Inside Stanford’s top secret a cappella audition week

Oct. 24, 2022, 10:56 p.m.

After two years of proceedings altered by COVID-19 protocols, Stanford a cappella’s in-person Week 1 auditions have returned.

2020’s audition process was entirely virtual, and last year’s auditions took place over the course of three weeks.

“[Last year] was nice because it allowed us to slow down, but also, it just really dragged it out,” shared Catie Fee ’24, musical director of Counterpoint. “Even though it’s definitely not ideal, I think one week is our best option.”

Traditionally, all of Stanford’s a cappella groups hold auditions during the first week of classes. O-Show, an annual performance showcasing each a cappella group, is held at the end of NSO; the auditions, callbacks and decisions for each group all occur within the next few days.

“As soon as I saw that they were holding auditions, I signed up,” said Caleb Benz ’26. “My two favorite things have been music and making people laugh. And Fleet Street happens to combine those things.”

For the first round of auditions, students get to perform a 30-second song of their choice.

“It could be something like Happy Birthday, but I was feeling particularly adventuresome. So I wrote my own little ditty about Fleet Street and how I wanted to join the group,” said Benz.

According to Fee, as many members of the group as possible are encouraged to come watch auditions; after the first round, the entire group will help decide who gets called back for a second round.

Moreover, Fee added that making sure the audition experience is “as low stress as possible” was also a pertinent objective for the existing members.

“It did feel like there was a lot of pressure because you’re sitting in a room, and there’s this entire a cappella group staring at you,” said auditionee Brooke Ballhaus ’26. “It’s all a bit intimidating.”

One of the ways Counterpoint tries to take the stress out of this process, said Fee, is by keeping a vase of flowers in the audition room and giving one to each auditionee to thank them for their time.

“It can be high stress and feel like you are being really scrutinized and judged,” said Fee. “We really want people to feel anything but that, so that they have a better experience, but also because we’re more able to see them as their normal self and hear their voice at its best.”

The social aspect of a cappella was a main factor in Jason Lazar’s ’24 decision to audition. Lazar decided not to audition his freshman year due to the virtual format, and instead joined University Singers, Stanford’s concert choir. He was encouraged by a current a cappella member to try out for Talisman this fall.

“I wanted more than just strictly the music,” said Lazar. “I wanted to meet new friends and make new connections, especially being back in person.”

Soon after first-round auditions end on Tuesday night, students hear whether or not they’ve been called back for a second round.

“I went home after that audition and then woke up the next morning, and I found a folder with the bowtie sticker on it slipped under my door,” said Benz, referring to Fleet Street’s signature accessory.

Some students find out the decisions before the night has even ended; Ballhaus arrived back at her dorm early Wednesday morning to the sight of a callback envelope.

“I wasn’t expecting to get any callback information that day,” said Ballhaus, “I guess they must have done it at like 5 a.m.”

The folders contain sheet music that students must learn in time for the next round of auditions. Lazar was one of a handful of basses invited to Talisman callbacks, which took place on Friday in EVGR.

“They took us up the elevator, and they cheered for us. And they’re saying ‘welcome to callbacks,’ and they’re singing this callbacks song,” said Lazar. “I felt a little awkward because I’m like, ‘wow, this is a lot. I wasn’t expecting this.’”

Lazar was asked to sing some of Talisman’s signature pieces on his own as well as with a quartet of current members.

“They’re assessing how well you blend with the rest of the group: if you’re overshadowing when everyone’s being quiet, or vice versa,” said Ashley Celada ’25, who also attended Talisman callbacks.

After about ten hours of auditions and five hours of callbacks, said Fee, the groups begin their deliberations.

“The things that generally go into the decision are what voice parts we have and which voice parts we are lacking,” Fee said. The members also consider how many upperclassmen will be graduating out of the group.

Fee refutes comparisons of the Stanford a cappella audition process to rush.

“We try at least to make sure that it comes down to who as a singer is going to contribute to our group,” said Fee. “Less of the kind of surface level, ‘What do we think of this person based on 20 minutes of interacting with them,’ but more about their vocal ability.”

The groups finish their individual deliberations around 3 a.m. on Friday night. It doesn’t end there, however. Now, the process of group assignments begins.

Long past midnight, the groups gather in a lecture hall in Lane History Corner. The final decisions are made by a process called ‘Jedi Council,’ run by former Stanford a cappella members. The Jedi Council acts as an impartial mediator, reconciling between the groups’ preferred auditionees and the auditionees’ preferred groups.

“There are some people who[m] multiple groups want, and then it ends up coming down to which group that individual wants to be in,” said Fee. “There are no negotiations; it really comes down to which group the person wants more.”

Fleet Street declined to comment on the process: “We’re not at liberty to share specifics of the internal auditions process that auditionees don’t experience first-hand,” wrote Fleet Street Business Manager JC Chien ’23 to The Daily over email.

Counterpoint is a historically all-women a cappella group, but is now open to all “high voices” — sopranos, altos and trebles. With Fleet Street recently becoming co-ed, Fee shared, Counterpoint has “a little more competition.”

“I’m happy for them,” said Fee. “I don’t know, I wish I could have been in Fleet Street. They didn’t take women when I was auditioning.”

Chien commented on the transition, “It should’ve been done years ago and we’re glad it’s finally happened.”

Following the long night of deliberations, Benz heard of his acceptance into Fleet Street early Saturday morning. “I was abruptly awoken at 6 a.m. to knocking on the door. I opened it up, and there was the group, and they were singing to me and letting me know I had been accepted,” said Benz. He spent the rest of the day on a beach with his new ensemble.

Lazar and Celada similarly got “rolled out” for Talisman Saturday morning.

“Especially for a guy like me, who is coming out of a very tough time with the first two years of college socially, it’s really a great opportunity,” said Lazar.

Ultimately, Ballhaus wasn’t “rolled out” by any a cappella groups, and is instead performing in this year’s production of Gaieties.

“I might do it again next year just for fun, because I did have a great time,” said Ballhaus.

Cameron Duran '24 writes for the Arts & Life section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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