Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chapter 1: Move-In

The SoCal Vocals, USC

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A novel about college a cappella
By Stephen Harrison

Taylor Stuart loved his college a cappella group. He wanted desperately for the Chorderoys to be successful.

For this reason, Taylor woke up at 4:45 a.m. on a muggy August Tuesday: Freshmen Move-In Day. He dressed quickly and arrived on campus by 6:15—a full half-hour before participating groups were technically allowed to show up—and was devastated to discover that the Harmoniums had already arrived and claimed the best spot for the Activities Fair. The Harmoniums’ group president, Dani Behlman, was still flirting with the Director of Orientation, explaining just how awful she was at remembering times, and thanking him for letting her set down her things. She acknowledged Taylor’s arrival with a smirk.

Taylor moved quickly to the second-best spot. Although his table was only a few feet from Dani’s, her position was vastly superior because of its location beneath the hospitality tent, right next to a cooler of sodas and ice cream sandwiches. With horror, Taylor imagined the flood of students seeking shade and sugar who would be met by Dani’s perfect sales pitch for the Harmoniums, masked by her ever-so-polite offer to provide directions. “Sheffield dormitory? Let me point that out to you,” she’d say sweetly. The freshmen would be too naïve to know that it was all a façade, mere clever propaganda to paint the Harmoniums as the friendliest group of singers on campus. And once Dani charmed one prospective singer, she’d charm another, again and again, all day long.

With great effort, Taylor forced the dreadful image from his mind and proceeded to set up shop. He opened his gym bag and began pulling out flyers and arranging his group’s a cappella albums at a furious pace. He set his iPod to “Chorderoys’ Greatest Hits” and cranked the volume.

He’d been so careful, so prepared to ensure his group’s success today. He’d ironed his group shirt the night before, laid out all of his clothes. He’d purchased bags of candy for them to use as bait, brewed and iced a giant batch of “singer’s tea.” How, he wondered, had he let her beat him on this most important day?

Olivia arrived shortly after Taylor finished setting up. She sported the Chorderoys’ white and royal blue tee-shirt, a blue mini-skirt, and blue high heels. The Chorderoys’ recruitment coordinator frowned at the second-rate table positioning. “We’ll have to be more aggressive,” said the alto resolutely.

As Dani and her cohort of fellow Harmoniums waited for the wave of college freshmen to arrive, they quietly discussed this year’s strategy: Song selection. Promo gigs. Message-shaping. Group dress. Voice type-targeting. Inter-group alliances.

An hour passed. And then the flood began in earnest. Hoards of parents and students lumbered past carrying boxes, suitcases, flat-screen TVs, and ungodly amounts of toilet paper. The parental mood hovered between agitated and downright cranky; they were wary of the “goodbye” which would follow this ordeal.

Oddly enough, though, moms and dads were relieved by the mere sight of older students at the Activities Fair, as if they’d only just realized that grown-up kids live on apart from home. When not burdened by boxes, parents would meander up and down the lanes of tables, collecting fliers from random extracurricular groups in which their children likely had no interest, and quizzing upperclassmen about the authentic Brighton University experience, often with really embarrassing questions like “How much do kids party around here?” and “What do you mean by ‘super-senior’?”

The Other Guys, U. of Illinois

A cappella fliers were especially popular with parents. (Student-run “choir” seemed more wholesome than the activities which had filled the average Boomer’s college years.) But while charming a singer’s parents helped occasionally, Taylor, Olivia, and Dani all knew students were more valuable targets for their a cappella sales pitches. Only students could be drafted.

By noon, the August air had heated considerably, and even more people were trekking through the activities field on their way to the freshmen dormitories. Even beneath her shady tent, Dani was severely regretting that black was the background color for her group’s tee-shirts, which seemed to be absorbing all of the day’s sunlight. More importantly, though, she felt the contrast between the tee and her skin made her look unfairly pale. Red was by far the shirt’s superior color. Their name was penned in red italics: Harmoniums. She loved how it accented her strawberry blonde hair.

