Together in Voice – A Cappella Groups in the Merrimack Valley
Amid the growing popularity of a cappella music, the spotlight has already shined on groups such as The Dartmouth Aires, Pentatonix and Berklee College of Music’s Pitch Slapped. It now may be getting ready to shine on groups from the Merrimack Valley.
The a cappella scene at UMass Lowell was born in 2009. The university’s first group, the all-male Hawkapella, has been joined by the coed group UML Vocality and by the all-female groups Fermata Nowhere and The Hawkettes. All are student-led, and most of their pieces are arranged by members who major in everything from nursing to music to engineering.
The groups cite portrayals of a cappella in the media as an explanation for the increased interest on campus. Martha Robertson, music manager of Vocality, says that “right after ‘Pitch Perfect’ came out, and ‘Glee’ was out, Vocality had the largest audition number that any a cappella group on campus had ever had.”
If you’re wondering whether the university’s four a cappella groups are rivals, members insist there’s nothing so dramatic between them. But, says Hawkapella general manager Graham Allen, “There will always be a healthy sense of competition between the a cappella groups.” Rachel Driscoll of The Hawkettes says the performers tend to get along and “intermingle and perform at each other’s concerts.”
The Hawkettes and UML Vocality both are scheduled to perform for the Lowell community this fall. Fermata Nowhere appeared on the WGBH choral competition “Sing That Thing!” and plans to continue competing. Hawkapella hopes to do some recording by the spring semester.
The Merrimack Valley is also home to community a cappella groups, including Wilmington’s all-female Merrimack Valley Chorus and Lowell’s all-male Gentlemen Songsters. Both groups sing in barbershop style, meaning all members sing the same words at the same time. It is a traditionally male musical style, but the Merrimack Valley Chorus has had no trouble adjusting the style to fit their voices. While arrangements for female barbershop groups may be transposed to a higher key to accommodate the vocal range of its members, many of the women are able to hit the low notes. Says member Gail Comeau, “A lot of the men love to listen to the women sing barbershop because they’re fascinated that women can sing as low as the basses do.”
The Merrimack Valley Chorus placed first in the large adult group category at the WGBH “Sing That Thing!” competition. The chorus also placed second in its division and third overall at the 41st Annual Regional Quartet and Chorus Competition of the Sweet Adelines International North Atlantic Region 1 competition this past May.
A Gentlemen Songsters rehearsal this past July was guest-directed by Bob Martin, who arranges barbershop versions of popular songs for Jimmy Fallon’s “The Ragtime Gals” on “The Tonight Show.” The Gentlemen Songsters have sung the national anthem at the TD Garden, and one of the group’s members, Dan Washington, appeared in the film “Good Will Hunting” with his barbershop quartet.
The new ubiquity of a cappella would seem to indicate there’s something to it that makes it so special. Paul Gillespie is the president of the Gentleman Songsters and he tells the story of a singing valentine that the group once delivered to a couple in their 80s. “Halfway through the song, she’s crying her eyes out and looking at him like he was her 15-year-old boyfriend all over again,” Gillespie says. “It was really, really moving.” Says Irena Manukian of The Hawkettes: “We’re all here because of our love of music, and we want everyone to feel that.”