Monday, May 17, 2010

Chapter 2: Introductions

The Other Guys, U. of Illinois

It was his first college class and Ben Jensen was already distracted. The student behind him had to psst and tap his shoulder before he remembered to “take and pass” from the professor’s stack of syllabi.

Ben had been gazing across the lecture hall at the girl sitting in the fourth row. He had met her before, and while he had not yet caught her name, he remembered the circumstances of their meeting perfectly.

Last week was Freshmen Orientation, that glorious and uncharacteristic time at the beginning of a Brighton University college career when academic and extracurricular stresses have yet to materialize and socializing itself is the goal. Incoming students were trying to form as many friendships as possible, as quickly as possible. The poor Residential Advisers delivered their nightly meetings on the “do’s and don’ts” of college to an increasingly disinterested audience.

Floor meetings were usually scheduled late in the evening in order to curtail heavy drinking and partying. The concern was legitimate, but in practice, the precaution merely delayed, rather than reduced, such recreation. As soon as the RA’s let them go, a whole crop of freshmen made a beeline to the door, already dressed for the night in the required polo with boat shoes, or tube skirt and high heels.

That particular evening, Ben decided to stay behind; by now, he’d learned that fraternity row was just exhausting. Instead, he joined a small gathering of his fellow freshmen who were sitting at the end of the dorm hallway, chatting.

The conversation bounced around—one minute they were discussing television, the next books, before finally settling on politics. Ben noticed how people perked up for this last subject, and thought how stereotypically “Brighton” (in other words, dorky) this would seem to his high school friends. Quentin from down the hall was wide-eyed and emphatic as he shared his profound political insights, all direct from

Eventually Ben’s roommate, Wilson, and some other floormates returned from the frats. Each of them was still in that stage—far too prevalent, sadly—where one exaggerates one’s tipsiness. Together, they were singing a rowdy and terrible rendition of “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Uninvited, they plopped down next to the comparatively subdued conversationalists. Mandy, one of the returning revelers, suggested Ben “bust out” his guitar. Ben was initially reluctant, but Wilson was eager to determine whether—by the doctrine of coolness by association—a guitar-playing roomie might prove handy with potential lady friends. He retrieved the instrument from their room and thrust it in Ben’s face.

Ben tuned quickly and was soon strumming along as he played songs which had defined their childhoods, continuing the Disney magic with “A Whole New World” and the theme from Duck Tales. For the most part, they were simple tunes, and he figured out the chords easily as everyone sang.

“Do ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight,’” said Wilson, with a sidelong glance at his new female friend from the frats.

Ben smiled and complied. Although he was enjoying his first sing-a-long with his drunken floormates, it was by no means a magical experience. The overwhelming newness of his first week of college meant nothing seemed outside of his routine, not even spontaneous music.

But just when he’d finished the schmaltzy ballad, a raven-haired girl from down the hall walked up with her Spanish guitar.

“Ooh! Hers is special!” cooed Wilson, trying to be cute.

“It’s classical,” said Ben. Hers was lighter, with a thin rosewood neck. His was standard, a steel-string acoustic. It suddenly felt clunky in his hands.

Caroline smiled a little and sat Indian-style on the floor. Her long hair draped across her shoulders. The group had transitioned to nineties boy bands now, indulging in such masterpieces as “Quit Playing Games with My Heart” and “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Caroline joined in at once, plucking the correct notes without even asking for the key. While the rest of the group droned on, grotesquely flat, botching every lyric, Caroline invented a contrapuntal harmony as accompaniment.

Ben was in awe.

When Wilson and the rest of the party-going contigent noticed that they were no longer the center of attention, they lost interest. One of the girls invited the entire group to watch a movie in her room. This wasn’t Wilson’s most desired result, but it was at least a step in the right direction. The non-instrumentalists cleared out.

Ben hardly noticed them leaving. He and Caroline had long since moved on from playing pop songs, but he couldn’t recall their transition to pure improvisation. All he heard were the high, sweet plucked tones she floated above his steady strumming. His eyes locked onto her fingers, followed them as they moved deftly up the strings. Her green nail polish shimmered in the fluorescent light of the hallway.

