By HANNAH LOEB
August 14, 2010
“It makes perfect sense that things are the way they are,” says Anna Wood ’09, former Business Manager of Whim ‘n Rhythm and Yale a cappella veteran, of the relationship between the male and female iterations of Yale’s prestigious senior a cappella group.
Wood – whose father, brother, and boyfriend have sung for various a cappella groups on campus, from Redhot & Blue to the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus to the Whiffenpoofs themselves – does not see Whim ‘n Rhythm and the Whiffenpoofs as mirror images of one another. If current practice is any indicator, the groups conceive of themselves as distinct entities, with different objectives and different expectations of their members.
Of the fourteen men chosen to sing with the Whiffenpoofs this year, twelve will be taking a leave of absence in order to fully devote themselves to what their website calls “the world’s oldest and best known collegiate a cappella group.” All fourteen women of Whim ‘n Rhythm 2011, on the other hand, plan to juggle academics and other extracurriculars as they manage what their website calls “the premier undergraduate female a cappella singing group in the nation.”
Mimi Do ’00, current alumni coordinator for Whim ‘n Rhythm, describes Whim upon its creation in 1981 as “an answer to the Whiffenpoofs.” She explains, “There had to be a comparable elite singing group.”
If these two groups are coequal, though, why do the men decide to spend a year completely committed to their craft while the women choose to stay in school?
From as early as 1996, said Do, the Whiffenpoofs have maintained a tradition of taking the year off to sing. In 2010, the decision to withdraw from what would have been a Whiffenpoof’s senior year is practically taken for granted; current Whiffenpoof Scott Hillier admits, “It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t take the year off.”
Scott explains that the Whiffs gig three or four times a week, not to mention mini-tours, and that enrolled singers have to miss more concerts than the rest of the group. For Hillier, to sing in an elite senior group while concurrently pursuing Yale academics is “doable,” but, he says, “It can’t be all that pleasant.” What’s more, the inequality in contribution might arouse resentments in fellow singers; when a certain number of singers elect to devote themselves entirely to the group, it makes sense for the others to follow suit. It would be more trying for a Whiffenpoof to balance school with singing than it would be for a Whim singer to do the same.
The Whiffenpoofs’ ambitious business plan certainly necessitates a greater time commitment than does that of Whim ‘n Rhythm. Do says, “In their defense, [the Whiffenpoofs] do have . . . a busier touring schedule. They have more concerts going on.” Wood, too, says, “It would be really, really hard to do the Whiffenpoofs the way the Whiffenpoofs are done, and stay enrolled.”
Whim’s World Tour this summer lasted approximately six weeks (one of the longest in the group’s history, according to the Business Manager of this year’s Whim, Gussie Binns-Berkey – although she said that the unusual duration was not her goal). The Whiffs, on the other hand, went on a three-month-long extravaganza set to finish days before the beginning of the school year. Over spring break, Whim’s singers were free to take a breather from academics, while the Whiffs toured Las Vegas and Cancun. On one hand, the smaller time commitment may be a draw for women that value other extracurriculars or precious vacation time at home. On the other hand, the women’s group simply doesn’t have the same amount of opportunities to perform: the Whiffenpoofs are 72 years older than their female counterpart, and their alumni base is enormous and dedicated, allowing for ease of booking, lodging, and planning. The Whiffs have name recognition around the world and, consequently, can easily book high paying gigs throughout the year.
Does the disparity in time commitment between the two groups account for the fact that the women do not take the year off to sing, or is it the other way around? It’s unclear that the women of Whim would want the Whiff’s rehearsal and performance schedule, even if it made financial sense to pursue it.
The question of whether Whim could or should pursue prestige has haunted those that have presided over the group at its low-water mark. In 1993, Whim decided to disband for the year because too few women auditioned. “Some argue that Whim ‘n Rhythm’s failure to offer its members the glory and visibility of the Whiffenpoofs, who give 200 concerts a year worldwide, has jeopardized the group’s ability to attract Yale’s best senior female singers,” writes Anne Bernard in her May 31, 1992 New York Times article about the incident. “Others believe that in attempting to match the Whiffenpoofs’ pomp and circumstance, Whim ‘n Rhythm strays from its original purpose and drives singers away by demanding a time commitment disproportional to the membership rewards.”
In other words, two things are uncertain: whether Whim will ever be capable of providing female singers at Yale with the opportunity to have the same experience as their male counterparts, and whether is it actually the job or responsibility of Whim ‘n Rhythm to try to be a female version of a group that existed sixty years before women even attended Yale. Perhaps the later singing model is better – for some.
Wood, as the only singer in Whim history ever to take a semester off to “focus on this activity,” has a unique perspective on the problem. She recognizes the fundamental differences between the groups: “Whim ‘n Rhythm will never be the Whiffenpoofs. I am totally with that.” She says that Whim has “centuries to go” before it catches up with the Whiffs. “Quite frankly, women’s a cappella isn’t as respected, in a musical sense,” she says. “What sounds really bad is when a women’s group tries to sing like a men’s group.”
Yet Wood rejects the idea that Whim singers have any reason to be bitter or resentful. She says, “I have never seen Whim ‘n Rhythm mobilize . . . the way I know the Whiffs do.” If one class of Whim were to collectively decide to create a group with a more rigorous touring schedule that would make enrollment less convenient, perhaps the historical disparities would not be enough to stop them. Wood says, “You have to go into it . . . asking, ‘What does this group want,’ and make it that way.” Whim’s decision not to tour all summer, then, can be seen as exactly that: a decision.
Indeed, although Whim was founded as an answer to the Whiffs, there is no saying that they must or should follow the Whiff model. As Wood says, “It’s about women having an experience together that is very singular.” In fact, she says that the Whiffs’ unenrollment renders them unfortunately “disconnected from Yale.” The Whiffenpoofs have had difficulty reserving Yale spaces for concerts. For legal and technical reasons, they are not even called “The Yale Whiffenpoofs” anymore.
Moreover, there is a strangely sentimental aspect to the Whiffs’ year off that some members of Whim would rather avoid. Stasha Rosen, a newly tapped member of Whim ’11, called the decision to take the year off “delaying maturity,” while Binns-Berkey said that she wouldn’t want to spend five years in college. But juggling activities does have its drawbacks. As Do remembers from her own time at Yale, the students who return to Yale after a year of singing are able to fully devote themselves to their academics in a way that few extracurricular-ridden Yalies ever can. She says of Whim’s members, “We were pretty hardcore.”
But what is more “hardcore”: multitasking for one feverish year or focusing intensely on music, alone, before returning to academics? And more importantly, are the women who sing at Yale really making that decision for themselves, or are they being forced to settle for one model because it is the only one available to their gender? Even if the singers of Whim ‘n Rhythm do consciously (and, even less likely, unanimously) choose to create a group with a smaller time commitment than that of the Whiffenpoofs, the women who audition for the group the next year may be stuck with that model, even if they wouldn’t have chosen it for themselves. Whim must actively project the choice not to make singing an all-encompassing activity as a true choice and, by creating music with only the highest of standards, prove to the community at large that the perceived deficiency in time commitment and travel is a matter of preference, not evidence of inferiority.
Hannah Loeb is a junior in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.