollouts.”

EMMA: I was the last person to be rolled out because I am in the Ng House on East Campus and roll-outs start on West Campus, moving west to east. I was already awake in my room, still in my PJs, and I had convinced myself that “it was too late” because it was already 7:20 a.m., so it was a pleasant surprise when Testimony came.

VICTORIA: I waited all morning, thinking to myself “I want to know — ah, it’s killing me” I was up super early for the SF Scav Hunt but I told myself I wasn’t going to go. I was in the Alondra Lounge and realized I forgot my charger so I went back to my room and saw EP knocking on my door. I asked them “Are you looking for me?” and they sang a little in celebration.

JOSH: I was going to take a shower but someone was already there. As I was coming back to my room, Harmonics people were standing at my door. They turned around and saw me and made me go inside my room so they could “roll me out.” Since Scav Hunt was that day, I went to a nearby breakfast place, with a bunch of Harmonics people on Sunday to celebrate.

GEORGE: There was a Fleet Street retreat the same weekend as Scav Hunt. I did not want to be presumptuous and ask them what I should do about Scav Hunt so I went and that afternoon, walking back from Caltrain, I texted someone I knew in the group. They confirmed that I did not get an offer but I never received an email confirming this.

What advice would you give at the beginning of Week One to a new student that wants to audition for a cappella?

EMMA: A cappella is a big time commitment: the university standard is six hours of rehearsal per week and it varies by how many gigs a group has. The time you spend singing though makes you come away feeling energized and refreshed. It is definitely more common to join as a frosh but there is no part of the process that makes it more difficult to join.

VICTORIA: Maximize your time and energy. Don’t waste your time auditioning for a group you do not want to be part of. In hindsight, I would have auditioned for less groups so I would have fewer callbacks. Don’t spread yourself too thin with auditions because you want to be in an a cappella group that you care about.

JOSH: If you’re interested, definitely go for it. There is nothing to lose: you’re not going to lose anything socially by not being in it. Harmonics and a cappella in general is definitely one of the more major extracurricular commitments at Stanford. Do your best and know that you not getting an offer does not mean they don’t like you but maybe that you don’t vibe with the group.

GEORGE:  Learn your harmonies and know the notes you are singing for callbacks.  It doesn’t take a terribly large effort to audition and regardless of how you do, you get to meet a lot of cool people.

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’

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