She began to sing. Her voice came as a clear soprano, warm and light. It danced on made-up syllables. Dah nah nah . . . Lah nah nah . . . Hmm nah nah . . .

Ben had just joined in—humming softly, so he could focus on her voice—when his partner suddenly decided it was time for the last chord. She strummed it three times, as if to emphasize its finality. She stood. Ben was too startled to really process what she said – something about a community service trip in the morning. He did remember to suggest they do this again. She smiled and walked back down the hallway, holding her guitar gracefully by its neck.

The Greenleafs, Washington U. in St. Louis

He had not seen her again until today, the first day of classes, and he was delighted to discover that she was sitting in his same lecture course, “International and Area Studies 101: Global Voices.” It was a popular class, and the professor used the traditional roll call. Ben waited on his seat’s edge, holding his breath in anticipation.

“Caroline Cooper?”

She raised her hand, and the professor moved on.

Ben hadn’t waited long, obviously—alphabetical order does not conform to our dramatics—but it was enough to hear her name. Caroline, the girl with the Spanish guitar, the girl with the musical ear, the girl from down the hall, the girl who’d smiled when he’d suggested they play again . . .

Ben spent the rest of class thinking hard about what he should say when he approached her at the end of the hour. His task was difficult. He wanted to sound smart, funny, spontaneous, and cool, all at once, which is always a challenge to plan. Furthermore, her name kept echoing in his mind. Caroline . . . Caroline . . . Caroline . . . This, combined with the professor’s background noise, was disrupting his creative process.

On the other side of the classroom, Taylor Stuart was equally preoccupied, though with different concerns. As the professor explained the syllabus, workload, and reading list, Taylor knew that, as the course’s Teaching Assistant, he should be paying close attention. The problem was a cappella. Whenever he tried to listen to the professor, his mind wandered back to his singing group. Recruitment was an extremely busy time for the president of the Chorderoys. There were fliers to put up, dorm performances to schedule, Facebook alerts to post. Moreover, tonight brought the peak of this “seasonal” stress—the pan-a cappella Recruitment Concert. It was the Chorderoys’ only chance to make a strong first impression, and they were in direct competition with the five other groups.

Although graduation each May robbed every group of members, the Chorderoys had lost four of their strongest soloists and group leaders. Taylor needed fresh talent to bolster the future of his group. Throughout the hour, the TA scribbled best-case a cappella draft scenarios in his notebook, engineering his ideal ensemble. They needed a dynamic soloist – preferably an alto— a true tenor, a soprano, a second vocal percussionist . . .

Taylor suddenly looked back and surveyed the class, searching for any familiar faces from Move-In Day, targets for a cappella recruitment. He spotted Caroline.

“Grades will be adjusted up to half a letter grade based on classroom engagement and participation,” continued Professor Gruender. Taylor felt a pang of guilt. He turned and straightened in his seat, trying to be a little more present for his students. If there was one defining trait of the Chorderoys’ president, it wasn’t his generalized anxiety, his tendency to over-plan, or his fastidious attention to detail. It was a mostly private, very sincere sense of duty.

That duty was part of the reason Taylor was TAing for a political science class, although he was actually majoring in Architecture. Last semester, Taylor developed an interest in international issues by taking this class as an elective. When Professor Gruender asked him to TA for the course this year, Taylor felt a certain obligation to keep that interest alive. For him, discussing far-off nations was a bit like researching Deconstructivist Architecture, or singing passionately without instruments. These were indulgences he protected.

When the professor finally dismissed the class, both Taylor and Ben, for entirely different reasons, converged on Caroline Cooper. Taylor arrived first, of course. Faking nonchalance does not win many races.

“Hi there! Didn’t you stop by our table on Move-In Day?”

“Yes, I did. You were in . . .”

“The Chorderoys,” said Taylor, with a gigantic grin. “And you sang in show choir in high school, right? You should definitely come see us at the Recruitment Concert tonight.” With this abrupt lead, Taylor launched right into his group sales pitch—friendly people, tight group, lots of fun, big plans for the year.

