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Finding their voice

Students in the Department of Music formed a new a cappella group in the midst of the pandemic, focused on acceptance and inclusivity, sharing their love of music and winning competitions.

A student sings into a microphone outdoors, with other members of Chordination a cappella singing in the background.

Establishing a new a cappella group is no small feat in the best of times. Establishing a new a cappella group in the middle of a global pandemic when in-person rehearsals are off the table and you can’t perform on campus to create buzz is an entirely different challenge. That was the endeavor undertaken by the five co-founders of Chordination, a student-run mixed voice a cappella group founded in the fall of 2020. The co-founders—Rachel Harris, Carlos Molina-Diaz, Matt Slaughter, Sara Pinkowski and Ryan Faucette—wanted to create an a cappella group with emphases on inclusion and acceptance, sharing their love of music with the community, achieving musical excellence and competing in national a cappella competitions.

“We wanted to create a space for undergraduate and graduate students to connect with each other, especially during the pandemic,” said Rachel Harris, a senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering and minoring in vocal performance. “A lot of people at the very beginning [of the pandemic] didn’t have an avenue, especially in music, to share their talent and to meet with other people that have the same experiences and same wants.”

But the pandemic added layer upon layer of challenges to their ambitions. First, as the fall semester of 2020 approached, indoor singing was not yet possible under the campus COVID-19 guidelines. That meant Chordination had to hold their first auditions via video submission. As a new group, they didn’t have an established presence on campus or on social media to help them get the word out about their auditions, so they leaned on connections in the music department and with other campus groups to help them reach potential members.

From the very beginning, I told [them], ‘We’re going to make a new group and we’re going to win. We’re going to be really good.’ I guess speaking it into existence really does work.

Harris said they were worried that students would be hesitant to join a new a cappella group during a pandemic when singing together seemed impossible, but they were surprised to get a strong group of auditionees. By the time the university decided to move all classes online for the remainder of the semester, Chordination had 14 members. Then things got really tricky.

“We didn’t really know how to navigate rehearsals,” said Harris. “At first it took a lot of time and a lot of feedback from the other group members on how we should run through songs and how we should do sectionals virtually. We couldn’t sing together since it’s over Zoom and there’s a lag. So that was hard.”

Eventually they found a routine that felt enough like a traditional choir or a cappella rehearsal to give them some structure, while leaning on technology to accomplish their goals. They used Zoom and a program called MuseScore, which allowed them to display the music they were learning on the screen. They used the Zoom breakout rooms for sectionals, allowing them to review music and troubleshoot areas where singers needed coaching. Mostly they relied on members to record themselves or to sing solo for feedback during virtual rehearsals. Initially they all found singing individually to be intimidating, but ultimately it proved to be a valuable learning and coaching tool.

A student sings into a microphone outdoors, with other members of Chordination a cappella singing in the background.

Rowan Bates sings a solo during Chordination A Cappella’s first on-campus performance on Aug. 26, 2021 during the All Music Showcase on Stafford Commons. Photo by Robert Davezac.

Throughout the fall semester, they released video performances online via their YouTube channel and Instagram account to start to build a following and create some buzz.

“We didn’t have any concerts or anything to spread awareness or spread the knowledge of our group, so a lot of our stuff was social media based,” said Matt Slaughter, a senior majoring in chemical engineering. “We tried to post more videos on YouTube and we also did the videos for the competitions, so we had to learn a bunch of new skills on how to make videos and record.”

Some of the videos were recorded remotely on members’ cell phones or personal devices and then pieced together. Eventually, for those students who lived locally, they set up a recording space in the music directors’ apartment, with a microphone perched precariously on top of a stack of books. Students would come in one at a time to record their parts, with strict scheduling and time limits to allow them to adhere to the COVID-19 safety guidelines that were in place at the time.

“I think during the pandemic, I never really thought that a capella could do so much when we’re all isolated,” said Abby Kaufmann, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in social work. “It’s incredible what you can do with music anytime. I think it really taught me that there’s not a limit to things that you can do even when limits are put on you. That there’s still room for growth, there’s still room to make an impact on other people through music.”

Group photo of students in Chordination posing together outside while wearing face coverings during the pandemic.

The first time the members of Chordination were all able to be together in person was during their video shoot for the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. Co-founder Matt Slaughter flew in from Massachusetts, where he was taking courses online, in order to participate. Photo courtesy of Rachel Harris.

Introducing Chordination

When it came time to start preparing their competition video for the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), they had a good system in place and a song that the whole group was excited to sing—Sia’s “Courage to Change,” arranged by Carlos Molina-Diaz, a senior majoring in science, technology and society and minoring in music composition.

