Berklee Students Find Harmony in A Cappella Groups

Berklee’s five student-run a cappella groups let students hone their singing skills and business acumen, and build relationships on campus. 

March 11, 2020

Walk down the halls of any Berklee building and you’re likely to hear music: guitar riffs, piano scales, an ensemble mid-rehearsal. But sometimes, usually in the evening, you might hear a different sound: a chorus of voices from one of Berklee’s five student-run a cappella groups. Beyond the tight harmonies and clever names—Pitch Slapped, the CharlieChords, On the Vox—all five groups strike a more foundational chord: community. 

“I found Treble Threat by happenstance in my first year,” says Allee Flanigan, now the director of Berklee’s only all-woman/nonbinary a cappella group. “I met people who wanted to support me, and that was huge. I felt like I was important to the community.” A composition major from small-town Indiana, Flanigan has helped take the group to a new level musically and competitively, culminating in its recent second-place win at the first round of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Northeast Quarterfinals, held at Berklee in February. Flanigan also won an Outstanding Soloist award for her performance on “Money/Greedy,” and the group’s assistant director, Snehal Pandey, received an award for her arrangement of their set.

“It’s about creating a space for women on campus,” says Flanigan, whose responsibilities as director include leading rehearsals, planning trips and competitions, and maintaining group morale. “We ask a lot of our members: we rehearse about seven hours a week, and more when we’re gearing up for a competition. And we spend a lot of time together outside rehearsals, too.” 

The camaraderie is evident in the group’s performances, which draw together elements of pop, hip-hop, and R&B. “There’s a huge responsibility when you’re doing music people know,” says Flanigan. Treble Threat’s repertoire includes songs from their seven-track EP, Shatterproof, which they recorded, mixed, and mastered in Berklee’s on-campus studios. The EP features tracks such as Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” and Little Mix’s “Woman Like Me.”

Watch Treble Threat perform "Woman Like Me": 

While most of Berklee’s current a cappella groups were founded in the early 2010s (several members cite the success of the 2012 film Pitch Perfect as inspiration), one group has been around for the long haul. Pitch Slapped was founded in 2006 and remains an award-winning group with an unusual amount of notoriety for a college a cappella ensemble. The group doesn’t compete anymore, says professional music major Samuel Dantowitz, the group’s business manager. “That’s actually kind of cool,” he says. “It’s freed us up to do lots of different things.”

Pitch Slapped does corporate events and school workshops, as well as performing at benefit concerts and touring internationally. The winners of two ICCA championships (2011 and 2014), they’ve appeared on NBC’s The Sing-Off and have been featured on America’s Got Talent. But like the members of other groups, Dantowitz (a former member of Upper Structure, another Berklee a capella group) says his favorite part is the community. 

I've ended up meeting some of my best friends through this group, and we genuinely look out for one another.

—Shannon Sperl, president, On the Vox

“We’re creating a space for our members to feel welcome, and to be the fullest version of themselves,” says Dantowitz. “We want to challenge ourselves and impress our audiences, of course, but we want to build a community while exploring our artistry together.”

Relationships are also key for coed group On the Vox, says the group’s president, performance major Shannon Sperl. “I got involved in On the Vox during my first year at Berklee,” she says. “I've ended up meeting some of my best friends through this group, and we genuinely look out for one another.”

Sperl and her fellow group members rehearse three times a week, working on powerhouse arrangements of pop songs such as MIIA’s “Dynasty” and Kelly Clarkson’s “I Don’t Think about You.” Founded in 2014, On the Vox has won multiple awards at ICCA and other festivals, including Haunted Harmonies in Salem, Massachusetts. “We’re hungry for success,” says Sperl, “and we’re willing to work extremely hard to get there.” But, she says, the group is able to balance its “strong, competitive, professional” ambitions with a “fun, easygoing vibe.” They competed in the second round of the ICCA Northeast Quarterfinals, placing third and taking home two special awards: Outstanding Choreography, given to Starr Desmond, and Outstanding Soloist, given to Tyler Nordin for his performance on Sam Smith’s “Dancing with a Stranger.” 

Watch On the Vox’s cover of “Dynasty”: 

While competition is an important element for several of Berklee’s a cappella groups, they also do other types of gigs, such as corporate events and school visits. “I love working with high school students,” says Tyra Jenkins, a music business/management major and president of coed group Upper Structure. “You build so many relationships that way.” Two of the group’s current members, Kirsten Henry and Emi McSwain, heard about Upper Structure when the group performed at their high school. 

Upper Structure stands out for more than its musical prowess: the group’s songs focus on social justice themes and contemporary issues. At the 2020 Los Angeles A Cappella Festival (LAAF), the group’s winning set featured songs about mental health, including “Bigger” by Beyoncé. Last year, they produced a music video of Todrick Hall’s “Water Guns” to draw attention to gun violence in the U.S. “We all really care about these issues,” says Jenkins, who has been involved with the group since her first year at Berklee. The group has released two albums, Bridges and Second Wind, both available on Spotify.

Watch Upper Structure’s “Water Guns” music video: 

“College can feel really isolating, especially at first, and a cappella is something special,” says Daniel Walker, president of the CharlieChords, Berklee’s only all-male a cappella group. Business manager Zachary Alfred-Levow agrees. A student ambassador in Berklee’s Admissions Office, Alfred-Levow often tells prospective students about his experience with a cappella groups at Berklee. “Connecting through music really brings people together,” says Alfred-Levow, who (like Walker) is a former member of On the Vox. He and Walker both speak highly of the CharlieChords's musicality and dedication, but Alfred-Levow also talks about the “undercurrent of respect and admiration” that runs through the group. Walker agrees: “Seeing everyone improve musically is so cool.”

In addition to broadening students’ support networks, a cappella can expand their musical horizons. “It’s a lot of fun to learn and sing music that you normally wouldn’t listen to,” says Walker. Their 2018 EP, Breathe (available on Spotify), includes arrangements of songs such as Sia’s “Chandelier” (which shot up the pop charts in Sri Lanka) and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and the group has also performed music by the Jonas Brothers and Imagine Dragons. 

Whether they’re competing for the latest ICCA title, performing for their peers in a caf show, or pulling a late-night recording session, Berklee’s a cappella singers are constantly striving toward deeper harmony. “It’s a great feeling,” says Dantowitz, “to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself.” 

Learn more: Berklee's Voice Department offers you the most comprehensive voice education to be found anywhere.

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