When Taylor took a breath, Caroline chimed in. “I’m not entirely sure I’m going to continue competitive singing in college,” she explained. “Part of me wants to focus more on activities outside of campus. Community action, that sort of thing. But I’ll absolutely consider it.”

Caroline paused, and Ben thought he saw her smirking in his direction. (He had been hanging back a few feet, trying to look preoccupied with his smartphone.) “Ben here is a singer, not to mention a fine guitarist.”

As Taylor registered Ben’s face, he remembered that Dani had made first contact with the freshman during Move-In. Was “Global Voices” providing Taylor with an opportunity to counterstrike?

“You sing?”

Ben thought back to his conversation with Dani Behlman. “Well, I sang in choir in high school. It was fun. Not show choir though. My high school didn’t have the glee thing.”

“Collegiate a cappella isn’t glee club,” said Taylor, perhaps too firmly. This was obviously a touchy subject. “But as for your music background, that’s fantastic! An old-fashioned chorister and an instrumentalist! Pleased to meet you, Ben.”

As they shook hands, Professor Gruender called over his TA to answer a question about office hours. Taylor frowned at the interruption, but excused himself quickly. “Gotta run, but I’ll see both of you tonight!” He race-walked to the podium up front.

When Ben was finally alone with the raven-haired girl who lived down the hall, he remembered absolutely nothing of what he had intended to say to her. He improvised. “Show choir, eh? Were you um . . . the show choir diva?”

Caroline angled her head, surprised by the question. “I wouldn’t say diva, but I did love group singing. It’s very addictive.”

Ben nodded. He found it hard to imagine the classical guitarist busting out show tunes. Then again, there was an air of mystery surrounding his classmate. She was coy in the most charming way.

“Of course, I love playing instruments, too,” said Caroline. “I mean, I had fun playing in the hall a few nights ago. We really should do it again some time.”

Ben could not agree more, which was why he was absolutely determined to seem casual. “Yeah, we should,” he said simply.

And they walked back to the dorm together, discussing favorite indie bands.

The Pikers, Washington U. in St. Louis

Ben and Caroline arrived at the Recruitment Concert seconds before it began. They were running late after another guitar improv session in Caroline’s room. (“No! That is not a euphemism,” Ben informed his nosey roommate.) The auditorium lights dimmed just as they found their seats.

A dapper young man walked on stage, wearing a dark green dress shirt, a black tuxedo vest, and a bow tie. It was the uniform of his all-male group, the Dynamics, more commonly known by their nickname, the Dinos. When he spoke, his voice was extra bubbly. He was in his full-blown a cappella mode.

“Welcome to the ACUAC Recruitment Concert! ACUAC is proud to put on this event to showcase all six Brighton U. a cappella groups. With the performances tonight, we kick off the official a cappella recruitment season.

“Each year, a different singing group chairs ACUAC. My name is Greg, I’m with the Brighton U. Dinos, and I have the pleasure of being this year’s ACUAC moderator and your host for the evening.”

This was met with cat-calls, a “Hott-ie!” and a wolf whistle.

Caroline leaned over and whispered in Ben’s ear. “Greg went to high school with me. So much enthusiasm—the kid was a show choir beast!”

Greg smiled at the audience’s reaction, although the color was deepening in his throat and cheeks. “As moderator, it’s my job to introduce all of the groups and give a brief introduction to the auditions process.

But first, a note about Brighton U. a cappella in general. All of the groups you’ll see tonight are entirely student-directed and all of the songs you’ll hear are student-arranged. There’s no supervision whatsoever from university faculty or staff. We do what we want.”

There were more cheers, including a “hear, hear!” The basic thrill of independence never gets old.

"I should also mention that tonight's concert order was chosen randomly, by drawing numbers out of a hat, and not by anyone in particular. So don't read anything into it.”

The Pikers, Washington U. in St. Louis

Greg peered down at his note card. He had asked each group president to write a short introductory blurb. He recognized Dani’s curly handwriting and red gel pen. “This first ensemble is the premier co-ed a cappella group at Brighton University.”

Listening backstage, Taylor cringed. How he loathed when Dani used the word “premier” in her introductions! By definition, it simply meant “first.” With a few semesters’ head start on both the Chorderoys and La*chaim, the Harmoniums were, technically, the first co-ed group on campus. But the word premier implied so much more. As Dani was well aware, premier sounded like it meant best. What gave the Harmoniums the right to advertise themselves as the best co-ed group on campus?