Dani beamed when an astute freshman complimented her “cute” ruby flip-flops. The a cappella president made a point of remembering her name—Nicole—and encouraged her to try out. “Here, take a few extra for your friends,” said Dani, handing her a generous stack of fliers.

Yes, thought Dani, red was her color. As a junior, she still had two more years with her beloved Harmoniums. She decided right then that next season’s group tees should be primarily red with only small black accents. Successful a cappella recruitment meant establishing a public persona, and outfit color was crucial. Black was serious, formal. Red was tart but sweet, like red Skittles and cherry limeades—and upbeat, energetic a cappella. The Harmoniums should emphasize the latter attributes. They should wear more red.

Redefined, U. of Wisconsin

Dani spotted a boy walking in her direction. She was not sure what it was about him that cried out “singer,” much less “freshman.” Was it the cargo shorts and Birkenstock leather sandals? The stylishly shaggy blonde hair? The black framed eyeglasses? The polite smile he wore while declining a flier from the Equestrian Society?

Whatever it was, she went with her instincts. She moved in.

“Have you heard about collegiate a cappella?”

Ben Jensen was beginning to wonder what about his exterior was making him the target of so many different student organizations. Already, he’d been singled out for the rock-climbing club, the debate team, and the pre-dental fraternity. He made a mental note to walk more quickly.

Ben smiled at his newest assailant and shook his head.

“Do you sing?” asked Dani, in her sweetest voice. Something about Ben—the sunburnt cheeks, the geeky glasses, the dimples—made him seem younger than his eighteen years. He was innocent-looking in just the way Dani found endearing.

Ben nodded and mumbled a few words about choir in high school.

“That’s great! Let me tell you about the Harmoniums.” Dani proceeded with her elaborate sales pitch, and thought she was doing an excellent job. In fact, Ben was too distracted to catch most of it. All around him, extra-curricular reps were yelling things like “Free soda if you join our e-mail list!” and “There’ll be pizza at our group info session!” Consequently, he heard only snippets of Dani’s life-changing monologue: “so much fun for people who love music” and “currently producing our fourth album” and “the clear highlight of my college experience.”

“There you are!” Ben’s mother was a petite woman, with small ovular spectacles, little brown eyes, and a somewhat mousey disposition. Addressing Ben and his new friend, she relayed the saga of finding a decent parking spot. As she spoke, she placed an affectionate hand on her son’s shoulder, as if to emphasize that he was still hers, if only till tomorrow morning.

Dani knew when to push for a cappella and when to let maternal instinct have its way. “You should come to the All A Cappella Recruitment Concert next Wednesday,” she said, handing Ben a flier. “Then you’ll see what it’s all about.”

“Okay. And what was your name again?”

“Dani Behlman,” she said, smiling once more. During auditions season, Dani always gave her full name. This helped prospective auditionees look her up on Facebook, and she was rather proud of her internet persona. “My group is the Harmoniums. We’ll be wearing red at the Recruitment Concert. Don’t forget.” Dani beamed. “And good luck with move-in!”

The Amateurs, Washington U. in St. Louis

Ben’s mother nodded and grasped Ben’s arm, leading him gently but firmly towards the car and his belongings.

Just a few feet behind the Harmoniums’ table, Taylor was shaking his head. He hated when Dani made the first impression with potential auditionees. It was hard enough for the co-ed Chorderoys to compete with the two all-male groups, the all-female group, and the Jewish music group, but the rivalry with Dani was by far the worst.

Taylor straightened, suddenly determined to be more aggressive in his a cappella salesmanship. The Harmoniums might be winning so far, but the battle for group promotion was far from over. He grabbed a few quarter-sheet fliers and moved towards the path with most foot traffic—

“Let me do it,” said Olivia, pulling Taylor back. Olivia knotted her royal blue group tee into a single knot at the bottom, revealing a slice of her tanned tummy. She slipped her feet back into her high-heeled mary janes, and held out her hand.

Taylor nodded his approval and relinquished the handouts.

