Ninth-grader Quinterra Robinson had no idea who the YellowJackets were last fall when the group first arrived to help mentor her and her fellow Rochester city school students who were interested in singing.
Then she and her classmates from World of Inquiry School No. 58 saw the Rochester student ensemble on The Sing-Off, a national TV show that pitted 16 a cappella groups in a competition to win a Sony recording contract.
The YellowJackets opened the show with their rendition of “Wavin’ Flag” by Somali-born musician K’naan.
“When they did the first song,” Quinterra says, “I was like, ‘Wow, those guys are amazing! Wow!’”
Consider Quinterra a fan. And count in her classmate Erika Tryon. And Jahlil Bell, a fourth grader in the music program at World of Inquiry. Add to them the 5,000 people who packed Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre in December for two sold-out shows organized by the group to raise money for their outreach efforts.
They, like many in the University and Rochester-area communities, have been bitten by the YellowJacket bug.
And don’t forget the emails from admirers around the world, the marriage proposals proclaimed on Twitter, the key to the city, and all the other stop-you-in-the-street moments that come with being in the national spotlight.
“We had no idea what was coming our way,” says Aaron Sperber ’11, ’11E, a KEY student and a former director of the YellowJackets. “This year has changed our lives. It hasn’t just changed the shape of the YellowJackets, it has changed our lives, personally and as a group.”
Not since the Men’s Glee Club from the former College for Men made a national television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1960 have fans of Rochester’s vibrant a cappella culture had so much to cheer about. The YellowJackets’ performances on The Sing-Off were “must-see TV” for many on campus and among the University community this fall. Finishing in The Sing-Off’s final set of seven groups, the YellowJackets remained favorites among the show’s fans, winning first place in NBC’s online vote after each performance and landing in the Top 10 for online sales on iTunes.
The show’s judging panel of Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, and Shawn Stockman had high praise for the YellowJackets’ musicianship, camaraderie, and social outreach, as exemplified by the group’s musical exchange with a village in Kenya. But ultimately, the group Pentatonix won the 2011 season of The Sing-Off.
The YellowJackets say they hope to parlay their experience on The Sing-Off to further their musical and outreach efforts. In addition to working with the children of World of Inquiry School, the group began a musical exchange last spring with children in the village of Maseno in Kenya. They’re working on a documentary—scheduled to be released later this year and titled United We Sing, the film follows their African exchange—and are hoping to put together more touring opportunities.
The Sing-Off is opening doors—as well as ears and hearts, says Sperber.
“We came in as musicians with a lot of passion and a lot of heart,” he says. “What The Sing-Off helped us to do was to channel that and to focus it and make it not just about how much heart we were feeling, but finding ways to use music as a tool to share and communicate that heart with our listeners and have people feel what we’re feeling.”
Sperber is not alone in the College in his passion for music and its power. While the YellowJackets, which were founded in 1956 as an offshoot of the Glee Club, have the longest history, the group is one of four supported by the College’s student government. The three others—the all-male Midnight Ramblers, the all-female Vocal Point, and the coed After Hours—all have a loyal fan base, regularly produce CDs, and perform widely on campus, at alumni and University events, and in regional and national competitions.
As many as 60 students routinely try out for only a handful of openings in each of the groups each year.
Jamie Wilson ’13, the music director for Vocal Point, says she’s seen interest in cocurricular vocal music grow over the past three years. The popularity of television shows like Glee, the Fox dramedy that follows the travails of a fictional high school musical performance group, and The Sing-Off, the NBC show that completed its third season this fall, have helped spur that interest, she says.
“I knew there was a big a cappella environment here,” says the music major from Levittown, N.Y., “but since my freshman year the popularity of a cappella has spiked tremendously.”
Jared Suresky ’12, the publicity director for the Midnight Ramblers, was also looking for a campus awash in music when he arrived at Rochester from Goshen, N.Y., and he’s found a “second home” at Rochester with the Ramblers. He enjoys being able to pursue an interest outside his major of economics and says a cappella groups reflect the wide-ranging academic, social, and cultural endeavors of the Rochester student body as a whole.
“We’re composed of many different people with many different backgrounds, majors, interests, and perspectives,” Suresky says. “But we’re also a bunch of goofy River Campus students who like to sing.”
The Ramblers, too, have found success and some time in the spotlight. Their version of “Fireflies,” by the group Owl City, was selected to be included on the 2011 compilation Best of College A Cappella 2011, produced by the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. The Ramblers turned up on TV last spring on the game show The Price Is Right, serenading host Drew Carey and the studio audience after Rambler Aaron Michalko ’14 was selected to participate on the show. The group had made an impromptu decision to attend a taping while on a spring break performance tour in Southern California.
And this winter, former Rambler Chris Aguilar ’10 was a winner of a national Austrian TV singing competition (see age 48).
Such an experience—of performing in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a nationally televised competition—is enormously beneficial for a group of musicians, says Jamal Moore ’12E, a vocal performance major at the Eastman School and director of the YellowJackets.
Musically, the group has matured by leaps and bounds because of The Sing-Off, says Moore, who, as the 2011-12 William Warfield Scholar at Eastman, has sung at some storied campus venues.
“We’ve grown to a whole new level as far as our musicality,” says the Augusta, Ga., native. “We’ve developed a really professional approach and attitude now.”
And while the group’s success on the show has altered the course of their careers, the YellowJackets almost passed on the chance to try out for the show. Asked to audition last May after the show’s producers heard the group’s most recent album, Bad Bromance, the request came during finals week. And it came during the whirlwind of planning the trip to Kenya and getting ready to leave the country.
But, after a performance at the George Eastman House, the group drove overnight to New York City for the audition. When band members said that they couldn’t return for a round of callbacks, the producers asked them to do their callback right there, Moore says.
After returning from Kenya, the group flew to Los Angeles where The Sing-Off started taping in July.
When band members returned to campus in the fall, Sperber asked them to work with him on a Kauffman Entrepreneurial Year project with World of Inquiry School. For two hours a week, the YellowJackets met with the schoolchildren, leading the younger group in performance and music lessons.
“We’re pretty passionate about how music can bring people together, help kids who might feel alone at certain times in their lives to feel not so alone,” Sperber says. “It can also be not just an outlet, but a place to learn, where maybe kids don’t even realize they’re learning, but they’re learning about the importance of acceptance and respect and collaboration and especially hard work. And even the music itself—I think music can be the thing that gets kids to school in the first place.”
The group’s social outreach represents a desire to give back to Rochester and to others who have helped support the YellowJackets and their music over the years, says Sperber, who grew up in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford.
“We’re not just the 15 guys that you see on stage. We’re now plus 91,” he says, referring to the schoolchildren, “plus the thousands of people in Rochester who have helped us along the way and really have made us who we are.”
“We’ve realized that our music can help shape the lives of people all over the world.”