A Cappella Groups Confront Membership Issues

The vibrant a cappella scene at Swarthmore will be seeing some changes this semester. Two co-ed singing groups are taking measures to deal with pressures on membership: Chaverim shifts its repertoire focus and Oscar and Emily goes on a temporary hiatus.

Jazz group Oscar and Emily had eight members last semester, four of whom graduated last year and two of whom are focusing on other ventures this semester. Callie Plafkin ’09 and Sam Schneider ’09 are the remaining members, who would have borne much of the burden of arranging music had they been performing this semester. Additionally, according to Schneider, holding auditions the group would require a performer on the bass line, one singing the tenor part, and another singing either as a soprano or alto. With two active members, even this would have proven an issue.

Schneider said that auditions “could have happened, and it could have been that we got a lot of capable freshmen,” but that for now, the clearest option was to take a hiatus for a semester and then see where they stand at the beginning of next semester.

Chaverim, formerly a tri-college, co-educational, Jewish a cappella group, will be expanding its group description to characterize itself as a group with a broader international focus. Chaverim had three members graduate at the end of last semester, and with other members on leave, saw the prospect of having only three active members from only two of the schools of Tri-Co.

Mikio Akagi ’08 and Alex Benn ’08, the two senior members of Chaverim from Swarthmore, recognized a perception issue that was affecting potential members. Students who were not Jewish had the misapprehension that the group was only for Jews, while some Jewish students were under the impression that they were not Jewish enough for Chaverim. However, as Akagi explained, the group has nearly always been composed of between one-third and one-half non-Jewish members, but this was “not a message that in seven years of operating got across, especially at Swarthmore.”

This shift in focus has been “coming for a long time,” said Benn. One of the group’s members had performed some Swahili pieces in high school, and another had some experience with German songs. As such, Akagi explained, there was “already a lot of pressure to move away from a strictly Jewish repertoire.” Even within a Jewish context, they were by no means monolithic, as they had performed Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish, and English songs, including traditional Jewish songs, music from the Jewish diaspora, and Israeli rock music.

“We just opened it up a little more,” Akagi said. “We have the same attitudes and approach to music that we did before. We were in an awkward place, and we thought if we could do something else, we could do it better.”


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