A whiff of a cappella

While adhering to time-honored customs is central to the Whiffenpoofs’ philosophy, Agar-Johnson, who doubles as the ensemble’s manager and, as such, is responsible for booking shows, reveals that there has been a break from tradition in later years.

The Whiffenpoofs mix tradition with contemporary sound (photo credit: PR)
The Whiffenpoofs mix tradition with contemporary sound
(photo credit: PR)
As band names go, The Whiffenpoofs definitely tends towards the more spectacular side. Local fans of unaccompanied vocal music will soon be able to tell for themselves if the 14-piece a cappella group’s artistic abilities match their moniker when they perform at the YMCA in Jerusalem on July 10 (8 p.m.).
The Whiffenpoofs – a.k.a. The Whiffs – comprise 14 senior year students from Yale University. The group was founded in 1909, making it the world’s oldest collegiate a cappella outfit. Back then it was a quintet that met for weekly performances at the renowned Yale watering hole Mory’s Temple Bar.
The group’s appellation came about as the result of a humorous suggestion by Denton “Goat” Fowler, who proposed the name of a mythical dragon fish called the Whiffenpoof to his fellow singers. Fowler may have been joking, but the others considered it an apt reflection of their lighthearted approach to music-making, and the name stuck.
Clearly, tradition is central to the ensemble’s ethos, and the members of the troupe continue to meet for weekly sessions at the aforementioned bar. The group’s heritage also dictates that membership is limited to a particular phase of one’s academic studies.
“There are 14 singers each year. They are all people who are between their junior and senior year at Yale University,” explains group member Nicholas Agar-Johnson, who sings bass. “So it’s an entirely different group every year. We start out in August, and we finish with our world tour, which is from the end of May to the end of August.”
While adhering to time-honored customs is central to the Whiffenpoofs’ philosophy, Agar-Johnson, who doubles as the ensemble’s manager and, as such, is responsible for booking shows, reveals that there has been a break from tradition in later years.
“The group is supposed to be all seniors, but most of the group actually take a year off from school,” he says.
Considering the ensemble’s jam-packed performance agenda, that sounds like a logical move.
“We do about 200 to 250 concerts a year,” Agar-Johnson continues. “It’s difficult to fit in school with that kind of concert schedule. We do a lot of singing.”
You could say that again. And there’s no respite for the wicked.
“After we come back from our world tour, we have about a week before Yale starts classes again, and we will go back to our studies with a lot of experiences,” notes the singing psychology student.
A cappella singing is serious business, but the ensemble members do their utmost to entertain their audiences. That often entails a bag of tricks, such as having one of the vocalists dress up in some wacky costume, and the concerts often feature a generous amount of between number wisecracking. That is reflected in some of the bio details about the singers on the Whiffenpoofs website. Tenor Josh Bansal’s age, for example, is given as 76, while fellow tenor Chris Camp supposedly took up singing “after his aspiration to become a professional tennis player was cut short by shin splints.”
“We try to come up with joke intros for the songs we do in the concerts,” explains Agar-Johnson, whose own website description mentions a large-scale eruption of the Mount Popocatepetl volcano in Mexico, adding the hope that the group doesn’t “end the year covered in lava.”
Joking aside, the Whiffenpoofs have plenty of stylistic range in their vocal arsenal.
“The repertoire does tend to change at the end of each year. There are songs that, pretty much, each group will learn. There is the basic set, which is probably around 10 of the songs we all learn. Beyond that, it is up to the music director to decide which songs we learn. There is a category of songs that is made available to us by the alumni, which is every arrangement that has basically been around since the group’s founding. There’s something like 600 songs on that list. Each group will probably learn 40 to 45 of those songs,” he says.
The group members come from all sorts of cultural and musical backgrounds.
“There are some who have been singing since they were very young, and some who only started singing once they got to Yale,” explains Agar-Johnson.
The experience length discrepancies are soon compensated for by some sterling work in between attending classes.
“There are 15 a cappella groups at Yale,” says Agar-Johnson.
“Most of them are first-year to third-year students. All the 14 guys in this year’s Whiffs were in groups from their freshman year through their junior year.”
Even so, the singers have diverse takes on their musical endeavor.
“There’s a wide range of people who want to be musicians once they graduate from Yale to people who have no interest in music as a career and are just doing this for the fun and the travel,” he says.
Over the years, various a cappella groups have tried their hand at all kinds of material, ranging from medieval ecclesiastic scores to pop hits and jazz numbers. Agar-Johnson says the Yale outfit tends to dip into as many musical areas as possible to keep its audiences guessing and suitably entertained.
“We try to have a mix of older songs, along with more modern music,” he says.
That eclectic mind-set does not, however, extend to the singers’ choice of sartorial appearance.
“A lot of people who hire us think that the white ties and tails look is what a serious professional group should look like, so we try to stick to that,” he notes.
But that doesn’t mean that the Whiffs are above clowning around.
“There is one member of the group each year that we call the Turkey,” says Agar-Johnson. “For every performance we have on the Yale campus, that person has to wear a costume.”
There is a video of the group on YouTube with one of the singers looking like he just stepped off the set of the latest Star Wars movie.
While the YMCA audience will have to make do with the formal look, they will no doubt get a lot of fun and high-quality vocal delivery for their money.
For tickets and information: (02) 569-2684; info@ymca.org.il.