The Chorderoys’ recruitment coordinator planted herself at the edge of the sidewalk. Unlike other student group reps, Olivia did not shout her message. She didn’t have to. Males and females alike changed their entire trajectory to grab her fliers, drawn to the real sex appeal of Olivia’s confidence. Taylor suspected he’d soon be running more copies.

“Should we be doing that?” asked Melanie, with a nod towards Olivia. Dani’s fellow Harmonium had just arrived for her afternoon shift. “I wouldn’t mind,” she said, arching her back and tightening her stomach.

Dani sighed. Although the group president liked having another person with her, she wished Melanie wouldn’t talk so much. The sophomore would be much more useful if she just smiled and nodded, silently observing an expert at work.

“No,” said Dani. If anyone went, it should be the president herself, but the idea of imitating Olivia was wholly unappealing. Since auditioning for the same a cappella groups freshman year, Dani had tried to avoid her rival alto as much as possible.

“It’s not necessary,” explained Dani. “She’s distributing information on the All A Cappella Recruitment Concert. If they come, they’ll see us perform, too. We should save our energy for targeting specific singers. Let the ‘Roys do our mass publicity for us.”

Melanie consented and changed the subject. “Taylor’s looking good this year.”

Dani rolled her eyes.

“What?” cried Melanie. “Just because he’s in the Chorderoys doesn’t mean I can’t look. Objectively, he’s a fine looking man.”

Dani inspected her adversary. His jet black hair was gelled up in its usual careful spiking. Dani loved mocking the Chorderoys’ president for spending so much prep time in front of the mirror, but the hair style did fit well with the sharp angles of his jaw and cheekbones. And there was something appealing about his summer tan, the surfer look of his corduroy (he would choose corduroy) shorts and sandals . . . the bright gleam of his toothy smile . . . the way his pecs filled out his group tee . . .

“He’s attractive, right?”

“He’s . . . he’s clean,” Dani muttered.


“Yes, he’s clean-looking,” Dani recovered quickly. “He obviously puts a great deal of effort into his personal appearance. But no, I’m definitely not attracted to him. How could anyone normal ever be interested in someone so . . . compulsive?”

Taylor had just begun arranging and re-arranging the albums on the Chorderoys’ table. He stretched the tablecloth out so that it was perfectly pressed down and wrinkle-free.

“He is a little high-strung,” admitted Melanie, although she thought the same criticism could apply to someone else in close proximity.

The Amateurs, Washington U. in St. Louis

Dani believed in making her goals explicit, and Taylor’s compulsive episode had just inspired her. She straightened her spine, stared straight at the rival group president, and informed her subordinate, “The Harmoniums will be the best group this year.”

Melanie followed the direction of Dani’s sightline to see Taylor pour more candy into the candy bowl. “But what does it mean to be best?” asked the sophomore, genuinely curious. “Winning WAC? Scoring the highest audition rankings? Recruiting top soloists? Having the best sound? Everyone getting along with . . . social harmony?” Like most acatypes, Melanie was perhaps too fond of the easy musical reference.

The president’s green eyes brightened. “All of the above,” she explained matter-of-factly. Dani beamed. “It takes everything.”

Meanwhile, Taylor noticed Dani’s teeth glinting in the sunlight, which only heightened his anxiety. Two Harmoniums stared at him, speaking in low voices. What were they conspiring about?

Taylor began pulling at his eyebrow hair. His nervous tic was back in full force. After tugging and ruminating for some time, he reached for his cell phone to send a mass text to all Chorderoys. They were adding an additional hour to practice tonight. He’d determined they needed more time to prepare for the crucial All A Cappella Recruitment Concert.

When he finished typing the message, he looked up. Dani was still smiling. Taylor turned and cranked the volume of his group’s album, hoping to drown the siren of those brilliant teeth. He proceeded to organize the CDs on his table into even more perfectly symmetrical stacks.

Taylor could tell the Harmoniums were up to something. Dani was scheming, as always, but this time, he was determined to uncover her plans before she could put them into action. In the meantime, the Chorderoys would just have to be flawless. During recruitment season, they could afford nothing less.

Chapter 2 - Introductions

This chapter was originally published online on November 2, 2009
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