Kaufmann, the group’s performance director, took the lead on storyboarding and choreographing their competition video. “We based the video off of our personal experiences in 2020,” she said. “If we were going to make a music video that was going to be out there [online], instead of just a regular performance, I really wanted it to be impactful and relevant to the times.

“We ended up separating into several groups where everybody kind of talked about things that impacted them through 2020. We talked about how some of them had healthcare workers who were family. There were a lot of mental health issues with the isolation, and then all of the activism pieces that were happening were affecting some people in our group as well. We kind of took those and channeled that into a competition video, to tell our stories of what the pandemic has been like over the last year for us.”

The members of the group were all happy with their song choice and their final performance product when they submitted the video to ICCA. In a normal in-person competition, an a cappella group doesn’t know what they’re up against until they’re watching the other groups perform on stage. For the virtual competition, many of the groups in Chordination’s ICCA quarterfinal released teasers of their videos online ahead of the competition.

“From the moment we submitted the video to the moment the competition stream was up, there were a lot of nerves and a lot of groups were putting previews of their videos [online],” said Molina-Diaz. “There’s that sense of comparing yourself, which doesn’t normally happen [ahead of] an in-person competition…There was a lot of, ‘Oh my gosh, are we good enough? Did we do a good enough job?’”

It’s incredible what you can do with music any time. I think it’s really taught me that there’s not a limit to things that you can do, even when limits are put on you.

As the majority of the group gathered on Kaufmann’s family’s back porch to watch the livestream of the ICCA quarterfinal, with Slaughter joining over video chat from Massachusetts, the quality of their competition became clear. Each group’s video submission played before the winners were announced, and Molina-Diaz said it was apparent that they’d been placed in the strongest quarterfinal group. “Every single group that was in our quarterfinal did an amazing job,” he said. “We thought if we didn’t win, whoever did definitely deserved it.”

What happened next took them all by surprise. “Everyone was super nervous and then we got to the end. They read third place and it wasn’t us, then they read second place and we thought, ‘Wait a second, they were really good,’” said Kaufmann. When the announcer called out Chordination as the winner of the quarterfinal, the deck erupted. “The moment was just incredible,” added Kaufmann. “We have it on video and sometimes I sit there and watch it and I’m like, ‘Wow, that was one of the coolest moments in my life.’ It was so fun. Everyone was crying, everyone was hysterical, everyone was like, ‘Is this real?’”

Getting to compete in the ICCA semifinals in their very first year as a group was an honor and, for the cofounders, a sort of validation of their mission and all of their hard work. “It means a lot, because the single common thing that got us together as a group was that we were going to be competitive,” said Molina-Diaz. “We’re going to put in more effort and we’re going to work hard. It was really validating for us five that founded the group to make a goal and stick with it.”

A group of students sing together on an outdoor stage.
Members of Chordination A Cappella perform on Stafford Commons during the All Music Showcase on Aug. 26, 2021. This was the first time they were able to perform on campus since the group was formed in August of 2020. Photo by Robert Davezac.

What comes next?

This year, students have returned to campus and Chordination is able to rehearse together in-person for the first time. Rehearsals require them to wear face coverings, and they can only be in the rehearsal room for a set amount of time before they have to leave for 20 minutes to allow the HVAC system to fully exchange the air. But it’s worth it for the chance to sing together.

“The first time we sang together we all had chills,” said Harris. “I’m going to get emotional. I haven’t ever thought about that. It was a really cool thing. We did some recordings of ourselves, singing through a couple of our songs all together in person and comparing them to what we made in the virtual realm. It was just really exciting to actually get to rehearse in person.”

They have more exciting firsts to look forward to this year, with their very first performance gigs on campus and out in the community, the release of their first EP, and their first in-person competition. They’ve added more members to the group this fall and the founders look forward to seeing it continue to grow and evolve.

“Hopefully, when [COVID-19] sort of dies down over time, we can do more of the competitions and grow more as a group, and follow our mission statement that we want to be a competitive group but still accepting of all, and continue to spread our love of music for the rest of the community,” said Slaughter.

For the group’s five founders, several of whom will graduate this year, the experience of starting Chordination in a pandemic and winning their first ICCA quarterfinal despite all of the challenges they faced is one that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

“From the very beginning, I told the co-founders, ‘We’re going to make a new group and we’re going to win. We’re going to be really good,’” said Harris. “I guess speaking it into existence really does work.”

To hear Chordination in action, you can find them on YouTube or follow them on Instagram. Their first concert will be Nov. 20 in Stewart Theatre.