Meanwhile, Greg continued reading the intro, which was chock-full of Dani’s buzzwords. “This spring, they will release their seventh studio album. They look forward to touring high schools and universities across the country. They are thrilled to invite hot new talent to audition for their nationally renowned ensemble . . .”

Greg cleared his throat. She had underlined her favorite adjective once again. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Brighton’s premier co-ed a cappella group, the Harmoniums.”

During the applause, twelve singers walked neatly on stage. The men wore red shirts and black slacks, the ladies assorted red and black dresses. They quickly formed the customary arc of singers.

The Harmoniums’ music director blew the pitch and brought his group in on a choral “ooh.” Silence descended on the audience. Intrigued auditionees and seasoned veterans alike listened carefully, trying to recognize the chords.

The choral introduction faded and the soloist stepped slowly to the microphone at center stage, her strawberry-blonde hair shining red in the spotlight.

The song was “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” originally by Bonnie Raitt. Dani had him immediately. He was transfixed, thoroughly impressed that the assertive girl he’d met by coincidence on Freshmen Move-In Day could sing so tenderly. Her every note came dripping with heartbreak and vulnerability. Part of him wanted to literally reach out and comfort her as she sang of her abandonment. In the chorus, she declared – in her most soulful belt – her determination to pick up her life’s pieces and move on from this one-sided romance. Ben actually felt proud of her.

Most of all, Ben marveled at her extraordinary gift for eye contact. It seemed as if she was looking at him directly, but Ben knew that could not be. Everyone in the audience must feel the same. Still, he thought, only the most phenomenal soloists could seem so inclusive.

In fact, Dani was looking at Ben directly. Not for the whole song, of course, but every few seconds. The rest of the time she singled out and sang to the other males in the audience, fusing her gift for moving an audience with her calculating sense of strategy. As group president, she’d been reminding her members that this was a “man year” for the Harmoniums, meaning they needed to focus their energy on recruiting basses, baritones, and tenors. (Older members would recall that every audition season was a “man year,” according to Miss Behlman.)

Dani pushed the high note of the bridge to the absolute end of the phrase, the kind of singing that’s impressive because of the sheer physical challenge of breath control. Even Caroline, who found Dani’s tone a little forced, felt the effect. She shivered in her seat.

And then Dani grew quiet, once again the dejected lover. She stepped back into the center of the arc. The background singers emulated a sad “piano” lilt. Lu, lu, lu, lu— Lu, lu, lu, lu——

Her last line was barely louder than a whisper. The silence was charged.

And then the cheers were wild. The president of the Harmoniums smiled sweetly, and more than a little victoriously, as she absorbed the praise. I can’t make you love me, she thought to herself. The irony of the lyric was not lost upon her: She did not believe it in the slightest.

Dani was still smiling as she came up from the group bow, and once again, Ben could have sworn she was smiling right at him.

“That was awesome!” said Ben to Caroline.

Caroline nodded. “There’re still five more groups to go,” she reminded him.

As Greg introduced the second group, Ben thought back to the words of the emcee’s introductory speech: All student-directed, all student arrangements. In retrospect, Ben’s high school choir seemed so lame. The only thing impressive about their director, Mr. Bruschearloepeghi, was his easily mispronounced last name. In chorus, he’d pushed the same recycled songs semester after semester—not because they were any good, but because it required less effort than teaching new ones. Half the kids in choir were only taking the class to salvage their GPAs. Most couldn’t hold a tune to save their lives.

Not here, Ben thought, as he watched the Notabelles take the stage in their purple dresses. Singers at Brighton would know their parts. They might not all be as ├╝bertalented as Caroline – or have musical tastes which were uncannily similar to Ben’s own – but they would all have passion. No more Bruschearloepeghi; no more musical rehash year after year; no more playing the system. This was college. This was original. This was real.

A cappella was freedom, and Ben was ready to join the cause.

Next: Chapter 3 - Recruitment

This chapter was originally published online on November 13, 2009
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