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Logarhythms Serious About Keeping the Beat

By Keith J. Winstein

As MIT students, we may all be able to study the science behind melodious waves, but that doesn’t mean we can all produce them.

Every year, MIT student-run vocal groups (fittingly named after scientific or mathematical terms with musical puns) audition hundreds of prospective members, accepting only a select few. As someone who has twice auditioned unsuccessfully for the Chorallaries (another classic group name), I decided to investigate what goes on behind the scenes of a capella auditions.

Few groups wanted to allow me into their auditions, and zero let me into their decision-making process.

Even the Cross Products did not want to allow me to see their decisions behind the scenes, but not, they said, because their assessments were too brutally honest.

“We’re not harsh,” said one of the group’s representatives at the Activities Midway. “If somebody’s bad, we just say, ‘Oh, that person wasn’t meant for a capella.’”

This seemed pretty harsh to me, at least coming from the Cross Products. God didn’t make everyone for a capella? Dude.

But probably God helps those who help themselves sing in tune.

Out of typically 50 to 100 candidates, each group usually skims off its top 15 to be called back on the next day, and only a select few actually make the group. For this reason, many auditionees try out for as many groups as they can.

Making the Logs

For this article, the Logarhythms allowed me to sit in on an hour of their initial auditions, under the condition that I use no names and allow the Logarhythms to review and retract quotations from the brief conversations they had about each auditionee between auditions.

The most striking thing about the Logs’ auditions was how formal they were, and how strongly the Logs strove to be professional with every auditionee. I only sat through a small percentage of the 52 total auditions, but there was more than enough bad singing (with not so much good singing to break up the pattern) for me.

A Logs audition starts, as do all a capella auditions, with a paper form. But the Logs’ form, unlike most of the other groups’, is completely humorless. While Resonance asks for their auditionees’ favorite muppet, and the Chorallaries include all sorts of crazy questions, one year asking for bra sizes (“We used to be called the Boobalaries,” said former member Mira E. Wilczek ’03), the Logs’ form is a sea of white, asking only the auditionee’s vocal part, choral and arranging experience, and a list of five favorite songs.

The actual audition is similarly serious. The group’s president, Collins P. Ward ’03, asks each candidate about his commitments and instructs him that “This is a very serious group, and we take music very seriously.”

Candidates are told to come prepared with a solo piece and a joke. After a series of range exercises, the auditionee sings the solo, and is sometimes also asked to sing back atonal sequences of notes to test “tonal memory,” while members take notes and maintain studiously impartial faces.

Making tough decisions

The auditionees spanned a wide range of vocal quality, and the Logs sometimes appeared to be struggling to suppress pained expressions, especially when several candidates each repeatedly asked for help after forgetting the lyrics to their solos.

But they were always professional to the auditionees, even ones whose singing made me question why I had agreed to write this story.

I was surprised by how quickly the Logs’ minds were made up. Frequently, members of the group would write down “No callback” on their notecards after only one or two verses of a solo. The fastest decision I observed was for the only candidate that I saw receive a recommendation for a callback, when group members wrote down “callback” only a few notes through the range exercises.

Nonetheless, all auditionees were told to “be sure to check your e-mail tonight to see if we want you back for callbacks.” This courtesy was probably a necessary component of basic professionalism, but the Logs’ fastidiousness was still impressive.

Members were even tactful in their private notes: for one auditionee that I thought would be a definite no, a member wrote down, “decent, but definitely not one of the 3 -- not worth wasting his or our time.”

Between auditions, the Logs would briefly discuss the most recent auditionee. I expected that the gloves might come off here, and although disparaging -- and more rarely, appreciative -- comments about vocal quality were certainly exchanged, the harshest criticism was reserved for joke-telling quality.

Comparing group auditions

Compared with the Logarhythms’ friendly but serious audition process, the Resonance callbacks, which I also was allowed to visit on condition of anonymity to all speakers, were like a slip-n’-slide party: fun, informal, and involving people unafraid to look silly sometimes.

Candidates, who had been in the top echelon of first-round auditionees, swayed and bopped around as they joined with others to sing a 12-measure section of “Who Needs Sleep?” over and over and over again, while group members walked around. Resonance not infrequently erupted into an orgy of shouted committee-of-the-whole decision making.

Group members played up the informal atmosphere. “We’re the lowest-commitment a capella group on campus,” one member addressed the candidates, even though the group’s practices -- a total of six hours a week -- are on par with other groups. A group of candidates learning “vocal percussion” gradually expanded to include the entire group, and one member couldn’t stop herself from repeatedly jumping out of her seat to join in an improvised rendition of “Under Pressure.”

Nevertheless, members privately discussed what one described as the “angsty” decision-making process of whom to choose.

Not a member, but still a fan

The capstone to my a capella journalism came when I followed the Chorallaries around as they sang in new members.

It would be dishonest not to confess to a certain amount of longing as I stood outside a Next House freshman’s door, peering in as the Chorallaries sang a rendition of their “Rubber Ducky.”

At least those of us who didn’t make the cut have the solace of being able to go to concerts or buying our own copies of the “Pretend You’re a Member of the [insert group name here]” take-home kit (that is, the groups’ albums). And plus -- there’s always next year. See you there.