Senior WWU Student, Spencer Johnson, is not a beat-boxer. “People are familiar with that term,” says the a capella club member, “but it’s really not the same thing as being a vocal percussionist. I don’t make up all my own noises. I’m basically the drum set.” Johnson, vocal percussionist and bass singer for WWU’s men’s a capella group, has participated in a capella club for the entirety of his college career. “It was initially just a place for me to sing, but it’s also become a place where I can meet and make friends who share a common interest,” Johnson says.
For those who don’t speak Italian and have yet to see “Pitch Perfect,” a capella is choral music performed without musical accompaniment. It’s up to the vocalists to fill the roles of the instruments. Songs are typically centered around one or two soloists, with the rest of the group providing instrument-like vocal accompaniment.
Western’s a capella club consists of three distinct groups, each with its own student director, music and events. The aptly named audition-free group All Aboard, directed by Gillian Lait, invites new singers to join every quarter, regardless of experience level. Johnson directed All Aboard for two years before auditioning for the small men’s ensemble, Rebel Clef. “All Aboard is more laid back, which is what works for a lot of students especially if they have busy schedules,” Johnson says. “But this fall I decided to audition for Rebel Clef because I was ready to put even more time into a capella.”
Under the direction of Willey Ohana, Rebel Clef performs during the school year everywhere from church festivals, to auctions, to open mic nights and talent shows. The women’s ensemble, Major Treble, is directed by Taylor VanDuser. Just like Rebel Clef, this small, audition-only ensemble works throughout the school year to prepare for concerts and competitions. Although most members aren’t music majors, all groups rely on technical music knowledge to create and execute original arrangements. “It’s a commitment,” Johnson says, “We put a lot of work in together, which makes it really rewarding. You could easily equate it to being on a sports team.”
However, it’s not all work. Between singing and studying, club members join each other for movies, game nights and potlucks. “It’s really a group of friends that you can stick with,” Johnson says.
Each group’s annual tour is the perfect combination of work and play. Past tours have included trips to Portland, Vancouver and Seattle. This year the audition groups trekked away from the coast to Central Washington University to perform concerts at high schools, shoot their music video and participate in exchanges with other a capella groups. Exchanges offer the opportunity to sing for other clubs and get valuable feedback. “Tour is nice because it’s not a competition,” Johnson says. “It’s an opportunity to work on things with other people. It’s a good skill and a good way to bond.” All Aboard will go on tour in Seattle this spring.
“The concerts are a lot of fun,” Johnson says. “It’s just great that people who love to sing can get together, regardless of major, and sing with each other. Where else can you see that?” The all-club concert at the end of every quarter is open to the public and is held on the Thursday of Western’s dead week. You can also see Western a capella perform at the ICCA Northwest Quarterfinals, held this year at the Mount Baker Theatre on February 25. Here schools from all over the region, as far as Utah, will fight for a chance to represent the northwest at the semifinals in Salem, Oregon.