As the members of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s eight a cappella groups know, you don’t need instruments to make beautiful music.
These groups use nothing but their voices to mimic the instrumentation in a variety of music types. Some of the registered student organizations focus on pop, others on jazz, and still others on South Asian or other types of international music. Most groups have a member who acts as a vocal percussionist – often referred to as a beatboxer – to imitate a drum set and give the full effect of live music.
A cappella has a long history on campus. The Other Guys, an all-male group, was originally formed during the 1968-69 school year by members of the Varsity Men’s Glee Club. In 1971, a sister group formed – Girls Next Door A Cappella. Both groups still exist and host shows and performances around campus.
Over the years, more groups began popping up. The all-male Xtension Chords formed in 1991 and were joined by female counterparts, the Illinois Rip Chords, in 1992. No Strings Attached, a coed jazz-focused group, came about in 1994. No Comment, another coed group, has been around since 2004.
These groups reflect the campus’s diversity. Chai Town, an all-male South Asian group, formed in 2001 and gained a huge local and international following. Illini Awaaz, a coed South Asian group, was founded in 2010. A Christian group, Unseen, made its debut in 2016.
A cappella members come from nearly every college, and no group has more than three music majors. Two groups have none. Recent graduates have gone into a wide range of professional fields, as well. From accounting to law to technology, alumni of the university’s a cappella community are scattered across the country.
For most of the Urbana-Champaign community, exposure to the a cappella scene happens at a yearly concert that has become a campus tradition. “Acatoberfest,” a show that features every campus a cappella group, is hosted by No Strings Attached each October at Foellinger Auditorium.
From nearly 10 hours of rehearsal each week to performances across campus and throughout the Midwest, being in a group is a part-time job.
Grace Riordan, a junior in the College of Engineering and the music director of Girls Next Door A Cappella, said the group rehearses up to nine hours per week. In addition to rehearsal sessions, the group generally performs at one gig per week, which ranges from performing the national anthem for volleyball or basketball games to appearing at philanthropic events.
But it’s not all work. An active social community exists among these groups, which some compare to campus Greek life. Erica Finke, a sophomore in the College of Fine and Applied Arts and a member of No Comment, has helped organize several a cappella community events in the past year.
“We do the same exact activities as a Greek organization,” said Finke, also a member of Delta Gamma sorority. “We all know each other by name and face and by group, so it’s a lot more tight-knit of a community.” Finke said groups have smaller-scale social or musical exchanges throughout the semester, and most groups kick off the academic year with some sort of retreat or bonding weekend.
“I met 15 of my best friends right away,” said Raley Mauck, a member of the Illinois Rip Chords and a junior in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
For Mauck, the process of learning a song is highly rewarding. “It’s cool to start a song, and even though it’s so hard to get through it, once you get the final product, it’s an accomplishment,” she said. “It takes a few weeks. Everyone has to learn their part and do their own job to make something – like a piece of art.”
Micah Tryba, a former member of No Comment, lived her dream when she appeared on this season of NBC’s “The Voice,” a reality singing competition where amateurs compete for a recording contract with the help of well-known musicians.
“I first sang in church choir at 6 or 7,” Tryba said. “Going through school, I was involved with anything I could be involving music.” When she came to Illinois, she knew she wanted to continue singing.
Like other a cappella singers, Tryba developed deep relationships in her four years with the group. “Being in that group made my college experience what it was,” she said. “It was my social outlet and my creative outlet – it was just everything for me.”
Tryba was in New York City after graduation when she heard that “The Voice” was holding auditions. “Why not?” Tryba remembers thinking. “We showed up and I got a callback,” she said. “It was kind of a waiting game after that.”
About a month went by, and the waiting game finally ended. “I got a call one day telling me they were flying me out to L.A. for the final callback before blind auditions,” she said. “It went well and they offered me a blind audition. It just took off from there and I was on the show.” Tryba’s blind audition eventually aired on national television.
Although her time on the show was brief, Tryba credits a cappella for the opportunity. “My time and experience in No Comment gave me everything that I used in order to be successful,” she said.
Stewart Arp, a senior in the College of Media and a member of The Xtension Chords, has seen similar avenues open up in his musical career. He is currently in a recording contract with a label based in Austin, Texas.
Arp has been playing guitar since he was 12 and singing since he was 13. A cappella was not necessarily a part of Arp’s plan when he came to Illinois. He wasn’t going to join a group, but a friend convinced him to try out on the last day of auditions. Among all the groups, “The Xtension Chords seemed like the best fit for me,” he said.
Although he already planned on going into music, a cappella has helped Arp continue to improve musically. “All the harmonies and arrangements and the actual sheet music side of things is something you lose as a contemporary artist,” he said. “It’s pushed me in a lot of ways – it’s pushed me vocally, it’s helped expand my range, it’s helped me hear harmonies better.”
Above all else, members will tell you that a cappella is an outlet to continue involvement in music after high school. Mauck said it also helps her decompress from her other commitments. “It gives you an outlet to not worry about anything and just sing with your friends.”